Capsule 1
by DJ Burnham
forum: Capsule 1
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Capsule 1


        Scelestus skulked at the wispy margins of the lenticular Hubris galaxy in the Nyx system, home to the descendants of a long-abolished penal colony whose convicts had been shipped from human-populated planets across the sector. The Nyx system's pygmy-star was only capable of supporting life on three planets—and then barely—namely Scelestus, Talpid and Crepuscule, all tenebrous by nature. Scelestus' arms were open to all-comers, as long as they obeyed the rules of the Éclat who were currently focusing their attention on Dimidiãta: Talpid's solitary ploon (much larger than an average moon, but still locked in orbit around the planet). The conflict should have been short-lived but the talpidurans were a tenacious race, and much of the struggle took place underground in the tunnels and mines that riddled a specific region of Dimidiãta.

* * *

        Hunched in the corner of the med-cell the latest wreck let the aftermath wash over him, his fears dissolving in tender pools of melancholy, drooling in careless rapture, locked in idiot stasis. Only the occasional twitch of an eye muscle gave away the maelstrom raging in his fried brain.

        Another failure.

        The Éclat's boffs had unsuccessfully tried a bunch of mercs and a couple of murderers; next step was some really basic raw material, a malleable scuzzer lab-rat, diametrically opposed to their goal. What the gunkstas dragged back was a wash-up, some twenty-year-old, gangly alleybat who'd been hugging a fire-drum to warm his sorry bones. The gunkstas didn't operate on a sale-or-return basis, so the boffs kept the kid on ice until the first two phases were ready.

* * *

        Gabryel peeled-open between cool ivory sheets, on a real soft 'n' cosy bed, in a lush condo with a zazz-projector dancing vibulent swirls on the ceiling. There was no sign of the street plankton he'd been jostling with to suck some meagre heat from the fire-drum—as he tried to figure how his life'd gone to flittershitters since he'd turned draft-dodger.

        He rolled over and almost squawked.

        Snooze-cruising, right next to him, was a fifth-generation chicklick—one of the most sought after group of escorts on Scelestus. She oozed über-pheromones from her neck's eccrine sweat glands which, once in Gabryel's system, would intensify the endorphin rush of sex a hundred-fold.

        He ached to kiss those rubies, dab her tan and stroke that fox's honeybod.

        As he tentatively reached out a hand, there was a splintering crash and the door to their nest exploded inwards. The short golden-brown pelage—coloured from the creature's staple diet of titian molluscs—shone in the phosphoglow of the concealed lighting, while the fleshy, pink, star-shaped snout writhed in a blur of motion as it tasted the air and tentacle-appendages stretched forward, identifying the now-screaming girl. A heavily-built forearm swung the weapon up and the talpiduran blasted her into silence, pumping out a rapid succession of plasma microshells, turning the sheets crimson. Gabryel flung himself onto the floor, but the beast lurched towards him, fumbling the gun in its broad paw. It bounced across the carpet and Gabryel instinctively snatched it up, leapt to his feet and levelled the weapon at the approaching alien. The talpiduran snorted derisively and kept coming. Gabryel backed-off, stumbled, and fell against the wall, accidentally loosing a round of microshells, blowing a gaping, smouldering hole through the wheezing brute. Grunting and moaning, lungs rapidly filling with fluid, it collapsed onto the floor and the ragged edges of the smouldering cavity bled acidic bowel contents, which dribbled and hissed onto the rapidly melting carpet. Gabryel tried to dodge past the beast and make for the door, but it grabbed his leg, pulled him down, grasped his gun-hand, briefly pointed it straight at him, then swung it to face its own wriggling snout and crushed the young human's trigger finger. The discharge sent wads of fur and sticky globs of yellow brain tissue splattering up into Gabryel's face and he instantly ralphed, then, still dry-retching and shuddering uncontrollably, overwhelmed by terror, shock, guilt and the carnage all around him, he passed out.

* * *

        The street plankton had ousted him from prime position next to the fire-drum, while he was out for the count, and he was shivering from the cold, with a rank taste in his mouth. He quickly related the bitter flavour to a half-empty bottle of rotgut sitting in his right hand, which an incoming down-and-out promptly yoinked. That must've been the source of the fantasy-cum-nightmare I've just had, some hallucinogenic hooch that head-tripped me out, he thought. He was in his tattered, skanky clothes, but his hair felt fresh. Then he felt the prickly patches on his face, where the talp's brain jelly had hit him.

