The scream of pulsing engines made it hard to read the notes on the digiscreen. The flickering text warned me that this planet’s native species had destroyed the first human colony that landed, long ago, and had repurposed our weapons to fight more ferociously than ever. But it’s hard to take in that kind of information when you’re hurtling through the sky at 200 miles per hour. Instead, I just stared at the dim reflection of my eyes in the screen. They were wide with fear.
The dropship rumbled as it decelerated, nearing the drop site. The movement sent vibrations up through my grav-boots. Each new jolt or jerk was a fresh terror, a new instant in which we might all be fried. One SNAP or CRACK and a lasbolt might tear through us all, sending us flying into the outer atmosphere to choke on the alien air. We’ve drilled for this, I repeated to myself. For twenty fucking years.
“Lewis!” Sergeant Knox barked. I snapped my head around towards her, eyes wide. She looked just as nervous, but tried her best to wear a steely set to her jaw.
“Sarge!?” I responded, having to shout to drown out the rapidly increasing cacophony of battle below us.
“As soon as we drop, you’re moving with me. We have instructions to secure the central command building ASAP…” she trailed off for a second, looking around at the rest of us. A poor excuse for soldiers, but what do you expect when you’ve lived on a ship for over twenty years? “Ready up, idiots! We’re dropping any min-”
The lasbolt slammed into the dropship and I was sent tumbling backwards, the vision of Knox and the rest of my squad rapidly replaced by a view of the ceiling of the ship. An emergency siren started to blare out, each shrill note sending adrenaline pumping through my body. Panic. This was panic. I could hear screams, grunts and shouting all intermingling with one another.
I could feel the sensation of falling, and it sent my stomach into flips.
“Everybody up! Engage your boots!” Knox barked above the noise. I felt a gloved hand on my shoulder pad, yanking me back up to my feet. I clicked the button on my wrist and became aware of the solidity of the connection between my boots and the hull of the dropship.
Probably a good thing, considering we were falling out of the sky. All of the squad were glued to the dropship floor, but half of the hull was now falling up and away from us – torn open and thrown wide by whatever had just hit us. I tried to listen to Knox’s commands, but all I could hear was the wind rushing past us as the half of the ship we were glued to began to rapidly drop out of the sky, aided by our weight. All of us scrambled to place our gloves on the surface, hunching over like dogs so we could feel the security of the grav adjusters in our gloves secure themselves to the deck.
So we fell to earth, amidst the sound, fear and fury of a battle raging all around us. The rushing stopped as we thudded HARD into the ground, smashing a crater into the dust with the deck of our ship. Our exosuits absorbed the fatal forces, but I still felt shaken and stunned.
“Up. Up! Now!” Knox shouted. Again I was yanked up to my feet, gravgloves releasing at Knox’s command. All around us were the signs of battle, scorched earth and bodies. I saw Knox’s red armour as I pulled my eyes away from a shredded corpse wearing an exosuit, then looked up at her face. She was terrified. This time, there was no hiding her naked fear. Her helmet was cracked, and I could see the oxygen steaming off into the atmosphere around us.
“Sarge. Your helmet!” Griffiths stated the obvious, standing on my right. Knox shook her head and pointed to the buildings in the distance. It was the first time many of us had ever seen buildings on the ground and they looked strange, standing so upright and blocky. A far contrast to life on the Homeship. They looked alien. Which made sense, considering they were.
“Fuck the helmet! Secure the buildings.” Knox said, moving already. “There’s oxygen inside.” She started towards the central building, which loomed large above the others, without another word. Her gravboots slid across the gravel and scorched earth and she held her head low to avoid the shots that cracked overhead.
I took a moment to absorb my surroundings. There were six of us in the squad, with our sergeant now storming off across a dark, gravel-strewn ground. The remains of other squads just like ours lay in nearby pits, blown apart. People from the Homeship. People I’d shared meals with. The stench of charred flesh filled the air. The sky was alight with las bolts, firing up from the buildings in front of us at the numerous dropships like the one I’d just fell from. So many of us, all making a desperate attempt. We all knew how little fuel the Homeship had left.
