The Acheron Inquiry

By Robert Moriyama

The following document includes a verbatim transcript of the voice-activated mission log from the Field Unit Command Kit assigned to Second Lieutenant David Calley during the recent Indigenous Lifeform Control Operation on 40 Eridani III, common name Acheron. 2LT Calley was the sole survivor of Bravo Company of the 82nd Federation Expeditionary Forces. COMMENTARY segments contain Lt. Calley’s introductory remarks and narrative intended to place the transcript segments in their proper context. These segments were recorded in the quarantine area at the FedExpFor medical center at Olympus Base, Mars.

[COMMENTARY: I am Second Lieutenant David L. Calley, Bravo Company, 82nd Federation Expeditionary Forces, Serial Number 802194278S. Bravo Company was dispatched Acheron on Earth Standard Date 2347 dash 06 dash 19, in response to a request from the Acheron Colonial Administrator, to deal with increased activity by the local predators, Maxell's Demons. After 47 days in sub-light travel and two Jumps, we arrived at Acheron eager to see action.

Federation Central Records should have holopics of Maxell's Demons somewhere in the survey files, but I'll save you the time. Look up the old Earth animal called a wolverine in the ship's library. Double the number and size of the teeth and claws. Then picture the whole thing blown up to the size of a large dog (say two meters long, including tail; forty kilograms mass).

Acheron City and the surrounding farms had been established several years before the trouble started. The Demons had pretty much left the colonists and their animals alone until a few months back. Then, the creatures had started attacking the colony's livestock, and even stalking humans in isolated areas.

The Fed ecologists figure there was a reason for this change.

The demons developed into chainsaws on legs to catch and kill the fast, armored animals the colonists had named "iron rats." Picture an armadillo with the appetite of a locust, and you'll be close enough.

Iron rats had two characteristics that put them high on the colonists' hate list. First, they had developed a taste for human-grown crops, electrical insulation, prefab building panels, and just about anything else that didn't bite back; and second, they were practically immune to the colonists' light hunting rifles, traps, and poisons.

In pure self-defense, the Colonial Biolabs engineered a virus that ate iron rat nerve tissue the way iron rats ate everything else. The iron rat population plummeted to the point that no live specimens could be found within a hundred-kilometer radius around Acheron City.

When the local rats died off, the demons had to scatter in search of presumed survivors -- or adapt to new prey. The Colonial Ecologist had assumed that there were surviving rats, and that the demons would leave the area to find them; but the demons were both more adaptable and more attached to their territory than the C. E. had calculated.

First, cattle and sheep allowed to roam free to graze began to disappear. The transponders and come-hither implants from the missing animals were eventually found in Demon droppings, literally chewed to pieces and badly corroded by Demon digestive juices. I guess when your natural prey is armor-plated, you learn to digest just about anything.

The colonists responded by fencing off pasturelands and setting automated defenses – electric stunners, screamers set to emit frequencies believed to be especially painful to Demon ears, the usual stuff. The Demons went over the fences, under the fences, and even through the fences, and more livestock disappeared.

The colonists posted guards, and rejigged the livestock implants to keep the animals confined to areas small enough to be covered from makeshift observation towers. That seemed to work, until the first tower fell, undermined by tunneling Demons, and the guard disappeared along with most of the sheep he was guarding.

The colonists tried the same tactics with the demons that they had used on the rats. But within days of the first demon raid, the animals learned to recognize and avoid the traps, and began to evade the hunting parties with ease. Even a new virus failed; infected demons would avoid contact with healthy specimens, preventing the disease from spreading.

The colonists knew when they were outclassed. Rather than wait for a demon to successfully attack a human target, they called for help -- which is where Bravo Company came in.

Our mission was simple: we were supposed to guard inhabited areas from possible demon attacks, and to actively hunt the demons to thin their population. The experts assumed that we could also teach them a healthy respect for human firepower.

It should have been as easy as a zero-gee somersault. With skimmers and hunter-killer drones, we should've been helmet-deep in trophies. And nothing should have penetrated the perimeter defenses we set up around the fields and housing areas.

