Into The Dark Zone
a Roughnecks fanfic by Mr. Hook

This is my second attempt at Roughnecks fan fiction. It takes place in the unforeseeable future of the Roughnecks universe (as of this writing) so I’d probably better clue you in to my own personal assumptions about how the first season of Roughnecks will end (assuming it ever has a proper ending!).


1. The Bug Queen is dead. The humans have triumphed over Bugkind, but at tremendous cost to the Human race. There might be some backwater planets where surviving Brain Bugs will try to stage a come-back someday, but not today.

2. Carl has been re-assigned to Intel. Carl is one of my favorite characters, and I’d hate to see him go, but using “Rico’s Roughnecks” as a template, Carl is no longer a member of Alpha Squad.

3. All of the troopers under Rico’s command in episode 36 (Spirits of the Departed) survived the final battle for Earth.

This story is a sequel to my first fanfic, “Human Beings Are Like That,” but hopefully this story can stand on its own without having to read the previous one. We start with a reunion (of sorts) on the planet Tophet approximately one year after Humanity has proven itself victorious in the First Interstellar Bug War:


Sergeant Charlie Zim watched in silence as Rico’s Roughnecks stood at attention in a small semi-circle around the huge funeral pyre. He had never been to the planet Tophet before, and he sincerely hoped it would be his last. He wasn’t complaining, mind you, but the never-ending daylight was starting to get on his nerves. He could see why some SICON wise-acre had named the planet after looking up the word “Hell” in a thesaurus.

Actually, the funeral pyre was more of a naturally occurring geyser of flame that leapt out of the ground at regular intervals. Lt. Rico and Pvt. T’Phai stood at the edge of the rickety metal platform surrounding the flame-bursting lava pit. They both held tightly to either end of a rolled up ornamental rug which contained the remains of whatever was left of T’Phai’s deceased wife, L’Whar. Timing their swing carefully, they tossed the rug into the pit just as the geyser’s flames kissed the sky.

It seemed to Zim like an undignified sort of ritual, but hey, it couldn’t have been any stranger that tossing a man’s ashes out over a lake back on Earth. That is what the Roughnecks had done for Jean Razak’s funeral, and Zim hadn’t been able to make it to that one. So the least he could to was stand and salute the memory of T’Phai’s late wife, just as T’Phai had done for Razak by standing on the platform of a retrieval boat looking out over the murky depths of Luna Lake, probably marveling that humans had such ‘undignified’ ways of treating their dead.

Most of Razak’s original squad happened to be here for this funeral. If they felt anything awkward or strange about the Skinnie dump-tossing ritual, they certainly didn’t show it. Max Brutto had been unusually well behaved since Brutto Sr. had arrived on Tophet. Still confined to a hover-chair, Brutto Sr. had probably gone to considerable expense to be here, but he clearly wasn’t going to pass up any chance to do right by T’Phai. Richard “Doc” Lacroix and Jeff Gossard were in fine form, as was Isabelle “Dizzy” Flores. Zim had an uncomfortable suspicion that Flores and Lt. Rico were pursuing a romantic entanglement of some kind when they were off duty. In Zim’s experience, these sorts of entanglements could be rough on a squad, but Rico was off to Officer’s Training camp in a matter of days, so maybe that situation would resolve itself.

Robert “Paper Boy” Higgins was there, of course, surprisingly with no camera attached to his hand. Zim was sure he had seen that boy without his Fed-Net mandated eye-spy before, he just couldn’t remember any instances off the top of his head.

There were also three other Skinnies in attendance. It took some getting used to, seeing the Skinnies in their native dress rather than the familiar exo-suits worn by SICON Skinnie recruits in every other quadrant of the galaxy. Now it was the humans who were trapped inside Power Suits while the Skinnies dressed in any garb they pleased. The two shorter Skinnes standing solemnly next to T’Phai were presumably his children, T’Phal and M’Rett. Zim couldn’t tell just by looking at them which one was the male and which was the female, though presumably any Skinnie could tell the difference easily. Although Zim often had difficulty discerning individual Skinnie facial features, Skinnies did have moss-like patterns splattered on their heads and faces, each pattern markedly different from the other. Based on what little Zim knew of Skinnie physiology, he did know that if the dark green markings on their faces ever turned purple or dark grey, this was a sign of malnutrition or sunlight deprivation. Skinnies didn’t just rely on sunlight to regulate their body temperatures, they relied on the sun to help grow the moss-like patches on their heads in order to supply vital nutrients to their bodies. After all, it wasn’t like they were going to find an open body of water to drink from on the boiling surface of the planet Tophet.