A lasbolt scorched through the air next to us, smashing into the earth and sending heat and dust flying up to wash over us. One of our squad members, Hallworth, just managed to dive out of the way.
The adrenaline coursed through me now. I could just about squint towards the buildings and make out the enemy. I felt something like excitement then, a sudden flash of the unknown. Here were creatures that weren’t like us. We weren’t alone.
“Move move move!” Knox screamed, and I was reminded of a sad fact. Humans weren’t alone, but whatever these aliens were, they were trying to kill us. I started to run then, all of us moving as a unit, pacing quickly across the ground. I didn’t raise my weapon, but the others did – they lifted their left arms and the blasters on their wrists began spouting bolts of energy back at the buildings. This was the first time I’d touched ground in almost as long as I remembered. Already, I was praying to return to the safety of the Homeship.
The exertion of running made my lungs scream out, a boiling red rage my body was woefully unprepared for. All these years on a ship, training in compact spaces and a short run over a battlefield made me feel as though my chest was about to burst. As we ran together, more lasbolts screeched past us. Each new blast made me cringe and close my eyes, certain death was upon me.
CRACK. A lasbolt exploded to my right.
CRACK. My visor was full of mist now, steamed up from my panicking breath.
CRACK. Too close.
“Lewis!” My name again. I looked at Knox, whose helmet still sprayed oxygen into the atmosphere. She couldn’t have much left. We were approaching the buildings, looming large above us – bigger than any structure I’d seen on the ship. On the tops of the buildings were battle fortifications with gun turrets that looked Earth-like. What occupied them, however, was anything but Earth-like. I’d read the digiscreens, of course, but the first sight of sentient creatures that were not the humans I’d been travelling through space with for years and years was jarring.
They were…similar to us. The way they moved was the same, scrabbling to their…our weapons. The anger in their faces as they fired at my people. But why? We desperately needed a home, and they were killing us.
CRACK. A lasbolt shredded through Griffiths. One moment he was there, the next he’d been replaced by scorched earth and the screams of the rest of my squad. Griffiths. Over the past twenty years, we’d trained together, dined together, laughed together. Almost daily, until the routine of it had seemed so redundant that we reduced it to every other day, then once a week. All of that training. For this…
I couldn’t linger on the death of my friend, the adrenaline was pumping too hard. Instead, I ducked my head and ran even harder towards the buildings. The closer I got, Knox leading in front, I could see the beings on the rooftops. They were distinctly humanoid, but with red skin and long, thin limbs. Even from this distance, I could make out their eyes.
They were just as afraid as I was.
I noticed one of them shouldering what looked like an old KineRifle, a weapon we’d left behind on the ship because we’d figured the low gravity of the planet would render them unreliable. The creature didn’t seem to share her doubts and sighted the rifle towards our group, but Knox raised her wrist. The blaster barked and the creature’s head exploded. Red blood sprayed into the air just as we reached the foot of the first building and slammed against it, using it to cover ourselves from the other creature’s turrets.
The walls were cool to the touch, made of a material I’d read about but never actually used. Stone. Not just rough, but hewn into a shape I’d seen in many of my studies about Earth. They’d been constructed of brick, which gave me pause.
“Sarge!” I shouted.
“They’re…they’re made of brick.”
“Are you seriously fucking talking to me about construction when we’re being shot at!?”
I opened my mouth to reply.
Half of the building erupted around us, heat exploding into my face and blasting me to the ground. My vision swam and I could taste blood in my throat. For a second I couldn’t work out why, then as my vision cleared I realised my visor was cracked, Plexglass embedded in my face. My Gravboots had disconnected to protect my ankles in the fall, so I began to very slowly feel a tug upwards, as though I weighed half what I was used to. For a brief second amidst the shouts, blasts and screams, I felt a moment of peace. This was like our ship, where lower gravity was used in hallways to speed up travel. Sure, the Homeship wasn’t humanity’s original home, but it was my home. Why the fuck were we fighting for this one?
