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The Grendel

This is the piece I wrote for my sci-fi class in my last semester.  For you fine folks to peruse.

They never told mankind what they called themselves or how they wanted to be referred to as, but humanity has always been fond of, needed even, labels for everything it encountered.  And so, that alien presence that had come from beyond the Arcturus Junction were called the Grendel.  And there were reasons for that. 

First, they were monsters; huge creatures, the smallest that had been observed being about seven feet tall, their scales a muddy brown where they did not hard-fix plates of metal and ceramic to serve as armour.  Second, they were strong, and not just physically; mankind had long since developed mass-driver small arms and those were thought to be the pinnacle of personal weapons advancement but the Grendel?  Theirs were another animal altogether, firing slugs of iron, uranium and polonium heated to plasma and able to burn through a ship’s hull with sufficient impacts, never mind a Marine’s combat suit, or someone completely unprotected by armour. 

And third, they were always able to hit their targets when they were at their most defenceless, and any resistance that was put up would be crushed in the most brutal sort of way and then they would disappear, leaving no trace of their passage save for the damage left in their wake, what they would take back with them, confused sensor readings and disrupted surveillance videos.  And the sobbing of survivors. 

And while every defeat was crushing, they were not entirely one-sided.  Plenty of the enemy were killed, because not even through surprise and their weapons capability could they always get through a system’s defences unscathed or go against human troops and not take casualties.  But that told mankind very little, for the corpses were useless: once they fell, anti-tamper devices implanted across their bodies would activate to any scan, or any further disruption, and they would release agents that would consume the body and release a cloud of a nerve toxin that also happened to be highly corrosive, destroying the body, its implanted technology, and everyone around it at the time.   In fact, the only way to clear the field after an engagement had become to incinerate everything left behind.

Yes, the Grendel were good at covering their tracks. 

The raids continued, mankind was afraid.  But mankind was known for another thing: it was that it could learn.

The action alarm blared.  It was a shrill, metallic sound that would drill right into anyone’s skull, a sound so different from anything else that could be heard on a ship that those who were awake would immediately recognize it and those who were not would be roused from their sleep instantly and would react to their station.  After seven seconds, the alarm stopped and a voice came across the public-address system of the Terran Coalition frigate Coventry, the voice of the Officer of the Watch announcing the nature of the alarm.  “Action stations, actions stations.  Boarding party to the boat bay.” And again, seven seconds of the piercing sound of the alarm echoed across the ship. 

And so, the thirty-six troopers of the boarding party, hulking in the new-pattern armour that was said to be resistant to Grendel weapons while serving as a protective suit when operating out in space or other hostile environments, were gathered in front of the board where Lieutenant Dieter Steiner, the boarding party’s commander, was giving his briefing.  “Long story short, the Grendel are hitting an orbital mining post.  Mission’s simple: we get in, kick their… whatever they got, and this time we bring back specimens for the geeks in R&D to look over.  Questions?” 

And one woman, her auburn hair streaked with grey and her face lined by years of hardship, scars and experience, stepped forward, her helmet under her arm.  The chevrons on her armour identified her as a Master Sergeant, and the name stenciled on the breastplate read “Eves, S.”.  Like most of the party, she was a veteran; she had seen many a scrap across more systems than she’d care to count during her thirty years in the infantry.  In fact, Summer Eves had been in uniform while her current commanding officer’s parents were still in middle school.  She’d even fought the Grendel.  In fact, now that she’d come to think of it, every member of Coventry’s boarding party had gone up against the Grendel and not just survived but had been involved in a successful defence.  But Steiner, on the other hand?  At first glance he did look the part of the combat commander: lean, muscular, hair cut in a brush, with a strong nose, a square jaw and piercing blue eyes, but he certainly didn’t sound or move like someone who’d known much combat at all.  According to his service record, he’d been in charge of a civil defence platoon on one of the inner worlds, where there never was a need for combat troops and the only hours he’d logged in zero-g and vacuum operations were the ones from basic training and in his open-space combat courses.  “Sir, just how exactly are we going to do that before they try to turn us to jelly?”  There was little deference in the tone; Steiner was universally hated within the boarding party as the arrogant, entitled little snot that he was, refusing to learn from the experience of the veterans around him.  For, as a commissioned officer, he did not believe he needed to listen to the men and women who’d been in the service since he was still filling diapers. 

“Glad you asked, Eves.”  That voice, it was definitely not Steiner’s reedy, supercilious tone.  It spoke of authority and expertise.  And not a little derision towards the Lieutenant, who had obviously failed to ask that particular question when he received his own orders.  It was Captain Archimedes Augustus, the commander of the ship’s assault group; and he too was suited up in battle armour.  Normally, he would have gotten his orders from the Skipper, relayed them to Steiner, and then waited out the alarm in the armoury, which also doubled as a damage control node and the central command post for counter-boarding operations.  But here he was, suited up and ready to join the boarding party.  “We have a new piece of kit, you’ll all be issued one.  It’s a jammer, the good people in R&D came up with them and today, the lot of you are going to be field testing them.  All of you except Steiner.  Lieutenant, de-bomb and report to the manning pool, you’re standing down on this one.”  The young officer thought to make noise about it, but the combination of Augustus’ unmitigated authority and the troops’ sigh of relief were enough to make him think otherwise. 