I mean, animals can't learn to fool infrared scanners and intelligent motion detectors. Animals can't beat smart-gun tracking systems designed to shoot down anti-personnel rockets.

Wrong, wrong, very wrong.

After a few weeks of success, things went to hell. Our kill rate had dropped to almost zero, and livestock had begun to disappear again. Meanwhile, satellite scans showed large-scale movement of animals with demon characteristics toward Acheron City.

There were thousands of them out there, but we were lucky to kill one or two a day. Even when satellite scans pinpointed them within a radius of a dozen meters, the skimmer-riding Marines and their drones rarely found a single demon.

We started to worry when Second Platoon lost a drone. The memory dump from the pile of junk they eventually recovered showed a group of demons converging on the drone in a fast, inward spiral.

The drone spun on its axis to track them, fried three, then went down as the claws of a fourth penetrated the joints of the drone's armor plate and shredded its crysgel guts.

I told Captain von Clausewitz that we needed reinforcements. I also recommended that we requisition Mark Four drones with multi-targeting mini-guns, since the Demons had learned how to take the Mark Threes down.

The Captain wasn't in a listening mood. He said that the Demons were "just animals", and that Marines didn’t need fancy hardware to put down a bunch of oversized varmints.

The next day, we lost a skimmer, with four Marines down and gnawed to the bone, their armor cracked and discarded like the shells from a lobster dinner. The first farm was overrun on the same day, with Marine sentries and colonists alike slaughtered.

Second Lieutenant Mbuto commented that the Demons were more intelligent than the original surveys had indicated. He said – this is from the report he submitted to the Captain – "The Demons were solitary hunters, according to the survey reports. But the recordings we've recovered indicate coordinated attacks, with individuals sacrificing themselves to allow their missions to succeed."

The Captain finally agreed to request reinforcements, with Mark Four drones, after we lost our third skimmer. In retrospect, I don’t know if it really would have made any difference if he’d made the request sooner.

When the fourth drone and the second skimmer went down, the Captain ordered the evacuation of the remaining farms, and canceled the hunting patrols. With all civilians and surviving livestock concentrated near the center of the city, we would be devoted to pure sentry duty -- trying to hold out until the cavalry came riding out of hyperspace.

Our first line of defense consisted of drones in protected niches, covering every street leading into the city. Behind them, we set sensor webs with automatic frag-mines that would shred anything attempting to cross them. We started skimmer-mounted patrols, above the estimated leaping range of the demons. The innermost and last line of defense was a razor-wire barricade surrounding fifty heavily armed, seriously frightened Marines.

On that day, the fifth day of what the men were calling Operation Alamo, the Demons came swarming out of the forest, and the drones and skimmer crews slaughtered them by the dozen. Survivors of the charge crossed the sensor webs and were blown to table scraps by the frag-mines.

Then they started emerging from the sewers, behind our lines. Skimmers went down as demons leapt from windows and lampposts they had scaled during the confusion of the first assault, and we heard the screams of men being eaten alive. At first, the sounds came through our comm-sets, but then we heard them through our external mikes, as the first civilians were taken.]

The following section includes communications picked up by the voice-activated log. Speeches have been labeled according to 2LT Calley’s identification of the voices.

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: …ing mode, repeat, activate continuous recording mode.

CORPORAL TAKASHIMA: They're inside the wire!

CAPTAIN VON CLAUSEWITZ: First Platoon, cover the perimeter! Second Platoon, Mbuto, follow me inside!

[COMMENTARY: The Captain, Lieutenant Mbuto, and Second Platoon fell back to protect the colonists from the Demons that had popped up behind our lines. Splitting our forces wasn’t ideal, but I believe it was necessary: the colonists were packed like cattle in a slaughterhouse pen, and all they had to defend themselves were the same popguns that hadn’t even worked on the iron rats.

We had our own problems.]

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: Here they come! Fire for effect! Keep those bastards back!

Battle sounds: ten-second bursts from standard M741 assault weapons from multiple locations; electrical discharges from prods; animal vocalizations; human screams, unidentified.

VON CLAUSEWITZ: Calley! Bring First Platoon inside! They’re all over the place in here! The colonists are being massacred!

