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Chapter 4

He awakes shirtless, on a small, faded green cot hidden under the stairs. Frigid air comes in through the loading bay doors. His head aches just enough to be annoying as he sits up to examine his surroundings. Instant relief via the nanites in his system clears the faint throbbing, allowing him to adjust to the light and sounds nearby. “Thanks Allie,” he mumbles.

A tightness along his side serves as a reminder of the night’s activities. In the location where the beast had gouged him is a fresh scar about four inches in length. Achingly, he reaches for the shirt hung on a nearby chair.

“What happened?” he mumbles.

Would you like the long version or the short one? Allie replies.

“Short,” he grunts as he pulls on the shirt.

You were poisoned.

“Thought our nanites could neutralize every known venom.”

They can, though the key word is known. Fortunately I have extensive experience with your ability to push the boundaries of my capabilities.

The sound of voices in conversation quickly redirects his attention to the far end of the loading bay where he sees Jaya, Anna, and two other figures standing facing each other. He instinctively reaches for his gun, only to have his hand grasp his thigh. There’s a moment of panic before he just as quickly realizes they don’t appear to be in any danger. After a deep, calming breath, he moves to join the group.

“Hey, how’re you feeling?” Jaya inquires upon his joining the group.

“Been better. What’s going on?”

Anna and the strangers cease their conversation to focus on the newcomer. “The creature, a Sabear?” she looks at their guests for confirmation. They nod their heads in response. “These two were part of a hunting party tasked with tracking it.”

Judging by their height and distinctly long limbs he realizes that the two women standing beside Anna are Souri. One has bright yellow eyes and frost white hair that’s braided all the way down her back. The other’s hair is about half that length, shaved on the left side, and the color of autumn leaves; her eyes are a glowing orange color. Their skin is shockingly pale to the point where if they’d been human he might have feared they’d lost blood or were extremely anemic.

“It wrecked the ship pretty badly, we’re going to need to get her fixed. Luckily, the Souri are willing to fix it,” Anna adds.

“In exchange for?” Tal questions them suspiciously.

“That’s what we were just discussing,” she replies.

The Souri with the longer, grey hair, speaks up. Her voice has a musical tone, like the sound of wind chimes in a light breeze. “We don’t require any material goods, we have shipments that come every couple days carrying food, medicine, and weapons. The Sabear wounded most of our scouts that were supposed to pick it up, thus we’d like you to help retrieve it for us and bring it back to our community. In the meantime a crew will be out here making repairs for the next few days, feel free to make yourselves comfortable at our home while you wait.”

The thought of leaving the ship unattended, no matter how trustworthy the Souri appeared, makes him feel anxious.

Jaya, probably sensing his hesitation, speaks up. “I’ll stay and wait for the repair team. You and Anna go make yourselves comfortable at the Souri homestead, and pick up the supplies along the way.”

He looks at her with a concerned glance.

“I’ve got this,” Jaya replies. Tal nods approvingly, grabs a rifle, and then alongside Anna and the two Souri he descends down the ramp. The weather has calmed since the last time he was out, making it much more bearable despite the low temperatures. Once they reach the vehicle the two operatives sit in the back, while the Souri hunters sit in front. There’s an abundance of space, indicating that the transport underwent significant modification to accommodate the lengthy Souri. There’s a rumble and roar as the vehicle starts up. Within moments the terrain whisks by in a white blur.

“I don’t think I got your names,” Tal calls out to the front of the cab.

The autumn haired Souri turns back to look at them. “I’m Shyara and this is Beirn. What brings you to Theron? If you don’t mind,” she asks with a similarly musical tone to her voice as her companion.

“We had a run in with some mercs out west,” he answers.

Shyara nods. “They’re relatively new, only arrived a few weeks ago to set up that base. Am I correct in assuming you’re the reason it’s now a pile of rubble?”

Tal shrugs. “I had help.”

Shyara smiles and laughs. Then turns her attention back to the front of the car. Tal looks at Anna, who’s gazing wistfully out the window. Every few minutes he notices her glance at the Bracer on her left arm as if expecting it to vanish at any moment.

“You okay?” he inquires.

“Hm? Yeah, just impatient to get this done with.”

He looks out at the expanse of white surrounding them. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

They soon arrive at the designated drop off point, one of the boxes of fruits has been cracked open by one of the many creatures that the Souri say populate the planet. Which Tal finds surprising considering he’s only seen the one large creature in the entire time he’s been there. Prior to that encounter he’d assumed the planet was barren of life. Turns out the animals on the planet are just really good at hiding in plain sight.

“Anything?” Tal asks Allie as they exit the vehicle.

I do not detect any animal presence, though that does not mean they are gone.

“Great, let me know if that changes.”

He bends down to retrieve one of the least damaged of the wooden crates. Since it’s a bit heavier than he expected he struggles momentarily to get a good grasp, yet manages to swiftly recover before lifting it into the back of the vehicle. Anna and the two Souri follow suit and place their crates alongside his. No sooner have they completed their task than he hears a faint cracking sound. It’s barely audible over the wind and the roaring engine, but his senses are enough on the edge that he freezes in place. From his peripheral he notices Anna tense up as well, signaling her senses hadn’t quite diminished since leaving the program. The Souri continue to the front of the vehicle, unconcerned or oblivious to the sound.

Get in the car now, Allie’s voice warns him.

He remains still. His senses actively try to locate the source of the sound.

TAL! MOVE! Allie orders, snapping him from his stupor and leaving him with a ringing headache.

They rush to the car just as the ice erupts and several creatures burst forth from below. Short, blubberous beasts with smooth grey skin like that of a seal crawl towards them with webbed paws. Black beaks snap hungrily at their heels. Anna climbs into the vehicle with Tal shortly behind her, he manages to slam the door just as one of the creatures throws itself at the transport. The black beak clangs against the glass, cracks instantly spread out from the impact point.

“Drive!” he shouts at the two Souri. When there’s no response he notices the head of one of those creatures has already burrowed through the front windshield. It anxiously chomps its jaws at the two Souri that are haphazardly kicking at it with their boots while trying to reach for their weapons.

Tal, there are more incoming, you really need to get moving, Allie notifies him.

One of the creatures launches itself at his door, causing more cracks to reach out towards the corners of the window. Tal’s sure another leap and it’ll be through.

Without hesitating he draws his sidearm and fires a shot at the creature stuck in the windshield. The projectile penetrates its skull. As soon as its lifeless body slides from the hood of the transport, Beirn guns the gas. There’s a moment of hesitation as the vehicle tries to find its footing. Glass shatters as the creature makes its way through the window. Tal instantly unloads on the beast, eliciting a screeching howl from its beaked mouth. It falls away, only to be replaced more eager animals hungry to sample their flesh. He unloads another clip at the window. Through the damaged window he can see a whole pack of the short grotesque creatures scooting across the icy surface. Their screeching howls of hunger call out to them.

Fortunately the vehicle frees itself and rapidly speeds away from the scuttling monstrosities. Tal relaxes, and anxiously hopes the Souri will finish the repairs on his ship soon. He wants nothing more than to put as much distance between himself and this hellhole of a planet as possible.

Next Chapter: Chapter 5