Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



They say, "the clothes make the man." If so, what does that say about the protagonist of this little science-fiction number that comes courtesy D.K. Latta? Previously a big hit with the readers when it appeared in the anthology Challenging Destiny #12 (2001), "Drooling" D.K. has kindly permitted us to republish it here at P&D. Meet Marvox who mines asteroids while dressed in a particularly uncomfortable environment suit called the Kel-427. It's not a pleasant job. But things are about to get considerably more uncomfortable when Marvox finds himself the target of alien nasties with nowhere to hide when they...

 

Swarm

By D.K. Latta
About the author


THE KEL-427 WAS A BITCH to work in. Marvox knew that. It was no secret that men and women had been known to trade their leave time with a co-worker in order to get out of Kel duty. Which gave some indication of the general consensus regarding the Kel. After all, the mining project on asteroid 6566700911 was the sort of place most people could barely stand working on, let alone spending leave time there when they could be blasting off on the semi-monthly supply ship for a few weeks of R&R.

The Kel was officially listed as an "all-environment work-facilitating body suit". What it really was was a tank with arms and legs. And one that seemed as though it had been designed for a species with a body temperature a few degrees higher than a human with a fever. It was hot, it was heavy, it was clumsy. You were supposed to "wear" it, your arms in the arms, your legs in the legs, and it would do most of the moving, thanks to its inner motors. No worse than wearing a light coat, went the slogan.

Marvox found that almost funny. Because after a two hour session lumbering about in the Kel, every muscle and bone felt like it had been tested to the limit.

Grunting and gasping, Marvox lurched out of one of the black tunnels, having blasted another few metres of the diamond-hard asteroid surface into rubble with the Kel's laser cannons, the 219 Dunsun Pounders. That was the general procedure. Someone in the Kel did his or her best to pulverize the near impulverable, then the rest of the shift, wearing far less bulky space suits, went in with Haulers and Geo-Scans to sift for the carniinian 5 ore.

The neck gyros of the Kel whirred as Marvox looked about the dark, barren field of the desolate asteroid. He was alone. The rest of his shift had already started back to the habitat domes. He cursed them under his breath, without any real passion. They could've waited for him, he thought.

He was aware that he had kept at it a few minutes longer than was strictly necessary. Despite the cumbersomeness of the Kel, his enthusiasm had been piqued when the Kel's sensors had detected a vein that he was hoping to expose before he clocked out for the day -- there was no bonus involved, just a desire to see the job through. Unfortunately, the sensors proved in error, and he had only succeeded in exposing a thread of largely valueless carniinian 2. It wasn't too surprising. The dominant ores and minerals of asteroid 6566700911 formed an all but impervious shield against scanners and sensors. In truth, he would've been more surprised if the readings had been accurate.

Hopefully, though, when the next shift came on and went to work sifting the rubble with Geo-Scans, something more promising would be discovered.

Still, the rest of his team had clearly not subscribed to his work ethic and, as soon as the end of shift was signaled, they had dropped their equipment and headed back without him.

Lumbering wearily, Marvox dragged his heavy suit back toward the lights of the habitat.

Something glinted in the black sky.

Stars were thin and faint this far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy, so he was pretty sure the light could not be stars. A ship? he wondered. The supply ship wasn't due for another few weeks (and would probably be late in any event, he mused bitterly). Besides, the lights seemed more like an ill- defined cluster than the regular beacon lights of an approaching space ship.

"Hey," he said, pulling his right arm in from the suit's arm and tapping his fingers across the key board on the inside of the Kel's chest plate. "Who's at comm-stat? Bargn? Teltha?"

A woman's voice came back over his speakers. "Teltha here. Who's that? Marvox, that you?"

"Yeah."

"You shoulda been back ten minutes ago. You lost or something?" She laughed. It was a joke. It was hard to get lost on a barren ball of rock where the habitat lights could be seen for kilometres in any direction.

"Not quite. Look, you got the scanners on? I'm getting a visual of something coming in from the sky."

"What sort of thing?" she asked, more curious than concerned.

"Dunno. The Kel's scanners are only good for a few metres. It's lights, up in the sky." Instinctively he began to run faster, his muscles straining against the clumsy weight of the Kel. Still the habitat lights seemed very far away.