Battle sounds, as before. Frequency of M741 bursts noticeably diminished. Human screams from locations closer to 2LT Calley’s position.

[COMMENTARY: We couldn’t respond to the Captain’s orders. We were being overrun ourselves. We were being slaughtered.

On our left flank, I saw Private Emily Sheldon fall under a trio of demons. She burned one with her lightning pack, gutted a second with her bayonet, but then died screaming as the third tore away her faceplate -- and most of her face.

I cut the thing down with a single burst from my rifle, wasted a second burst pulverizing the remains, then had to turn to face attackers of my own.

Corporal Kazuo Takashima got caught by a group of demons that closed on him in a spiral – the same tactic they used to take down our Mark Three drones. He neutralized three, maybe four, with his M741, but then they were too close for anything but bayonet work. He’d told me on the trip out from Earth that his ancestors had been fishermen – not a samurai or soldier in the bunch. But he went down like a warrior, fighting to the end.]

VON CLAUSEWITZ: Calley, answer me! We're all dying in here! Calley –

[COMMENTARY: At this point, the Captain's voice was cut off, and I knew he was gone. All around me, the men and women of First Platoon were selling their lives for the best price they could command. For every Marine that died, maybe a hundred demons perished in bursts of explosive bullets or blinding flashes of electricity. But no matter how many we killed, there were always more.

They all died, every Marine under my command died, and all I could do was to keep on fighting.]

Battle sounds: bursts from a single M741, presumably in the hands of 2LT Calley. Sounds of electrical discharges.

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: Demon coming in! Zap him, zap him, yeah! Got him, pinned him to the night like a bug on a board! Come on, you mother, recharge, recharge. Batteries must be running dry –

Okay, okay, they're falling back. Run, you bastards! Ah, damn it – the bastards are circling, trying to flank me. Can't last like this –

[COMMENTARY: At this point, the indigenous predators – the Demons – have overrun the defensive line held by my squad. I’ve recovered as much materiel as possible from the fallen soldiers around me: power packs for the M319 electric prod, ammunition clips for the M741 smart assault rifle, and grenades. But there are more demons than I have ammo…]

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: I hope this thing’s recording okay. This may be my last chance to say goodbye to my family, to Jan – When the last round's gone, my combat armor'll be nothing but a cheap plas foodwrapper to these things – a shell to be peeled away to reach the goodies inside. This recording may survive the demons' next attack; I won't.

Near as I can tell, I'm all that's left of our landing force -- maybe the last human alive on Acheron. I've heard nothing but carrier hiss on the comm-set since the demons swarmed over Corporal Takashima, almost an hour ago.

I see you, you miserable piece of crap. Stick your head out again -- got you! Anybody else want some?

Where have they gone? There was at least a dozen of 'em out there -- now I only see three. Think, Calley, or you're lunchmeat for sure . . .

Battle sounds: more bursts from 2LT Calley’s M741, interspersed with sounds of electrical discharges. Animal sounds, including cracking noises assumed to be Demons removing body armor from fallen Marines, and other sounds identified by 2LT Calley as Demons consuming the bodies of Marines and of their own kind.

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: Getting dark now. Most of the demons are dead – I’m only outnumbered by about a thousand to one now. The rest are busy – uh – uh – gorging themselves on the day's prey. Hell, they’re even eating each other. They seem to respect me, at least enough to leave me alone until the big buffet is gone. Guess I’m the strongest (or luckiest) of my herd, the ultimate iron rat.

But I'm still meat to them, and when the last power pack fails, when the last clip is gone, they’ll be having my guts for dessert.

Charlie Company, or whoever finds this, tell the suits back home to forget Acheron. In five years, we've taken a violent, primitive world, and made it a hundred times worse …

Where have the bastards gone? Haven't heard any movement in the rubble behind me, or on my flanks, and the mikes are cranked up to the red line. Have they given up on me?

[COMMENTARY: I remember something from Ecologic 101. A couple hundred years ago, the colonists in some place called Australia brought in rabbits to raise for food. A few got loose, bred like – well, like rabbits -- and they turned into a plague. Prey without predators, run wild.

