Monday, 25 May 2015

On fighting aliens, hand to claw...

Last night I caught the tail end of Cowboys vs. Aliens on TV. I actually like this film, mainly because it has two of my favorite actors in it (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig). Funny thing was, I bumped into Daniel Craig in London a few years back, and was going to ask him if he'd thought about doing science fiction, and then a few weeks later I was watching the film at the cinema!

Anyway, one thing I liked about the film was the combat scenes with aliens, near the end of the film. The humans don't actually stand much of a chance, since the aliens are bigger, tougher and faster. Of course the humans win (yawn) but for me it gave an inkling of what it might be like. Another film (this one I didn't like) that also had man-to-alien combat was Starship Troopers. I don't know what the American obsession is with machine guns, they appear in so many alien films as if bullets would stop an alien with a tough exoskeleton. Still, for me it occasionally gave a sense of what it might be like going up against nasty aliens. 

Incidentally, recently I visited the Imperial War Museum in London, and there is a section dedicated to the Victoria Cross, the highest medal in Great Britain, awarded for bravery, specifically running towards enemy machine-gun fire. Maybe in SF we need the equivalent for going up against aliens in open war. 

Of course, in reality (!) war with aliens is never likely to come down to hand-to-claw combat, since it will be waged in space. But the late Iain Banks neatly circumnavigated this in his first Culture series book Consider Phlebas, which starts out with long range war but ends up in very gritty fight scene (I won't spoil the ending for you) between the protagonist and a rather large and tough alien. 

In my own Eden Paradox scifi series there isn't much hand-to-hand combat between humans and aliens, partly because a major theme is that the aliens get the humans to fight each other. However, in the fourth and final book, Eden's Endgame, I decided to pit the protagonist (Micah) against the original enemy of humanity, a Q'Roth queen. Micah is not a natural fighter, and is in fact an anti-hero. In this scene, near the end of the book, he teams up with Gabriel, warrior extraordinaire, inspired by Frank Herbert's swordmasters of Ginaz from his Dune series. This scene starts when they have landed on the Q'Roth home world, Korakkara. The Q'Roth destroyed Earth twenty years earlier. Micah is there to parley, since the entire galaxy is in jeopardy due to a war between two hyper-advanced aliens, Hellera and Qorall, and the Q'Roth could tip the balance. But Gabriel, a clone fabricated by Hellera, has a different agenda...

The air outside in the cavern was dank but breathable. They approached the guardian; Micah was sure its six eyes were a deeper red than those of a normal Q’Roth. The four-metre-tall warrior turned and led the way, Micah and Gabriel having to break into a trot to keep up. The tunnel twisted and turned, always descending, as they threaded their way through many intersections; Micah hoped his resident was keeping track of their pathway through the catacombs. As he’d expected, it grew hotter the deeper they went.
            Finally, they emerged into a dome-like chamber, empty except for a square dais upon which stood two black pillars the height of a tall man. Four guardians stood in front of the dais, each carrying a three-metre barbed spear that shone like titanium.
            There was a dragging, clomping sound, and Micah turned to see the High Queen enter, taller than the guardians. Her ribbed belly reached all the way to the ground and tapered off a couple of meters behind her in a coarse tail with three spikes. Her back was different to other Q’Roth he’d seen: two long bony rods hung straight down from either shoulder, corrugated translucent skin nestling in between. Wings. He hoped they were defunct, a throwback to a former Q’Roth age. She hauled herself onto the dais and leant on the two pillars using her mid-legs, leaving her forelegs free.
            “The one you call Louise has given us Nchkani ships. You say she will betray us?”  
            She spoke in Q’Roth, Micah’s resident translating; he hoped Gabriel understood. Glancing at the Youngblood clone, he noticed something odd about the way he was standing: completely relaxed, and his face… his expression was as if he wasn’t really there.
            “We are enemies of Louise,” Micah said, “but the message we relayed to you comes directly from her, just as she left this system.”
            The Queen didn’t seem surprised. “I will send word to have her killed as soon as the fleet reaches Hell’s End.”
            The pieces fell into place for Micah. His tone didn’t hide his disappointment. “You are changing sides, joining Qorall’s ranks against Hellera.”
            “An offer of accelerated enhancement to Level Twelve, taking over from the soon-to-be-annihilated Rangers and intermediate species. And if Qorall loses, he will destroy the galaxy. It was not a hard decision.”
            Micah said the words, though he guessed they were to no avail. “You could have honoured your commitment, stayed loyal to Hellera.”
            “I fail to see why the Tla Beth allowed you humans to survive during your species’ trial. You revel in Level Three thinking. I studied your world before we culled it; your lions and antelopes had a better grasp of the true order of the universe than you humans. You will not endure for much longer as a species.”
            Gabriel stood next to Micah, then spoke to the Queen in a strange voice; the intonations were all wrong, rising and falling randomly. It sounded so… inhuman. Micah had heard someone speak that way once before. Hellera.

