"It has to be done Commander," said the stern, hard-faced woman on the viewscreen, "I am sorry. Containment protocols must be observed," Commander Aaron McKenzie had tuned her out long ago. His ears rang. He felt ill. "Commander, do you understand?"
"What?" His attention was drawn back to the viewscreen, "I'm, er, I mean, yes ma'am. Of course,"
"Good," the look on the woman's face was skeptical at best. The harsh lines around her eyes and mouth made her look like a corpse. Her cold indifference made him sick. The viewscreen did not show color at this range, only a pale gray blue, but Aaron was sure her eyes were as dead and gray as her heart. The monitor flickered off as she cut the transmission.
Aaron rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger and breathed a slow, deliberate breath. He looked up at the screen again.
"Yes, Commander," the AI responded over the ship's speakers, her voice sounding just shy of human. More human than the Fleet Admiral, Aaron thought before speaking.
"Please get a transmission down to the colony. I'd like to speak to Dr. Anders or whoever is left in charge,"
"Right away Commander,"
There was a brief pause. Aaron used it to compose himself, straighten his posture and look professional. He clasped his sweating hands behind his back and waited. The viewscreen flickered to life again and a haggard man with a disheveled black and gray beard and hair, and wearing a dirty white lab coat appeared.
"Please," the man begged, "please tell me you're coming down to get us,"
Aaron looked back at the man and tried his best to keep a straight face as he wrestled with himself internally. It was his moral obligation, his duty as a human being, to save these people. But if he did, if he risked the lives of his marines, if he broke protocol, his life was over. A court martial would be the least of his worries. His stomach was in knots by the time he answered.
"Please…" the man repeated, tears smearing the dirt on his face, "there's children here,"
"We're coming doctor," Aaron said firmly. He was not quite sure when or how he had made up his mind, "We're coming for you. Get your people ready. Get everyone checked out and decontaminated and try to move to the landing platform if you can. I will lead the mission personally,"
"Thank you!" Dr. Anders' mouth fell wide open and tears continued to well up in his eyes and fall down his cheeks, carving little rivulets through the grime on his face. With a stern nod, Aaron closed the transmission. His heart pounded. What about the marines? Will they even go along with this? Can I ask them to? He breathed a heavy sigh.
"Sir?" Codex chimed, "We cannot go to the planet's surface. Containment protocol states that-"
"I don't care," Aaron snapped, " We're saving those people. Call the marines to the mess hall. All of them,"
He turned on his heel and stomped out of his office.
Three minutes later, Commander Aaron McKenzie stood on top of a steel table in the destroyer Infallible's mess hall surrounded by his fifty marines, and twelve naval personnel. All of them looked uneasy and tense.
"We're going down to the surface," Aaron announced, eliciting a clamor of contradicting shouts. The room was split. Some shouted about protocols and orders and court martials, the others about duty, honor, and doing what was right. These were good people, every one. They followed orders. He put his hands up and patted the air, trying to get the room to quiet down.
"Listen to me!" He yelled, the din eventually died down and he continued, "I will lead the mission myself. There are women and children in that colony and I refuse to leave them behind, whatever that may mean for me. I won't order any of you to join me. This mission will be on a volunteer basis only. I know we'll be breaking regulations. Hell, we may even be executed for this, but it's the right thing. It's the decent thing. We cannot leave a colony full of people to die. I'll need three pilots for the shuttles,"
He looked nervously to the naval officers standing nearest him.
"I'll go," One of them, a pilot named Captain Emilia Romano, said after a moment's pause.
"Me too," Lieutenant Howard Quinn stepped forward next to her.
"I'll fly the third shuttle," Captain Jamie Adams joined the others.
Aaron nodded approval as a group of about half of the marines began to move to the front of the crowd.
"We'll go," Captain James Edwards offered.
"Thank you," Aaron said, "Thank you all. Alright, ready your gear and meet in the hangar in one hour for mission launch,"
Exactly fifty-six minutes later, Aaron found himself wearing a suit of EV-rated combat armor, toting a rifle and sidearm, and marching to the Infallible's hangar when his XO, Lieutenant Commander Alexa Jones, approached him in the narrow corridor. She had been silent during the assembly in the mess hall and Aaron knew she would try to stop him.
"You can't do this," She said matter-of-factly, "All those marines, your pilots, you'll all be convicted of treason. You know that right?"
"There are ninety-eight innocent people down there, Alexa. I can't just watch them die, while I sit in orbit and do nothing,"
"Regula-" she began but he cut her off, putting his hand up in front of him.
"I know," he said, "and I understand. I can't just do nothing, though. I have to try,"
"I-" Alexa began but stopped as if at a loss for words, "I can't promise the Infallible will be here when you come back," she paused again, looking him in the face, her eyes pleading, "and if we are, I will have to arrest you,"
"I know," Aaron replied grimly.