On Acheron, they made the opposite mistake. The colonists wiped out the prey species, and the predators, the Demons, were forced over the line that separates primitive hunters from armies. Or maybe they were always smarter than we thought, and they just organized to take revenge.]

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: Forget Acheron. Nothing short of a nuke is likely to beat these demons now, and it's damn hard to colonize radioactive glass. Humans will never be safe here again; the demons are onto us.

Garbled sounds from comm-set.

Hold on -- I have something coming in on my comm-set. The cavalry has arrived! I can see the light from the shuttle engines coming in over the landing field.

Charlie Company, do you read? This is Lieutenant David Calley, Bravo Company! I am the last, repeat last, Marine alive here. Home on my emergency beacon, as fast as you can, but come out ready to shoot.

The demons have overrun the city, and I believe all colonists and the rest of Bravo Company are dead. The demons appear to be organized and are capable of overwhelming standard defenses., Use Mark Fours to break out and keep your skimmers above the rooftops when you enter the city. The demons are inside the buildings and will attack from the windows if you fly any lower.

Charlie Company, do you read? Do you –

Sounds of several approaching VTOL troop carriers. Higher-pitched sounds identified as Mark Four attack drones. Sounds of weapons fire from M741 rifles, Mark Four mini-guns, carrier-mounted mini-guns.

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: The demons have spotted the skimmers. Why aren’t they running? Oh, Lord, they know the skimmers are coming for me! They're moving in!

Battle sounds: M741 fires several bursts, then ceases, presumably due to exhaustion of ammunition. Several electrical discharges. Sound of impact, scraping and cracking presumed to be penetration of 2LT Calley’s body armor. 2LT Calley screams.

LIEUTENANT CALLEY: My shoulder, oh, Jesus, where’s the skimmers? Die, you ugly bastard!

Battle sounds: M741 fire from multiple sources. VTOL troop carrier landing. Running footsteps.

CORPORAL JAVITZ (Charlie Company): Medic! Get a damn sealant pack on this man, and let's haul ass out of here!

PRIVATE GERVAIS (Charlie Company): What about the rest of Bravo? And the colonists?

CORPORAL JAVITZ: The infrared shows nothing else even close to human alive around here. We'll come back with full drone support to check, but those things are coming back now.

Rustling and scraping sounds, presumably 2LT Calley being carried to the VTOL troop carrier. Indistinct voices, other sounds identified as application of external medical sealant pack. Engine sounds of VTOL troop carrier liftoff.


CORPORAL MACAFEE (Medic, Charlie Company): What'd he say?


PRIVATE GERVAIS: I don't know. Bravo sure burned a lot of those mothers, man.

CORPORAL JAVITZ: Bravo lost. And satellite sweep says there's a lot more of those fuggin’ animals down there.

PRIVATE GERVAIS: Ah. Bravo wasn't ready, that's all. We got the Mark Fours, the newer smart-guns, everything. We'll clean this place up, no problem.

[COMMENTARY: The sedatives in the medical sealant pack knocked me out at this point. But I want to take this opportunity to say it again: forget Acheron. Whether we actually pushed the Demons over the line from instinct to intelligence, or whether they were already there, the point is that Acheron is not what we thought it was. The human race has been accustomed to being at the top of the food chain for a long time. On Acheron, that spot is occupied, and the current owners aren’t giving it up.]

Charlie Company attempted to retake the colony after the evacuation of 2LT Calley to Olympus Base , but was forced to withdraw after losing its complement of twelve Mark Four drones to coordinated Demon attacks and subsequently suffering heavy casualties.

High-altitude surveillance drones have since revealed Demon activity that appears to be organized on a large scale. FedExpFor xenozoologists have recommended that the Colonization Suitability Index rating for Acheron be changed from B-6 (compatible biosphere with some hazards) to F-4 (restricted access due to possible indigenous sentient population).

In spite of this recommendation, the President has ordered that every effort be made to establish a new military base and self-supporting agricultural colony on Acheron.

The End

Copyright 2003 by Robert Moriyama

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Toronto’s main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearances were Grave Matters (April, 2002), the second Al Majius and Githros story, and A Walk in the Park (February 2003).



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