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Astrum Industries Search & Rescue
Location: Planet Nira of the Siri star system
Heart of the Niran rainforests
“Man, this place is wild. I feel like I’m in the Amazon, but in an alternate dimension… tripping balls.”
Garret Scott, first captain of the search and rescue team, lifted his brows as he tromped through knee-high foliage. “You’ve been to the rainforest, Kegan? And done LSD?”
“Yup and yup,” his ginger-haired co-pilot chuckled. “Best and worst days of my life.”
“Worst? How come?” Eli piped up a few yards back, the former marine’s electro-pulse rifle slung over his shoulder. “You almost get eaten by a three-headed anaconda? No wait, by a kaleidoscope-eyed jaguar.”
Kegan chuckled again and looked at their six-foot-three escort. “Nope. Those you can shoot. It was the bugs, man. The bugs. The ants and the spiders. Mosquitos the size of your hand.”
“Jesus,” Helix grunted, blazing a trail up ahead. He’d never admit it, but he was having a blast. Slashing through gargantuan, low-hanging tree leaves with his machete. Hacking through unruly vegetation.
Like Eli, the dark-skinned ex-marine was one of their unit’s two large escorts, there to provide safe passage as they searched. Specifically, for the previous team who’d arrived there one year prior. Six Astrum Industries employees just like themselves, sent in the name of exploration.
Unfortunately, the space station lost contact with said team as soon as their ship entered the planet’s stratosphere. Many suspected they’d crashed, with damage explaining the lack in communication. Other suspect magnetic interference.
Of course, Garret was inclined to put his money on the former, considering how his own landing went. The crash left his team with only a distress beacon to call for help—just like the first team’s beacon that Garret’s men were tracking now.
Paris, their tracker, glanced over his shoulder, his piercing blue eyes half-hidden by loose, black bangs. “I’ve been to the Amazon twice. Why were you there?”
“My volleyball buddies talked me into it,” Kegan answered, stepping over a log. “Learned all kinds of shit. To keep snakes away, we poured salt circles around our tents.”
Paris nodded, using a gloved hand to tuck a lock behind his ear. “Tobacco water gets rid of leeches, too. They hate that shit.”
Garret grimaced and glanced around, scratching his dirty-blond scruff. His teammates’ exchange of fun facts was making him wary. “Monster mosquitos. Snakes. Leeches. Fucking hell. This ‘alternate dimension’ better not have any of that shit.”
Sasha coughed a small laugh.
Garret glanced back at their medic. Traipsing along beside ink-covered Eli, the guy’s expression did not provide comfort. “Please tell me you were laughing at something unrelated.”
Sasha smirked and gave a shrug, his light-blond mane brushing his shoulders. “I’m just saying, don’t get your hopes up. I hosed you down with that repellent for a reason.”
“Great,” Garret muttered, reaching down to scratch his shin. Suddenly, he felt itchy all over.
Eli chuckled, shifting his firearm on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chief. If I see anything crawling up your leg, I’ll light that fucker up with my rifle.”
Garret laughed. “Soldier, if you relieve me of one of my limbs, you are fired.”
The escort’s wolfish snicker rose up but faded just as fast, lost in the cacophony of the forest; mostly insects, but also a plethora of tree creatures, chirping and squawking and clicking and trilling and chattering their noisy little asses off.
One sound in particular, though, became more apparent than the others. Louder, closer, with an incessant staccato that was disturbingly similar to that of pit vipers. Specifically, the rattlesnake, with its telltale warning rattle. Except, where rattlers gave off a rapid, reedy noise, these jangles were slower—and sounded heavier—as if its owners were a more substantial size.
Garret frowned and glanced around. “You guys hearing that?”
Beside him, Kegan nodded, looking just as unsettled.
Up ahead, their tracker stopped. “Yeah. Been keeping tabs on it, actually.” Paris peered toward some brush. “I think we’re being followed.”
“Or hunted.” Helix chilled from his hack fest to turn in a circle, his dark eyes keenly searching the vicinity. The rattles grew closer. The marine’s gaze narrowed. “Yeah, man. I’m counting at least five.”
Paris shook his head. “I hear seven.” No one contested. The tracker’s wicked hearing was one of his trademarks. That and his uncanny sense of direction.
“Fuck,” Garret bit out, reaching for his gun. “So, what you’re saying is we got a pack of hungry somethings on our ass?”
“Think so, Chief.” Paris nodded.
Awesome. “All right, guys. Weapon up.”
Already clutching his rifle, Eli eagerly scanned their surroundings. “Time to raze some jungle to the ground.”
Kegan cursed and pulled his hand-held Ruger blaster from his chest holster. “I hate being prey.”