"But…" she continued, softly, "I'm also not going to try to stop you,"
"Thank you, Lex,"
The shuttle ride from the Infallible to the surface was turbulent. The atmosphere of Gliese 667Cc was thick and caused considerable friction on re-entry. The shuttle shook and bumped and groaned in protest as it hurtled toward the rocky red surface of the planet below.
"T minus three minutes to touch down," Captain Romano announced over the comms built into everyone's helmets. Aaron was focused on the shuttle's external camera feeds. Gliese 667Cc looked a lot like Mars before it was terraformed with the exception of vast ocean-sized lakes of liquid water. The surface was ruddy orange, and criss-crossed with huge canyons cut into the surface by millenia of erosion. There was no plant or animal life aside from what the human colonists settling here had brought with them. Aaron could see the planet's three suns beginning to set far off on the horizon, painting the sky to match the surface.
"T minus one minute," the pilot announced as the shuttle passed into a clump of thick, yellowish clouds and began to shake violently, "Hold on to your hats, boys and girls!"
Aaron spotted the colony once the shuttle broke through the dense cloud cover. It was a small cluster of gray and white domes nestled between a small lake and a mountainside. The shadow of the mountain already covered it and a plume of thick black smoke rose from one of the structures. Aaron swallowed and ran a final check of his weapons and gear.
"T minus thirty seconds!"
Aaron saw the landing pad. There was some movement, but something was wrong. He could not be sure, but it looked as though none of the colonists wore any sort of environment suits. That was not possible since Gliese 667Cc's atmosphere was not yet breathable, and wouldn't be for a few generations.
"Touch down in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five," several colonists ran onto the platform, as the shuttle attempted to touch down and the pilot stopped short, pulling up into a sudden hover. Aaron glanced again at the external feed. The people on the platform weren't people. They had two arms, and two legs, but they moved like puppets, jerking and spasming about erratically. Their bodies looked mangled and deformed, as though covered in some sort of malignant growths or fungus.
"Can't touch down on the pad," the pilot announced finally after hovering for a moment, "y'all are gonna have to drop in from here!"
"You heard the lady!" Aaron called into his mic as he stood, "We're dropping hot! Let's move!" He walked over to the door at the rear of the shuttle and hit the release. An alarm blared and red lights flashed. The door hissed and opened downward, doubling as a ramp. The shuttle hovered about ten meters off the pad.
Aaron leapt out, immediately engaging the small jump thrusters on his back to slow his descent. The planet's strong gravity yanked him downward as soon as he was clear of the effects of the shuttle's A-grav. He landed on the landing pad with a skull rattling thud, thankful to his suit's powered assist servos for taking most of the force of the impact. He looked around as the rest of his team landed. One of the three shuttles dropped a group of marines off on the far side of the landing pad where most of the deformed colonists had been shambling around. Aaron heard a wordless scream over the comms as one of the colonists tackled a surprised marine to the ground.
"HOLY SHIT!" Another shouted.
"What the FUCK!" gunfire erupted on the opposite end of the pad and Aaron could see the colonists leaping into the air and charging headlong into the marines, who had begun to open fire.
"Moving to a safe distance, sir!" The pilot's voice crackled, "LZ is too hot!" And with that the shuttles took off.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE THINGS?!" The shouting continued. Aaron readied his rifle and took aim at the nearest colonist. It looked like a child, a little girl wearing red pajamas, but her flesh looked spongy, swollen and discolored. Her right hand was gone and the arm was shorn clean of flesh to the elbow, revealing a jagged, mangled spike of bloody bone. She turned toward him and Aaron noticed that her head hung limply to the side, the neck clearly broken. He pulled the trigger and three magnetically accelerated tungsten slugs slammed into the child's midsection. To his surprise, the shots didn't take the girl off her feet, instead punching clean through her torso, barely slowing her. She charged, brandishing the broken arm like a sword at him. He opened fire in full auto, pumping half his magazine into the girl before she finally dropped to the landing pad just half a meter from his feet with a disgusting splat, her body reduced to little more than pulp.
Shaking, Aaron took in the battle taking place around him now. The creatures had taken his marines completely by surprise and at least a third of his force was already dead or dying as the monsters battered them with shattered limbs, slashed with malformed claws, gnashed with horrible razor teeth and stabbed with jagged, exposed bones. More of them were pouring from the large dome shaped structure connected to the pad.
Aaron opened fire on the large doorway they came through, downing two more before having to reload his weapon. He slammed a fresh magazine in and lit the doorway up again, joined now by the remaining marines as they began to regroup. After expending more than half of his ammunition, the mass of deformed horrors had stopped, taking two more marines down with it.