“UP!” Knox commanded. I scrambled back to my feet and the grav boots whirred into life, cementing me back to the floor. Looking around, I saw the corpses of two other squad members. That left me, Knox and Benoit. What had all the training been for, really? Now that we were actually here. On a planet. Trying to take revenge on aliens we’d never met, for a crime we weren’t even sure they’d committed? What if the first colony ships had just crashed, and the aliens had scavenged the tech? What if they were just defending themselves from an angry force invading their planet? But the questions were pointless. The Homeship is running out of resources.
The luxury of thought deserted me as another lasbolt cracked into the ground nearby. The building’s protection was minimal now, smashed into rubble. Knox’s face looked strained, as though she was breathing too much atmosphere and not enough oxygen.
“This way, Sarge!” Benoit shouted, rushing across the plain to the next building. He proved to be fast, and we followed as doggedly as we could. Each new building, I glimpsed the red creatures above us. The closer I was, the more convinced I was. They were afraid too. I looked behind me and saw the dropships, hundreds of them. The Homeship had been flying for too long, they said. It was time we found a home. There wasn’t much time left. What if that home already belonged to someone else?
We neared one of the larger buildings and Knox whooped out in delirious joy. My entire body ached, aided even as it was by the exosuit. Benoit, for his part, didn’t seem tired. But then again, this was the guy who I’d catch running laps around the ship in Terra-level grav. For fun.
“This is the central command building! We can disable their guns from here!” Benoit shouldered through the building’s front door, his exosuit smashing into the metallic structure. It didn’t give at first, but he pulled back and barged again. It went tumbling inwards, and Benoit charged in with his blaster held up. Knox was close behind. I, for my part, paused for a moment. Above u, I could hear the barks and growls of the creatures whose home we were trying to steal. They sounded…
I shook my head and followed my angry oxygen-starved sergeant into the building. Immediately, I was greeted by death, with two of the creatures lying in the doorway – Benoit’s blaster having torn holes through them. Up close I was shocked by how similar to us they were. Humanoid, with distinct genders and even hairstyles. Only the lengthened limbs and red-tinged skin differentiated them. Their blood was certainly similar, spread out in pools around them. The building itself was full of computers and navscreens, some form of power station.
Knox and Benoit were advancing up a stairway that led to the next floor, blasters held up.
“Sarge,” I said. She turned her head and hushed me loudly. The helmet didn’t seem to be bothering her much now. Even with the hole in the doorway, the life support in the building was working. My helmet’s HUD told me so. Why did the building have oxygen? What did the aliens need it for? Had the first colony managed to build these, before they were destroyed? I had questions, lots of them. But it didn’t seem the right time.
I followed Benoit and Knox up the stairs. It was still loud outside, the blasts and screams as hectic as they’d ever been. The aliens were fighting ever more desperately now, as more and more of us landed. We needed this planet. It was, by our scientists best guesses, the closest thing to life-supporting we’d find. Sure the atmosphere wasn’t perfect, but that could be worked around. I wondered where the rest of the squad were. Dying outside in the dirt, probably. All that training…for what?
Benoit screamed. I could tell it was his voice immediately. Knox fell back, falling into me as I started climbing the steps. She was caked in blood, and I immediately knew whose it was. “Fuck this! Fuck you! We need this!” She screamed up the staircase. I helped her get back to her feet and she turned her head, a questioning look in her eye, “Lewis, where the fuck is everyone?” She shook her head as though to clear her thoughts, then nodded resolutely at me.
“Are you with me?”
I nodded back at her. What choice did I have?
Together, we moved to the top of the stairs. Benoit’s corpse was shredded open at the top. Whatever had killed him stood in the room ahead of us. I wanted nothing more than to be back in my quarters on the homeship, watching holotapes and crying over too much reconstituted alcohol. But here I was.
At Knox’s roar, we both charged into the room, my heart ready to explode out of my chest with the fear and desperation of it. We couldn’t go back, I knew it. The aliens must have known it too, the way they were defending themselves. Kinetic gunfire barked loud, a sound that surprised me. The aliens were using old Earth tech, and in their low gravity the bullets didn’t work well – but at this distance, they were still deadly. Knox was shot in the shoulder, but the wrong one. With her uninjured side, she raised her blaster and fired, instantly eliminating one of the two aliens that stood facing us.