Sasha drew his pistol, too. “How ‘bout we fire some warning shots. Scare them away if we can.” He frowned and peered around. “No need to kill the wildlife unnecessarily.”
The ominous sounds came closer. The tree chatter quieted.
Helix glanced up and glowered at their hidden audience. “It ain’t unnecessary if they’re trying to eat us.”
“They’re just following their instincts.”
Helix shot Sasha a look. “So am I, Doc. The instinct to survive.”
The rattles grew louder, more agitated—or maybe excited. Then a few menacing rumbles chimed in, too.
Garret stiffened. “Eli. How ‘bout that warning shot, soldier?”
“All right, but if that doesn’t deter ‘em, I’m gonna have to move straight to introductions.”
“Introductions?” Kegan questioned, raising his pistol with both hands.
“Yeah, me introducing them to the new top of the food chain.”
“Fine. Whatever. Just do it,” Garret grated. “Before they beat you to the punch.”
Eli loosed a volley of electro-pulses into the canopy above, the bodiless bullets sending the tree life to instant turmoil. Winged creatures scattered from their tall, leafy hiding places, others dove to branches in every direction. Even entities in the groundcover up and took off, rustling the dense foliage all around them. Tense moments later, everything went quiet. Garret and his team warily glanced around.
“I don’t hear ‘em anymore. Think they’re gone?” Kegan murmured.
Paris slowly shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. Pretty sure I can still hear their—”
A braying roar tore through the silence as a black beast emerged, launching from the brush straight ahead.
“Shit!” Eli barked, spraying the creature with more heat.
It bellowed, rearing abruptly, then dropped back on all fours, appearing somewhat stunned, but mostly just pissed. It bared its fangs, its position no more than a dozen yards away. Garret gaped at its appearance. Alarming, yet striking, its face like a giant king cobra. Its hide looked like a lizard too, but its body looked like a panther—a panther three times bigger than the norm. Yellow slashes covered its scales. Matching spikes ran down its spine. And at the tip of its tail jutted three ten-inch barbs.
Sasha stumbled back as Helix raced over, his monster knife fully sheathed, a rifle like Eli’s clutched in his hands. He arrived just in time as two more lunged from the left. With a shout, he blasted the closest with sizzling slugs.
“Fuck!” Garret shouted, unloading on them, too.
Kegan did the same, hollering wildly as he fired.
But more just kept coming, and while the team’s barrage threw them off balance, it definitely didn’t stop them from advancing. Hell, some were moving too fast to hit at all. Juking and cutting turns faster than any animal Garret had seen, which made predicting their next position all but impossible.
Paris darted to Sasha’s side, the pair quickly teaming up, firing their blasters as they stood back-to-back.
The skirmish was deafening; six guns rapidly discharging, their attackers’ angry bellows just as loud. Adrenaline slammed Garret’s system. His heart pounded riotously. The monsters weren’t relenting, barely affected by their firepower, like all their piercing electro-pulses were little BB’s. What’s more, now the creatures had started tweaking their strategy, making their movements more erratic and hard to track.
“Shit! E-mag’s empty!” Kegan scrambled to grab another.
It snapped into place just as Garret’s ran out. Paris and Sasha quickly fumbled to reload, too. Helix and Eli just kept blitzing with a vengeance, spraying their foes with a stream of asomatous bullets.
“Goddamnit! How many are there?” Garret kicked back into the fray, firing blast after blast as fast as he could.
“Eight—I think!” Paris shouted.
The beasts lunged, jaws snapping. Some took hits. Some dodged. Some jerked backward or sideways, while as others sprang from multiple directions. Their advance was too fast, their erratic movements disorienting. Even their military escorts were getting rattled.
“Motherfucker!” Eli leapt back, barely avoiding the barbs of a tail. “Their hides are too thick! Our ammo’s not piercing ‘em! Aim for their fucking eyes and throats!”
The team quickly homed in on their faces.
But then one tore out of the brush, slamming Helix hard in the shoulder. Garret watched him go stumbling as the beast chomped down on his rifle and viciously yanked it out of his hands. The firearm went flying.
Helix snarled and quickly righted himself. “Okay, you son of a bitch. Now I’m mad.”
Manifesting a pistol in the blink of an eye, he unloaded it with a fury into the beast’s skull. The creature went down, but right on its heels, another pack mate lunged for Helix’s throat. Way too close to fire upon, he slammed its head with the butt of his gun. It staggered to the side, and that was all the time he needed to juice its brain with raw current at point-blank range.
Garret’s second e-mag expired. So did the others’, but there wasn’t any time left to reload. The pack was too close.
