Two generations ago, the planet Earth was attacked by allied alien forces. Over 75 percent of humanity was killed during the invasion and attempted occupation. The carnage ended only when Earth-based military units devastated the home planets of the invaders using untested technology from the most advanced research labs on the planet.
The attacking aliens fled. They were chased down and eliminated by platoons of Space Navy SEALs, the most effective fighting force ever created. Each member of a Space Navy platoon has received Enhancements to sight, hearing, healing, memory, and more.
But no platoon had what the crew of the Blue Celeste had: War Thug. This one-man killing machine kept his troops safe while leaving not one alien alive—whether sentient or “bug”—on any planet they were assigned to in the War Council’s permanent War Against Alien Aggression.
The platoon’s latest assignment is to rescue three scientists under attack from a planet full of vicious Xenos. When they touch down, however, the 12-SEAL unit finds that nothing is what it seems. As soldier after soldier vanishes, War Thug and his team must try to find them as well as extract the scientists while the Xenos close in.
War Thug is an action-packed trip into a world of alien terror, bloody battles, and a deadly conspiracy spanning the entire galaxy.
We called him Sarge, or Sir. He had a name, of course, but in the years our SEAL unit was together, all of us grunts saw him as larger than life, more than any one name could describe. He was a force of nature. Sometimes, when we were in our sacks tethered to the bulkhead to keep us from floating around the transport ship, but not wanting to sleep yet, we referred to him (between ourselves only, in whispers) by the name he had tattooed on his massive arms, one word on each side:
“War” and “Thug.” He was the War Thug.
None of us knew where he got that name, or why he had it carved into his body, but it described our platoon commander perfectly. He lived for war, and when serving with him, so did we. In my five tours of bouncing from planetary conflict to bug hunt to tech grab to just plain elimination of suspected alien terrorist cells, we never lost a SEAL. Our squad of 12 Space/Earth Atmosphere Leapers—you’ll see in a minute why we SEALs have that designation—was the best in the business, and that was because of Sarge, our War Thug.
Funny thing was, he wasn’t a sergeant at all—the Space Navy doesn’t have that rank. We figured he was probably a Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest enlisted rank in our arm of the Space Service, an E-9, basically the same as a Sergeant Major in the other branches, many levels above a platoon sergeant. But we never knew for sure, because his arms were too big, too powerful, to fit into a regulation uniform, and his custom rags were without rank insignia. Sarge said we didn’t need stripes anyway to tell us who listens to who when the fighting starts. He said if we didn’t trust him—or if he lacked full faith he was in charge and knew what he was doing—then we were all gonna die on some godforsaken rock far from home, trying to take down the targets before they snuffed us. (And failing.) So we trusted him, and he trusted us. And that’s what kept us all alive and a pack of ravening wolves behind our Alpha, who showed us what to kill, and even after all these tours, did it himself whenever he could.
War Thug ruined us for civilian life. I don’t even know what I would do on Terra or any of the civilian colonies we’re so often called upon to act as pest control. But the detail we were called to three years ago was the killing of entire hive of bugs. We leapt onto the massive “space elevator” cord and fell to terminal velocity to get our boots on the ground of the largest moon of the largest gas giant orbiting Vega, Kokytos. The moon itself had a relatively thick atmosphere and both bodies had some official alphanumeric name none of us ever used. To us the moon was immediately renamed Gale, not for some sweetheart back home but for the hurricane-speed gusts created by gravitational forces between the moon and its tremendous planet. Gale was tidally locked with its gas-striped host, and if we could have waited a million years or so, our problem with it would be taken care of when the moon’s orbit decayed enough to let it crash through the clouds and be destroyed.
However, the government of Terra needed this issue resolved in its favor now. Our home planet was still known as Earth among both residents and stellar colonists, but Sarge made us refer to it—if we referred to it at all, which was discouraged—as Terra. This, he said, was to help break bonds with our former home so we could keep our minds on the job ahead, not get wistful about the remainder of the planet we were fighting to keep safe.