The fully grown Skinnie standing next to T’Phai’s children would certainly have been easy to spot in a crowd, even in a whole crowd of Skinnies. What made this Skinnie’s facial features so striking was that nearly half his face appeared to be completely blackened. It was if someone had delibereately spray-painted the side of his head. The other side of his face was densely green, as if trying to strive for some sort of misguided symmetry. There were SICON emblems senciled on the Skinnie’s shoulder pads, and he seemed to be the only Skinnie present wearing what passed on Tophet for a military uniform. Zim could only assume that this was Kel’Rae, the T’Phetti Ambassador to Earth. He had been told the Ambassador would be in attendance for the funeral, but he had not been told why. Zim could only conclude that the ambassador must have been a friend of the family, if not a close relative.

T’Phal and M’Rett began to sing a soft and lilting funeral dirge. The chords kept changing at intervals that seemed off-tempo to the human ear. It probably would have helped if Zim spoke T’Phetti, but he didn’t, so all he could do was try to maintain some semblance of dignified poise until the ceremony was over. But still his attention drifted. He was present in body, but his mind journeyed elsewhere until it screeched to a halt when Zim realized that he was worried about something.

Charlie Zim was not the worrying sort. He didn’t usually pay much attention to problems that weren’t affecting him in the here and now. In the heat of battle any distraction only slowed you down. But having spent almost a whole year with the Roughnecks on little more than glorified border patrols and mop-up missions, Zim found that he had more and more time to worry about things. He almost wished he had stayed behind at Camp Currie to continue his efforts in turning young men and women into soldiers. Now there was a job that never got boring or cut you any slack. Not enough downtime to let your mind get bogged down with trivia and suspicions.

But these days Charlie Zim has suspicions galore. Maybe the it was just the perpetual daylight playing on his nerves, but in a way it was the daylight itself that worried him. While everyone was standing here on the warm and toasty “Day” side of the planet Tophet, there was also a “Night” side. And it had only recently come to Zim’s attention that no Skinnie ever visited the Night side. Ever. He didn’t blame them, of course. As if the Suns boiling away the surface of the Day side weren’t bad enough, the frozen wastelands on the Night side probably weren’t any friendlier to biological life. When the axis of your planet was perpendicular to the orbital plane of the Suns, it wasn’t like you’d expect to find anything alive on the planet’s southern hemisphere. It was a bit like Kel’Rae’s visage, black and lifeless on one side while green and fertile on the other. All things considered, no Skinnie would ever have a reason visit the dark and lifeless side of the planet Tophet. But from a strategic standpoint...

From the strategic perspective of SICON Intel, the Night side would have been an ideal site to put up a refueling depot or a weapons cache. A permanent “Cool Zone” that would be free of enemy interference, back when the Skinnies had been considered enemies, before SICON realized the Skinnies were the unwilling servants of the Bugs.

Of course, now that the war was over and the planet Tophet was a member state of the Strategically Integrated Coalition Of Nations, there would be no reason to maintain such a base. Still, the fact that the T’Phetti Council of Elders had only designated the Day side of the planet as T’Phetti property seemed fishy to Zim somehow. It sounded like precisely the sort of bureaucratic oddity Intel would take an interest in. Zim knew how Intel people were. They were the “Big Picture” people. Always planning ahead, always trying to anticipate contingencies that may or may not play out over the course of decades, even centuries.

Zim was not that sort of thinker. Again, he was strictly a “here and now” kind of guy. It was probably one of the reasons he had never been promoted beyond Sergeant, and also one of the reasons why he had never actively sought a higher rank. But he could feel in his gut that all was not as it seemed on the planet Tophet.

Zim caught himself staring at the darker half of Ambassador Kel’Rae’s face again and looked away, feeling foolish. Zim wondered if other Skinnies found the blackened side of Kel’Rae’s head to be remarkable or if it was something one didn’t mention in polite conversation. He suspected the latter. He also suspected Kel’Rae’s presence at this funeral probably had some sort of political or social ramification that he hadn’t grasped yet. But all he had were suspicions.

So he just stood at attention and pretended to listen to the mournful, disturbingly offbeat music.

And he worried.

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