        His rising sense of panic was heightened by a shuffling, wheezing, snorting sound; the chimera was corporeal once again. At first his fellow vagrants tried to fight it off, but as bits of their compadres erupted in a barrage of plasma microshells they turned and fled. Gabryel rolled over to the fire-drum, tugged out a flaming chair leg and wielded it at the talpiduran. Accompanied by a deep, crackling whoosh, the blazing flare dazzled the nocturnal fiend and Gabryel jumped out of the way of a random discharge from its weapon. He bolted behind it, clutched the makeshift cudgel in both hands and—devoid of qualms this time—brought it roaring down on the creature's skull. Gabryel was running before it even hit the ground and sped down a dank, dark passageway headlong into a cloud of noxious gas and gasping blackout.

* * *

        His lids flickered and he tried to focus bleary peepers in the pitch black. Gabryel could hear voices, but they weren't the crunked slurs of street plankton, they sounded more like his old homeslices.

        'Where am I?' he called out.

        'Dimidiãta, ratpack unit, front line, 'mongst friends, brah,' came the reply.

        'Dimidiãta?' he repeated. 'The ploon in orbit around Talpid?'

        'Yep, the very same.'

        'Shit! How did I get here? I'm a draft dodger. I shouldn't be here.'

        'Hit by a pressgang gas-trap, like the rest of us. None of us brahs are volunteers.'

        'Why's it so dark?'

        'Blackout. The goons've got twenty-twenty night vision.'

        'What about…' Gabryel hesitated. 'There was this chicklick and a talpiduran, like I've seen on the posters, then I was back on Scelestus and then I was here…' He sounded faintly ridiculous to himself.

        'Same thing happened to all of us, brah.'


        'It's okay. Well…no, it's not actually. We're fightin' a war, right?' There was a general murmuring of agreement from the other bunks.

        'Hey, Duke. We gotta do this jive all over?' a deep voice complained.

        'Yeah, we have, Flea, "The Brah's gotta know 'case we go", we all agreed, right?'

        'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' There was a sound of saliva being sucked through clenched teeth.

        'Have you seen action?' Gabryel pressed Duke.

        'I think so.'

        'You think so?'

        'Well, it's like this. Some nights there's newbs like you and then other times one of us is missin' when we come round. Most of us get bruised, battered or burnt by plasma grazes, so we know we've been somewhere, just don't remember it.'

        'That's impossible.'

        'Oh, it's possible alright,' remarked yet another voice in the dark. 'We've all been through accelerated absence-training, overheard the sergeant talking about it a few nights back.'

        'What's absence-training?' Gabryel wasn't sure if he wanted to hear the answer.

        'You know how a computer can run two operating systems, so that when one's in use the other dumps into the background?'

        'Sort of, I guess.'

        'Well, that's us. Drilled 'n' pumped-up, regular Mr. Hydes, ya dig?'

        'I don't get it. Who's Mr. Hyde?'

        'Jekell and Hyde, alter egos, split personality…oh, just test ya stomach muscles, brah. You come in with a six-pack?'

        Gabryel did as he was bid and flinched as he nervously explored his bulging biceps and abs, as well as running his hand over his head and discovering a harsh buzz cut. Two months of living raw, in and around the dives of Scelestus' ghettos, had left him gaunt, pallid and emaciated, but that had all changed abruptly.

        'What's happened to me?' There was fear in his voice, swiftly exchanged for anger. 'Look, I'd know if I'd been trained and been in combat and—'

        'That's the whole point, your mind's somewhere else, no questions, just action, a split personality, flippin' between operating systems.'

        'Geniune schizo,' Flea's deep voice confirmed and gave a hollow laugh.

        Suddenly the temporary barracks of the Forward Operating Base shook violently and as the men leapt from their beds, pulling on combat camo-kit and grabbing weapons, the attack flip-triggered their identity swaps. Gabryel II was knocked unconscious by an ear-shattering explosion.

* * *

        With a sharp intake of breath, still wearing camos, Gabryel called out to the others in the dark.

        No reply.

        Then he heard that all-too-familiar sound, the shambling, snuffling, wheezing approach of a talp', and the sound of a heavy door being opened. He lay still and pretended to be asleep.

