The Skinnie Gambit
a Roughnecks fanfic by Mr. Hook


Having been a starship trooper for most of his adult life, Lt. Juan Rico had traversed orbital space docks so routinely that he rarely retained any memory of his days spent aboard space stations. After all, they were only way-stations to somewhere else, temporary layovers before embarking on the next planetary campaign. But even to the casual space-wary traveller, the K'Lunae spaceport orbiting the planet Klendathu was a sight to behold.

The name of the starport was the first attempt at coining a contracted T'Phetti / Terran word which meant "new moon." It was more of a hollowed-out asteroid than a moon, but it easily dwarfed the permanent SICON military base which orbited the same planet. Unlike its Federation counterpart, the first Skinnie interstellar spaceport was ringed with so many docking stations that the original shape of the asteroid was obscured. Who would have guessed that just five years after the Bug Wars were officially over that the Bugs' abandoned homeworld of Klendathu would become the hub of commerce and star travel for most of the galaxy?

Even though K'Lunae was essentially an annex of the T'Phetti Nationality, the Federation still maintained a high profile military presence there. SICON had been somewhat surprised that the T'Phetti Chancellor had decided to station his headquarters in the Klendathu system, but in retrospect it had been a brilliant move. After the Bug Wars had been put on a prolonged hiatus, Chancellor Kel'Rae had played an instrumental role in luring the Skinnies from the warmth and comfort of their homeworld, Tophet, to settle other quadrants of the galaxy. Consequently, the T'Phetti had become substantial competitors in the interstellar tourist trade. It had become common wisdom that if you wanted to traverse star systems intact and on time you wanted to book a T'Phetti starliner, particularly if you had a meager budget.

As always, Lt. Rico was traveling on SICON's dime and time. He was here to attend a meeting of the joint chiefs of staff which had been called by Chancellor Kel'Rae himself. Rico couldn't tell how old the T'Phetti Chancellor was just by looking at him. He was pretty sure that Kel'Rae walked with a pronounced limp that he hadn't noticed before as the Skinnie stepped up to the lectern to deliver his presentation. Aside from the ornate robes designating the Chancellor's high office, his only other distinguishing characteristic was that all of the skin the right side of his face was blackened and rigid, apparently the result of a helmet breach accident that had happened early in his career.

The conference room was unlike any other SICON briefing room that Rico had ever attended. The huge desk in the middle of the room was spliced in half by reenforced plexiglass. The far side of the room was pumped full of yellowish T'Phetti methane atmosphere while the other side of the room where Rico sat was perfectly suitable for human breathing and talking. Hence the chancellor and his T'Phetti entourage were able to speak face to face with the assembly of SICON generals and Special Forces big-wigs on the other side of the glass partition.

Since every member of Rico's squad had been decorated with the highest honors SICON had been allowed to bestow in the aftermath of the Bug Wars, much to his own chagrin, Rico had qualified as the Special Forces big-wig to represent the Mobile Infantry division at this meeting. It was the first time he had dusted off his dress uniform since he had completed Officer's Training. He supposed General Redwing thought she was doing him a favor by letting him sit at the conference table in her stead, but these high profile briefings always made him nervous. He would be expected to remember most of what was said here today and report back directly to General Redwing. Naturally, none of these security sensitive proceedings would be recorded, so he was going to have to stay sharp and alert while sitting in a comfy conference chair for the next hour or so. Thankfully, Chancellor Kel'Rae had mostly interesting things to say.

"Esteemed delegates, alllow me to offer you all my sincere welcome," Chancellor Kel'Rae intoned without any trace of a T'Phetti accent, "As you are no doubt well aware, there are several rumors floating around in Fed-Net news circles concerning the lifeforms now openly being referred to as 'Zillas' by the SICON Intelligence Bureau. It is my contention that most of these rumors should be laid to rest by a formal press release. It is for this reason that I have called you all here today. My proposal is that we release to the public as much information as possible, even to the rival Universal News Newtork, if only as a sign of good faith." The fact that the Chancellor had a personal financial stake in the stock holdings of the fledgling UNN enterprise went without saying.