Sarge made it clear that if we didn’t do our job, and do it well, then Terra would fall to insectoid or worse invaders one day. This, he said, would be even more destructive than the war that was finally ended when the Space Navy was conceived. Soldiers (sailors, technically) were trained, Enhanced, and sent to wipe out the aggressor’s planet until they left ours. They did retreat at last, after killing more than 75 percent of Earth’s population but suffering even greater losses in our all-out counterattack on their rock. After the invaders were gone and back on their planet, we dropped a Super-Nuke on them and killed every single living thing anywhere upon or under its forever-ruined surface. I had never seen a Super-Nuke deployed or even heard of its use in the present day, and immersion vids during training showed me that I would never want to. Some said there was no such thing as a Super-Nuke, it being just a legend created to put Terrans at ease that we can kill entire populations of aggressive planets in one shot. But whatever they used, Super-Nuke or something else, we killed just about everything on the attackers’ home world, and we killed the ones who fled from Terra. That was the beginning of the War Against Alien Aggression.
That Terran war had raged and ended before any of us grunts—or even Sarge, most likely—had been born. But we knew that if we didn’t kill every alien son of a bitch we could, steal every bit of their technology, or in some cases just kill the bugs infesting a planet or moon so they wouldn’t evolve into a threat, we might as well kiss humanity goodbye. Because it would happen again. We had to move “pro-actively,” as the War Council had our teachers call it: Offensive conflicts that we would start and we would control; aggression instead of waiting for victimhood. The War Council was built on the philosophy of “kill them before they can kill us.”
I want to tell you about the fight on Gale so you can understand what happened later, on our very next mission.
Going into the battle on Vega’s giant moon, War Thug told us he would be proud of us grunts that day, whether we survived or not. But he added that he would be proud of himself only if we were in and out without losing a soldier and we eliminated the enemy entirely.
“You’ll be proud, Sir!” we all shouted in unison as we assembled and suited up in our heavy equipment. For once, we were thankful for the weight of the gear, since the gravity on Gale was less than one Terran G and the wind gusts were going to be stronger than anything something of human weight could usually endure and not be swept away.
Sarge smiled—he wasn’t perpetually grim—and shouted his response: “Damn right, I will! Now you babies get your thumbs out of your mouths and drop!”
* * *
A “space elevator” isn’t an elevator at all—it’s a nigh-indestructible cable connecting a ship in geosynchronous orbit above the target spot on the surface of a planet or moon. The first soldier to drop guided the cable most of the way to the surface, releasing it and hitting his own chute (for drops onto planets with atmospheres—gas jets were used for thin or nonexistent atmospheres) only after selecting the precise spot where its base would best penetrate the surface. Upon impact, the space elevator’s base shot out root-like anchors that dig deep enough to keep the cable connected between the surface and the ship above in its stationary orbit around the planet’s equator.
Geared up, we needed only to breathe calmly and attach our clips to our assigned spot on the rotator that would be feeding out the thousands of miles of foot-thick carbon-nanotube cable. Our tech guy and Drop Specialist, Leonard, got the elevator anchors secured on the surface and then gave the all-clear for us to join him.
As we did on every mission into whatever hellhole the Terran authorities sent us, we lined up and waited for the signal that the elevator had been successfully anchored. Once we got that signal, our clips—with us attached—shot out of the ship, following the now-anchored line all the way down to the surface.
Us twelve grunts leaped in order, as always, with Sarge bringing up the rear in case things went FUBAR and he needed to haul us back in. We leaped in reverse alphabetical order. Sarge had let us use our own names if they fit, but gave the rest of us nicknames to fit his alphabet scheme of keeping track of his grunts:
- Leonard: Tech soldier. He was a handsome Black kid who, for some reason, signed up with the Space Navy and found himself Enhanced to operate as a Faraday conductor cage. His right arm was lost as an infantryman before he joined our Enhanced crew, and his ability magnify electric discharges was greatly increased by his automail prosthetic arm. Composed of an iron-silver alloy for maximum electrical conductivity and strength, the artificial arm allowed him to practically pull lightning from the sky and discharge it wherever he chose with his already-Enhanced body. The fake arm, like all modern prosthetics, fully connected with the motor and tactile nerves in his shoulder, as well as the muscles and sinew that grew into and around it, and it functioned as a normal arm and hand. Leonard was also our all-around technician who not only carried a SEAL railgun, but also knew exactly how they worked and how to repair one in the field. He worked closely with Inman, our ordnance man.