I raised my own blaster at the final alien. I’d never actually fired it, aside from in the simulations. Now, I pointed it at a creature that looked so oddly similar to us, ready to kill it or be killed. I saw the fear in its eyes.
Then I saw the child in its arms.
“Stop!” The creature cried out, in common Earth. Knox was already pointing her weapon at it, raised to fire.
It spoke. It spoke in our language.
“Please!” The creature shrieked. It was crying, tears that rolled down its face. “Please. My baby!”
Knox held her blaster up, still pointed at the alien. I could see her trembling, the weight of fear, desperation and pain on her face.
“Sarge!” I shouted. “What the fuck is going on?”
“We are you!” The alien responded, tears rolling down her face. “The same, I mean.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Knox screamed, her hand still trembling. “Don’t tell lies!”
“I’m not lying!”
I stared at the exchange in horror. The alien’s limbs were long…but how long, really. Was it not possible…in low gravity…and with the dual suns…
“Sarge! PUT YOUR WEAPON DOWN!” I pleaded.
Knox looked at me, and in that moment I knew. She knew. They’d known all along. “They are us. Aren’t they? That’s why the digiscreen info is redacted.”
Knox shook her head sadly. “We tried to do it peacefully.”
The red woman, her face choked with tears, “No you didn’t! You abandoned us! My great-great-great ancestors contacted the Homeship and you did nothing to help. Now you’ve come to invade!”
Knox’s gun flashed and this time, I screamed. The alien fell in a crumpled heap. Her child began to cry, a tiny baby bawling amidst the ruins of this building. Knox moved forwards.
“Lewis. Nothing has changed. Secure this building and we’ll shut their guns down.”
I couldn’t move. Instead, I stared at the dead alien and the baby. Knox advanced on it, her gun pointed down at the tiny bundle.
I stepped towards her, shouting: “Sarge…what are you doing?”
“This is our home, now. We can’t have enemies.” She was teary-eyed, but her jaw was set. She lifted her arm, still wavering. She pointed it at the child. I knew she was going to do it.
I raised my own arm, just as Knox aimed hers at the baby. I shot my sergeant.
A woman I’d followed in simulated combat for decades. A woman I had, at one point, slept with. A woman who’d always wanted to find solid ground, just so she could stop training to fight.
I shot her. She died.
The gunfire outside was still loud, but the babies cries were even louder. Knox had died instantly, which I was grateful for. I stared at the blaster on my wrist, unable to comprehend what I’d done. Or why. But then I went to the child and I understood. I held the little thing in my arms and went to the computers which, despite a few differences, still used our language. From there, I found historical records. And I read them. All the while, I looked at the baby in my arms.
It was human, in some way. A little lengthier, sure – and tinged red, but human. And now, looking at the baby and reading the computer, I understood it all. Why we’d come here. Why we couldn’t go back. Because the planet’s relative distance to a singularity meant time worked differently. The first Homeship had reached here, long ago – and spent what must have been thousands of years developing. Entire human civilisations had been born here, lived and died. Feeling abandoned by the second Homeship, which had always promised to come and deliver vital terraforming equipment.
And we had. To us, it hadn’t been so long. A number of decades, perhaps. But to them, isolated here for thousands of years – evolving subtly to match the conditions of the world, we had left them behind. And now we came guns blazing, desperate to kill them off and claim the only other habitable planet we’d ever found. So they defended themselves.
I stood in front of the computers, staring at the power commands that would shut down the turrets. Give our ancestors over to our dropships. The old for the new. We’d already shattered any chance of peace, so the choice was glaringly obvious: eradicate people who’d done nothing wrong, or doom my own Homeship to extermination or starvation amidst the stars. We’d travelled for so long. We needed a home.
I held my finger over the command, hesitating. Why had they even built this power failsafe? It would doom them all. And win us the planet.
But we needed a home.
The baby cried out sharply, and I looked down into its eyes.
So much like mine.