The lights in the sky were swelling larger, clearly not far off in space as he had first surmised, but almost on top of the asteroid. Perhaps already having entered the gravity well.

"I don't..." began Teltha's voice. Then: "No, wait. I got it. The computer's running an identity check now. It's -- Omigod!"

Over his speakers, Marvox could hear the wail of the habitat's alarms screaming in desperation, obviously activated by Teltha. Teltha's voice was in his ears, but her words were no longer meant for him.

"Emergency! We've got multiple readings incoming. It's a swarm of bwakies! Secure all stations! This is not a drill!"

The Kel stopped in mid-stride out on the barren field as Marvox's limbs momentarily froze. Bwakies? Here? His helmet whirred as he looked left and right, hoping in vain to spy something that he could use as shelter. The sky was now a-glimmer with the phosphorescent glow of the swarm. "Teltha," he shouted into his mic, "what'll I do? I'm out here all alone! Teltha?"

There was no answer. He wasn't surprised. Teltha had other things on her mind than a lone worker out in the middle of nowhere, too far to help even if there was anything she, or anyone, could do. They wouldn't even be able to save themselves.

Bwakies barely qualified as lifeforms -- some scientists even scoffed about the "barely" part. They were little more than chemical reactions that were nominally self-motivating, energy leeches that swarmed through deepspace, looking for something, anything, to consume. They could shut-down an Augustus Class Deep Space Longliner in under four minutes, siphoning off all power, leaving a ship a derelict, any crew without life-support, atmosphere recirculators, fuel -- dead.

North Quadrant Judiciary Force cruisers had priority orders to destroy any bwakie clusters they came across. Even environmentalists had no problem with that, the swarms being just too deadly, too devastating, and since bwakies weren't considered much above the evolutionary level of a mudslide...

Such extermination policies had worked reasonably well. There hadn't been a bwakie attack in this region in years. Until now, of course.

The Kel's speaker was a cacophony of messages and counter-messages, a dozen voices screaming all at once. From where he stood in the middle of the craggy, barren field, the habitat's domes looked serene, unmoved. The descending glow almost pretty as its green-yellow aura began to reflect off the curve of Dome #5. But inside those hard, impassive shells, Marvox knew pandemonium was unleashed.

Mouth agape, helpless to do anything but observe, Marvox watched as the swarm closed about Dome #5. He heard some of the transmissions he was picking up on his speakers crackle and go dead -- obviously signals from the besieged dome. Then, abruptly, the lights blinked out and Dome #5 was a black curve against a black sky.

Suddenly one section of the dome exploded soundlessly outward as the magno-seals that kept the dome together lost juice, and the dome's air supply burst out into the surrounding vacuum. He wondered if anyone inside had made it to a space suit in time.

"Oh God..." he heard a voice whisper. Teltha.

Marvox watched in horror as the swarm rose lazily from the destroyed dome and started for the next. His lips were thick, his tongue dry. He tried to speak, but it came out a rasp. He coughed and spat out his words. "What's happening? Teltha? Anyone?" Helpless to do anything but watch, he saw the scintillating, deceptively beautiful swarm descend upon the next dome. It blacked out immediately, even quicker than the first. Almost instantly, like a row of glowing dominoes, the rest of the domes blacked out, the bwakies not having touched them. Clearly the last attack had knocked out some shared power units, shutting down the entire mining camp at once. If the domes gave in to the enormous pressure of the inner atmosphere against the vacuum outside, and burst, death would be instantaneous. However, if the domes held, but were without power to circulate the atmosphere, death would only be delayed by a few minutes anyway.

The Kel whirred and hummed quietly to itself as he stood, frozen in the middle of the plain, staring at the horizon now dark save for the glow of the swarm. Sweat trickled down his ribs under his shirt. His heart felt laboured in his chest even as it seemed to surge through his carotid arteries in heavy pulses that threatened to blow out through his eyes and ears.

He was alone. Everyone he knew was dead or dying.

Dimly, as if recalling some half-forgotten memory, he realized that the only reason he was still alive was because he had lingered an extra ten minutes. By all rights he should have been back at the habitat, in one of the domes, when the swarm struck.