- Killshot: He was short and snakelike, perfect for allowing him to secure himself into tight spaces with his long-range photon rifle. The only thing that put down more alien bugs than Killshot was a neutron concussion grenade. His eyes were Enhanced, his optic nerves running through an electronic “cleanse” that allowed him to see the battlefield in visible, infrared, and ultraviolet wavelengths.
- Junebug: Maybe Sarge was a little old-school sexist, but he gave the female members of the platoon cuter names than the men. But while “Junebug” had an adorable name, she was an ox of a soldier—and that is definitely a compliment. Enhanced for density, she was broader in shoulder than some of the men in our platoon. She would barrel right through the mayhem if she saw a place to shove her beloved entrenching tool right through some bug’s disgusting thorax, or sometimes just to knock a bunch of aliens to the ground and take them out one by one with fists, melee weapons, or even her railgun. She used her guns and rifles a lot, but there was no denying that she greatly preferred to feel nano-reinforced iron puncturing and then slashing through metal, flesh, exoskeleton, gelid ice armor, you name it.
- Inman: Armor specialist. Also our ordnance expert. (Funny how those work so well together.) He knew what shell to use when as well as when it was time to go neutron or even nuclear. We had never been on such a losing end that we had to use a Super-Nuke that would wipe out every living thing on a planet (and good thing, too, because we were usually fighting bugs for planetary resources when we weren’t launching a preemptive strike on sentient aliens to bring them into submission, and the Super-Nuke would just destroy everything. But even with the much less powerful tactical nuclear bomb, Sarge would never let Inman “nuke it from orbit,” saying it wasn’t warfare that way. He made sure we repaired to a safe distance, but close enough to feel the heat and the wind from the mushroom cloud as we erased our enemies in an endgame last resort. Inman had Enhanced hearing, which helped him greatly when he needed to know how many bugs were coming and whether we needed to wipe them all out in one blow.
- Hog: A huge baby-faced farm boy who liked nothing more than running right at the enemy and scaring them. Then he killed them and ran to do it again. Completely fearless, or possibly just too dense to be afraid. Hog’s Enhancement was a modest one, but every second he used it during battle was a bad thing for our enemy: he could, at will, make his entire body (and along with it anything he wore or held) vibrate at such a frequency that anything that touched him—or that he touched—would rattle in sympathetic vibration until it literally shook itself to death. (Or, in the case of machines, shook itself into its component pieces, which is what ended the existence of Hog’s living targets as well.)
- Gunner: Our gunnery sergeant, obviously. He kept the weapons cleaned, charged, and ready. He also was our … cleric, I suppose. He was fluent in almost every human faith, but no one (except maybe War Thug) knew what he believed in, if anything. He entered battle only after making sure everybody else was armed and ready, with railguns and rifles and pistols—and, if they needed, spiritual guidance to help them kill every nonhuman being they possibly could. His Enhancement was appropriate to his position as unofficial clergy: He could, just with a touch of his bare hand, spread a sense of unshakeable calm through any human. Not every soldier wanted that, however; and thus Gunner was also able to imbue a sense of righteous fury in the same way. I suppose it was the production and delivery of neurotoxins through his skin that allowed him this ability. Its influence generally ended at the conclusion of a battle, when the human body’s normal chemical defenses overwhelmed and nullified whatever it was that Gunner had been able to instill. All of us except Sarge had called upon Gunner for his services during one fight or another.
- Fugly: Hands down, she was the most beautiful woman, the most attractive person, any of us had ever seen. Smooth skin, piercing green eyes, supramodel face and body. She was transferred to our crew when she put several members of her old platoon to cryo until they could be moved to a quadrant base to get their missing organs replaced with non-functional dildonics. No court-martial for her; in a sex-integrated Space Navy, there’s no room for rape or attempted rape. She kept her helmet on whenever she was around the rest of us for the first couple of weeks, but Sarge gave her that nickname and it brought her out of her shell to see she was with platoon-mates who cared only how she fought. She showed us how: without mercy. It made her even more beautiful in all of our eyes.
