An Acquired Taste
by Robert G Moons
The massive battle class star cruiser entered system S-394 and proceeded directly towards the system's second planet well ahead of schedule. The flag ship, and pride of the Gulrathian fleet was as black as the darkest of nights; the multitude of gun ports on its bow made it instantly clear as to its function. Shaped somewhat like a gigantic manta ray, it glided silently toward the small, unsuspecting planet - truly the calm before the greatest of storms.
The Gulrathian Empire was the dominant power in this sector of space. A warrior race, they lived for conquest, the glory of battle, and the spoils of war. Race after race fell before them only to be enslaved and forced to work for the Gulrathion war machine. A cruel race, twisted and corrupted by greed for power, they were the disease that infected every system they claimed.
"Go to stealth mode," ordered the Captain.
"Stealth mode initiated," confirmed the helmsman.
The humanoid Gulrathian crew were as formidable looking as their ship. They were an ape-like race standing about eight feet tall, weighing a solid four hundred pounds, with thick, muscular long arms, hands that looked proportionally too large for the rest of their body, and four fingers on each hand that looked more like thumbs.
Each crew member was of the warrior class which meant that they had been tested in battle; skilled at hand-to-hand, blade, and beam/projectile combat. No one could best them in battle; all other races avoiding eye contact as these warriors defiantly strode the streets of their conquered worlds as if they were demigods. The mythical Heracles himself would have had a fight on his hands against even one of these giants for they were even stronger than they looked.
The all black, shark-like eyes of the Captain peered into his tactical monitor where the target planet was magnified on the centre of the screen; the e.t.a. to the world quickly ticked down on the bottom right.
There was a small colony of humans down on that dark little planet; it would be a first contact situation with this race. The Gulrathian Empire had been aware of this race for some time, but these humans were always too many light years away, till now. Now, well, they were on the edge of Gulrathian space. All the Warlords had agreed that this would not be allowed, and a show of force was in order. The colony would be destroyed, most of the colonists would be killed, a few would be brought back for study and dissection, maybe even a couple of them put into a zoo for their children's amusement.
Information about these humans had been acquired from a conquered race not far from this new colony. These humans were physically very weak; technologically inferior in every way, and therefore posed no threat. However, when an unwanted rodent is in ones home, it is quickly killed and disposed of; that is exactly what the Gulrathie intended to do with these humans.
The great ship established a high orbit around the target planet, with no indication of being detected. The planet did not rotate on its access as most in this system, instead, one side always faced the heat and brightness of the nearby yellow star, the other side was in constant darkness and bitter cold. However, it was just the right distance from the star for the impossible to become the possible - there was life here. Most of it was along the latitude that bordered where the light and dark met. No breathing suits would be necessary by the Gulrathie invasion troops.
"Scan for these humans and locate a tactical landing site," snapped the Captain.
"Scanning," replied the navigation officer. "Strange."
"What's strange?" inquired the Captain impatiently. "Speak!"
"I expected the colony to be somewhere on or near the longitudinal boarder where life is optimal, however, the human colony is more than five hundred kilometres from this expected location, and well within the dark side of the planet," the navigator said perplexed.
The Captain grinned. "These humans are not only weak and defenceless but also very stupid. This will be even easier than I expected. Perhaps we should have sent a scout ship with a squad of preschoolers instead."
The bridge became an uproar of laughter as the Captain smiled quietly in satisfaction over his amusing little joke.
After a few seconds, the Captain raised his hand in a fist; the bridge crew immediately stopped laughing, except for the science officer who was quickly stared down into silence. "But we have a job to do, so let's get it done, and by the book. No need to get sloppy."
A short time later, four troop transports left the star cruiser's hangar, each containing a hundred battle-hardened warriors in full black plastisteel armour, carrying an auto-beam rifle in both hands, a titanium projectile pistol holstered on their chest, and the infamous Gulrathie long-blade strapped on their back. This force was about four times the number of the approximately one hundred colonists below. It was a standard military practice for ease of victory. The Captain had estimated that this was overkill, but he just wanted to get it over with quickly and be on his way. A new invasion against another more challenging race was in the works and that took priority.
Under the cover of darkness, the transports set down one kilometre from the colony. There was still no indication that their presence was known by the colonists. Again, this was very strange. The sound of their engines alone should have triggered an alert to their arrival. Instead, the only thing that confronted them was the deathly silence of the forever night.
