Page 20

Author: Rachel Bach

The clearing still looked empty, but I could see something floating in the air just above where I’d hit the trees. I tried to zoom in out of habit before I remembered I was using my eyes and not my cameras. I squinted instead, then grinned as I realized that the something I was staring at was actually three bullets in a tight, familiar spread, floating in midair like they were lodged in something I couldn’t see.

After that, the next step was easy. Dropping Mia to one hand, I reached over my shoulder and grabbed a grenade from my stash. Grenade in one hand and Mia in the other, I ran through the forest quiet as a silver ghost until I was directly across the clearing from where I’d seen the floating bullets. The thing must still have been poking at the trees where I’d landed, because I could see the tall trunks bending like something was pushing them aside.

It wasn’t much of a target, but it was good enough. I crouched down, trusting my suit to shift the power even though I couldn’t see the readings with my visor up. I couldn’t see the ready light either, but the Lady and I knew each other well enough that signals were unnecessary. A second after I crouched, I shot into the air.

The Lady Gray launched up like a rocket, and suddenly I was flying high over the clearing. The thing must have heard me jump, because the trees stopped rustling. I could almost feel it looking up, but it was too late. Punching the grenade’s manual trigger with my thumb, I wrenched back and threw it hard as I could at the ground where the trees had been bent back.

The grenade exploded with a deafening bang, and the thing screamed again, sending all my readings to static. This scream wasn’t as loud as the first, though, and I knew the grenade hadn’t hit, at least not directly. But it didn’t matter. The explosion had done its work.

Down below, the clearing was filled with blown-up dirt and a haze of hot smoke that would cling to an enemy like paint and give me a solid target on my thermographics. Of course, without my cameras, I didn’t have my thermographics at the moment, but what my eyes saw was almost as good. The smoke and dirt fell in a mist, settling on the invisible shape of something I’d never seen before.

It looked a little like a shrimp, only it was the size of a bus. A haze of tentacles rose from the underside of its body, the long, thick bludgeons that had slapped me around earlier. The thing seemed temporarily stunned by my grenade blast, but then the roar increased and the tentacles flew up into the air, casting off their fine coat of dust as they lunged for me.

I didn’t give it the chance. I swung Mia down as I began to fall and fired three blasts as fast as I could pull the trigger. The first struck the thickest part of the thing’s body, the next hit its tail, and the third struck its front, where, if it had been a shrimp, its head should have been. I had no idea if this thing even had a head, but since most of the alien critters I’d seen did, I took the chance.

If it had screamed earlier, that was nothing compared to what the thing did when Mia’s plasma hit. The wail hit me so hard I nearly blacked out. My suit sputtered around me, and for a moment I was terrified it would go dark before I hit, and instead of landing and rolling, I’d splat on the ground. But the Lady held together, and we landed perfectly, rolling sideways as the thing’s tentacles crashed down after me.

I fired another plasma shot as soon as I was up, aiming over my shoulder by pure habit even though I couldn’t see a thing behind me with my cameras off. But with Mia, I didn’t have to be a good shot. Her blast hit the tangle of tentacles racing for me, and I turned just in time to see the brilliant white plasma fire spider up the long, snakelike tendrils before they jerked away with a scream that made me go cross-eyed.

Using the fire as a guide, I launched three more shots at the thickest part of the tendril I’d spotted before it vanished. The first shot missed, but the next two hit, and I heard something clump to the ground as the creature’s wailing ramped up again. Apparently, I’d shot off a tentacle.

But there was no time to celebrate. With my seventh shot, Mia’s power was drained. I dropped her gently on the ground and threw out my arm to let Phoebe unfold into my hands.

It took three tries to get the automatic latches to pop. The creature’s screaming was scrambling my systems, and my own thoughts weren’t much better. The scream might have been more mental than sound, but it stabbed through my ears like a field knife, and I had to focus hard to send commands that the Lady Gray could understand.

Eventually, it worked, and Phoebe swung down. The moment she hit my hands, her thermite edge flared bright as the sun. The light blinded me without my cameras to adjust the glare, but it also helped me focus. I gripped the blade’s long handle and, one by one, turned off all my systems except for the most basic movement controls. The pain in my head dropped with each system I switched off, and by the time I was running on minimals, I felt almost normal.

The thing’s shape was starting to fade as it threw off the dirt from the blast. But I knew it now, and I could still see well enough for my next strike. With a furious scream, I leaped into the air, kicking off the tentacle that launched up to grab me to launch myself onto the thing’s back.

I landed with a thud and immediately started to slide. The creature was slick as half-set jelly. I scrambled for purchase, my boots digging into the soft, squishy flesh. For a few frantic moments I thought I was going to slide off entirely, but then my feet caught, and I brought my blade down.

Phoebe’s burning edge cut through the thing like an acetylene torch through a spiderweb. I still couldn’t see anything except the blade in front of me, but I could feel the creature’s flesh curling away as I cut down and down and down until I couldn’t reach any farther. The monster was screaming and thrashing now, and the bucking cost me my footing. But even as I slid down its side, I kept my blade lodged, opening what had to be an enormous gash as I fell.

I gasped in shock as the thing’s blood began spraying over me. At least, I thought it was blood. I couldn’t see the stuff at all. It, like everything else with this creature, was invisible. I could feel it, though, slimy and shockingly cold as it hit my bare face through my open visor.

