Gift Wrapped

This Science Fiction short story is a lead-up to the book titled, Onyalum Wars. The book is part of the Science Fiction Onyalum Series written by NB VanYoos.
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Picture of Trilliu HunterShreshlin remained quiet as distant crunching signaled the approach of his enemy. The metallic sound of their voices caused him to tense as he relived past battles and injuries, but he remained still, the ruse critical to his mission’s success. In these final moments of life, he recalled the voices of the doctors and leaders who had urged him to sacrifice so much in the hopes of freeing his people from the tyranny they had suffered for so long.

“We don’t know why they are here or what they hope to gain!” The main leader had insisted, his emphasis on gain ironic.

“Indeed,” another officer agreed, “we have lost many, and still they remain elusive and mysterious.” His voice insisted desperate measures were required. Shreshlin would be their desperate measures.

The main leader had leaned close, his breath thick with liquor. “Soldier, we cannot afford to lose anymore. We must stop them now, before everything we hold sacred is forever lost.”

Their fear had been a wakeup call, and it steeled Shreshlin’s resolve to strike against his oppressors, the personal cost irrelevant in the face of such indomitable odds. He would make the sacrifice, sparing his world the fate of countless others that had succumbed to the insect horde.

His mind wandered back to the present as his targets surrounded him, their grating voices prickling his nerves while he maintained the ruse. He felt the insect soldiers moving bodies as they sorted the dead from the unconscious, saving the living as sustenance for their hive. But Shreshlin would change that, providing them a gift that would change the course of their occupation of his world.

“Your legs were too badly damaged, son.” The doctor had told him after his unit had been overrun by the insect army. He and two others were the only survivors. “We had to amputate or you would have died!”

At the time, he had felt the ghostly presence of those lost limbs, the words of the doctor not meshing with his sense of reality. But seeing the stumps brought the message home with a newfound vengeance he nursed for the enemy that had denied him his proper life. A life of love, children, and a future that didn’t include a wheelchair.

Love. He would never know anything more than the love of his family and friends. He would never know the intimate touch of a woman, the warmth of their shared bond, and the pleasures of their shared bed. He would forever be a virgin, sacrificing himself to the gods of war, hoping his meager offering would turn the tides of their fortune.

He settled his mind as he felt the dead body above him moved to the side. Alien appendages gently lifted him, their voices indicating he lived. His dead weight was thrown onto a hover-cart with the rest of the meat harvested from a unit that was sacrificed for his mission. They hadn’t even known what was happening, their unit forced to advance against an impossible foe with overwhelming strength.

He had been added to their unit at the last minute, his disability hidden inside his exoskeleton armor. His orders were simple: advance with the unit, survive, and await capture. At the time, it had seemed easy, but the reality had been far worse when the unit came under heavy fire. It took every ounce of energy to remain breathing during that onslaught, and he watched in horror as so many were easily felled. During the unit’s final moments of valor, he had covered himself with the bodies of those that had fought beside him, whispering a prayer as he lifted their lifeless forms to hide his own. His death served a higher purpose.

The inner voices replayed his final days as the cart moved on to the next pile of dead. “Why, son? Why must you fight after losing your legs?” His mother’s voice barely held back tears as he told her of his final mission. Though he hadn’t revealed the details, she understood he wouldn’t return.

“Mom, you know I can’t sit by while more are killed or captured by those abominations!” The tears streamed down his face, but the anger in his voice had been real. “I can’t let you and everyone else in this town be overrun by those mindless monsters!”

She’d taken him in her arms, both sobbing as they remembered the losses they’d suffered at the hands of the insects. Srilin, his older brother, had been the first to die, the early battles clearly indicating the superiority of the insect forces. His father had been next, refusing to stay at home while his world and everyone he’d loved was taken over by aliens. He’d lasted longer than Srilin, returning several times to recount the battles to Shreshlin when his mother was not in the room.

When the letter had come to the house announcing his death, Shreshlin had enlisted that day, forcing his mother to sign the age waiver. She had cried then, too, her tears forming pools of grief on the table as she signed her last child’s death sentence. But she knew what was at stake, and she would not hold him back from duty.

The cart stopped one last time, and Shreslin felt another tear stain his cheek as he relived that final farewell to family and friends. Many hadn’t understood his need to enlist so young, but then, they hadn’t lost so much. He recounted his father’s tales of the enemy, his friends listening silently as they tried to imagine such creatures existed. But now, the broadcasts were open and candid, no longer hiding the reality facing their world. The invasion was complete, the insect city a dark sentinel in the distance, swarms pouring forth in sickening raids to consume the people of this planet.

Shreshlin wouldn’t have it. He’d told his friends he wouldn’t remain passive while innocent lives were torn apart by the plague sweeping over their land. After that, many had joined, their own families dismayed yet proud of their young sacrifice. Most never returned, alive or dead.