The four hundred giant warriors formed into organized lines and moved double-time toward the colony.
A few minutes later, the Gulrathie force was just outside the perimeter of the colony. The Commander in charge looked at the compound through his nightscope. There were about a dozen or so metallic, domed structures scattered about, and a few lights at the tops of poles providing the most minimal of light. Everything else was as gloomy as the rest of this half-dark world. The only sound was that of the cold breeze that licked his face. He adjusted the heater unit on his suit. Gods was it cold, he thought.
There were no armed colonists to meet them, no alarms blaring away annoyingly, not even a chained pet to confront them with its threatening noises. This place looked dead.
"Move your four squads in, lieutenant," barked the Commander.
The forty warriors moved quietly and tactically from one structure to the next, entering each structure in turn. The result was always the same.
"This place is deserted," informed the lieutenant with the communicator attached to his helmet. "Maybe they saw us coming and are hiding somewhere, or perhaps they left the planet all together."
"No, they are still on this planet somewhere," replied the Commander firmly. "We would have picked up their ship on our scanners had they attempted to flee the system."
On hearing the planetside report from the Commander, the Captain smashed his fist down hard on the arm of his padded chair. "Gods, now we need to play a children's hiding game with these cowards! I have no time for this!"
"Commander, listen, keep a hundred men at the compound in case the humans return. Have all the rest of your men sweep the area out from the compound in a circular pattern. Issue motion detectors and nightscopes to each man. We need to wrap this up as quickly as we can."
"Understood," came back the response.
Three hundred warriors spread out and formed a wide circle around the compound, and proceeded to walk outward in all directions. The further out they walked, the greater the distance between them. Soon, they no longer could talk normally to one another, and had to switch to their communicators to avoid shouting. There was no evidence of vegetation, but there were a great many boulders, small hills, and other natural obstructions which blocked their line of sight. Even with their nightscopes and motion detectors, keeping in constant visual contact with the warrior to their left and right was almost impossible.
The Commander, stationed with his hundred troops in the centre of the compound, viewed his hand-held tactical monitor to make sure there were no gaps in the circle. Each warrior appeared as a tiny blip on his screen.
"Oaahhhhh!" The scream broke the stillness of the night.
"What happened?" demanded the Commander.
"I don't know, Sir," came back a reply. "I think it was the private to my left - he's gone!"
The green blip representing this trooper was still on the Commander's screen but was now moving quickly to the north, and then it too was gone.
"Stop... hold your positions... check your detectors," the Commander calmly instructed.
Suddenly, the distinct pulsating sound of an auto-beam rifle erupted, then another and still another. Soon there were at least a dozen warriors firing blindly into the darkness, the light from each weapon flickering on their black armour with every round fired.
"What's going on? Talk to me!" barked the Commander.
"I thought I saw something, Sir. Whatever it was, it was moving very fast," a lieutenant replied.
"Nothing is showing up on my detector," said another loudly with a hint of panic in his voice.
The rifles gradually stopped firing.
A series of screams; sounds of flesh being cleaved, sliced, and even torn apart could be heard by all on their communicators. The Commander was all too familiar with these sounds of hand-to-hand combat, and felt something he hadn't felt in a long time - fear.
The auto-beams started firing again, adding to the sounds of the butchery, but now it was over a hundred rifles, and mostly the ones on the northern half of the circle.
"Over there! Did you see it?" a young private shouted.
"What the? Oaahhhhh!" Another warrior dies.
"They're all around us!" yelled one of the sergeants.
"They killed the lieutenant! Gutted him like a fish!" screamed a corporal.
The Commander looked down on his tactical monitor. One by one the blips were disappearing from the northern half of the circle; this pattern continued toward the south on both east and west sides. His troops were being slaughtered systematically at an alarming rate; so efficiently he was stunned and in awe.
"Orders, Commander!" came a desperate yell from one of his lieutenants. "Aaahhhhh!" He was gone too.
"Pull back!" shouted the Commander.
About a quarter of the original circle of warriors were left; only the ones to the south. These fifty or so troops remaining started moving north, back toward the compound, but it was too late. One by one, they too disappeared from the Commander's monitor until all was deathly silent.
The Commander rallied his courage and roared out orders to the hundred warriors remaining in the compound. If he was going to go down, he'd make the enemy pay dearly with their own blood as well. He organized them into a rough circle, making use of whatever cover was available. "Remember, whatever comes out of the dark, shoot it on sight," he yelled with as much authority as he could muster.
