Edition 27: Green is the Colour of Doom by Russell Hemmell
Raika speaks for the Mantis sorority, a mouthpiece picked from the ashes of one of their battlefields. As they embark on another campaign, their employers may find pause to regret inviting a hive of killing machines to their door. Russell Hemmell brings the hive down to us in this alien annihilation science fiction, and we’re not sure if that’s a good thing for humanity. SY
Blood drops on my face and lips. I taste iron so I know at once which species it belongs to. I open my eyes, fighting headache and stiffness in my joints.
Sharp pains in my left arm as I turn my head to examine the wound. A shining fragment of a blade protrudes from my flesh. I can deem myself lucky that I can still wail.
I extract the splinter while I exhale. This is not my day to die. Not yet.
Casualties: hundred of thousands.
Sorority death: plenty, but enemy spoils will make up for it. We seized all their hatchlings—a few hundred—and most of the nestlings, and we will feast on them. Hatchlings of this species are especially tasty for my sisters, and the nestlings, well…they are in for a cruel entertainment, fighting for survival in hide-and-seek games where the ultimate prize is nothing but a slower agony.
I stand, looking at what is left on the ground. Hell would be a better vision. I see corpses everywhere, some of them of such an uncanny beauty that makes me cringe. Other species would certainly have a better use for these people. But war has only one rule, the rule of the winner, and ours is death.
I watch without blinking as a hatchling tries to fly to safety, her baby wings flapping in a desperate effort. I pity her. She’s courageous, the little one, and brave. She doesn’t deserve my sisters’ viciousness. So I take my blade and sever her throat. Sleep well, beautiful child, free from this galaxy of blood.
The sorority has retired for the day, eating the dead and wounded and preparing for nocturnal celebrations of victory. There’s only me staying behind, as usual. Making operational assessments, strategic choices and dealing with the contractor.
He’s here now, the envoy. He has come, observing, now that the battle is over. He didn’t want to soil his white hands with the actual butchering, and not just for plausible deniability. But that view must be especially pleasing to him. He indulges for more than a moment on that scene of doom, strolling around dead bodies and taking care not to taint his long robe.
“Are you satisfied?” I ask, looking into his yellow eyes.
He doesn’t blink.
“Satisfaction is not at stake here. Power is.” He touches my shoulder, caressing it with studied tenderness. “And you’re not finished yet. The Faen bastard has been murdered, yes, and his strongholds overtaken, but many of his warriors are still alive. They’re at the Green Palace on the other side of the river, and they won’t surrender.”
“They won’t need to. We don’t take prisoners. Isn’t this the very reason you have hired us in the first place?” I look north, where the fortified manor is visible against the darkening sky. “At dawn we’ll break in, and that palace will be green with their blood.”
I step back, giving him a hard look. This is war, not pleasure, my eyes tell him. He doesn’t need to be part of the hivemind to get the message.
“As you prefer, Raika.” He smiles. “Seems your Mantises keep you more than happy.”
I ignore his sarcasm and I walk away, leaving him to the carnage he has bought.
The envoy got it wrong. We, the Mantises, are not in it for happiness either. We are the most efficient killers this galaxy knows. So easily is the point made that no argument has ever been made about it—by anybody. We are the perfect unit of every army, the dream mercenaries, and a guarantee of total victory, no matter the forces on the battlefield.
There is, however, a problem: dealing with us is complicated.
Motivation is the key to everything, but survival is a thing to be reckoned with. Inviting us into the equation can erase the contractor too. That’s the implicit risk of summoning powers you can’t control—like living organisms that belong to truly alien systems. We don’t breathe the same air, eat the same food, or even reproduce like the carbon-based life forms our galaxy is teeming with—so fragile compared to our kind. Difficult not to harm them.
This is why we have lived secluded in our strange but comfortable globular cluster. Planets hellish for other species cuddle us in a frozen embrace.
Until She came to us.
She was the Black Queen of a galaxy set on fire, searching for the ultimate weapon. Soldiers who couldn’t be stopped by the mere casualties of war. Physical capabilities bordering on scientific impossibility, or magic—which amounts, in practice, to the same thing. Killing machines that could bear the unbearable, and commit the most atrocious crimes in the name of victory, without even a notion. Us.
Enquiry after enquiry was met with sheer silence on our part—we didn’t see the reason to bother—so the Queen sent us her envoy, a young male with chiselled features, yellow eyes of a reptile and a quick mind. He landed on Mantis One and came straight to our main hive, where thousands thrive in joyous violence and festive riots.
He addressed me without knowing I was the designated speaker. Yet I was the only one who paid him the compliment of a stare, and I was rewarded with his attentions.