Instead, he had survived them, only to watch helplessly as his friends and colleagues were exterminated in the cold blackness at the spiral's end.

With a sense of numbing futility, he cranked up his signal stream, just in case someone had survived in a space suit or something. The feedback hissed in his ears from the increased power. "Th-this is Marvox Jesper, in the Kel- 427 work suit. Anyone read me? This is Marvox calling mining camp. Anyone?" His voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper. He was about to try again, then his tongue froze in his mouth and his eyes grew wide.

The swarm had lifted from the blacked out habitat, still not satiated, still seeking power. Power that the bwakies had detected in an amplified transmission signal emanating from a barren field kilometres to the north. The glowing cloud banked and started toward him.

"Oh God," he muttered. He turned awkwardly, his aching muscles straining against the clumsy confines and sluggish gears of the Kel. He lumbered heavily over the uneven rock, one eye watching the scanner inside his suit, the swarm an innocuous circle blinking closer and closer and closer. He tried to whirl about, to face his on-coming executioners, but his heavy feet became entangled and he went sprawling, landing flat on his back.

Gears groaned thickly as he lurched into a sitting position. He screamed on seeing the world before him as a green-yellow glow made up of hundreds of individual little plasma units, like a swarm of glowing pancakes descending upon him -- pancakes whose diameters were as long as his arm in some cases. Still screaming, he unleashed the Pounders in his chest plate, firing the energy bolts that were used to dig through rock and stone. The energy blasts had no effect, unless it was to feed the creatures.

Then they were upon him, the glow so bright he had to squint despite the automatic tints of his faceplate. Alarms started squeaking within his suit, registering the unauthorized attempts to infiltrate the suit's systems and siphon energy. Bleeding in with the sound of the alarms was his own hysterical screams; the bwakies made no sound at all. At least none that could be heard in the vacuum outside.

The Kel flopped back and he hit the ground with a painful thud.

Gauges leapt up and down on the diagonstic panels before him, alarms still bleating helpfully.

Marvox's screams had been reduced to hiccuping coughs, his eyes closed against his inevitable death. After a moment, though, he dared to crack open an eye. The world was still an eye-stinging glow as the bwakies continued to flock about him, their amorphous bodies hitting his face plate, then smearing as they circled about. The gauges continued to geyser up and down.

But he wasn't dead. Not yet.

"Sweet Jeezus," he breathed. "I'm...alive." The Kel was the most advanced environment suit ever built, intended to withstand the rigors of the most inhospitable of climates -- including, if only by chance, bwakies. But not for long, he realized trying to enforce calm on his scrambled senses and assess the situation. The gauges clearly showed a steady drainage of power, but dampers and breakers kept cutting in, momentarily interrupting the flow.

"Marvox?" came a whispered voice.

He looked around, momentarily thinking he was losing his mind. Then he realized it was coming from the speaker. "Teltha? That you? I can barely hear you."

"Using...low wattage frequency," came the voice, barely within hearing. "Don't want to...'track the bwa...ies back to us." Clumsily he fingered some dials, attempting to boost his receptors, hoping to clear up the signal. It worked, barely. "We engaged emergency shut-down, hoping the swarm would leave if they thought we were dead." That was why the entire habitat had blinked out at once, he realized, even the domes not yet touched by the bwakies. "Only kept minimal power to the magno-seals. Don't think it would've fooled them, though, if you hadn't distracted them. What's your condition?"

"I dunno..." He scanned the gauges desperately. "The suit's fighting 'em like a sonofabitch, I'll give it that. I can hold out maybe ten minutes. Maybe fifteen." He didn't have to ask her what the situation was at the habitat. With the power off, it meant no heat, and no air circulators. He might out- live them by a good couple of minutes.

"What'll we do?" he asked after a minute, twisting his face away slightly from the brilliant glow raging across his faceplate. It was, of course, a ridiculous thing to say. They were on their own, in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing they could do. But he had thought the camp had been destroyed moments ago, and he had thought he was a dead man moments after that. And both assumptions had been premature. He wasn't willing to believe fate could be so cruel as to save him from certain death, only to have it turn out to be nothing more than a momentary delay.

