Captain Avril watched the two teams prepare to emerge to the surface, her weapon lowered and her mouth a thin line. Now that the battle was over, tension had turned into anger. It usually did with her, but right now it was worse than usual.
Like the rest of the soldiers, she kept looking back at the giant centipede. She didn’t know creatures like this existed. Scale bears had been hard enough to believe in before she could see them with her own two eyes, but a giant centipede that sprouted tentacles and ate people? If someone had told her about it, she would have laughed.
Yet there it was, only a few meters away. A slow moving, slow eating, mindless pile of meat. If it hadn’t been for those god damned tentacles, she wouldn’t have three soldiers incapacitated now. And if it wasn’t for three stupid scientists, they wouldn’t be here at all. Oh, and if she had gotten her way with the new recruits, she wouldn’t have to rely on an unstable nuclear charge as a frontliner either, no matter what they faced.
Sure, the mission must be considered successful. Two of the trapped scientists had been found at the end of one of the tunnels, where they had been hiding in a hollow where the creature either couldn’t find them or hadn’t been able to reach them. The last one had been devoured by the centipede, which explained the transponder signal from that tunnel earlier. That casualty wasn’t on her.
Neither had she had any fatalities on her own team. Morgan had come too rather quickly once the tentacles had been removed from his neck, but Leon had made him lie still on the ground for a while with an oxygen mask to his face. Santo had remained unconscious while they stopped the bleeding and got rid of the acidic goo on the remains of his chewed up feet. Now he was sedated, still out cold, and placed on a stretcher, but at least he was alive.
Avril had seen the scales hit critical levels on Haylen’s health chart during the fight, and Leon had been forced to give him lighter sedatives after too to get his pulse down and ease the shivers. But despite the breakdown, he had pulled his weight when it mattered.
And still she couldn’t raise any cheers and backslapping for this mission. A Pyrrhic victory against an enemy that could never have been calculated with since it officially didn’t existed.
Captain Lace was preparing their soldiers for leaving the tunnels, directing half of the team at the front and half at the back. They met Avril’s gaze, giving her a nod that exuded compassion. Sometimes, Lace’s calm and friendly manners got on her nerves, but right now, their figurative pat on the shoulder subdued her pissy mood a notch or two.
Avril looked around at her battered team, pressing herself at the wall to let Rex and Mourad pass. Nyree was supporting Morgan whose eyes were awfully bloodshot, and Tianyi and Felicia was ready to carry Santo. Leon did a last check on Haylen, who was able to stand up by now even if Keith was holding his arms just in case, then walked over to Santo.
“Good to go, captain”, the medic said as he flipped up Santo’s health chart on his wristband.
“Alright people, move out.”
Eager to leave this frozen hellhole and every possible inhabitant, she fell in line after Keith and Haylen.
The frontliner’s force field blades had been more efficient against the tentacles than bullets and laser cutters. There was no denying that. But in the long run, his abilities would be useless if they backlashed like this every time. If his implants didn’t insta-fried, they would be grilled slowly. Giant centipedes weren’t the only threat that demanded high level imps.
“Did you know about this thing when you headed down here?” she asked one of the saved scientists who was walking right behind her. The anger she felt about the situation, about lacking control and having no one to blame for it, was probably shining through as she spoke, despite Lace’s silent soothing earlier. She had to know though.
The woman shook her head, not looking at her. “No, we didn’t. We stumbled over the entrance by pure luck, and we were absolutely sure the tunnels were nature-made.”
She sounded weary. Wringed like a dishcloth. Her colleague hadn’t said one word, his eyes empty. They had been hiding down there for a long time, after seeing their friend be devoured by a horror story creature.
“Are there any reports of animals of this kind on this planet?”
“Not that I know of.”
Avril grunted, not pleased with the answers, but what could she do about it right now?
At the landing with the rope, it took a while to secure Santo’s stretcher with ropes attached to the vehicle, and yet some time to haul him up safely. Morgan and Haylen could climb up on their own, even if Haylen had to stop midway and lean his head against the ice wall for a while. Whether it was to keep himself from passing out or throwing up, or if it was a temporary increase of pain, he didn’t say. Not that Avril was sure he even heard her asking.
At the vehicles, Roz was doing jumping jacks to keep herself warm. She stopped as they came closer, looking at them all in general, Santo in particular, with growing unease written in her face.
“What on earth and beyond did you people run into?”
Before Avril could answer, Tianyi did as she and Felicia walked past them with the stretcher.
“A giant mutant spawn of a sheepfucking centipede that eats people alive, is what we ran into.”
“Shut the fuck up Tianyi, get Santo up on the vehicle already”, Avril snarled, once again having her anger flare up. It grew even stronger thanks to the complete lack of effect it had on the soldier.
Roz looked up at her. “I assume she is speaking the truth?”
“Unfortunately yes. You’re going down there with team 3 to examine it. We got injured to take care of before we take off for Ignis.”
“I hope you killed it properly.”
“Why would I send you into a fucking hole with a murder maggot if it was still alive?”
Avril didn’t stay to listen to possible answers. Team 1 was ready to go back, and team 3 was ready to escort the TR to the marvel of science down in those tunnels. Avril sincerely hoped it would be a last-of-its-kind marvel.
“A giant centipede?”
“With retractable tentacles?”
“That devours people alive?”
“If you’re going to repeat everything I say split up in three-word sentences, I’ll disconnect you.” Avril glared at the distorted image of commander Nahid on the screen.
