“Harper, watch out!”
I looked up too late to avoid walking into the metal crate hovering in the air before me. An oof escaped my throat as my stomach collided with the edge. Since the crate was in hover mode, suspended in an anti-graviton sheath, it meant it flew away from me to careen through the camp.
An alien resembling an elephant crossed with a tomato plant cried out as the runaway box nearly struck him…or her. I’m not even sure if that species has a gender. At any rate, my implant translated his speech well enough.
I didn’t have time to be angry at his racism. I was too busy chasing after the crate as it careened through the camp. Sapient races of all different planets and star systems were all here because of the Torvian Intergalactic University expedition, sponsored by Madhfel HQ.
And every single one either struggled to get out of its way or stopped and stared as it flew past. Not a single one of them attempted to stop it, the bastards.
As I ran after the crate, I was joined by another human woman. Mia’s red mane flashed in the sun as she stretched out her legs to outrun me.
“Hurry, before it gets over the river.”
The crate zipped right for the edge of the open meadow we’d set up our camp in. I thought for us we’d lost it for good, but then a golden-haired amazon stepped out into its path and caught it adroitly. She cocked an eyebrow at us as we caught up.
“You were staring at your computer pad instead of where you were going again, weren’t you?”
I sheepishly shrugged.
“Sorry, Charlie. I’m just super excited. The Tankyr Latt temple is located in a section of the jungle untouched by anyone not native to this planet. Can you imagine what kind of discoveries are waiting to be made? This civilization might just predate the Kagethi civilization itself.”
Charlie smirked at me.
“No, really? You don’t say?”
“It’s not like she mentions it, ever,” said my red haired companion, her green eyes full of mischief.
“Come on, guys,” I said with a groan. “Give me a break, will you? The ruins in this jungle are like heaven to an archaeologist.”
“Yes, we get that…but you don’t have to go around trying to discover things that the Kagethi already likely know about,” Charlie said.
“Much less name them after yourself,” Mia added cheerfully.
I gave them both a rueful look. Charlie laughed and pushed the hover crate ahead of her.
“Is this the last thing that needs to be loaded?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Mia replied.
“Are you sure? Let me see the inventory list.” Charlie held her hand out and I placed the computer pad in it. I noticed the calluses on her palms from wielding the twin pistols at her belt. Charlie was a Firearms Kata Specialist, an anti-Suhlik soldier trained on Earth as an answer to a galaxy full of aliens that are almost universally bigger and stronger than humans.
Or, as Mia and I and just about everyone else referred to her, a gun ninja. She hated that more than anything, which may have had something to do with how Mia constantly pushed the nickname.
“All right,” Charlie said, handing me back the computer pad. She stared up at the red gold of the morning sky. “We should get moving. I want to be back to camp before dark.”
“Why?” Mia cocked an eyebrow. “Surely the gun ninja isn’t afraid of the dark?”
“What I am is practical, Mia. Fear is irrelevant.”
She always said things like that. There is no quitting on this team, we stay till the job is done, so on and so forth. I could never figure out if she was talking to us…or herself.
“I don’t know why you’re so worked up about this,” Mia said. “It’s going to be boring as hell.”
“Boring?” I gasped. “We could be dealing with an unknown alien species who mastered star travel tens of thousands of years before the Madhfel Alliance. Who knows what cultural and scientific contributions they might have made before their disappearance? This is star shaking stuff, and you think it’s boring?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find plenty to occupy my time,” Mia said, patting the silver case at her side. “I’m going to collect samples of the local flora. No offworlder has ever been that deep in the Vastgreen Jungle. And who knows? Maybe we’ll run into someone from one of the local tribes.”
It was quite unlikely we would see any of the notoriously shy Jungle Kagethi. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to study them up close. Boy, if I had any idea of just how close I would get…again, I’m getting ahead of the story.