Well, he could believe it. He just didn't want to.

"Teltha," he whispered hoarsely again, "what'll we do?" He spared a glance at the flickering power gauges, dropping more and more into the red. "Teltha?"

At last, Teltha's voice came back. "Marvox, I'm in communication with Dr. Rayah." He recognized the name as one of the camp's resident geologists. "It's a long shot, but he says if we could trap the bwakies in one of the caves, the rock itself should block off their ability to detect enegy sources like the habitat, in the same way it confuses our sensor scans. They'll be blind, deaf and dumb. And without further energy to replenish them, they'll evaporate, like smothering a fire."

Something groaned in his suit, and his eyes swirled wildly about, making sure there had been no physical breech. "Th-that sounds great," he said, not really in a position to assess the technical aspects. "How're we gonna get them...?" His voice trailed off. "Oh."

"We need you to move the Kel into a cave, with the bwakies still on top of you, then blow the entrance." Move the "Kel", she said, he noted wryly. As if to distract him from the fact that he kind of had to be inside the Kel to do it. In other words, he was supposed to walk inside a cave and bury himself there with a bunch of voracious bwakies.

Something bleated, startling him, and he realized the temperature regulator had shorted out entirely. It was going to get even hotter than it already was very, very quickly. If he did not act soon, it would be too late. That was assuming there was even enough juice left as it was to power the Kel. But if he did do as he was told, he was basically committing suicide.

"Are you there, Marvox?"

"Yeah," he croaked, his throat dry.

"You've got your inner suit on, right?"

He looked down at himself, uncomprehending. "Uh, yeah."

"You don't have to stay in the Kel. Get it inside, set the Pounders on a timer to bring down the roof, then drop out of the Kel. The bwakies should ignore your body's electro-magnetic energy as long as they've got the Kel's higher energy readings to munch on."

His mind turned this over. It sounded good, except that "should ignore" and "as long as" were decidedly uncomfortable variables. And except for the fact that the oxygen supply for his inner suit was just an emergency pack, intended to be used in case of malfunction while surrounded by those able to provide immediate assist. It would only last three or four minutes. It was a good ten or fifteen minute walk to the habitat.

"You'll send a sled out to get me?"

"As soon as we power up," Teltha said.

He closed his eyes. What she wasn't saying, what he wasn't pointing out, was that they couldn't power up the habitat until after the cave had been sealed, otherwise they might attract the bwakies away from the trap. That gave them only two or three minutes to get the systems back on line, knowing many of the computers would've crashed and would have to be rebooted, then get a team to the hanger, the hangers open, and a sled out to him -- and that was barring any unforseen damage caused either by the emergency shut down or the attack itself. Ten minutes seemed a more plausible estimate than two or three.

"Marvox?" came Teltha's voice. "We've only got minutes before we either die of oxygen starvation and the cold, or power up in here. And if we power up before the bwakies are sealed off..." She waited. "What are you going to do?"

What am I going to do? he repeated in his head, staring wide-eyed at the shimmering forms flittering before him, sweat forming in big beads across his lip and brow. What choice did he have? There were hundreds of people in the habitat, minutes away from certain death. What was his life measured against that? "I-I'm getting up," he told her. He heaved, the Kel-427 attempting to mimic his flesh and blood limbs. The suit groaned, attempting to rise. He glanced at the power guages. The suit was reading dangerously low. The temperature regulator and all of the non-essential systems had shut down already. He had estimated ten to fifteen minutes before the Kel ceased to function. He realized five was closer to the truth. Maybe less.

Teeth gritted, he strained and, labouriously, the suit did as it was bid, slowly pulling itself to its feet. The bwakies continued to swarm about him, unconcerned. Turning sluggishly, he directed his metal shod feet toward the nearest tunnel opening.

It was like a furnace inside the suit now that it was no longer attempting to compensate for the heat his body was producing. His inner suit was soaked -- good thing moisture did not compromise its air-tightness, he thought. He grunted, panting with painful breaths, as he shifted one cumbersome foot before the other, slowly dragging himself to the dark aperture that was his goal. His arms swung at his side, then abruptly froze in mid- swing. Panicking, feeling a vestige of claustrophobia, he glanced at his gauges. Emergency conservation had shut off motor power to his arms. With power this low, the Kel was programmed to regard the legs as highest priority. Legs could take you to safety.