She was sitting in the conference room at the station, explaining the situation to the commander together with Lace and Roz. The injured was with the medics at the local health care centre, basically a barrack like the rest of the buildings in this so called town, that happened to have some fancier medical equipment than a package of bandaids. Team 1, that had time to eat while the others was still in the tunnels, were loading gear on the shuttle while team 3 got something to eat as well.
Roz was munching on a mealbar, still wearing her thick environmental suit. At least her teeth had stopped chattering.
“I’m sorry, captain, I just having some trouble grasping this”, the commander said.
“It had no trouble grasping us, I can tell you.”
“What can you tell me about it, Roz?”
“Well”, Roz said, pausing to finish chewing. She had apparently overcome the initial disgust on the creature’s rampage on team 1 and gone full scientist mode before she came back here. “I couldn’t determine its biological class, even if it bears strong resemblance to the more… normal sized centipedes that exists here. The tunnel continued down in the ground, but naturally, we didn’t go down there.”
Roz allowed herself to pull a less professional face of ‘hell no’ to emphasize that. “It’s unlikely that it primarily feeds on human beings, considering humans aren’t a natural part of this planet, but the hunting method and the shape and function of its mouth suggest that it gets its nutrition from larger animals.”
“By luring them into ice caves?” Commander Nahid sounded sceptical.
Roz shrugged. “There might be more species living underground than we know about, it might go up to the surface to hunt, it’s possible that the tunnels are connected to the ocean and that it finds food there. We’ll have to do a serious exploration of the tunnels to know, and of course analyze the samples and wait for people here to dissect the carcass. Suffice to say, the scientists here won’t head into any tunnels again without military backup.”
Roz leaned back and took the last bite of her mealbar.
“They fucking better not”, Avril muttered.
“We’ll see about who gets to explore those tunnels later. Doctor Eira got sergeant Leon’s report, and she wants you to bring private Santo back to Ignis, instead of leaving him there to wait for next shuttle to UC01.”
“You think I would leave him in this butchery freezer anyway?” Avril snorted, glaring out the window at the snowy plains outside. The sun still stood high. It wouldn’t set in many hours.
“We’ll be ready for lift off in two hours”, said Lace to the commander, probably to save the situation from escalating more than anything else.
“Captain Avril”, said the commander, and Avril looked back at the screen. “The mission was successful. You didn’t lose anyone.”
“I lost a few pieces of Santo.”
“Yes, but he is alive. You all did a good job, considering.”
Avril slammed her palms down at the table.
“Stop speaking to me like I was a little girl whose cat died! Save that for Santo when you visit him at the hospital in Sol’s Ward after he wakes up and realizes a fucking megacentipede ate his fucking feet! Or for that day your precious Tyrian Tank has a brainfry in the middle of a fight and gets us all killed!” She stood up so hastily that the chair would have toppled over if it hadn’t been for the wall behind it.
Lace sighed, and finished up the call with the commander while Avril walked to the other side of the table, pressing her lips together to not make this worse than it already was. Roz silently rose from her seat and sneaked out into the corridor. Lace shut down the screen, then looked at Avril.
“I know, I know”, Avril groaned before they could say anything. “I’m behaving exactly like a little girl.”
“I didn’t say that”, Lace said.
“Sure you didn’t.”
“You’re letting small things get to you.
“You call this a small thing?” She stared at Lace.
“Yes. We’re leading task force teams. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but most of the time we succeed. And most of the time we have to pay a prize for those successes. It comes with the job and it shouldn’t eat you like this.”
Avril straightened up, glowering at them, then began to gather her things. “Well isn’t it great that we got so many psychology professors in this unit.”
Lace sighed again. “I’m just -”
“I’m not going to discuss this now”, Avril interrupted. “We got to prepare for lift off.”
– – –
Felicia was glad that Tianyi already had told team 3 at least a hundred times about the fight while they were still on the station. Even if Santo was still unconscious when the shuttle took off, she wasn’t sure he’d appreciate to wake up to Tianyi’s colorful description of how the centipede feasted on his feet.
Gross as it had been, she was still weirdly excited about the fight itself. Being a soldier, killing people wasn’t something she hesitated to do if the situation called it. Nevertheless, when she shot someone it was a human. A person who had friends, family, a life.
But beasts like this one or the scale bears – that was something else. A thrill that wasn’t clouded by morals. Sure, Roz had another point of view on that matter, so had the Union; balance of the species, no killing for the sake of killing, all that. Which Felicia didn’t really argue with.
Yet finding the weak spot on a not yet mapped out target, taking it down after developing a strategy on the go, knowing that her comrades’ life depended on it… you couldn’t enjoy that fully if the target was a person.
It had left a bitter aftertaste though. First Santo and Morgan almost being lost to that creature, then she’d been absolutely positive Haylen would have a heart attack. And even though they all had survived, it was unlikely Santo would serve as a ground soldier in a task force team again, even with advanced prostheses. He would be replaced, there was no doubts about that.
Which meant new people. Which meant the captain’s mood wouldn’t get any better for a long time.
Felicia rubbed her eyes, still weary from the intensive scanning. She really needed to calibrate the implants when she went on shore leave.
She nudged Tianyi who was sitting next to her. “Did you tell them yet? About the candy?”
“I told Keith earlier, when we were loading up. I think I have tinnitus now.”
Felicia scoffed. “Suits you just fine.”