And we were not alone. Unlike with the others, I had no idea how her Enhancement worked, even on the conceptual level. She could make anyone or anything that looked at her see only beauty—whatever beauty was to aliens or just bugs, that’s what they sensed. She couldn’t turn it on or off; it just was. The males in the platoon often wondered, when the females weren’t nearby, whether they were seeing her as she really was—or, indeed, if there was any “reality” outside of her Enhancement anymore. This may seem obvious, but while she could, and did, fight like the soldier she was, her “glamour” ability served us as a powerful distraction to the enemy, whether it was male, female, or whatever the hell some of these bugs were.
- Ernie: He manned the A/V links between our Heads-Up Display screens as well as kept us in contact with the closest base and, when necessary, even Terra, via subspace frequencies. His Enhancement was that it had all been installed in his head: he mentally routed all of our feeds as well as communications outside our Gang of Merry Men. We had radio backups, of course, but none worked as well as Ernie’s head. He also was in charge of our supply chain, keeping us fed or letting us know when we wouldn’t be eating anything but flash-frozen sea biscuits for a while.
- Dahlia: Up-close combat specialist. Her Enhancement was that her bones had been replaced with “memory nanoblocks” and could not be broken. Also, her deep ebony skin and taut muscle were rewoven at the molecular level and, like any reformed fibers, they created a bond almost impossible to penetrate. She could therefore punch and kick and slam and heap a lot of other abuses on an enemy, even without armament. Sarge still had her outfitted with armor and a railgun in battle, but she loved when there were stragglers which she could release some tension on.
- Calico: Sarge told me he called her that because of her Enhanced ability to move without making a sound and run completely silently, like a cat, to kill an enemy before it even knew what was happening, even when Calico bore heaps of armor and weaponry. She also seemed preternaturally able to elude scopes, cameras, any kind of detecting equipment whenever there was any kind of shadow (light, radio, and heat, to name a few) to hide her. She also favored keeping pieces of her personal kills as trophies. I don’t know if that’s something cats do, but it seemed awfully feline to the rest of us. It was especially fitting, perhaps, that she was also our platoon medic. We always wondered if she kept little pieces of us when she put us back together.
- Boswell: Logistics and reporting. This is me. I fit into the naming scheme, so Sarge kept mine. (He usually called me “Boz.”) I had been hoping for a nickname until I realized through several horrifying battles that War Thug respected only bloodlust and survival in his grunts. The nicknames weren’t a sign of anything; they were just another tool for him to manage his soldiers and help them kill more effectively. My specialty was being Sarge’s right-hand man. I kept track of the where and the what and the when and the rest while War Thug killed and killed. He then had me enter the log entries once he told me if the battle was a success or not. Sometimes what I thought was a victory would end up in Sarge’s eyes as a draw or even a defeat. I asked him after one battle in which we killed almost every damn bug on that rock why he was having me log it as anything but a success. His eyes focusing somewhere far away, he said in his grumble, “There’s one still alive down there, I just know it.” My Enhancement was a blessing and a curse: I had a completely eidetic memory. That meant I possessed perfect recall of anything I saw, heard, or experienced, and could relate them at will at any level of detail I desired. I have never forgotten even one kill in one battle. The “log entries” were kept in my mind until we were finished fighting and the details could be relayed to base.
- Ace: Our pilot. She hated that nickname (but kept it in respect to Sarge) because she thought it made her sound like a daredevil; in fact, she was a meticulous navigator and a master at moving vehicles through both atmospheres and the vacuum of space. Her Enhancement was some kind of biological gyroscope that gave her a perfect sense of direction and spatial orientation: She literally could fly with her eyes closed, and had done so several times in my presence, but this was only when the instruments failed and the need to move was most pressing. She refused to “show off,” although she was always very polite and told us she appreciated our faith in her. A very good woman, we entrusted our lives to her every time we boarded her ship, the Blue Celeste.
- Finally, there was War Thug. He had arms as big as legs and hands as big as a human head, with legs and feet to match. All of us assumed that was his Enhancement—comic-book-huge and strong limbs and extremities with unmatched ripping and kicking abilities—especially since his normal-sized head seemed small in comparison. Small, that is, except when he had his helmet on in battle, in which case you’d better not be looking at him instead of the enemy anyway. This muscle theory was a guess on our part, as Sarge never told us what (if anything) his Enhancement was, and we sure as hell weren’t going to ask. His muscles did weave seamlessly into what we knew was a prosthetic right forearm made of indestructible carbon nanotubes, despite its fleshlike covering.
