The Immortal Roman Empress Chapter 34: Soylent
Chapter 34: Soylent
Sam would have thought nobody could talk while falling thousands of miles per hour through the sky. Needles jabbed into his veins, pumping him with some adrenaline-based substance that kept him conscious. That didn’t help him stop the blood pumping in his head or his teeth from tearing into the makeshift gag. Evidently despite the marvels of modern technology in the year 2224, engineers thought “Fuck it” and decided a simple cloth gag would be the best way to prevent your teeth from biting your tongue in a drop pod falling onto Thembolla’s surface.
“So I heard Solano is fucking researching corvette assembly yards!” little Joey screamed, somehow managing to keep his damn mouth open without tearing his tongue into pieces.
“Mmm hmmm Mmmey!” Ioannes tried to scream through his gag. Of course. Just his luck. Out of all the gags on the ship, it had to be Joey’s that tore off.
“Sorry Lieutenant,” Joey said. “Can’t hear you over the sound of freedom we’re about to deliver!”
Sam couldn’t believe he was on a drop pod about to land on the Thembolan home world. Just a few months ago he was ready to be executed, but luck or the Empire or God or whatever combination saved his lucky ass. And now, with an invasion force of at least one hundred million, the Roman Empire was striking back.
Yes. One hundred million. It apparently was a logistical nightmare equipping and transporting all of these soldiers, but the Imperium was expecting heavy resistance. The Thembolans were used to war. They’ve been under siege and fighting the Tezekian birds for years.
Unlike the xenoi slaves in the navy, none of the Roman army were aliens. About a tenth of them had served in an armed profession, whether it be the legions or guard duty—or in Sam’s case, as a rogue soldier. Training was only about two weeks as bumbling volunteers were refreshed on maneuvers and complicated hand signals and more tactics they didn’t learn in their compulsory one-year of military service. While there was quite frankly surprising amount of transports—just where did the Empire build all of these things?—there wasn’t enough for the army. Private ships were “donated” to the cause.
“Y’know, I also fucking heard Qoclite Prime is being attacked!” Joey yelled.
“Mmm hmmmm mmmm!” Sam tried to say this time, but the gag prevented him.
“It’s the fucking purple crabs!” Joey said. “The hell their names are again? Aztani? Fuck if I know how they got here so quickly. It’s gonna be a fucking race to see who invades who first. Anyways—”
Thankfully, Sam didn’t have to hear him—why did Joey have to spew out his mouth during the drop?—but then the familiar sound of laserfire pelted around him before he could even adjust to the sudden sunlight.
There was blind panic and gunshots as Sam felt blood splatter lick his face. He squinted his eyes, trying to focus his aiming reticle. His mechanized arms slowly and carefully pulled out his pistol from his holster as he fired. He knew his colleagues made the wrong decision, trying to pull out their rifles in the cumbersome pod.
His aim found mark after mark after mark. Normally, his pistol wouldn’t do much damage to the Thembolan mechas: that’s why they had these bulky, modified AK-74 rifles. But these Thembolans were stark naked, scarred and grizzled. They instantly popped when the pistol shots struck.
“Cease fire!” Lieutenant Ioannes roared. There were still some laser shots. “Cease fire!” he yelled again, waving his arms.
Sam broke—yes, broke—out of his chair when the squad stopped shooting. It wasn’t like the drop pods were reusable. His newly crafted steel alloy limbs easily tore through his arm restraints and once Sam stepped outside, he surveyed the view.
Themborr, or Thembolla, or Thembolia–or however the Thembolans wanted to pronounce it—was primarily an ocean planet with a few continents. The immediate scent of salt overwhelmed his nose. They were outside the city of Thuunolg. Not the capital city, or frankly probably not even a city that Emperor Thuunolg had visited, but one named after him.
The ocean lapped at his feet. Against his better judgement, he cupped his metal hands and took a sip. It was saltier, much saltier than the sea back in Constantinople. He then took a moment to observe the city. Just like their ships, the bean’s buildings were large and black. Well, they looked like they would’ve been large and black when they were still standing. Only some ruined ground foundations remained now, but Sam could tell that the buildings once extended to the clouds, much higher than normal human buildings.