        Next thing he knew he was standing over a dead talp', its neck expertly broken from a single twist of his beefy arms, but with no recollection of having done it. He dashed for the open door, hurled himself through it and felt his way down a clammy, dripping tunnel exuding a peaty, earthy sweetness, with squelching slimy mud underfoot and tree roots dangling from the ceiling, escaping the anoxic soil. Having clambered through a network of steep passages Gabryel came to what might have been a service shaft at their summit.

        There was a faint light up ahead and he made his way towards it, cautiously. Despite the stygian murk he could make out the form of several talps in chambers leading off from the shaft. He edged along one of them. Two goons leant over something…it was a human male on a slab of some kind, wires and tubes connected up to some humming, buzzing, gurgling apparatus. He'd seen enough and, as quickly and quietly as he could, made his way back into the wide shaft and towards the steadily growing light source as the ground rose up towards the surface. He spotted more talps arriving, silhouetted against the exit, and managed to hide in an unfinished chamber entrance as they practically galloped past him.

        Out on the surface, at the top of a hill, he was in for another shock. The source of light was Dimidiãta, and the ploon shone a dull glow across the surface of an unfamiliar planet. He ran down the slope, almost falling over the enormous body of a dead ratpacker, and off into the night, across a dewy meadow and into the cover of some trees with giant leaves (having evolved an enormous surface area to absorb every available photon from the pygmy-star's scant daytime radiation).

        A familiar voice hissed, 'Hey, Gabryel, over here.' It was Duke. He'd got out, too.

        'Duke? That you?'

        'Yeah, brah,' he confirmed, stepping from behind a tree, and Gabryel saw his angular, rugged face for the first time in the ploonlight.

        'What we doin' on Talpid?'

        'Shhh,' Duke hushed him. 'Talp HQ is only just over there.' He gestured towards the hill that Gabryel had just run from. 'We gotta get outa here, no dawdlin', Flea took a crit defending my ass.'

        Gabryel remembered the humungous dead guy on the hill and dipped after Duke.

        As they ran deeper into the woods, Gabryel panted, 'So, how'd we get here?'

        'Must've been captured by the talp's 'n' brought to their planetary HQ for analysis, tryin' to get the upper hand and the measure of us, I guess'

        'What were they doin' to those guys, all those tubes and shit?' He shuddered at the memory.

        'Dunno, and I don't wanna know.'

        'We gotta go back, get 'em outta there,' Gabryel declared, coming to a halt.

        'You crazy? We're lucky to be alive. Flea was one tuff son-of-a-bitch, look what happened to him! We got no chance. Plus, we get into a combat situation then we flip out, no tellin' what this nutter'd do.' Duke tapped his head sharply, indicating the alter ego that lurked within.

        After another thirty minutes they came to a small low-lying clearing with a small pond at one edge.

        'I am seriously hungry,' Gabryel announced. 'Dunno when I last ate, totally lost track of time.'

        'Yeah, well, we'll have to wait and see 'bout food, but meanwhile fill ya can.' He pointed to the pond, knelt down, unclipped the water canister from his belt and leant towards the water.

        The surface erupted as a talpiduran launched itself at Duke and tore into him with a vicious-looking blade. (The creatures were semi-aquatic and water-filled tunnels linked back to the main burrow.) Gabryel II leapt at the talp', wrestled the knife from its grasp and, like a later-day Van Helsing, calmly ventilated its ventricles, as a grizzly thrill tingled through him.

        As a grey dawn broke, Gabryel II spotted another talp' heading for the cover of its burrow in a hillock, escaping the discomfort of what passed for daylight on Talpid. It turned as a twig snapped under the berserker's foot and the creature cowered, holding its paws palm-out, terrified, pleading in high-pitched squeals as its nemesis approached, unhurriedly. Gabryel II gripped a handful of fur and tugged its head back, quickly and efficiently slitting its throat. Using dry tinder from a survival pack in his camos, he set a fire and methodically sliced the flesh from the dead talp'. The cooked meat was sweet and juicy but every scrap of protein was just fuel to him and, as shards of bone fell on an empty conscience, he set off again, sated—with a taste for talp'.