We finished loading up the crate onto our small shuttle. The vessel was about the size of an Earth delivery truck, but shaped like a flattened cigar with wings. Its hull had a dull gray sheen, because the university funding our expedition wasn’t big in frills. We had to struggle to get them to give us a portable restroom facility. No squatting over a log for us, thankfully.
Charlie took the pilot’s chair. I wasn’t going to argue. She’d logged a lot more flight time than either of us had.
I sat down and strapped myself in with the crash webbing. Charlie turned on the engines, and the ship started a sonorous hum. She pulled back on a lever and we rose gently into the morning sky.
“Please keep your tray tables up and your seat in the full upright position,” Mia said.
Charlie gave her a dirty look. I’ve never met anyone so utterly cheerless in my life. I’d started to wonder if she even knew how to smile or laugh. Check that, I’d seen her smile before, but it was rarer than rain in the desert.
“Shutting up, Sir,” Mia said, offering a mock salute.
Charlie shook her head and returned her eyes to the cockpit glass. Below us, the jungle slipped by like a multicolored tapestry. Jungles on Earth were predominantly green when seen from above, but the foliage came in every shade here. Mostly it was green, red or yellow, but there were purples, whites and even some bright orange trees. On the surface, it was even more colorful. Some of the flora even glowed, though you could only really see it at night or in the densest parts of the canopy.
At sub-light speeds, it would take roughly three and a half hours for us to reach the temple. As I said before, the jungle was simply huge. Our shuttle kicked up a flight of avians, who flapped away into the sky in our wake.
A light on the console flashed, accompanied by a buzzing sound. Charlie didn’t seem too concerned at first. She just flipped a couple of switches.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. She might not have been worried but I certainly was.
“I’m not sure,” she replied with a frown. “We just lost our communications array.”
“Lost it?” Mia scowled. “You mean it fell off?”
“No, it’s just not working. I’m running a diagnostic right now…huh. There’s nothing wrong with it, according to my diagnostics.”
“Then why isn’t it working?” I asked.
Charlie paled several shades and performed a sensor sweep. The buzzing noise came again.
“Our sensors are down, too,” Charlie said, and I didn’t like her tone. She sounded worried. If super ninja was worried, I was damn sure worried, too.
“Why would that happen? Maybe we should head back to camp?”
I gasped and stared at Mia.
“But I’ve been waiting a week already to get a crack at Tankyr Latt.”
“The ruins have been there for a long time, Harper,” Charlie said. “They’ll wait for you a little bit longer. I’m changing course and returning to—”
The ship shook violently, and all of the lights flickered on and off. If not for our crash webbing, we’d have bounced around the cabin like ping pong balls. As it was, the straps dug into my skin, so hard I knew it would leave bruises.
“What was that?”
“We’re taking fire.” Charlie’s hands danced over the controls. “Taking evasive maneuvers.”
“Taking fire? Who would—”
The shuttle shook violently again, and the hum of the engines ceased being harmonious and became an intermittent coughing.
“Our engines are down to less than twenty percent,” Charlie said.
“Who’s even shooting at us? I thought the Kagethi in the jungle didn’t have ships.”
A dark green vessel three times the size of our shuttle flew overhead, darkening us with its shadow. I didn’t recognize the design, but I knew the sight of weapons arrays when I saw them.
Charlie recognized it.
“It’s a Vune vessel,” she said, her voice edged with panic.
“Vune, kind of like mercenaries employed by the Suhlik. How did they make it past the Mahdfel security net?”
I looked out the cockpit and noticed that the trees were getting closer.
“Um, how far can we make it on twenty percent engines?” I asked, trying not to panic.
“All the way to the scene of the crash,” Charlie said.
“Ha ha,” Mia said. “How far can we make it really?”
“I wasn’t joking.”
The belly of our hull scraped across a tree limb with a terrible wrenching sound. The shuttle dipped ever lower, and soon the branches grew thicker and more numerous.
Then we were flying under the tree line. I looked up through the cockpit glass just in time to see a branch thicker than my thigh smash right through it. I threw my arms up as crystal shards flew directly at me.