By the time I hit the ground, I was drenched. The slime was so slick I couldn’t stand. Every time I tried to get my feet under me, they slipped away again. Fortunately, the creature wasn’t attacking me anymore. It thrashed madly, rolling away with a terrified squealing that turned my thoughts to mush and sent my suit dark twice. The second time I came back online, I jumped away, rolling through the stubby grass in an attempt to get the burning-cold invisible slime off me.

Phoebe’s handle was dry where my gloves had been, but her blade was covered in it. The creature’s blood smoked yellow white as the plasma burned, and the smell was toxic. Even so, I held the blade firm, not daring to let go for fear the creature’s slippery blood would get under my gloves and I wouldn’t be able to keep my grip.

Across the clearing, the creature was still thrashing. It had thrown off all the thermal smoke and dirt by this point, but now that I knew what I was looking for, I could see its shape where it crushed the weeds. Its screams had faded to whimpers, and my suit was back online and humming around me. Sensing this was as good a chance as I was likely to get, I gripped my blade tight and rushed forward.

The thing’s blood must have been everywhere, because the clearing was slick as an ice rink, but the Lady Gray was pounding now, my boots slamming into the ground so hard and fast they never got the chance to slip. I hit the creature with all my momentum, driving my smoking blade into its flesh again and again. I had no idea what part I was hitting, but it didn’t matter. Lost in battle lust as I was, I could have carved it to shavings. I swung and swung, screaming as I went until Phoebe’s blade burned out at last and the creature lay still.

I stood panting for several seconds, and then I reeled back and kicked the invisible body as hard as I could. “Ha!” I screamed in King’s Tongue. “How do you like that, you overgrown slug?”

I kicked it a few more times for good measure and then fell back to catch my breath. I was about to pull off my helmet to try to get the freezing slime off my face when I heard something rustle in the undergrowth.

I shot to my feet, brandishing my now useless and brittle thermite blade, but I saw nothing. I was about to dismiss the sound as nerves when a tentacle hit me in the face.

It didn’t hit me nearly as hard as before, but the blow was still enough to knock me on my back. Worse still, with my visor open, I actually felt its slimy skin touch me, but the horrible, freezing cold feel of its invisible flesh was quickly replaced by the too familiar pain of getting socked in the eye.

The soft, squishy tentacle hurt a lot less than a bony fist, but as luck would have it, a piece of my grenade shrapnel had gotten lodged in the tentacle’s tip. The blow slammed the metal shard against my face, missing my eye by a fraction of an inch to slice sideways along my cheekbone. My blood, burning hot after the freezing cold of the creature’s, started pouring down my face and into my suit. But despite that and the pain of what was sure to be one hell of a shiner, my eye still worked, and I kept going without missing a beat.

I scrambled to my feet, blocking the next blow almost by accident on Phoebe’s edge. But burned-out thermite is brittle as dead wood, and the blade snapped in two as the slimy thing flew past to hit me square upside the head. I caught the blow on my helmet instead of my face this time, but the hit was still enough to make me see double. Cursing, I shook my head to clear it as I dropped Phoebe and went for my last gun.

Sasha jumped into my hand as I flung up my arm, firing shot after shot into the tentacles I couldn’t see but knew were there. I saw the bullets hit and stick as they would in a thick shield, but no shield was this strong. They were buried deep in the creature’s invisible flesh, but the thing didn’t even seem to feel pain now. It rose with a screeching roar that brought tears to my eyes, and I fell backward, emptying my clip as the tentacle plunged toward my head, ready to snap my neck through my armor. I could almost see it now, a faint shimmer against the gray clouds above me as it fell. And then, just before I died, I felt the most peculiar feeling I’ve ever experienced.

It was like someone stuck a hand inside me, grabbed hold of my spine, and jerked me away. I saw the ground crater as the tentacle crashed down, but I was no longer beneath it. Instead, I was flying backward, the hand on my spine dragging me through the air toward the clearing’s edge. I could see the trees flying up around me, and I braced for another impact, but I never felt it. Just before I was sure I’d hit, something brushed across my mind, and I could have sworn I heard a soft voice whisper.


As the word formed, the world went black, and my mind folded over into a deep, peaceful sleep.

I woke up to Caldswell screaming in my face.

“What the hell were you thinking?” he shouted, smacking my helmet. “What part of ‘stay with the ship’ can’t your Paradoxian brain handle?”

I blinked at him in surprise, and then everything came back in a rush. I shot to my feet, nearly knocking him over in the process, and staggered in a circle, hand going for Sasha, only to find my holster empty.

“Gun,” I whispered. “Where’s my gun?”

Caldswell gave me a funny look, and I realized I was still speaking King’s Tongue.

“Where’s my gun?” I said again, in Universal this time. “We have to go. There was a…” I didn’t even know how to describe what I’d fought. “A monster,” I said at last.

Caldswell was still staring at me like my words made no sense, which they probably didn’t, but I didn’t care. All I knew was that this place was dangerous and I had to get us out. By this time my head was clear enough that I noticed Ren and Rupert standing a few feet away beside the skippers, mine and Caldswell’s. Rupert was watching me like a hawk, his face drawn with worry. Ren was staring off into the distance, her short, dark hair twitching in the cool wind.