The human crumpled toward the floor. I moved in a blur, catching her before she could hit the deck plating. I cradled her in my arms and rushed her to the med bay.
My tattoos flashed. She was my match for certain. I couldn’t wrap my head around the implications because I was concerned for her safety. The only thing I knew for certain was she seemed both pretty and sweet. She told me I had kind eyes.
Dr. Ikari’s eyes widened when I walked in, carrying the woman.
“Well,” he said, gesturing toward the nearby exam table. “I’d just been informed we were getting another passenger, and a human at that. Is this your match?”
“Yes,” I said, laying her carefully on the table. I brushed a soft ebony lock of hair out of her eyes.
“That may be premature. This human appears to be defective.”
“Between being matched with Vaznik warrior, the trauma of the translator implantation, and instantaneous matter transportation, it’s quite normal her system was overwhelmed.”
He ran a scanner over her. I waited nervously nearby, trying to peer over his shoulder even though the readings meant almost nothing to me. I recognized blood pressure—humans had a naturally lower rate than us, I noted—and her heart rate, which seemed slow but steady.
“Her vitals look good. I think after a brief rest she’ll be back on her feet in no time.”
I sighed, letting out a lot of tension with the gasp air. My match would recover. The doctor said this was all normal.
“Thanks, Doc.” I turned toward the door to leave. “I know she’s in good hands.”
“Where are you off to?”
“I’m leading an away team down to the planet’s surface.”
“Glory and honor be yours,” he said, bowing his head.
“Glory and honor,” I replied.
I met my team in the shuttle bay, next to the supply lockers. They were gearing up already as I joined them.
“So glad you could make it, fearless leader,” Raxor said with a grin.
“I had another matter to attend to,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” Vrako, a lanky, yellow Vaznik who always thought the things he said were wittier than they actually were. “I heard Kavok here got matched.”
“Holy shit, congratulations,” Raxor said.
“Is she pretty?” Asked the big, stout, red Sakor.
“In a word, no,” said Jakar, our blue final member. “She’s a human. They have that smooth skin, no horns, I mean, did you know they’re all hairless primates?”
“And we’re evolved from a creature that used to nest in dung piles. What’s your point?” I snapped. I didn’t like him saying things like that about my mate even though we’d just met.
“Um, I don’t have a point,” Jakar said, holding his hands up. “Easy, Kavok. Easy.”
I stopped bristling and turned toward the lockers.
“Everyone pack an extra med kit. We have no idea what we’re going to encounter in that station. There could be wounded.”
“There could be hostiles,” Raxor added.
“There could be Suhlik.”
“There could be nothing,” Taxan said.
“True, but I’d rather bring the extra gear and not need it than be fucked once we get to the station.”
“What were they researching here anyway?” Vrako asked as he secured an extra med pack to the brown, animal-hide webbing on his uniform.
“From what I understand, there’s some kind of ancient ruins of an unknown race. It’s an archeological dig. Boring as fuck, most likely.”
“Yeah, but I heard Drayk saying some of the artifacts were still active and powered up, even after tens of thousands of years.”
“That’s wishful thinking on Drayk’s part,” I said. “You know how much he loves a good fight. I still think we’re going to go down there and find out they have a busted comm unit or something.”
“Maybe we should do a pool?” Raxor asked.
“That’s a great idea,” Vrako said. “My creds are on some kind of savage alien life form with acid for blood and a xenophobic outlook.”
“Damn, that’s what I was going to say,” Sakor said.
“I bet that there’s some kind of interstellar gate that taps into a dimension where time moves slowly, and everyone is frozen in place.” Jakar said, pantomiming being stuck in time.
“That’s also what I was going to say,” Sakor said. “Damn it, dude.”
The doors slid open behind me. I had my back to them, but from the way the rest of the crew stood at attention I figured it must have been an officer.
I turned around to stand at attention as well. The sight of Captain Soanzo didn’t surprise me. He often stopped to give last minute instructions to away teams.
The surprise turned out to be Helena Jones, my match. She’d recovered, apparently, which was of great relief to me. She no longer wore her civilian clothing, but one of the non-military crew flight suits. The body-hugging garment accentuated her curvy figure well. I took a long moment to appreciate just how well, when Captain Soanzo spoke.
“At ease, warriors.”
“What’s she doing here, Captain?” I asked.
“Admiral Aussym’s orders. He doesn’t want any matches separated so soon unless absolutely necessary. Something about stress bonding”
“It is absolutely necessary in this case,” I said, confused. “We’re about to go on a mission.”