One thought ran through my mind at that moment.
Are we going to die?
By Mother Moon, I love to run.
I stretched my long legs out, racing through the jungle and its many splendors. I startled a preewee on the branch of a velder tree. The creature shrieked and chittered, disappearing into the foliage. The last sight I had of it was its long curled tail before that vanished, too.
The scent of the dangrig herd grew stronger in my nostrils. I was getting closer to the rear of their herd, now. I slowed my pace a bit so I wouldn’t overrun them. It was all going according to plan.
Off to my left, I saw a spotted figure flash through the jungle. Zey, chief of the southern tribe and a close friend. It had been his idea to hunt the horned dangrig, who ran swifter than the wind…but not swifter than a Kagethi.
I had the idea to drive the herd up against Koller’s Cliff, where they would be forced to bunch up together. Then the three of us could pick out the fattest, juiciest of their number for the slaughter.
It was a race as old as time itself. For time immemorial, my people had hunted the Vastgreen Jungle, learning its ways, understanding its creatures.
If we didn’t hunt them, they would overpopulate and do serious damage to the foliage. There are other predators, but most of them are too slow and clumsy to catch the swift runners.
Besides, racing through the jungle, feeling the blood in my veins, I almost felt like smiling. Almost.
I herded the prey toward the cliff, knowing that my comrades, Zey and Tolmok, would do their parts to gather the dangrig together. I spotted bright sunlight streaming in through the trees ahead. Nearly there.
The prey animals burst through the treeline, their cloven hooves striking on bare rock rather than the softer jungle floor. The sound reminded me of thunder. We exploded like lightning from the jungle, the three of us.
I leaped through the air and slashed at the throat of a dangrig. It fell over, throat torn wide open as it bled out onto the rock. The kill was clean and my prey suffered little before its death.
Zey leaped atop one of the herd, probably the largest of them all, tearing it literally to shreds. It looked like he had given in to his rage again. I wondered if there would be enough of the beast left for him to eat.
Tolmok leaped out from behind a boulder. His white teeth flashed a moment before they were sprayed with crimson as he tore into the flesh of the dangrig. Like me, his kill was clean. Zey still tore and ripped at his kill.
The panicked dangrig started fleeing back into the jungle. I watched them go, the taste of fresh blood in my mouth, gushing down my throat, making me feel whole. Alive.
“Zey,” Tolmok said, wiping his maw with the back of his forearm. “You can probably stop that now.”
Zey lifted his gory face from the torn to shreds dangrig and gave us a snarl. We didn’t take it personally. That was just the way Zey was. Always on the verge of exploding with anger.
As the thunder of the dangrig’s cloven hooves grew more distant, I became aware of another sound. A sort of crackling, like kindling snapping inside of a giant fist.
“What is that?” Tolmok’s ears radared forward, facing toward the edge of Koller’s Cliff. I stepped up and joined him on the rocky precipice, my eyes not on the verdant valley below, but on the skies.
“Look.” I pointed at the sky where the blue and white were marred by flashes of red, green, and silver. “Those are starships.”
Tolmok grunted and squinted his eyes.
“I think one of them is just a shuttle. The smaller of the two.”
He turned back and looked at Zey as the spotted Kagethi tore into the viscera of his prey with cracks and crunches.
“Zey, you have the best eyes among us. Can you see what kind of ships those are?”
Zey snorted and leveraged himself to his feet, coming to join us at the cliff. He shielded his eyes from the morning sun with his hand.
“The silver one I do not know…the green vessel is Vune.”
He growled to punctuate the last word. A growl echoed in both of our throats. I hated the Vune and their cursed masters, the Suhlik, like all Kagethi.
“What is a Vune vessel doing here? Don’t our cousins on the other side of the world keep watch?”
“They and the Mahdfel allies,” I replied. “But the world is vast, as is the galaxy. What matters is that they are here and we must deal with them.”
