The ship rumbled with turbulence as it descended through thick thunderheads. Lightning cracked, illuminating the infantry bay and its stark plethora of faces--old vets and fresh hires alike. They were mostly gaunt, nervous, ghostly, though some where sleeping, or chatting, or smoking languidly. Gator Knudsen, a freshie, clung to the worn black straps that bound him to the interior frame of the bay as the ship bucked.
"I hope the navies are on their shit this time," said the man seated next to him, an old timer with a once broken nose and a scar that ran from his cheek to his exposed chest hair. He was fondling the beads of a rosary in one hand, then winked at Gator.
"What do you mean?" asked Gator nervously. The old timer grinned a smile that telegraphed you're new, and leaned his head back.
"The navy gunners. The last run I was on, they did a shit job of razing the locals from the gun ports. Captain says it was a mechanical malfunction, but I says it was a officer incompetence malfunction. Course the navies don't have to be out on the ground getting the sticks and stones of the natives." He shoved the rosary into his interior pocket. "After we got back, thinned out as we were and a bit more than pissed off, I came across a young navy gunner, wet behind the ears and stupid as fuck, who tried to justify what had happened..."
"What'd you do?"
"Let's just say he was found the next day with his head in the head and wasn't speaking much no more." The old timer winked again.
"Oh," said Gator quietly.
"Don't worry though freshie, if you got my back out there," he pointed vaguely at the bay door, "no one ain't finding you in a similar demise." He laughed and punched Gator in the shoulder.
The ship lurched.
"That'd be the parachutes," said the old timer, looking up. He crossed himself and kissed a crucifix tattoo on his wrist. "Not long now."
"This your first hop?"
"Yeah, it is," said Gator.
"Oooh, not just a freshie, but a virgin freshie. This'll be good. Wanna know you're life expectancy once you get out there?"
"Less than ten minutes." The old timer laughed maniacally. Gator looked down at his clenched, shaking fists. "But you know, if you make it past that, you might just have a future. You might be cut out for this life. So tell me, why'd you sign up?"
"I wanted to get off Earth."
"Ah, simple enough. Can't say I really shared the feeling. I did it for the money at first, but then I found out I really liked it." The old timer grinned widely and chuckled while looking up and down Gator's face for a reaction.
"Well," said Gator, "my mother's poor, so I couldn't go to university. There was no way I could go as an engineer or a pilot. So it's this."
"Yeah, yeah," said the old timer. "Bet you got your eye on a patch of land. Bet you think you'll marry some woman and set up your own dynasty, and get a whole continent named after you."
"Come on freshie, I know your type. You've got ambition. You want to be remembered. And if you have to get your hands a little bloody with some anonymous stone age aliens, so what of it? It's for the greater good, ain't?"
"It's not like that, not with me, I swear."
"Sure," said the old timer, nodding. "But me, you know, I ain't like that. I'm just here for the butchering!" The old timer laughed, then screamed into Gator's face.
The ship's super cooled rail guns powered up and started grinding out bullets made of dense ice at several times the speed of sound (the use of ice ensured that the ship could always resupply its ammunition). The men in the infantry bay straightened up and did final checks on their weapons. The ship landed with an echoing thud. The men began to unbuckle from their seats. They stood, some got down into postures an Olympic runner would assume just before the gun went off.
Gator held an electric staff, and checked and rechecked its charge three times in quick succession. He pulled down his helmet visor and adjusted a strap on his body armor. He lungs sucked in a quick blast of air then he held his breath.
The pistons to the the bay door started to creak, and a crack of outside light came in with the sound of howling wind. The men in the bay started to scream and beat their body armor--a cacophonous thrumming and wailing. The old timer brought out two large tomahawks, one for each hand. He was sweating and frothing at the mouth. Gator glanced at him, open-jawed.
The door dropped further down and rain started coming into the bay in hard droplets. The first rows of men rushed the door, running up it, clambering over it, and out. The old timer ran in his turn, but Gator stood back, his feet frozen and glued to the floor. Men started running from behind him, and someone pushed him forward. He started to stumble, then breathing hard, he screamed like an animal, no longer processing what was happening around him, and ran forward into the storm.
The guns were taking care of things past one hundred meters, but the it was the job of the infantry to take care of everything closer to the ship. The men in front of Gator were fighting something, but he couldn't clearly see what. There was an explosion, with blue fire, and men screamed, thrown into the air, eviscerated, globs of them raining back down. Gator stopped screaming. Another explosion.