Panting, sweating and shaken to his core, Aaron keyed his helmet mic, "LZ looks clear, let's move inside and sweep for survivors,"
"What the hell were those things sir," someone muttered, their voice trembling.
"I-I don't know, marine," Aaron responded, "The lead scientist mentioned some sort of contagion, I-" He thought it had just been a disease of some sort when Dr. Anders had briefed him on the situation. A bad cough or a stomach ache. He knew people had died, but he hadn't expected this. Not this. "I don't know how to answer that. All we can do is push forward, find the survivors, and get the hell out of here. They were secured in the facility's storm shelter when I contacted them last. Let's move out,"
After leaving six marines behind on the landing pad to tend to the wounded and secure the landing zone for the shuttles, Aaron was left with only five others and himself. Rodriguez was the last one through the doorway into the now pitch dark foyer of the colony. Something that had once been a man in engineer's coveralls leapt onto his back from an upper level walkway, killing him with boney spines that sprouted from its forearms. Adams was impaled full through the chest when he knelt to help what he had thought was an injured child in a dark corridor. Kim and Paulsen were both ripped apart as the team was trying to search a habitation area where a group of six or seven of the creatures were lying in wait. Aaron couldn't even be sure which parts belonged to who in the bloody pile of mangled gristle and meat that was left after his grenade had cleared the room. His final squadmate, Soto, was torn in half in the corridor leading to the storm shelter by a creature that looked like two people fused together by melted flesh and raw, bloody muscle tissue.
Finally, Aaron alone approached the massive, steel blast door of the storm shelter. The team had found no survivors along the way and they had heard no transmissions from the team at the landing pad. Aaron had one grenade and two-thirds of a magazine left, plus his sidearm, which he feared would be next to useless. His armor was battered and soaked with blood and viscera.
He tried the comm panel, calling for Dr. Anders, but there was no response. Steeling himself, he tried the door release, using an emergency military code that was meant to grant access to most government facilities. It worked and the door hissed and shuddered as it began to slide open slowly. Aaron pointed his weapon through the gap, his eyes darting side to side, searching for movement. There was a loud squelch as something fleshy tore.
Aaron's heart pounded hard and his breath came short and ragged as he proceeded through the dark doorway.
"Hello?" He called into the darkness, "Dr. Anders? Anyone?"
He picked his way carefully through the main chamber of the storm shelter. The large circular space was dark and empty save for giant pustules of malignant flesh hanging from the walls and ceiling. Nothing moved. He picked his way across the room to the habitation area. The door slid open with a loud hiss.
"Anybody alive in here?" He called again into the dark, "This is Commander Aaron McKenzie with the Federation destroyer Infallible. If there are any survivors, please, identify yourself!"
He kept pressing forward. Something moved in his peripheral vision. He whirled and fired. His shot found nothing there but air. His stomach clenched and his heart in his throat, he continued to push his way deeper into the shelter, seeing shadows and movement everywhere. He found himself in the dining area, scanning the dark for targets, or people, or anything.
Then, something hit him. He felt his ribs break beneath his armor as he rocketed across the room, slamming into a steel table. The air was knocked from his lungs. His rifle slipped from his grasp when he was hit and he fumbled for his sidearm gasping for breath. He tasted copper as his mouth began to fill with blood. The creature moved toward him, almost lazily as he struggled to take aim. It was horrible. At first, he thought it was some massive insect but as the light from his helmet lamps played over the creature he realized it's limbs ended with human hands and feet. He saw scraps of clothing fused directly into flesh. He saw horrible spines of exposed bone and tendrils of sinew. Puss filled growths covered the creature's body and human faces, twisted in expressions of petrified horror and pain protruded from it at random intervals as though trying to escape from beneath the skin. Aaron emptied his sidearm magazine into the creature but it did not even slow, the round burying into the spongey flesh.
The last thing he saw were terrible, bloody, razor sharp teeth.
Lieutenant Commander Alexa Jones sat uncomfortably in the captain's chair aboard the bridge of the Infallible, when the transmission came on an unencrypted frequency. Her heart stopped.
"Play the message," she ordered the comms officer.
The message began as nothing but static. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the Commander's voice came through, ragged and panting.
"This…" he seemed to be in pain, "This is Commander Aaron McKenzie of the FNV Infallible," There was a long pause punctuated by heavy, pained gasping, "I landed with a team of marines at the Jericho colony on planet Gliese 667Cc. Ev-everyone, the colonists, they're-" a pained grunt, "they're all dead. The lab here. They found something, an organism. It-it infected the population and turned them into monsters. Do not, I repeat, do not land on the planet's surface. It isn't safe. We should have followed quarantine protocols. I-I cost my marines their lives. I'm… I'm sorry. I guess it's true what they say, sometimes the road to hell really is paved with good intentions…"