“It looks like the Vune are firing on the smaller ship,” Zey said, his anger replaced by fascination. “Why aren’t they fighting back?”
“They don’t seem to have any weapons,” I said. The ships were closer now, and I could make out more details.
A bright flash of red as twin lasers erupted from the Vune vessel. The lines scored a black gash along the hull of the smaller shuttle. Smoke trailed from the crippled vessel as it spiraled for the jungle below.
“It’s going down,” I said grimly.
“And the Vune are vectoring as if they wish to land,” Tolmok added.
“Of course,” Zey added. “They ran down their prey, now they will consume it.”
“Not if we can help it,” I growl.
The shuttle crashed into the forest and disappeared. I could follow its path by the way the trees above shook violently. After a moment, the carnage ceased, and black smoke billowed up from the forest floor.
“We should try to help the survivors,” I said. “If there are any.”
“I think we have other problems,” Tolmok said. He pointed his furry finger at the smoke. “The smoke is growing denser. I believe it started a forest fire.”
“And the Vune represent a threat to our people,” Zey piped in. “We must warn the tribes.”
I looked over at my friends and considered the situation.
“My friends, we have three objectives it seems to me. One, we must check on the survivors and protect them from the Vune. Two, we must deal with the forest fire before it spreads. Three, we need to warn our people of the Vune threat.”
Tolmok chuckled softly.
“Then it’s serendipitous indeed that there happen to be three of us. I will warn our people.”
I nodded in agreement. Tolmok had the longest legs and was therefore the swiftest runner in spite of his heavy bulk.
“And I will go and slaughter the Vune who dare trespass on our sacred forest,” Zey growled.
Tolmok and I exchanged glances. That was not a good idea. Zey should be checking on the survivors first, but he would not do that. He would seek out battle immediately rather than helping the crash victims.
“Perhaps Hann should be the one to handle that task,” Tolmok said.
“Because you are clever,” I lied. “You are better suited to putting out the forest fire.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Zey snarled.
“I don’t know. Like I said, you’re the clever one.”
He snorted, but nodded his head.
“Very well. Just try and save some of the tuskers for me.”
“I’ll make it a priority,” I lied again. I had no objection to slaughtering some of the green skinned, nasty mercenary servants of the Suhlik. But if I did my job right, I would have the survivors to safety before the enemy arrived.
“Be careful.” Tolmok’s jaw set hard. “You have the most dangerous task of us all, Hann.”
“Save your pity for our enemies,” I replied. “They are the ones who will need it.”
“Yes,” Zey agreed heartily. “Let the gates of the underworld soon be lined with our victims.”
I turned to them and smiled.
“Farewell, my friends. We will meet again once these crises are past us.”
“Or perhaps sooner, if it turns out to be more than you can handle on your own,” Tolmok said. “As soon as I deliver the warning to our people, I will return to help you both.”
“I will put out the fire. The two of you save some Vune for me to kill.”
He loped off, and Tolmok and I watched him disappear into the forest.
“How are we supposed to do that?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Tolmok said with a chuckle. “We could trap a few Vune and keep them alive until he comes around to kill them, I suppose.”
He often thought he was humorous, but this time I joined him in a laugh at the sheer absurdity of his suggestion.
“I must be away as well,” I said. “Be safe, old friend. And do not worry. I am not as hot tempered as Zey.”
We clasped our arms, fingers wrapped around each other’s forearms. I gave a firm shake and then I leaped over Kotter’s Cliff. I stretched out my body and caught hold of a high branch, using it to partially arrest my momentum. The leaves enveloped my body as I descended below the tree line, and at last landed on the forest floor.
The crash site was easy to detect, from the smell of fire and starship fuel. I ran hard as I dared without leaving myself too winded to fight.
Because I had a feeling there was going to be a fight.
My name seemed to come from a long way away. I didn’t want to answer the call. I was far too comfortable snuggled up in my blanket of darkness.