His childhood friend, Litishin, had attended training with him, those weeks passing rapidly as they learned everything their world knew about war. He had trained hard, with purpose, and was rewarded with rank even so young and inexperienced. The military’s ranks were being decimated, and anyone showing aptitude to lead was quickly promoted to lead others into battle. And Shreshlin had been one of those leading the charge.

But more often than not, he led them to death, his squads cut down by the merciless insects, their technology and weapons too great when paired with their size and strength. They were impossible to defeat with conventional warfare, and so unusual measures were being employed. His sacrifice might save millions, and that filled him with renewed purpose as the cart hovered across the decimated landscape towards their hive.

He felt a transition as the air became antiseptic and cool. He was inside and his sacred moment drew near. He recalled the briefing of what to expect, the information barely discovered from a soldier who had miraculously escaped during a rare raid on the city itself.

“My injuries had been mostly superficial.” The sergeant had spoken in a cold, clinical voice as he recounted the grotesque processing of live prisoners. “The monsters had repaired me before beginning the processing.” The poor man had witnessed his unit undergo the sickening preparation, and Shreshlin was amazed he could retell the story without breaking down.

“After I was healed and cleaned, I was stripped of all clothing and attached to a rack that carried me into the main processing center.” He voice was precise and distant as he relived the gruesome experience. “Other racks around me were filled with men from my unit, most upside down with their feet shackled to a chain driven line moving us into position.” He paused, the first sign Shreshlin had seen that the experience haunted him. “Thankfully, most were unconscious.”

“I was opposite the men, watching in horror as each was moved into position and processed.” His voice had caught, and Shreshlin had thought he would finally break. But he had swallowed hard before resuming the tale. “After being sprayed with powerful disinfectants, they were positioned beneath a device of needles and hoses. They injected them with an orange substance, the effect immediately causing spasms until the body finally succumbed to the poison. But the needles would not stop, the hoses filling their bodies until they bloated like a balloon, their eyes turning a ghostly white as they bulged from their sockets!”

Now the retelling took its toll, and Shreshlin had been mesmerized by the horrific process that turned ordinary men into food for the hive.

“Finally, their bloated corpses were moved onward, probably into storage.” The sergeant had stopped, his eyes downcast. “Thank you for doing this.” The man’s gratitude had shook Shreshlin, especially after the tight embrace that took his breath away.

Shreshlin felt his cart stop and bodies removed. He was lifted off the cart and placed on a table, his armor and clothing beginning to be stripped from him with surgical precision. His muscles wanted to react, wanted to flee the horror that he knew awaited, but he had taken the muscle relaxant as ordered, his lifeless form appearing unconscious. He wanted to open his eyes, sneak a peek at the monsters who were preparing his unit for dinner, but he remained still, his eyes shut against the ministrations of his captors.

Their voices were like a wire brush against a sheet of steel, and anger surfaced as he imagined them treating the men like meat in a butcher shop. He quickly ran through the process he was to follow, the insect’s discovery of his missing legs soon to occur. The instructions were simple, he only hoped he had enough strength to execute them.

He felt his pants being removed, and the insects began screeching to each other as they spotted the unusual limbs beneath the special, lead-lined cloth. Like gray columns of steel, his legs were made from a metallic substance of particularly high density. He hadn’t really understood when the process had been explained to him, but the metal had properties that could be catastrophic when brought together in sufficient quantity.

Each limb had been carefully machined, the weight nearly impossible for him to move without the exoskeleton. He felt heat radiating from the smooth surface as light and sparks formed between his legs when the two, exposed masses came into close proximity without proper shielding. The final step was simple: Ignite the shaped charges on either side of each leg, slamming the false limbs into each other, creating a critical mass.

The insects clamored as alarms rang through the facility, signaling others of the danger facing their city. Their arrogance and greed had unwittingly brought the destruction into their hive, and like a birthday present, they had opened the gift wrapped device without first identifying if it were man or weapon. It was the last mistake they would ever make.

He barely could move his arms as he opened his eyes to see his enemy before they were obliterated. He inched his fingers down to the center of his waist where the trigger was hidden inside a false waist attaching his metallic legs to his body. He clutched the small trigger with his forefinger and hesitated. The moment slowed as he realized his destiny was about to unfold just as his life ended.

He wanted to say something, to spit in their faces and laugh at their folly. But nothing came to him. He heard the screech of their voices as soldiers were dispatched to avert the logical conclusion. He couldn’t fail now, not when he was so close to success. He opened his mouth slowly, the relaxant making the movement slow and difficult.

“Eat this!” He slurred as soldiers grabbed for his hand.

But they were too late, and the explosion that tore Shreshlin into a million pieces was followed by another that lit the horizon like a new sun dawning.

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