“Run!” Eli bellowed, spraying electro-bullets left and right. “They’re not backing down! Go! I’ll cover you!”
“What? No way!” Garret shouted. They couldn’t separate.
“I’ll catch up in a minute! Now fucking RUN!”
Garret hesitated, brutally torn. Goddamnit, they had to stick together.
“GO!” Helix roared, yanking a second gun from its holster. With both arms extended, he promptly went to town, pulling his pistols’ triggers in quick succession. Eli was his partner, his right hand, his friend. No surprise that he was staying behind to help.
The ex-marines fired furiously, as Garret and the others took off running.
“This way!” Paris shouted. “Up ahead. I see a path!”
They cut slightly left, tearing through the brush, leaping over downed logs, hurdling bushes. Garret’s pulse raced chaotically. He could hear Eli’s shouts. The two men were already retreating. Not a good sign. Either they were nearly out of ammo, or they’d quickly become overrun by those creatures. God knew, the pair were viciously outnumbered. Last Garret counted, the black beasts’ numbers were more than eight.
A few yards to his right, Kegan wove between trees, while to his left, Sasha dashed like a cat. All graceful and shit, but that was just how he moved. Nearly soundless, while Garret and Kegan crashed like rhinos. Up ahead, with a speed and agility that always floored him, Paris led the way like he knew the place by heart.
The soldiers’ shouts got louder.
“Move it! Move it!” Eli boomed.
Unfortunately, the four’s speed was already maxed out. Those rucksacks they were toting were frickin’ heavy. Just like Garret’s, Kegan and Sasha’s bounced on their backs, visibly jarring their balance as they ran.
“Faster!” Helix bellowed.
They’d nearly caught up with them. But how? How in the fuck? Garret glanced over his shoulder.
Damn it. That was how. Both men had straight-up ditched their packs, and the reason why was alarmingly apparent. The creatures were hot on their asses. If the things weren’t injured, they would’ve already taken the guys out.
“Lose your gear!” Garret shouted, shucking his backpack as he sprinted.
It was an order he hated to give, but what was the alternative? Their stuff wasn’t going to do them any good anyway if they wound up inside the bellies of those predators.
The team obeyed immediately, rucksacks dropping fast, everyone instantly picking up speed. As Helix and Eli caught up with them, their unit pulled away, steadily growing the distance between their pursuers.
The beasts’ heavy paws pounded in the distance, their angry brays echoing into the treetops. Garret glanced over his shoulder. They’d slowed some but were still coming. Hadn’t given up. Goddamnit, they must be really hungry. Which was disconcerting as fuck, because how long could his team evade them? They only had so much ammo left on their persons.
The sound of rushing water resounded up ahead, followed by Paris’ very unhappy curse. Seconds later, the team caught up to him—but only because he’d stopped.
“What’s wrong, Paris?” Garret panted. “Why are you stopping? They’re still—Oh, shit.” Just past Paris’ position, between the trunks of countless trees, he spotted a huge drop off… to a river. AKA a cliff. AKA a dead end.
“Fuck!” Eli barked. “Well, come on, let’s go left!”
Paris shook his head anxiously. “We can’t. The river curves that way. It’d force us back in the direction of those creatures.”
“Then to the right!” Garret ordered. “Come on! We gotta go!”
Again, the team took off running, moving parallel to the river. A heartbeat later, though, two of the beasts intercepted their path. Up in the distance, maybe forty yards away. They bared their cobra fangs. Their yellow lizard eyes glowed.
The men slammed on the brakes and did a rapid one-eighty, then beat feet in the opposite direction. But before they could ever even reach top speed, more predators materialized to block that route as well.
The team pulled up short.
“Son of a bitch!” Garret shouted.
With the river behind them, they stared back into the forest, at the only remaining option left to take. It wasn’t as if they could dive off the freaking cliff. The water below could be toxic at best. At worst, teeming with creatures worse than these.
But just as they readied to make a dash for it, a third batch emerged in their final option’s path. Pushing through the jungle’s dense foliage in the distance, their yellow eyes locked like missiles on the team.
“Shit,” Helix bit out. “How much ammo you guys got left?”
“Half an e-mag in each pistol,” Garret gritted, watching the creatures.
Kegan nodded. “Same.”
Paris and Sasha weren’t any better.
Eli glared at the beasts, each batch now thirty yards away, licking their chops as they intently stalked their prey. “One e-mag left, and my pulse-rifle’s out. Gotta couple boom dogs, though, itchin’ to be used.”
Helix nodded. “Me, too.” He looked at Garret. “I advise we form a semicircle with guns at the ready. Eli and I’ll try one more time to deter ‘em.”
Simple translation? This was their Hail Mary, and if it didn’t work, they’d be fighting with fists and knives.