“Of course you are,” Captain Soanzo snapped. “I’m the one who ordered you out.”
“But, Captain,” I said. I was focused on the job. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with Helena Jones—I wanted that very much—but I didn’t think going down to a potentially hostile planet was a great idea for a first date.
“This isn’t a discussion. She’s going with you. Unless you want to bring it up to the Admiral?”
Helena Jones seemed quite pleased about the turn of events. The captain took his leave, and I turned to her. It was difficult not to be distracted by her physical charms. The way she looked at me was…invigorating.
“All right,” I said in my best parade voice. “Here’s how it’s going to go. I have to take you with us, but you have to listen to every word I say. If I say jump, your duty is to inquire about the vertical measurement of said leap.”
I stumbled over the human phrase, and I must have gotten it wrong because she chuckled. Embarrassed, I tried to forge on and recover my lost dignity.
“You will keep your head down and stay out of the way, and once we establish a base camp, you will remain there in concealment. Is all of this clear?”
She looked up at me and laughed while the other Vazniks hid grins behind their hands.
“Yeah, I’m just not into being snapped at. I’m not one of your warriors.” Her eyes sparkled. “Want to try again, but asking nicely?”
The big alien in front of me stared with open-mouthed amazement. His fellows stifled laughter.
“You may not be in the chain of command,” he said icily. “And I may not have the right to exclude you from this mission, but might I SUGGEST that you at least CONSIDER listening to what I have to say, as it may well keep you alive. I do not mean to offend, but you have, to my knowledge, little experience with this sort of situation.”
“Well, okay, when you put it that way, I’ll listen to what you say.”
He tilted his horned head to the side, looking at me quizzically.
“Now you are compliant?”
“Now that you’re being reasonable, I am,” I said, mimicking his posture. “I knew you had it in you from the moment we met. It was in your eyes.”
One of the aliens couldn’t stifle his laughter any longer. Kavok shot him a withering glare.
“Since you’ve got so much extra energy, Taxan, YOU get to run down to the armory deck and grab a human-sized PV and helmet.”
“What’s a PV?” I asked as the alien jogged out of the shuttle bay.
“Protective vest.” He unstrapped what, in his hands, looked like a modest-sized, pistol-type weapon and handed it to me. It was so heavy, I almost couldn’t hold it up with one hand.
“I’ve only shot guns a couple times, and that was laser tag.”
“Laser tag?” His eyes lit up. “I had no idea humans participated in war games for leisure. You surprise me, Helena Jones.”
“You don’t have to say my surname.”
“Right, of course.” His brow furrowed in confusion. “Which one was your surname again?”
“Jones. Just call me Helena, okay? You don’t have to be so formal.”
Even under his battle gear, his powerful physique was obvious. I remembered that moment when I’d touched him and his tattoos flashed. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought our attraction was a two-way street.
Taxan returned with a vest and a helmet, and then went to put them on my body.
“Touch her and I’ll rip your arm out of its socket and beat you with the bloody stump,” Kavok sputtered. He snatched the armor away from his subordinate and proceeded to help me don the vest. I was surprised to find the dull, gray, metallic vest proved to be lightweight.
The helmet, on the other hand, was both heavy and cumbersome. It might have been human-sized, but not this human. In the end we traded it out for a thinner cap made out of some mystery metal.
“All right,” Kavok snapped. “Everybody on the shuttle. Vrako, you’re on the stick.”
“I can fly us,” Jakar said with a frown. “I’m the one who served in the Air Corps.”
“Jakar, the last time you tried to take us down into an atmosphere, we all puked on our boots. Your ass is on copilot.”
“Aw come on, the atmosphere of Hawking II moves at three-hundred miles per hour in a constant storm. We got down in one piece, didn’t we?”
“What about Rikov? He flew out a hole in the hull a thousand feet from the surface?
“Um, he told me he was really depressed anyway—”
“Just get in the co-pilot seat, Jakar,” Vrako said.
I could tell that despite their nattering, the Vaznik were as one. They had each other’s backs. I couldn’t help but feel like I was the intruder somehow, and yet, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to visit an actual alien planet.
We climbed into the shuttlecraft, which resembled a metal teardrop. The seats were arranged around the walls in a circle. In the center laid the controls. The pilot’s chair had scarlet upholstery, while the co-pilot chair was done in blue.