* * *

        In truth, the talpidurans were a relatively peaceable race. They had recently discovered rich deposits of plutonium (IV) oxide (for their thermoelectric generators) on Dimidiãta and mining had commenced immediately. A concealed scoutship from Scelestus observed the heightened space traffic and ploonar surface activity, so it landed, obtained a sample of the radioisotope and returned home to analyse it. The Éclat coveted the valuable resource and set about ousting the competition. But the talpidurans weren't the pushover that the Éclat had assumed they would be and vehemently defended their assets, clinging on by weight of numbers, forcing the Éclat's troops into disadvantageous engagements and ambushes in the network of underground mine shafts and tunnels. It represented a major source of irritation and time-wasting inconvenience to the Éclat, so they decided to expedite matters by taking the hostilities to Talpid. Their plan revolved around an enduringly detached genocide, which even the Éclat's most hardened mercs could never achieve, let alone wish to volunteer for such an overt suicide mission.

* * *

        The Head of Éclat Intelligence, Garrett Vespidon, watched approvingly as the boffs sealed the super-obsidian sphere that was Capsule 1—containing the sedated subject of their first success—and started to apply the peripheral impact-barrier material, inside the belly of the combat ship.

        'Is he permanently flipped?' he inquired. Five black rattails, with antique copper-jacketed bullets platted into their tips, swung wildly as he turned his head. He was a tall, thickset character made even more authoritative by his sharp magenta suit (one of the myriad forms which its composite pleofabric could take).

        'Yes, sir, phase five of the procedure flip-triggered a fixed personality,' a white-coated boff confirmed. 'There will be no passive indulgence, the corners of his once-familiar environment have shifted out of recognition and the bioelectric implant should be jammed to the secondary personality. It will automatically resurface when the sedative wears off.'

        'Excellent.' Vespidon opened a visual comms-link to the secret research unit. 'How're the next wave of subjects coming along?'

        Another boff appeared, with an artificial talp' head tucked under his arm. 'Things are proceeding well, sir. The chicklick droid is reset for another blood-burst, the next gunksta capture-site simulator is ready, the aggressive talp' droids are fully functional and updated for the interactive phases, the ratpack voice-actors are primed and we are about to proceed with the bioelectric implant and absence-training on Subject Three. A release into the talpiduran HQ holo-environment is due shortly and the next talpiduran POW is in position to cement Subject Two's secondary personality attack and survival status, so if you will excuse me, sir?'

        'Of course, well done.'

        The boff slid the talp' head over his own and joined his colleagues in a darkened chamber containing a naked human male punctured with wires and tubes, a force-field separating them from the holo-tunnel down which Subject Two would shortly stumble upon their activities.

        Garrett turned to address his companions. 'In a few hours' time Capsule 1 will unleash the Avenging Angel, Gabryel II.' He laughed at his own joke. 'We shall begin to deliver a ferocious, relentless reign of terror upon their loved-ones and the males will be forced to abandon Dimidiãta to our safe-keeping.'

* * *

        The Seagull (a Daggertooth-class combat ship) undertook a Horanblat manoeuvre and sent the huge ball spinning towards the surface of Talpid. Buried within it was a potentially ambivalent killer, secured in the midst of a panoply of knives, axes, clubs, plasma guns, grenades, rifles and missile-launchers. Capsule 1's target was the edge of a small warren, home to the females and their hairless pups.

        The combination of orientation gyros, layered cushioning orbs and peripheral impact-barrier material—for Blixo splat-deployment—made the construction of the capsule a highly complex operation. The Éclat's boffs had done well, but the original design had involved some of the finest astroengineers in the sector. When it struck the surface the splat-bond held, but a small amount of the force remained undamped. A control panel fizzed and sparked. A small, but powerful explosion flung out tiny shards of metal, most of which met with ineffectual collisions. The unconscious human's upgraded armour-microweave combat-camos shielded him from the sparking projectiles, until one found the slit of a tiny opening in his visor. The shard entered the helmet at terrific velocity, penetrated a closed lid and the eye beyond, ricocheted off the bone of the socket and, in a freak accident, embedded itself in the bioelectric implant, disrupting the flip-trigger interface.

        When the sedative wore off, Gabryel would stagger from the capsule, blind in one eye, and the absence-training would remain buried with his alter ego. He would have to rely on the innate generosity of the talpiduran families, and their mates would, in return, gain access to a fully stocked armoury for the war effort.



copyright 2007 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of Science Fiction. Having recently retired from an exciting sideline in concert promotion for the likes of Roy and Nick Harper, he has found time to pen some stories of his own, many of which have appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. With a full-length novel in the pipeline, he also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork. DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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