"So, let us review what is known -- and what is currently unknown -- concerning our encounters with this new species," Kel'Rae continued, "It has been confirmed that 'Zillas' are the native life-forms of Planet XLS-6, the sixth planet of the Xanadu system in Sector 74. These lizard-like creatures apparently went into some type of suspended animation in order to elude capture by the Arachnids, exact times and dates yet unknown. Each Zilla specimen retrieved thus far has shown signs of advanced cybernetic limb augmentation, as well as artificially enhanced brain activity. In fact, when stripped of their cybernetic implants, the Zillas seem to revert to a primitive state, not unlike similar species native to Xanadu VI."

The holographic display embedded in the center of the desk modeled the relevant star charts as Kel'Rae mentioned them. Rico noticed that the holo-grid was also cut in half by the plexiglass partition and wondered if there were actually two separate grids working in unison since the imagery didn't seem to be at all distorted on the other side of the partition.

"Contrary to initial reports, the Zillas do not seem to posses a 'hive' mind. If their demeanor on the field of battle is any indication, the Zillas are highly protective of their individuality and will attack with caution and deliberation. They clearly value their own lives for their own sakes, in clear contrast to the Arachnid's mindless survivalist ethic. Current systems theory proposed by Intel purports that each Zilla has a unique 'personality' which can be downloaded from the equivalent of a computer main-frame at the point of resuscitation, though this is yet unconfirmed."

The models rotating in the display were presumably taken from holographic scans of actual specimens. The images reminded Rico of dinosaurs and pictures of dragons from books he had read as kid. But these limber dinos looked like they were wearing metallic armor that had been grafted directly into their skin, their lizard-like scales blending seamlessly with the weave of metallic limb augmentation. Some limbs resembled gun-barrels or ended in metallic tentacles instead of claws. The specimens varied in size and shape, but each wore a sort of visor to protect (or enhance?) their eyes.

"There are no reported successes of establishing communications with the Zillas thus far. They seem to communicate with each other on a quasi-telepathic level. If this is in fact the case, then no human psychic has yet broken the telepathic code in which they converse. No evidence has been found of a written language, representational artistic expression, or even rank insignia. Despite their apparent lack of culture, the Zillas currently posses star-travel and tote a mass-produced armory. They also seem particularly adept at designing mechs which allow them to traverse a wide variety of terrains and atmospheres. So far the Zillas have only attacked neighboring star systems where enough archeological evidence has been found to suggest that they are attempting to reclaim former territories they relinquished during the Arachnid conflict."

One of the Chancellor's aids touched a control and the holo-display switched off so that Kel'Rae's grim visage held the delegation's attention.

"However, the question as to their origin remains. Did some advanced race genetically engineer this species as a soldier caste? This seems a more likely explanation than the assumption that the Zillas could have achieved their current level of cybernetic technology without literacy or mathematics. But then what became of this hypothetical 'master' race? Were they driven into extinction by the Arachnids? Or do they still lie in hiding, waiting to someday reclaim their property? Were the Zillas left behind as a fighting force of last resort or as a decoy so their masters could attempt to escape the Arachnids' wrath? Speculation abounds, but until communications can be established, no one knows for certain what the Zillas' agenda is, or even if they are capable of directing the course of their own destiny.

"I will now attempt to address any concerns or questions you might have," Kel'Rae finished.

The Intel representatives wanted to leave any speculation about the Zillas' origins out of a formalized press release, to which Kel'Rae answered that if Fed-Net did not discuss such questions openly, the rumor mills would drown out any reasoned explanation later on. Rico knew that despite Kel'Rae's financial interests in the UNN angle, the Chancellor's own experience had taught him that concealing information from the public only served to sow distrust. Kel'Rae had used that distrust to his own political advantage on more than one occasion, including the incident that had elevated him from a lowly ambassador to the chancellorship of an entire planet. Kel'Rae was attempting to prevent Intel from repeating its previous mistakes. If they were smart they would listen. If not...well, they would just have to lie in whatever bed they made for themselves. That would suit Rico just fine.

As Rico left the meeting, he was completely at ease about the idea of a 'Zilla' press release. What he was not at ease about was the basic unknown Kel'Rae had posed to the joint chiefs. It did seem unlikely that the Zillas could have achieved space flight on their own. So who had given it too them? For what reasons? And to what end?

Rico chuckled to himself. He never thought he'd live to see the day when he actually missed Robert "Paper Boy" Higgins. Where was a good journalist when you needed one?

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