Ace, of course, stayed aboard the ship while the rest of us leaped, and Sarge would clip on and follow us down the space elevator cable after getting the all-clear from me, the last grunt to touch boots on the ground.
About those Enhancements I threw at you: with a mandate from the War Council, the Space Navy required all enlisted soldiers and commissioned officers expected to take part in field operations to undergo an “Enhancement.” As you saw, this could be a sharpening of natural sensory or physical abilities, or it could be something entirely new but immensely useful in battle. Those who could not or would not accept Enhancements were labeled as “not fit for duty.” They were often tasked with rebuilding Terran cities, which often necessitated clearing out the 10 billion dead who still lay in the ruined streets. I couldn’t see why one would rather do that than go Enhanced and fight the many evils lying in wait in this part of the galaxy.
The point is, the War Council would invest whatever it took in terms of money, research, and application of technology—weapons and biotech—to cleanse this sector of the galaxy of any and every threat. And that meant Enhanced soldiers who could kill almost anything.
Anyway, I leaped, and immediately gravity grabbed me from the geosynchronous orbit and pulled me toward Gale at an acceleration of 5 feet per second per second. This was slower than Earth’s attraction but still plenty fast, and I would be fairly close to the ground before I reached terminal velocity, which was my signal to unclip and yank my chute.
Well, that was usually the signal. For our leap onto Gale, however, we were forced to open the chute when we were practically touching the ground, since the super-high winds would hurl anyone with an open parachute hundreds of clicks away from the drop zone. Fortunately, we were outfitted with shock-absorbing bounce packs, which meant we didn’t have to rely so much on the chutes to keep us from ending up as a red blotch on a hostile planetoid.
Sarge got the automatic signal from my equipment that I was safe on the ground, and then he made his leap. We were too busy stowing gear and reconning the landing area to watch anyone leap, but sometimes we made an exception for Sarge, whose massive bulk fell with impressive grace. He yanked his chute and deployed his bounce pack at precisely the right moment, allowing him to ultimately land dead-center of the drop zone, on his feet. As always.
Even in this goddamn wind. All of us literally had to consciously place each step due to the random pulsation of immensely strong winds, followed by a stillness, followed by the wind again. How long one period or the other would last, we had no idea. But it knocked us over—well, all of us except Hog, Junebug, and Sarge, and even they were rocked a good bit.
The air was mostly transparent but approached a blue tint the farther up you looked. However, I almost instantly learned not to look up, because the bands of Kokytos stretched from horizon to horizon. Since the moon—large when compared even to Terra’s moon—was nonetheless tidally locked with Kokytos, and so this was what anyone standing on this part of Gale would see every hour or every day: nothing but the swirls and bands of the gas giant. It felt like the sky was bearing down on us, so close was Gale to its host planet. If Kokytos didn’t rotate so fast, a moon the size of Gale would simply have been flung off into space, or never formed. Seeing the horizon only filled with planet was disorienting, even nauseating.
However, we weren’t there to sightsee. Not that there was much to see anyway. The vegetation was very low to the ground and grew only in the lee of a rock. I imagined the water supply, if the bugs and plants on this planet even used water, was mostly in underground rivers, where it would not be evaporated by the powerful winds. The ground was mostly exposed rock scoured clean of sand, which one could see collected against the bases of bigger rocks that rose all the way to hill size just within our range of sight.
Sarge had us count off and then brought us in a circle to make sure we all knew our mission on this weird rock. We knew it, of course—this was “pest control,” as we grunts called the officially designated “extermination missions.” That meant that no resources that Terra was interested in were known to exist here; no alien technology was expected to be retrieved because the low “sentience value” of the aliens (that is, they were “bugs”) meant the only thing they created was bug crap; and these bugs were in the size range of a human or bigger, meaning the War Council considered them a possible threat if—and this had never happened, but just in case—a sentient alien species captured them en masse and dropped them on cities on Terra.