Again, more urgent the second time. I stubbornly refused to rouse myself. I had a feeling if I woke up, I wouldn’t like where I found myself.
“Damn it, Harper, wake up!”
A sharp blow to my cheek finally roused me from the darkness. I opened my eyes to see Charlie’s concerned expression hovering over me. I no longer felt the softness of the shuttle’s seat beneath me. Instead, I was on a hard, lumpy surface, and the smell of smoke choked off all other scents.
“What happened?” I asked, struggling to my feet with her assistance.
“We crashed,” Mia replies, her face streaked with dirt.
“We were shot down,” Charlie replied. “By the Vune.”
“I remember the Vune.” I shook my head and immediately regretted it. I grew nauseous, and my vision blurred. “Oh fuck, I think I need to sit down.”
“No time,” Charlie snapped. “We have to get going—Mia what the hell are you doing?”
“I’m not leaving my botany kit.”
Mia disappeared into the ruined shuttle. It looked like a tube of toothpaste which had exploded at the front end. I don’t know how we survived. I guessed the force fields and crash webbing had done their job.
My whole body was kind of achy, and I knew I had some bumps and bruises, but otherwise, I was unharmed. Charlie had a small scratch under left eye that had already stopped bleeding. She ignored the crimson stain marring her otherwise pretty face and checked her holstered pistols.
“Listen,” she said, her eyes hard as diamonds. “The Vune landed not far from here. They’re probably already on their way.”
“What do they want with us?”
“What do you think? To turn us over to their Suhlik masters, of course.”
That thought did not make me feel all that comfortable.
“We need to get the hell out of here.”
Charlie raised her voice to parade ground levels and bellowed.
“Mia, get your ass out here, now! If you’re not out here in ten seconds, we’re leaving without you.”
Mia reappeared, holding her trusty blue backpack, filled to the brim with the tools of her trade. I thought about my own kit, but I figured I could live without it. Besides, we were out of time. A sound of excited voices and crashing through the underbrush drew my attention to our immediate north.
“It’s the Vune,” Charlie said. “Move!”
She pushed me, and then pushed Mia. I ran, my mind reeling. It didn’t seem real. It was supposed to be a safe, relatively boring trip. Nothing like this was supposed to happen.
Only it was happening, and I had no choice but to run for my life. Mia and I kept running, but Charlie stopped running long enough to fire blindly into the woods behind us. The sounds coming from the Vune sounded more panicked now, as they sought cover from their unseen assailant.
“Go!” Charlie said. “You two don’t stop running!”
“But…” We couldn’t leave her. All the gun ninja teasing aside, we just couldn’t.
“GO!” she shouted, then grinned. “I’ll be right behind you.”
I took off running again, quickly outdistancing Mia. I slowed a bit so she could catch up. Brambles and vines tore at my skin and clothing, but I was too scared to slow down more than that.
I burst out into a clearing and despaired. It looked as if we’d run right into a sheer rock wall.
“Oh fuck,” I said.
Mia erupted from the trees a moment later and ground to a halt.
“Are we trapped?”
“I think so…no, wait! Look, there’s a pass through the cliff.”
She stared at it and scowled.
“What if it doesn’t go all the way through?”
“Then we’re fucked.”
She gave me a look. A moment later, Charlie burst onto the scene. We were all glazed with sweat, but while Mia and I panted for every gasp of air, Charlie seemed barely winded.
“Keep going,” she said, instantly spotting our escape route, the one it had taken me and Mia several moments to find. I made for the fissure, hoping it went all the way through the cliffside.
I saw sunlight ahead, causing my heart to leap with hope. The only problem was the fissure was plenty wide enough for them to pursue us. And where else could we run?
I didn’t think too long about it, though. I plunged into the shadowed chasm, followed by Mia. But Charlie had stopped in the middle of the clearing and turned around to face the oncoming Vune.
“Is she crazy?” Mia asked. “Charlie! Come on, don’t just stand there, run!”
