Yes fanfic. But it’s for a good cause. You can learn more about the “rationale” on John Scalzi’s site. The gist is that the following is my entry in their contest to write a story inspired by the embedded image below. I hope you enjoy it
It’s a Trap
The vessel skipped into existence in the shadow of the smallest of three moons. The lone occupant of the skip-sled initiated the maneuvering sequence, and the craft accelerated towards the insertion point in the planet’s upper atmosphere. After the instantaneous skip across the galaxy, the final leg of the journey was aggravatingly slow. To pass the time, the pilot reviewed his orders, again.
The sled canopy retracted and the man, an elite agent of the Colonial Defence Forces, rolled out into the thermosphere. His descent was subtle at first, but as his speed increased, the curvature of the horizon began to flatten quickly. Writhing clouds of charged volcanic ash smothered the planet’s surface. Scattered islands of dull maroon throbbed through the jagged black cloudscape, marking the volcanoes beneath. A terrain overlay appeared in the soldier’s vision, supplied by his BrainPal, the organic computer integrated into his brain. The overlay created a topographic map highlighting key locations such as his landing zone and descent trajectory. He noted that the red line marking his trajectory did not point to the landing zone. A scowl cut deep furrows across his forehead. Before he could complain further, he was enveloped in darkness.
A protective sphere of nanobots closed around his body to absorb the heat of entry, cutting off light and telemetry. It was during his first high atmosphere planetary insertion that he discovered he really enjoyed this brief moment of peace before all hell broke loose. It sweetened the experience.
CDF Special Forces are grown from heavily modified genetic stock. They are not born so much as turned on, a simulation of consciousness granted to their mature bodies by their BrainPals. And along with that consciousness, they are given a name. The random number generators assigned him John and Scalzi. His squad ignored his assigned name, preferring the appellation Orc, on account of his long, pointy ears and green skin. Of his squad, the ears were unique to Scalzi. They had been designed for a specific mission plan, one never implemented. Scalzi was quick to point out that they all had green skin, a genetic modification that allowed their bodies to perform photosynthesis, and that Troll seemed more appropriate given his personality. He lost that battle. He vowed it would be the only battle he lost.
The nanobot shell disintegrated around him, revealing a choking atmosphere. A new stream of nanobots issued from his pack, creating a parafoil for the final stage of his descent. Scalz-Orc’s frown returned as his BrainPal refreshed his flight path. The deviation was worse. He quickly analyzed the mission intelligence and abandoned his original landing zone in favor of a suitable region outside of a small village. I’m gonna need to appropriate supplies, he thought.
* * *
A cloaked figure stood at the edge of a long pool of water at the bottom of a cleft of rock. At the far end of the pool the large relief of a spear-wielding warrior could be seen through the sulfurous haze. The figure unclasped the cloak, letting it fall to the red rock, revealing a pale-skinned man clad only in conservative white undershorts. He hesitated, staring at the still edge of water in front of his toes, eyebrows bunched together.
He dove into the water and swam towards the other end. His metered strokes pulled his body quickly but evenly through the water. Several minutes passed before he reached the carving. Without stopping, he dove beneath the surface and swam into the darkness of a submerged cave. His lungs were just beginning to burn when the wet blackness became murky. He pushed off the lip of the tunnel, bubbles streaming from his nostrils as he sought the surface.
Tendrils of steam curled from his body as he climbed out of the pool. He stood, water running down his limbs, and gazed up at the statue before him. A stone warrior, spear uplifted, sat motionless in the cave. A faint shaft of light filtered down from an opening in the ceiling high above, but was lost in the luminescence radiating from the statue. The man stepped forward and knelt before a stone chest. Reverently, he reached into the chest and removed a pair of blue riding shorts. The man stepped into the shorts with both feet, and slowly pulled them up along the length of his legs. He knelt again before the chest and withdrew a knit sweater. With the same deliberate care, he slid his arms into the sleeves, and pulled the garment over his head. Stretching the sweater across his chest revealed the grossly exaggerated face of a clown, complete with shaggy red hair around the man’s upper arms.
The man was not the first to wear the clown-sweater. But now his shoulders bore the duty, and the sweater rewarded his obedience. A power surged through the man’s body. His muscles swelled with new strength. His mind filled with the shades of all those before who had worn the sweater. Their intellect combined with his, their experience, their essence. He could feel them in his mind, he knew their names: Donald, Martin, Gordie, Joey, Wesley, and so many more. They crowded his consciousness until he no longer knew which one he was, which name was his.
He stretched out his hand over the pool. Crackling arcs of white energy cascaded down from the statue to his hand and into the water below. The bronze shaft of a spear rose from the depths, extracted by the power dancing from his fingertips. Grasping the spear, he pulled it from its watery mooring and held it aloft. “I am The Will of Oui-Tonne!” he exclaimed.
The reverberating beat of large wings filled the cave. With a clatter of hooves a creature landed behind The Will. “MEW,” it said, and nuzzled his shoulder, purring loudly. The Will scratched the hippogryphokitticorn between its ears.
* * *
Scalz-Orc ran across a rocky ledge above a broken plateau. His new armor clattered rhythmically with his stride. A toothy smile stretched across Scalz-Orc’s face as he recalled how enthusiastic the village guard had been to donate its equipment. The studded spaulders are a nice touch, he thought. Going native isn’t so bad. The heft of the axe felt good in his hand. The shield was less comfortable, but it centered his balance.