“I come from the Alliance,” he said. “You’re reputed to be the best weapon a side can buy.”
“A reputation? Odd. People that meet us normally don’t live on to tell the story.”
“Not the people who sent me here.”
Ah. This one must be one of them, the species that defies humans for supremacy but that can’t gain against them, no matter what its leadership pretends. So many races, each one for itself and the hell with the rest, as if there were survival beyond the species itself. They should look at us, alive after billions of years and a few cataclysms, to learn the path to supreme power. But they must be a young life form too, and vulnerable, if something as primitive as humans can threaten it.
“You might want to reconsider. There are dangers in mingling with us.” I said. “Mantises are ferocious. Always famished. Silicon-based.”
“This is not the first time our species have met. And Mantises have contributed to the genetic pool the race the Black Queen belongs to.”
I nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard this story. This is why she wants us now? A family reunion?”
“No.” His eyes contracted, ponds of liquid gold. He clearly didn’t like my irony. “She wants you for what you do better.”
I observed my guest with more interest. “Why didn’t you say so immediately? This what Mantises do best, envoy.”
“I know. Now take me to your leaders.”
“We don’t have leaders. The hive is the leader. You talk to me, you talk to all of us.”
Everybody was there, looking at the man from the Alliance.
I could sense the sorority buzzing about the alien now walking across the breathing vaults of our hive. We didn’t like intrusions, of any kind. There was a silent, insinuating, growing desire to dismember that lithe body and taste his blood-dripping flesh. Tender. Smooth. Sleek. Mmmm.
But Controls imposed restraint, and that slithering impulse was ruthlessly smothered. Back off.
Mantises reason in hivemind. While each Mantis is very much on her own when feeding; there’s no real space for individual life among us. You can cut off the head from one, and her body would keep on fighting. At macro level, the same is true.
The envoy will live. For now.
One night he sought me out, inside my cell. He blocked my way out and forced me to sit down.
“What do you want?”
As a reply, he took my face into his hand, studying me with attention. I refrained from pushing him away, hiding my uneasiness under a mask of impassiveness.
“It’s a week I’m here.”
“Is this a question?”
He ignored my remark. “Why, of all those here, is it just you that talks to me? The others ignore my presence. Is it because only you have learnt my language or is there something else I should know?”
I pulled back, gently but with decisiveness. No proximity to the aliens is always a good policy. “It’s because I’m carbon-based like you. The sorority deemed me more suitable to negotiate with your species, even though I don’t belong to it either. I’m just the closest thing.”
I could read a quick flash of surprise into his eyes. “You’re look like them, green and pale and leggy, but you’re human then.”
That was not a question either. And I didn’t answer.
“Why are you with the Mantises?” he asked after a few moment of silence. “Are you their slave?”
“I’m their speaker. The one who make sure the hive interacts with carbon-based life forms in a more productive way.” The sorority was not known for its diplomatic skills, or for any social skills in general. Destruction is the only collective activity we indulge in.
“This is why they left you alive?”
“Partially. It’s more complicated than that.” I added. Not that I wanted to explain him why. What did the ghastly history of an orphan, and of a genocide in a remote land, matter to somebody here searching to incite one? His species was no better. “I’m one of them now, different biology or not.”
He left his regard of me, wandering around the cell. I could see he was taking notice of the details, the odd silhouette of the artefacts: biogenic materials secreted by Labourers; the alien design of the walls; the sleek appearance of the hanging light bulbs. It was as if he was realising only then that cells were alive too, in that twisted, unnatural fashion a silicon-based world functions, where life and non-life are no longer a binary status. I could see him wondering if the cell could hear our talk. It could.
“Are you never lonely?”
“I’m part of the hivemind. We’re in mental syncronicity.”
“It’s not what I meant.”
His hand stretched and caressed mine. I shivered.
I’d been with the Mantises since my early childhood, since they took me as only survivor of my birthplace, and I had never experienced any kind of intimate contact. In their humanoid form, the Mantises look like willowy, green-haired women, but that’s only an assumed shape that the hivemind has devised when adapting to live in environments with conditions more suitable to humans.
In their original forms, Mantises are insectoids that breed by parthenogenesis, and hide eggs in places the hivemind deliberately forgets to avoid devouring them. The hatchlings have to struggle for life from day one, when the scramble of birth and the frenzy of feeding on each other will leave only a few standing. Only at that moment, the ones who stay alive, now adult, will re-join the existing hive, having gained on the field the right of belonging. Sex had no place in the Mantises’ universe, nor did it in mine.
“What’s your name?”
“Mantises have no names.”
“But you did, once upon a time. What was that name?”
I hesitated. Only for a second. “Raika.”
“I can stay for the night, Raika, if you want me to,” he said.