Charlie turned around and gave us both a grim, hard look. Then she silently shook her head.
“Run!” she cried, turning back around as the first of the Vune entered the clearing around the cliffside. She pointed her guns and fired apparently without aiming. A sizzling beam of yellow sliced from each barrel. Both beams struck their intended targets, and two Vune fell to the ground.
It was the first time I’d seen one of the bestial aliens in real life. They were big, well over six and a half feet tall, rippling with muscle, and had dark green skin and prominent tusks sticking out of their lower jaws.
They had weapons, too, and fired, but Charlie was already moving in the beautiful and deadly ballet of her gun katas. There are only so many possible fractals of a gunfight, and she had memorized them all. She skimmed out of the way of their fire like a water bug skimming over a pond. Every time she pulled her triggers, Vune fell dead to the ground.
And yet, still they came.
“Come on,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach as I dragged Mia along.
“What about Charlie?” Mia asked. “We can’t just leave her.”
“We have to,” I snapped. “Don’t you get it? She’s sacrificing herself so we have a chance to escape.”
“For fuck’s sake, Mia, we’re scientists. She’s a soldier. All we would do is get in her way, and we don’t even have weapons.”
I pulled her hard, and she started running.
“I hate this,” she cried.
I wasn’t lying. I felt like a piece of shit leaving my friend—one of the few I’d ever had—to fend for herself like that. What choice did I have, though?
The sounds of battle faded behind us as we raced through the fissure. Something with a bunch of legs and long antennae stuck its body out of a hole in the wall, but I was more afraid of the Vune than it. I ducked underneath its feelers and kept running.
We erupted from the other end of the tunnel. I felt like I couldn’t run much further. Already, my side ached terribly, and I could barely get air to go into my lungs before it blew back out.
“Don’t slow down,” Mia said, taking my hand for a change. “Come on.”
I gave one last, longing look at the way we’d come. Poor Charlie. We couldn’t do anything to help her now, though. The only thing we could do, the best thing we could do, was try to reach help.
“Do you have your comm unit?”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes brightening. Mia opened up her backpack and took out the flat, rectangular device. She tapped on the screen, and the signal search loading circle spun around on the surface.
“Come on,” she snapped. “Come the fuck on! Work, you piece of shit!”
“Mia,” I said. “It’s broken, or you can’t get a signal in this valley. Either way, we need to keep going.”
She stuffed the comm unit back into her pack and shouldered it as we started into the jungle. We weren’t running as fast now, because we were both winded. Not to mention the denser woods were harder to navigate. Before, we had followed a game trail. Now the trees and underbrush slowed us to a crawl.
“Do you hear that?” Mia asked.
“I can’t hear anything over the thudding of my heart,” I gasped.
“I think there’s a river ahead. Maybe we can use it to swim downstream?”
It was a good idea. We hurried as much as we were able, and then came out to the steep banks of the river. One look at the rushing white water told us there would be no swimming to safety.
“Fuck,” I groaned. “We’re cut off! There’s no way across.”
“Yes, there is,” Mia cried, pointing to a moss-encrusted log that had fallen over the river. “We can use that as a bridge.”
We ran toward the log, and I pushed her ahead of me. As we crossed, her foot broke through the fragile bark and she nearly fell.
“Careful,” I said, dragging her back to her feet.
We continued on, me pushing her ahead. I tried to put my feet only on the spots where it felt the most sturdy, but grew harder the further we went.
When we were most of the way across, I heard a sharp crack and the log noticeably sagged in the middle.
“Oh no,” Mia said. “We’ll never make it.”
I never saw myself as a hero, or even a ‘good’ person, but in that moment I guess I found out who I was.
“Yes,” I said, “you will.”
I shoved her hard. She flew the remaining few feet and landed safely on the other bank.
Then the log gave way under me and I tumbled to the rushing waters below. I hit hard and sank fast, carried away by the torrent. I hoped that Mia made it to safety. Otherwise my sacrifice meant nothing.