"That's not us!" he screamed. "We don't have those--"
"No shit!" said a man running past him.
Gator looked down at his staff, now seemingly thing and frail in his hands. Someone punched him in the back.
"Get in it you pussy or we'll skin you!" screamed another man.
Gator ran forward, thinking fuck fuck fuck FUCK, in his head. He ran up to the line of scrambling men. They parted, fighting into other directions, and for the first time, Gator saw the form of his adversary.
It was large, seven feet or more, muscular, and covered with gray-blue hair that slicked off the rain. It had three or four arms of varying lengths, though not arranged in any semblance of symmetry. It had a mouth at one end, and a patch of eyes on what Gator thought might be called a chest. It held a rocked in a three fingered hand, and wore pouch slung over two lower limbs filled with...glowing things. It opened its mouth and screeched violently at him.
Gator shrunk back, then remembered his staff. He whipped it around as the creature launched the rock at him. He aimed the staff at the pouch and pressed the fire button. A blast of magnetically controlled electricity shot out and enveloped the creature's leg, and it stumbled back, but was not disabled. The rock hit Gator in the shoulder, shattering it, and he fell back into the muddy ground. The glowing things in the pouch changed from white to blue, then started to expand. The creature squealed and worked to untie the pouch, and as the pouch was about to burst it flung it in an amazing arc towards the bay door of the ship.
As it landed it exploded--the concussion was deafening and the light blinding but heatless. Gator laid still in the mud, his brain overwhelmed with the pain. After a few long seconds, the light diminished and sound started to return. There was a keening wail. Gator tried to push himself up from the sucking grip of the mud, and used his staff to help him balance. In front of him lay the creature, wailing and curled in a ball. A large section of metal pierced its chest. It looked up at Gator.
Gator stood, shaking, crying. The line of fighting had progressed outward; they were gaining ground, but there were bodies of both men and creatures strewn across the muddy field. Gator wiped his eyes and then noticed that the field was scored with furrows.
The creature in front of him gurgled up something thick and wet from its mouth and started hacking pitifully. Gator drew up his staff and placed the tip against the eye patch of the creature. He pressed the button and watched the creature vibrate until it started to smoke. He pulled back the staff and felt oddly satisfied.
He started walking towards the line, being careful of his tender shoulder. The navy guns finally fell silent. The rain began to diminish and he saw the tops of thatch huts. The men were running around, now chasing smaller versions of the creatures. He saw the old timer pick up one that was no more than a foot high, fling it into the air and slash at it, catching it with one of his tomahawks, as it fell back down. Gator stopped walking and stared at the carnage until there was less and less fighting back and more and more of men laughing.
Someone instructed him to light the huts on fire with his staff. He looked at the officer blankly.
"You deaf!?" screamed the officer. Gator shook his head. "Light this shit up then!"
Gator ran to the nearest hut and buzzed it with the tip of his staff. Flames licked up the conical structure.
"What does it matter?" he said out loud. "They don't need them anymore. I'll light the whole fucking planet on fire!" he screamed. He ran around to all the huts, poking the staff at them, until the air grew hot and sweating and stagnant with the flames.
The other men threw the bodies onto the fires. The smell was faintly sweet, even appetizing. Some of the men wandered or sat down, tired. The medics addressed wounds. Others carried the dead men back to the ship.
The old timer found Gator again. He approached Gator while he wiped his tomahawks clean.
"You made it. How'd it feel, freshie?" said the old timer.
"I have five more years of this," said Gator in a monotone.
"Well, if you don't like it, there's the wilderness out there." He pointed past the fires. "If you've got a problem with the killing, there's your best out."
"Does anyone really do that?" asked Gator. The old timer whistled.
"None that I know," he said. "I don't think anyone would make it a night in a completely unsurveyed wilderness like this. Still, you'd probably make longer out there than your next mission!" The old timer laughed. Gator walked away, towards the edge of the jungle and away from the rest of the men. Night was falling and the forest possessed long depths of gloomy darkness. There were faint calls of unknown organisms, cheeps and chitters and one haunting, plaintive wail. He dropped his staff, then undid his body armor, throwing the pieces down in a heap. He closed his eyes and stepped forward.