“Sam, get the fuck down!” Joey screamed. Sam instinctively ducked as laser fire pewed over his head. The sand dug into his joints, but that was fine. These new metal limbs had a small mesh layer preventing any small debris from entering.
“Fucking close call there mate,” Joey said, trudging over and lending a hand. With a mechanical whir, Sam pulled himself up. “Those pissants can last quite a few minutes underwater. Gotta keep an eye out.”
“Thanks, Joey,” Sam grunted, looking at the deflated bean corpses being reclaimed by the ocean. They really did look like popped balloons.
“No problem, buddy old pal,” Joey said, banging on Sam’s arm. “Man, pretty sweet rig you got there. Not as cool as Ioannes’s, but hey, it’ll get the job done. Hey, maybe I’ll get one of my arms chopped off. Then we’ll be like the fucking three armless musketeers or something ya know?”
“I don’t think you should want to lose a limb.”
“Oh right, did you hear about the fucking debris the Thembolan fleet left behind?” Joey said, ignoring Sam. “They fucking found shit about coilguns! And nanocomposite materials! Man lasers are fucking cool, but coilguns!”
“Cut the chatter you two,” Ioannes said. He signaled to the rest of the squad which consisted of about fifty members, all clambering out of the drop pods. Except for Sam, Joey, and Ioannes, none of them had seen any action and were not veterans of the Jhoolian invasion. “We’ll be grouping with some of the other squads to take Thuunolg.”
“Ooh, look at Ioannes, trying to act like a fucking respectable person now,” Joey said. He raised his shrill voice even higher. “Hey privates! Did y’all know that our fucking Commander wants to sleep with his sister?”
Ioannes’s face flushed a brilliant scarlet, but he didn’t comment and mumbled to himself as the squad made their way into the city.
“Advance!” Ioannes screamed, blowing a whistle. Yes, a whistle. In the year 2224, they were still using whistles. “Advance! Push them back! Advance!”
Sam could hear the familiar whistling sound of artillery sail above. He would’ve thought that artillery would’ve been updated to 23rd century standards, but apparently they still used munitions in their weaponry. He couldn’t argue with the results, however. Seeing a shell crack open a hidden bunker like an egg, he wished they had artillery during their invasion of the Jhoolian home world.
“Move up Private!” Ioannes yelled, grabbing Sam by the scruff of his neck. Sam didn’t budge, and just glared at his commander.
“Oh, it’s you,” Ioannes said. He leaned down instead in the small ditch they were in. “Fuck. Didn’t think we’d be in a major battle after so long of just dicking around. Just how did they muster so many beans?”
They ducked at the sound of a nearby explosion. The Thembolans were using their own, modern artillery rounds, ones that burst into brilliant blue flames wherever it landed. They couldn’t use it often—most of their arsenal was blown into smithereens by the Imperial navy. But every once in awhile some poor human would get obliterated. Sam was only grateful that if he was killed by a bean shell, death was instant.
“Hey, let’s fucking move it. Now, now!” Ioannes said, blowing his whistle again. He slapped Sam’s ass which motivated him to move more than anything.
He dashed through the manmade valley. Remnants of giant skyscrapers, a testament to the former glory of the Thembolans, laid in ruins. They were roughly shaped like some weird gates to the main street.
This street was normally obscured by the many skyscrapers, dark and hidden from the modern glory of the Thembolan city. But now Sam could see it used to be grand. Extending at least 100 meters across, Sam could see the remnants of merchant stands and fancy fountains. If he wasn’t worried about dying he would’ve imagined a typical bean day: selling bread, buying some cool new gadget at a store, or whipping a slave.
Imperial generals had pondered for weeks on how to attack one of the last Thembolan resistances in the city of Thuunolg. They apparently excavated a large underground cavern, probably made during their war against the Tezekian birds. Located smack in the middle of the city, there was too much debris around it except on the entrance in main street. Attempts at artillery from both the navy and ground-mounted cannons had no effect; apparently the fortifications were too strong.
Many plans were drawn up but scrapped. While they could’ve probably starved them out eventually, time was of the essence. The human colony of Qoclite Prime was also under siege from the Aztani, so the quicker they could siege, the better. In fact, time was so much of a factor that the Imperial navy wasn’t even orbiting Thembolia anymore; they were sieging Jurg-Upaadgh, the second and only other bean planet.