Marvox almost laughed at that. The Kel had no idea that he was walking in the opposite direction to safety.

Darkness closed over him, like an eclipse, and he abruptly realized that the Kel had made it into the mouth of the tunnel. He took another couple of strides forward, then dragged his arms in from the frozen Kel arms and began tapping out on the keyboard before him on the inside of the chest. The Kel issued a low, bass whir as it swivelled to face the entrance. Fingers slick with sweat, and feeling like they were blistering from the heat, he programmed in a delayed firing sequence that should bring down the roof. Twice he hit the wrong keys and had to start again.

Gasping for air, he knew he had no time to second guess anything. He dragged on his gloves, and made sure his hood and face mask were secured. Then he pulled his legs up out of the Kel's legs, curling himself into a tight ball. With a silent prayer, he hit the emergency hatch release.

The back of the Kel split open with a hiss and he fell back onto the hard cavern ground. It was like being thrust into the heart of a sun. Seeing the bwakies through the tinted 15cm by 15cm faceplate of the Kel didn't prepare you for being among them, wearing the non-polarized glass of his oxygen mask, surrounded by light on all sides. He cried out, at once awestruck by the sight, and in danger of singing his retinas. He threw himself to the ground, eyes shut, and started snaking on his belly toward the cave entrance, hugging the cold, hard earth, hoping the swarm was too involved with the Kel to register his body's modest energy output.

What was the time? he thought as he glanced up. The gaping hole of the entrance loomed before him, still too far away. How long before the Kel's Pounders unleashed their fury and brought the roof down? He wanted to jump up and run, but was afraid that would make the bwakies aware of him.

His left pant leg caught on an outcropping and in a panic he wrenched it free. He didn't hear the tearing of fabric, but instantly he felt the rush of air as the suit was compromised. "Oh Jeezus God," he hissed, his three minutes of air shooting out through a half centimetre hole at his knee. Three minutes, two, one.

He turned wildly, recognizing only one remaining alternative, and clambered back up into the Kel. His lungs strained to draw in air that was almost gone from his emergency suit as the Kel closed up around him like the arms of a loving mother. He wrenched off his hood as the last vestiges of the emergency systems of the Kel refilled the main section with air. He sucked in one desperate, grateful breath of air...then the Kel shuddered as the pre- programmed orders kicked in and its mighty Pounders blasted away at the ceiling.

He had time for a single scream, then the rock over head collapsed, soundless in the vacuum outside, but the impact thundering deafeningly against the shell of the Kel. The Kel stood resolutely for a moment, as if prepared to brave even the irresistable might of an unchecked torrent of stone. Then something creaked just below Marvox. Something groaned. With a yelp, Marvox yanked his legs up into the body of the suit as the Kel was wrenched off its own legs. There was a momentary rush of escaping air, then the last dregs of the emergency systems cut in and dilating seals closed around the now open hip joints.

The legless Kel hit the ground, and hit hard, shaking Marvox's brain in his skull. And still rock continued to roar across its surface, the glow of the bwakies long since lost behind a wall of mounting stone as he was buried in utter darkness.

***

He didn't remember being dragged from the rubble, but he was told about it later. Teltha told him that everyone assumed he had been killed. They only dug him out for burial, and maybe to salvage what they could of the Kel.

The Kel itself was beyond the limits of being repairable, what with the fried coils and circuits caused by the bwakies' draining its systems, and the enormous physical damage it had sustained in the cave in. But it had held, albeit barely, at least long enough to keep him alive until he was pulled free.

Subsequent miners who arrived at asteroid 6566700911 didn't quite understand why, instead of rotation shifts as was customary at other camps, one Marvox Jesper had requested and been granted exclusivity to Kel duty. No one complained, though. Kels were a bitch to work in, and no one wanted the duty anyway.

Almost no one.

The End.




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Swarm is copyright 2001, by D.K. Latta.  It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)