Nothing, only the moans of the severely wounded and dying began drifting out of the darkness from every direction all around them.
The waiting continue....
What was that other sound getting louder in the distance? The Commander was puzzled. Then it registered - the troop transport engines were being fired up! By the time he had figured out what was going on, four transports flew directly over their position and headed straight for the star cruiser still in a high orbit around the planet.
The Commander clicked on his communicator in an attempted to contact the cruiser, but was met with static. "They're blocking my signal?" The commander was dumbfounded. All he and his men could do was watch the four transports as they disappeared into the dark sky.
"Captain, the four transports are leaving the planet," the navigator exclaimed.
"What the... Contact those ships," the Captain snapped.
"They're not responding, Sir," replied the communications officer.
"Sir, there is no one aboard those ships - my scans register no life," the science officer said puzzled.
"Nether-abyss!" swore the Captain. "What happened down there? Contact the Commander."
"We can't get through, Sir, the signal is being blocked," remarked the communications officer.
"Open the hangar bay. Prepare to receive transports for docking." Were those transports on auto-pilot? Maybe the ship's logs on those transports would give him a clue as to what was going on, the Captain thought.
"Sir, it's one of the transports that's jamming our communications with the planet!" yelled the navigator.
"Close those bay doors, NOW!"
"Too late, Sir, they're inside."
"Security, meet me in the hangar bay! This is a code red!" The Captain grabbed his auto-beam pistol from a small storage compartment on the side of his large chair and headed for the tubelift.
Inside the huge, domed hangar, the Captain met up with fifty heavily armed warriors, outfitted like those that had gone down to the planet. The Captain split up the warriors into four teams, each team covering one of the four transports.
"I don't know what's going on, but if anything comes out of these transports and it isn't one of ours, kill it immediately," instructed the Captain.
Auto-beam rifles powered up and focused on the main hatch of each of the four crafts. They were ready.
Finally, one of the large hatches slid loudly open on the nearest transport, revealing only darkness within.
Rifles were raised; cross-hairs locked on the centre of the black space.
Suddenly, a dark blur of motion shot out of the ship. A dozen beam weapons fired, but all shots missed. The blur stopped right next to the Captain, and swiftly decapitate him with a Gulrathian long-blade he used expertly with both hands. Shots rang out; this time, a dozen beams hit their mark. The small humanoid was knocked back and onto the metal-plated floor like a rag doll. The dead, pale-skinned creature wore a dark-grey jumpsuit now full of smoking holes, and oozing blood.
The distraction worked, as three more hatches opened; dozens of more dark blurs shot out from all four transports and attacked. Some wielding razor-sharp long-blades, others used only their bare hands.
With the attention now on the new attackers, the dead, blood oozing humanoid jumped up as if nothing had happened, zipped over to another Gulrathie; punched his fist right through the black plastisteel armour and deep into his chest. The titan was dead before he hit the floor.
By now, all one hundred colonists swarmed the giants still left standing. The sounds of Auto-beams being fired in despair were quickly followed by the sounds of gross butchery.
Six hours later....
Constantine lounged on the giant Captain's chair, using the tactical console as a footstool for his laced black boots. He still wore the beam-riddled, dark-grey jumpsuit covered in his own blood. He was a handsome man, with medium length black hair that was neatly combed back, brown piercing eyes, thickish black eyebrows, and an ample but attractive greek statue-like nose. He turned on the ship-wide communications system and spoke into the microphone with an antiquated accent. "Attention, all new crew members of this lovely star cruiser. As I promised, we now have a starship capable of taking us anywhere we wish. Earth thought they could get rid of us by marooning us on this dung-ball of a planet... well, it is interesting how things work out sometimes. First, we will rescue all of our brothers and sisters marooned on the other equally miserable planets. Then, we will return this fine ship to its proper owners," he smiled, revealing his inch-long fangs. "After all, we are vampires, not thieves. As you all have noticed, this Gulrathie blood has some interesting effects. For some reason, it enhances our abilities considerably, albeit, it is an acquired taste, but what a rush," he smiled in ecstasy as he threw his head back.
He got up, walked over to a small porthole, and let the bright light of the star hit his face directly. Something he hadn't been able to do in over two thousand years. "Yes, it is an acquired taste, but a taste I am going to learn to savour."