In the meantime, regular soldiers just patrolled the area, occasionally being shuttled off to some other city that needed additional reinforcements. Food in the form of terrible tasting green soylent and soldier pills were airdropped every day.
There was an order from high command to not harm any civilians, but the officers who passed the order had a “wink wink nudge nudge.” And so the slaughter. There weren’t too many Thembolans just wandering around—perhaps they wised up after the purge-hungry Tezekians attacked. But the few Thembolans who did wander into the sights of a rifle stood no chance.
And so, after the weeks of patrolling, occasionally killing a mecha, or watching some soldiers shoot a bean, HQ decided the best way to attack the fortification was just a frontal charge through the main street. As he ran across the ditches and jumped over small mounds, Sam wondered how much the generals were paid. He could’ve came up with this plan in just a few minutes.
He cursed as a particularly large enemy shell hit the ground near him. His legs faltered and he fell, tumbling into a small ditch as he covered his ears. He still heard a ringing in his ears a few minutes later. He silently yelled at the fact that high command wouldn’t give them any kind of noise-cancelling equipment. Their reasoning was that ear damage could easily be fixed afterwards. What kind of faulty logic was that? That was like saying it was better to let a house burn down instead of putting it out with water because it was easier to build up afterwards.
As Sam was contemplating how cool and smooth the ditch felt, he felt a small body collide next to him. “Hey, it’s you!” said a pip-squeaked voice. Even as old as Joey was, about thirty—or maybe forty by now?—Joey still had that same annoying voice. “I knew I’d recognize that fucking exoskeleton anywhere. So how are ya doing champ? Oi, this fucking reminds me of this popular series I’ve read when I was a kid. ‘Twas about how the Immortal Imperator never rose to power and the world was in a bunch of shitty ass countries around the 1940s. Anyways there’s like a world war and these bunch of allied provinces decided to invade Normandy to stop barbarian Germany. They have this special day called D-Day and it really reminds me of this moment because—”
Sam decided the ditch was less cool and smooth than he thought. His ears were still paining him, but it was sure better than listening to Joey.
After a while the aftershocks was just like a heart’s beat to him. He stopped paying attention to the shouts of men screaming for their mothers or the women in disbelief at their falling intestines. It was just like a rhythm. One step, two step, dead Roman, three step. Four step, five step, detached head, six step. Pretty morbid. That’s what ten years in space jail would do to a man, Sam thought.
Eventually, unbelievably, he made it to just outside the fort. Er, it wasn’t a fort—more like a sunken base. It would’ve been indistinguishable from the surrounding, war-torn environment if it wasn’t for various holes in the ground which fired out artillery rounds every few seconds.
“Took a while for you to get here, Private,” Lieutenant Ioannes said, crouching near one of these holes. He winced when the hole seemed to explode near him. “I think I’m deaf now,” he said. “You’re gonna have to shout a bit.”
“What’s the situation?” Sam half-shouted, half-yelled.
“The beans got a real nasty situation here,” Ioannes yelled back. “We’ve figured out why we can’t just shell this place to bits. They’ve coated the top of this base with a lubricant that’s like a massive jelly—it kinda just absorbs any explosion.”
“How the hell didn’t we scout this out earlier?”
“HQ thought it was just water from our satellite scans. We couldn’t get a closer look because they shoot down any drones that get too close,” Ioannes said.
“Headquarters are idiots,” Sam said. “Why didn’t the beans use this jell-o like, anywhere else? And please tell me high command has a plan B so we didn’t lose a bunch of lives.”
“Hell if I know. Maybe it’s too expensive? Maybe they invented it too late? Either way, HQ has a few ideas.”
The hole near them fired another shell, and they both jumped. “For God’s sake,” Ioannes muttered. “Hey, have you seen Joey? I need him.”
“Did you just say you wanted to talk to Joey?” Sam said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ioannes said. “Listen, Joey’s the dude with the plan B you were talking about. I need him here.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sam said, yelling even louder than before. “The higher-ups trusted Joey with this? Joey? Of all people?”