“Why? You don’t look in need of sex.”
“No—but you do.” He changed tone, his voice becoming suave, with a mischievous edge. “I can give you pleasure—something your sisters can’t grant you.”
I observed in silence the young man in front of me. Handsome, polite, merciless.
“Offering me physical comfort won’t buy you any privilege. And you’re not human either,” I replied. “Your species are similar to humans only on a superficial level. Inside, you are as cold as a dead star, and nastier than the sorority. How otherwise could you contemplate the genocide of one of your own races?”
“With serenity, and for a reason. And talking about that…” He smiled for the first time since I met him. “…humans have done the same. Moral principles and the pathetic display of feelings have not helped in keeping millions of them alive.”
His delicate fingers kept caressing my hand, and a sense of nausea grabbed my stomach. I took refuge in the hivemind, and the screech of my adoptive breed offered comfort and quietness. I breathed, controlling my heartbeat, recovering control.
“You’ll always be human, Raika, no matter what you fancy believing,” he said, “and yet, you’re able to keep your emotions and your instincts in check. A pure wonder of science, that’s what you are. You might not excite my senses, but you do stir my curiosity—which doesn’t happen that often.” He continued. “I’d get you away with me, as a part of our deal, if I were a scientist.”
“But a scientist you’re not, for the good of both of us. Goodnight, envoy. Tomorrow you will have the answer of our hive to your Queen’s request.”
I had never missed humans. Nor did I miss sex, or love, or the companionship of a man. You can’t miss what you don’t know. I decided not to get started.
Dawn in this place has the rare quality of a purple haze and electron-charged auroras, which make my sisters’ blades shine.
Their womanlike shape is gone, and now they are their true selves, a terrifying army of huge, six-legged, dark-green insects with armoured exoskeletons and two sets of silver, rotating blades.
I can see the milky reflection of the fading moons on their elytras, whilst they march together, like a giant, metallic centipede, crushing everything in its passage.
We quickly arrive at the Green Palace overlooking the river, its fortified structure is plunged in the dark. Not a sound nor light comes from its windows, but the enemy is alert. We sense it. The Fae race can see us in the dark, into the infrared spectrum, and they know we’re coming for them. Not that is going to change anything. Our enemies are beautiful, proud and powerful, but they don’t stand a chance, like all the others.
We stand immobile on the mired ground, facing the portal. Then, in unison, the most advanced units start targeting the curtain walls with long-range corrosive acid spits, while the second line blades start rolling. Fast.
As soon as the tower falls the enemy appears, in winged battle position and ready to fight.
Kill them. Kill them. Kill them.
The hive howls with its unique mind cry, a primordial surge of bloodshed while the sorority grows thirstier and more famished every second.
Flay them alive.
I perceive the increasing frenzy, and it’s my job now to make sure it is directed to a purpose, instead of exploding in that all-against-all annihilation party blood always triggers in the hive.
Targets loaded. Aim at their wings. Shut them down and exterminate.
The hivemind processes my instructions, and while the first lines keep on stripping down the palace’s walls, the others engage in the fight.
The enemy flies as a coven of demons and inflicts us casualties, but the blades keep slashing them down even when the sisters they are attached to are no longer alive. Body parts scatter, and morsels of dark, cartilaginous wings cover the marble floors, as a carpet of dead animals.
Time slows down in the fighting, even when you’re not in the heat of the action. Mine is a battle of a different kind. While everything swivels and swings, I sit immobile, my senses expanded by the hivemind’s neural receptors.
Concentrate on the weak side of their wings. The vulnerable point just between their spears and the upper bones—strike there.
I keep transmitting operative orders. I am the eye of hurricane, protected by the invisible cobweb of silicate compound Labourers have secreted, which deflects from me the rare blows of the enemy.
Minute after minute after minute the fight intensifies. Slashing elytras and silver blades are now like a dark forest with a thousand trees, and there are so many of them flying upon us that they obscure the rising suns. And one after another they crash and burn, fallen angels or butterflies, broken. It’s raining cold, sticky green, and it’s blood—theirs.
There’s nobody left to slaughter.
The hivemind exults in an inner scream of victory, while the sorority starts withdrawing from the enemy ground. There’s nothing else to seize here, but what we have been granted in exchange by the Black Queen on another planet has already compensated us for our losses.
I leave too, not waiting for the envoy to come. My job is finished. As promised, the Palace has now a new quality of green, one this place, and his species too, is not going to forget. Because my sisters have grown hungry now, and capricious.
Tomorrow, at dawn, before they leave.
After all, we are the Mantises.
Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K, passionate about astrophysics and speculative fiction. Stories in Not One of Us, PerihelionSF, Strangelet, and elsewhere.