“The Tla Beth re-engineered you, bred you for aggression, the perfect soldiers. They should have explained the rest: that you would never progress beyond your Level.” 

The Queen rose from her pillars to her full height, her upper legs flexing outwards. Ebony wings, like those of a bat, began to unfurl. “Enough! Qorall has given us Level Sixteen technology. No one can stop us now!”

The guardians began to close around Gabriel and Micah. Without warning, Gabriel placed a hand on Micah’s chest and pushed, sending him flying across the room, until he landed and skidded across the floor. On his back he saw a second Queen, smaller and yellow in colour, high above Gabriel, hanging upside down from the ceiling. Winded from the push, Micah tried to warn Gabriel, but barely a croak emerged.

Gabriel continued to speak, unrushed, in Hellera’s oscillating tones. “Technology does not equate with intelligence. These lowly humans, as you think of them, will dance on your unmarked graves.”
The guardians attacked. Micah’s vision could barely keep up with the blur that was Gabriel; frenetic movement interspersed with images of decisive slices from his nanosword, blue blood spraying in all directions as Gabriel decapitated each guardian in turn. But the smaller Queen hanging high above him dropped silently, her six claws stretched out, ready to thresh Gabriel to pieces, while the larger Queen watched.

Micah knew that although Hellera might be viewing events from inside Gabriel, she was still limited by his perceptual abilities. He yelled, but Gabriel stood his ground, and in the last instant threw the nanosword in Micah’s direction.
            The yellow Queen crashed onto Gabriel. Her lower claws nailed his torso to the ground while her mid and upper claws made short work of severing his arms and legs from his body.
            The hilt of the de-activated nanosword rolled next to Micah. He picked it up as the yellow Queen’s gash of a mouth yawned wide then clamped down on Gabriel’s skull. A gruesome sucking noise reverberated around the chamber. Micah began walking backwards toward the entrance, unable to take his eyes off the scene. The Queen released Gabriel’s cracked open head and swiped his corpse aside in the pool of human and Q’Roth blood. Her head tilted back as she emitted a roar that sent chills down Micah’s spine, then turned her head to look at him. But the larger Queen spoke.
            “This one is mine.”
            Micah turned and sprinted for the exit, his resident snapping into action, showing him the way forward into the catacombs. He heard the slow beats of giant wings flapping in the windless chamber, but dared not turn around. Micah increased his speed to maximum, barely able to breathe in, desperate to reach the temporary sanctuary of the tunnel.
            A strangled cry erupted behind him, and the beats changed, faster, and he realised the Queen was hovering in mid-air above him. Then she suddenly turned and flew back to the centre. Micah raced through the tunnel entrance and skidded to a halt. Forcing air into his lungs, he dared to pause to see what had happened. The yellow Queen – he had an intuition she was young – staggered left and right as if drunk, clawing at her head wildly before collapsing on the ground, legs twitching and flailing as her head bubbled and disintegrated, chunks of flesh sloughing off until she stopped moving. Micah understood. Hellera had used Gabriel as a weapon to take down the Queen, most probably using nannites. Sandy had been right all along. But Hellera hadn’t factored in the appearance of a new Queen.
            Micah knew what came next. With a sense of dread, he took a deep breath and bolted down the tunnel. He heard a long, gut-wrenching scream of anguish from the larger Queen, followed by the beats of powerful wings, and a heavy thud as she landed at the tunnel entrance. Micah then heard a sound he’d not heard in a long time; the jackhammer galloping of a Q’Roth running him down. Micah pumped his arms to run faster, navigating each turn as his resident showed his progress towards Shiva, and the Queen’s position behind him, closing very fast. No chance. He needed a Plan B.
  Micah’s muscles strained to maintain his speed. The Queen was right behind him, and he imagined her raising her sharp upper claws for a slash that would stop him in his tracks without killing him. His resident flashed a sharp left turn. He didn’t question it, darted to the side and ricocheted off the wall where, a moment later, a single Q’Roth claw slammed into it as the Queen skidded noisily behind him. Micah dashed through the passage. It was narrowing, but not enough.
He entered a bowl-like chamber, its walls sloping slowly upwards from the floor to a flat ceiling. A dead end. He tripped over something and ended up in a pile of bones and rotting hides. His panic peaked as he clambered over skeletons to the other side of the bowl.

He searched the walls frantically, but there was no other way out, only the entrance. He imagined the Queen chasing prey in here, watching them run up the walls in fear, only to slide back down to their doom. The Queen’s steps were measured; she knew he was trapped. Micah willed himself to push down his fear and think. He wasn’t Ramires, nor Gabriel. His only weapon was his brain... 

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