“Listen, first of all it was my idea,” Ioannes said. Sam was about to protest even further but Ioannes gave him a look. “I know, I know. But honestly I gave it to him because I was hoping he would blow himself up and—“
“What’s this about blow myself up?” Joey said, scooting his way between the two men.
“Nothing, private,” Ioannes said. “Plan A failed. We’re moving on to B. Got the goods?”
“Aye aye, Cap,” Joey said. He pulled out his backpack, unfurling a pretty inconspicuous grey cube that was marked with a skull and two crossbones. It was about a foot long in all directions, and Sam’s mind raced through all of the possibilities. Poison? No, Ioannes said blow himself up. A nuke? No, high command wouldn’t trust a nuke to Joey, right? Right?
Ioannes placed his thumb on what apparently was a small indent. The cube then roared to life as the skull and crossbones changed to a giant 10.
“It feels great being a Palaiologoi for times like these,” Ioannes said, marveling at the cube. The symbol then turned to a 9. “See, they only let Palaiologos blood authenticate this. For extra security.”
“Oh, so that’s how you fucking open it,” Joey said. An 8 appeared. “Been trying to figure out how they fucking sealed it. Oi Cap, why did they give it to me? Even they were fucking confused when they said that you requested for me, a private, to deliver it.”
“HQ said that I should name the person that would always come to me no matter the circumstance,” Ioannes said. Now a 7. “At first I was going to give it to Sam, but then I had a better idea. You.”
“Well, don’t I feel honored,” Joey said. 6.
“Don’t. Because for some fucking reason your annoying ass always finds me,” Ioannes said. He actually started gritting his teeth when the cube showed a 5. “Do you realize that I’ve somehow seen you more than my own beloved sister? Even though you’re the most annoying piece of shit in the world? For God’s sake, do you know how much hair I’ve lost due to your stupid voice?”
“Guys?” Sam said as the number changed to a 4. “What’s in the device? We don’t want it to finish the countdown, right?”
“Well, excuse me,” Joey said, ignoring Sam. It was now a 3. “My old buddy Sam here thinks I’m his real greatest pal, right? He saved my ass so many times, much more than he saved yours. No one else thinks I’m annoying, or they would’ve fucking bought it up. Now how about you just keep your opinions to yourself Commander. Or better yet, stay back at your fucking palace so you can fantasize about the Imperator all day long.”
“What did you just say to your commanding officer?” Ioannes said, fumes coming out of his ears. “I swear to God Joey, I’m going to rip your windpipe out of your throat and stuff it so far up your—”
Sam couldn’t take it. When the box showed a 2, he pulled it out of Ioannes’s hands and chucked it down the artillery hole.
“Hey! What was that for?” Joey squeaked, and Sam actually tore his helmet off and slammed it to the ground.
“ARE YOU TWO KIDDING ME I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE BOTH ARGUING WHEN THE BOMB’S TICKING ON A TIMER HOW STUPID CAN BOTH OF YOU GET?”
“Relax, man,” Ioannes said. “I was going to toss it in when the timer hit one. Sheesh. Anyways, in case you’re wondering, it contains Greek fire.”
“Greek fire?” Joey said, completely forgetting the previous conversation. “Are you kidding me? I thought the recipe has been fucking lost!”
“Duh, of course not,” Ioannes said. “Just because it hasn’t been used in centuries doesn’t mean they don’t know how to make it. In fact, they’ve amped it up over the years. Now they’re pretty sure it’ll work on that jell-o substance the beans have. I’ve told you that HQ thought it was similar enough to water for the Greek fire to work.”
“Er, you mentioned something like that,” Sam said. Suddenly, he felt the dirt and concrete and debris beneath him get very, very hot, and he scrambled back on all fours. “Holy shit. You’re right. It actually worked.”
Joey had a strange look on his face. For some reason his mouth seemed to be…watering?
“Joey, stop,” ioannes said. “As your commanding officer, I forbid you to stop thinking whatever you’re thinking.”
“Say, I’ve been getting pretty fucking bored of soldier pills and soylent green,” Joey said. “And right now, some beans are getting roasted in some boiling water. Anybody ever wonder what beans taste like?”
“Dude, you’re disgusting,” Sam said, shaking his head.