Scalz-Orc drew up at the mouth of a cave, bathed in the eerie white light that spilled out. The shadows beyond the cone of illumination hardened into darkness. His BrainPal indicated his goal was inside. The light emanated from a sphere submerged in the center of a round pool that filled the cave. The light pulsed gently, always slightly slower than the soldier’s breathing.
A feral screech broke Scalz-Orc free of the hypnotic radiance. He swiveled on his heel, axe at the ready. A large winged kitten, a golden horn protruding from its forehead, dove from the smokey sky. That thing is more genetically scrambled than I am, thought Scalz-Orc. His attention shifted to the beast’s rider, and then to the rider’s spear. Scalz-Orc lifted his shield just in time to deflect the joust. The attack shattered Scalz-Orc’s shield, knocking him off the ledge in a cloud of splinters. He tumbled down the rocky slope. “Where the hell does someone even grow trees in this wasteland?” he grumbled as he regained his feet, kicking a broken piece of his former shield across the plateau.
Through streaks of smoke venting from fissures in the rock, Scalz-Orc watched his adversary circle. I need to level the field, he thought as he rummaged through the belt pouch included with the ensemble. He pulled out a fistful of thin strips of uncooked porcine meat. “Whatever,” he said, and threw them at the hippogryphokitticorn as it swept in for a second pass. The meat stuck to the beast’s feline head, distracting it long enough for Scalz-Orc to sidestep the assault and slice the horn from the flying mount. The hippogryphokitticorn recoiled, throwing its rider. Mewling pitifully, it collapsed to the ground, shrinking to the size of a large house cat.
The rider approached, spear tip angled down and out of line. Scalz-Orc’s BrainPal registered the assailant as ‘UNIDENTIFIED’, but Scalz-Orc recognized the man he used to be. Popular rumors claimed the man had turned traitor and killed his entire squad. That rumor couldn’t be entirely true, however, Scalz-Orc had been part of that squad. The Orc spun his axe, in anticipation.
“Heads up with the Orc,” stated The Will as he stepped into striking distance.
“You’re going to regret naming me that,” said Scalz-Orc. He leapt forward, his axe hooking the spear below the head, sweeping it away. He held the axe with both hands as he landed, and lunged forward with the hooked spike at the end of the handle. The Will allowed the momentum of the spear sweep to spin his weapon around to parry the attack, then cross-checked Scalz-Orc.
A deep rumble reverberated through the stone as a nearby crater heaved gouts of magma into the air. The ground collapsed under The Will, dropping him towards a bubbling pool of lava. Streaks of power raced across his body as he twisted in midair. He drove the point of his spear into the wall of the pit and vaulted to safety, landing in front of his crippled mount. The animal absently licked its paw, trying unconvincingly to appear completely disinterested in the proceedings.
“Good thing that wasn’t acid down there,” said Scalz-Orc. His grin had returned.
“Don’t be a dick,” commanded The Will.
Scalz-Orc’s grin stretched impishly wide. “You’re one to talk, Richard!”
The Will stopped. He felt a small tug at the base of his spine. A brief flash of emotion glittered in the depths of his eyes. And then it was burned away in a blaze of white energy. Arcs of power danced down his arms and sheeted along the spear like mercurial tears. The Will lunged. The spear tip thrust low, sliced up, then spun away as the butt of the shaft swept at the Orc’s legs. The spearhead returned, now threatening the Orc’s throat. Beneath the onslaught, Scalz-Orc parried and dodged, trying to keep outside of the long reach of the electrified spear. The attacks were precise, efficient, and delivered with superhuman celerity. Scalz-Orc managed to keep pace as The Will drove him across the fractured plateau. Then Scalz-Orc stumbled.
It was only a breath of a misstep as his iron-shod boot caught the lip of a jagged crevice. The butt of The Will’s spear knocked Scalz-Orc’s axe wide, then thrust forward, blasting against his chest. Scalz-Orc staggered amidst a shower of sparks, forcing back the haze of pain that clouded his vision. His axe felt tethered to the mountain as he tried to move his arm. The spearhead spun into line. The Will lunged again, but collapsed to his knees, the spear clattering to the ground.
Scalz-Orc regarded the man before him, kneeling half-naked on the rock. Behind him, a trail of yarn led back to a tangled wad being kicked and chewed by the kitten-like creature.
“I see what you did there,” said Richard.
Scalz-Orc helped his former opponent to his feet. “You look like crap,” he said.
Richard tentatively reached a hand into the front of his shorts. He grimaced, and removed a worm-like creature. “Apparently I botched my save versus telepathic-leeches,” he said, and threw the creature towards his mount. The hippogryphokitticorn hunched down on its front paws, wiggled its tail in expectation, and gleefully pounced on the creature, batting it around the landscape.
Using his axe, Scalz-Orc shoveled the abandoned ball of string into the magma pool. He looked up from the burning sweater entrails to the cave on the mountainside. “I’m guessing there isn’t actually anything of value in that pool,” he said.
“Not unless you like mutant escargot.”
Scalz-Orc nodded. “Let’s get you home,” he said, and had his BrainPal signal for an extraction capsule. “You’ve been in exile too long.”