And then, the older man continued.  “We’re not going to be alone.  We’ll have boarding parties from the Hinckley, Solihull, Warwick and Tamworth coming in to join us.  And all of them will be equipped with those, while Special Boat Service teams from the Poole, Odiham and Hereford will be assaulting the Grendel ship.  The Fleet and the Corps have been preparing for months for this between setting up an understrength picket out here, putting together boarding teams who’ve fought in winning engagements against the Grendel and getting a SOF presence in-system.  This is our first crack at really getting to know those bastards, and we’re taking it.  Now helmets on, mount up, and let’s get going.”

One thing for certain, among the various grunts and other sounds coming from the boarding party, they were ready for this.  Even if no one had known what they expected to be a standard quasi-suicidal defence against the Grendel in a system located in a crevice in the armpit of nowhere was actually a coordinated operation of crucial strategic importance.

The flight in was the usual.  The troop compartment was decompressed, a brutal acceleration, and then an equally brutal deceleration as the shuttle came to a stop against the mining station’s hull and the drop doors opened, disgorging the armoured troopers against the micrometeorite-pitted surface.  Before long, the breaching charges were set, and on the signal from Captain Augustus, they were detonated.  To the boarding party, it was rather anticlimactic; there was a flash as the cutting charges ignited, and a rumble under their feet as energy was imparted to the hull and where once there was a solid slap of metal eight inches thick there was now a gaping hole spewing atmosphere, smoke and debris, and once pressure equalized the Coalition troops rushed the hole.  “First section with me.  Eves, you take second section and sweep from the left.  Third section, to the right.  We push everything in our sector towards the central spindle.  Go.”

The mining station only had so much in terms of habitable volume.  Most of it was automated ore processing and there was only a human presence there when it was absolutely necessary for maintenance purposes.  One might wonder why a foe such as the Grendel would pick that target, but the answer was simple enough.  Osmium, the densest element on the periodic table and crucial to the construction of the fusion bottles that served to power starships, among other things.  But this was a small producer, a minor blip on the market and therefore not given the kind of protection major extraction centers would get.  Just the kind of place that would have only a half-squadron of frigates as a defence force, an ideal target for a Grendel raid.

And something no one, not even Master Sergeant Summer Eves, had ever considered when they had gotten this particular assignment.  To them, it was just another job, sent there by the Corps due to the requirements of the service.  But now, they were going to stick it to the Grendel the best way they knew how. 

At first, there was no resistance, and part of the Master Sergeant’s mind was starting to hope it would go that easily the whole time through.  And then, in the vacuum of the decompressed habitat, there was a flash and a dozen voices over the comm channel called out a single word: “Contact!”

At one end of an open space, nominally a plaza where miners could congregate, were the Grendel, tall and brown and their weapons spouting their gobs of melted metal.  At the other were Terran Marines, their rifles spitting out slugs of pre-fragmented armour-piercing slugs that would explosively shatter inside the bodies of their targets after defeating their protection.  In the vacuum, there was no noise, but was there to be an atmosphere, all knew what it would sound like.  The Grendel’s weapons would produce a tearing sound when they would fire, and the impact of their shots on metal would produce a noise not unlike breaking glass as the sudden transfer of thermal and kinetic energy would cause bulkheads to shatter.  The Terran mass-driver rifles, they would shriek as their projectiles would be accelerated to hypersonic velocities, followed by the metallic, almost musical, popping of rounds penetrating and breaking up past a barrier, assuming they did not do so inside a target, at which point there would be much screaming.

The firefight was fierce, and Summer knew that not all her troopers would be coming out of that one still standing, or even still breathing.  There was a reason the Grendel were feared in combat.  As a rule, facing off against them would mean staggering Terran casualties, making even successful defences a Pyrrhic victory at best.  But not this time.  While the EW geeks could break into their communications, there still had been no breaking of their language and its series of clicks and hisses, but it was clear they were surprised by the resistance they were facing; Terran doctrine did not involve aggressively seeking to engage the Grendel.  Typically, it was about keeping them away from high-value resources and population centers.  That, and Terran forces would be spread to cover as much ground as possible, not heavily concentrated.

The shift in tactics, the overwhelming force involving nearly two hundred Terran veteran troops against a Grendel assault group of sixty or so and the sheer ferocity of the counter-attack paid off.  And when the plasma of Grendel weapons cooled to slag and then misshapen hunks of radioactive metal and the heat from Terran rifles had dissipated, examination of bodies would start.  Already, it had been proven the jammers work, for not a single Grendel body had dissolved into the deadly gas they were known for. 
Once casualties were evacuated and pressure had been re-established, Summer Eves was among the first to get among the bodies of the fallen, and with her boot she turned one over.  Where purple fluid had leaked out, it had turned to dark scabs when exposed to the vacuum during the battle.  Its skin was shredded, the armour plates embedded in its body had been shattered.  Including the two large ones over its face.  Gingerly, the Master Sergeant brushed aside the wreckage that obscured its head and much of the dense flesh below came along with it.  The sound was sickening, and she could only imagine the stench as her helmet was still sealed.

But then, she screamed.

Within the demolished head, she found circuitry.  What looked like optical cables connected to the eyes; more wiring from the auditory organs.  Then she saw the remnants of a viewscreen much like the one that lined the opaque face of her own helmet, and speakers little different from the ones over her own ears.  And among this whole mess was a human head.

And as her scream subsided, she realized what she was seeing.  The tough, brown bodies were a suit of armour made of biological matter.  And the Grendel…

“Captain,” she said on the open channel with Archimedes Augustus, “the Grendel, they’re us.”

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