Garret’s heart thumped wildly as he motioned to the others. “Backs to the river, men. Be ready to fire on my mark.”
The team fell into position as, on either side, Eli and Helix lobbed their first couple grenades. Unlike the frags of their militant forefathers, these puppies blew in only half of the time. They hit the ground with heavy thumps just a few feet from their targets. The beasts brayed angrily, but just as Garret had hoped, a few of them couldn’t resist taking a sniff.
A mushroom of energy exploded, lancing blade-like shards into their hides.
Howls rent the trees. Some dropped. Others scrambled. Ultimately, only three went down and stayed down. The rest just shook it off as if their bells had been rung, then turned their murderous eyes back on the team. Great, now they looked more pissed than ever. Planting their front paws, they threw their heads forward and roared louder than motherfucking shit. Leaves everywhere trembled. Even Garret’s ears frickin’ rang.
“Goddamnit,” he bit out.
This was not going well.
Kegan resituated his grip on his guns. “They’re like tanks.”
“Yeah,” Paris chimed in. “With Kevlar skin.”
Simultaneously, the beasts charged.
“Again!” Helix shouted. He and Eli chucked two more. Another round of howls erupted as the frag grenades detonated. But the majority kept coming, even as they bled.
“Fuck me,” Eli snarled. “After these, I’m frickin’ out.”
“So am I,” Helix grated. “Make ‘em count.”
The creatures closed in, only twenty yards away, as the very last boom dogs went airborne. But shit, at the rate those ruggedized bastards were suddenly moving, they were going to gallop past before they blew.
“Fire!” Garret shouted. They needed to slow the fuckers down.
All around him, guns unloaded, bullet pulses flying furiously.
The creatures reared back—
More prehistoric bellows. Now they sounding angrier than ever.
A few more dropped, leaving five to contend with. Five vicious monstrosities and—no ammo. Garret cursed and dropped his pistols as the others did the same, each man tugging free his last-ditch hunting knives.
The beasts snarled menacingly, teeth bared, eyes blazing, and commenced again, barely ten feet away.
Eli widened his stance and leaned forward, glaring. “Protect your throat and head. They’re most likely gonna go for one or the other.”
Helix nodded and brandished his machete. “Aim for the same. If you lose your knife, punch their snouts as hard as you can, or gouge their eyes. Whatever you do, just don’t play fucking dead.”
“Jesus,” Garret muttered, heart thundering in his chest.
“Hate being prey,” Kegan repeated.
Sasha muttered a bleak curse.
Paris shook his head. “Under most circumstances, I’m a pretty solid optimist. But, yeah, it was really nice knowing you guys.”
“Fuck that,” Helix grated. “We’re not dead yet.”
“Damn straight,” Eli bit out. He shot his friend a look. “If I’m going down, I’m taking those motherfuckers with me.”
The creatures stalked closer, finally caging them in.
Pausing, they crouched as if readying to pounce, their yellow-barbed tails slashing back and forth.
Garret braced, gripping his knife. Time to do or die. To greet his maker or find a way to deny him. Whatever ultimately happened, he just hoped it happened fast, because getting eaten alive did not sound fun.
But right as the creatures lunged forward with flashing eyes, another set of bellows tore through the treetops. A different kind of roar though, from a clearly different species. Instantly, dark blurs dropped from branches above, landing with keen precision atop the beasts. Instantly distracted, the creatures went ballistic, furiously trying to buck their attackers off.
Garret gaped, utterly shocked, and watched the crazy scene unfold. Huge, dark purple aborigines had just descended out of nowhere and were now flat-out slicing those creatures apart. Snarling with their knees dug into the animals’ backs as they gripped their spikes and rode the things like broncos. With one hand, they held on as, with the other, they slashed throats, their jagged blades already glistening with blood. Again and again, the beasts reared back as thick spurts of blood shot from their jugulars.
The team looked on, each face a mask of awe, until several moments later, the slaughter ended. At the feet of the newcomers, all five creatures laid dead, some of their heads nearly severed from their bodies.
Garret swallowed and took his first good look at their rescuers. A half dozen males packed with outrageous muscle, wearing flaps of long, black hide like tribal loincloths. Black dreads draped their shoulders. Small claws tipped their fingers. Gold-pierced horns curved backward from their temples. Pierced horns, just like their nipples and nasal septums, as well as along their big pointed ears.
Chests heaving, bodies splattered in the blood of their prey, they looked at Garret’s team and smugly grinned.
Shit. They had fangs, too. Short but sharp.
“Beesha,” the largest rumbled.
Co-pilot Kegan chuckled warily. “I really hope that means hi and not you’re next.”