I sat down next to Kavok, feeling like a little kid next to these seven-foot warriors. He helped me secure my crash webbing, and then Vrako powered up the engines. The teardrop lifted off the deck plating via anti-grav, and rotated around to the shuttle bay doors, mounted on the floor.
An alarm sounded as the doors drew back. A force field kept the environment stable inside the cargo bay, but I guess it was a safety protocol just in case. The teardrop dropped through the force field and sped toward the green-and-white marble below.
The shuttle shook on the way down as we sluiced through the atmosphere. Vrako made minor adjustments to the controls on a nearly continuous basis, his eyes carefully checking the readouts. Jakar sullenly assisted with the readouts, occasionally calling out the readings to Vrako.
The descent proved mercifully brief, if intense. Sweat beaded on my brow by the time we touched down.
When the hull cracked open to allow our exit, hot, humid air filtered inside. The smell of living and rotting vegetable matter and brackish swamp water concocted an aerial tea which clung to my tongue like a fur coat.
“Welcome to Yimïk III, we hope you enjoy your stay,” Vrako quipped like he was a commercial shuttle driver.
“Oh, what the fuck, Vrako?” Jakar snapped. “The damn gangplank is in the soup.”
“This was the most stable ground I could find to land on. The pylons are extended all the way, but you’re still going to get your feet wet. Best I can do.”
“Can the chatter.” Kavok’s voice brooked no argument. “Sakor, you stay here and guard the shuttle.”
“Aw man, the whole shuttle’s going to smell like cheese on the way back up.”
“Fuck you, Vrako.”
“No, fuck you. You ever heard of oral hygiene?”
“Shut it,” Kavok snapped. I think he was embarrassed they were acting that way in front of me, his match. He needn’t have worried. I was fascinated by the planet itself.
We’d touched down in a swampy jungle, with gnarled tree-like vegetation featuring ash-gray, fuzzy bark, sort of like a coconut. The leaves tended toward dark green, like most common photosynthetic life forms.
The whole place was alive with sound. Insectoid, exoskeletal invertebrates buzzed through the air on membranous wings. One of them landed on Vrako’s shoulder and appeared to consider him for a moment, rubbing its forelegs together. When he turned his head to see, the thing buzzed away.
Avians similar to earth birds were in the trees as well. As we made our way down the gangplank into ankle-deep water, something slipped away beneath the mud, startled by our arrival.
We didn’t have to walk through water for long. Jakar took point, trailblazing for the rest of us. I found that their longer stride made them faster than me, but on the other hand, the Vaznik had to slow down to weave their bulky frames through areas I could just walk through. I was able to keep from getting left behind.
Not that my match was going to let that happen. He continuously kept his head on a swivel, checking on me, the jungle, and what lay ahead. I found him fascinating on a lot of levels. Just the way he moved, so graceful in spite of his massive body, appealed to my baser instincts.
Now is not the time to think about doing the baby-making mambo. You’re in a possibly dangerous jungle, about to go to a research facility which has gone dark for weeks.
“Are there any dangerous life forms in this jungle?” I asked, a bit wary.
“A few venomous creatures, but they tend to stick to the jungle canopy. Most of the ecosystem here does. On the ground, though, we do have those giant, carnivorous, toad-like creatures.”
I swallowed hard and started being a lot more wary of what was going on around us.
“Facility is dead ahead, boss,” Jakar called back.
“Everyone fan out and stick to the tree line until we get a decent scan. Vrako, that’s your job.”
“I’m on it.”
We crept forward through the underbrush until we reached the edge of a clearing. The trees and vegetation had been scorched in a wide area, then thick, ceramic panels laid on the ground. In spite of their efforts, the jungle was already in the process of snarling the panels in its vines. Some of them had heaved up from the ground and stood in disarray.
Beyond the attempt at creating a courtyard, lay the research facility itself. One large, semi-domed building. Sort of like an opera house from historical movies. Big solar panels dotted the roof, and dark marks marred the exterior.
“That looks like plasma scoring, boss,” Jakar said.
“It sure as fuck does.” I wondered what word the translator was substituting in my ear for ‘fuck.’ They sure said it a lot. “Vrako, how’s that scan coming?”
“Not good, boss,” he said, his face tight and grim. He turned to look at us with cold eyes. “I’m not getting any life signs at all big enough to be a human or a Kimisusian.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means,” Kavok said in a tight voice “that either that research station is abandoned—or everyone inside is already dead.”