This fucking planet reeks. The entire goddamn thing is made up of jungles and swamps. Gasses bubble up through the muck, permeating the air with the smell of stale farts and burnt peat. No wonder it produced one of the most advanced species in this universe: those slave-trading lizards must have been desperate to find a way off this hellhole.
The trade city we’re going to sits atop a large steppe, high above the stink. Thank fuck for that. If only we were able to land directly there, but too many aliens know the sight of us. We can’t risk them following us back to our ship and sabotaging it, or worse, nuking it in a fit of pique. That’s why we’re several clicks away, in a tiny forest clearing barely big enough to fit the Raven.
With a few taps on my console, I reprogrammed the camo paint. Anyone looking down on her will see yet another stand of trees. From the forest floor, she’ll look like just another shipwreck, already picked clean by enterprising locals. We’re leaving Mohrobid and Prim behind to guard it just in case some brave fool decides there might be something left worth digging for.
The rest of us suit up in waterproof gear and head out into the jungle, packing enough firepower to fight the whole way there. Which we might have to do. Between the locals and the wildlife, Tau Ceti E is about as inhospitable as planets come.
“I hate this place,” Ceres says, her declaration punctuated by a sneeze that shakes her lanky frame. “It smells so bad.”
“I hate it more,” Kic chimes in. He kicks at a waist-high fern-like plant as we move beneath the canopy. Sweat mingles with the dew clinging to his furry face. We’re not even twenty paces into the forest, and I can already smell him. I wanted to leave him behind – a melted Kic is a useless Kic – but he put up a hell of a fight, so he’s here and probably already regretting it.
“No one hates it as much as us,” Sita grumbles from somewhere up ahead.
Ceres glances over at me, and we share a grin. The undergrowth is so high here that it completely obscures Sita and Nin. Every now and then, a frond shakes to show signs of their passage, but otherwise, they’re hidden from sight. It must be driving Sita crazy. She’s a huge control freak in a tiny little body, and not being able to see anything above the swaying ferns must be driving her bugfuck.
“Ow!” she squeaks, followed by a slap.
Or maybe it’s the bugs driving her bugfuck.
Her sister shushes her. “We’re supposed to be the surprise backup. Would you shut your mouth?”
Sita snaps back at Nin, and their voices drop in volume but rise in frequency as they argue, and soon they sound like the whining hum of more insects.
Am pulls even with me as the light from the clearing falls away, and we’re dropped into the artificial twilight of the forest. The trees here look nothing like anything on earth. They’re not even technically trees, but I don’t have anything else to compare them to. Their “trunks” are a perfectly smooth pitch black, their coloring part of why it’s so dark within the jungle. Instead of greenery, their crowns are topped with spiky, swaying stalks that look like grass, if grass were ten feet long, four feet thick, and as dark as a moonless night.
The deeper we walk, the less light penetrates the canopy. Am stays close to my side. Out of all of us, he has the worst eyesight, his small, beady eyes evolved to the blindingly bright desert planet he hails from. His scaly hide is as light as my skin, and we’d both stand out like beacons if not for the fact that we’ve covered our faces in camopaint. The rest of our bodies are hidden by our dark rain suits.
In contrast to us, up ahead, Ceres moves like a ghost through the jungle. She might hate this planet, but she’s in her element here. Luyt, her home world, is covered in forests just as thick as this one, though far less smelly if she’s to be believed. She’s the only one of us not in a suit. Her short, striped fur is dense and coated in naturally occurring oils that make the humidity slick right off of her. Kic eyes her with something like envy, wiping sweat from his heavy brow as he trails in her wake.
Suddenly, the sound of bickering dies off, and a scuffle breaks out beneath the ferns, fronds jerking back and forth as violence erupts beneath them. Everyone stops in their tracks. Nin and Sita might argue incessantly, but their fights never come to blows. This is something else. They’re not just traipsing through the undergrowth for no reason; this planet has all sorts of predatory creatures, big and small. They’re our first line of defense against anything that crawls and slithers on the forest floor.
A sharp, pained shriek rends the air, and then all goes quiet.
“Clear,” Nin calls.
The spicy reek of blood hits my nose a second later, and then I hear crunching.
Kic turns to me with a look of disgust. “Must they always eat what they kill?”
Am chuckles. “Tsaks believe that consuming their enemies strengthens them.”
“We don’t just believe that,” Sita’s disembodied voice pipes up, the words a little garbled because her mouth is full. “It’s the truth.”
Ceres rolls her eyes and keeps walking, and the rest of us start back up.
“You want the heart?” Nin asks.
“Ooh, yummy! Thanks!” Sita replies.
I guess they’re done arguing for now.
Kic makes a gagging noise as the crunching gains a wet edge. His people are vegetarians.
I let all of this flow around me, listening to my crew with half an ear, paying attention with half a mind. The other half is stuck on her. Corporal Booker. Thakhat sent me information on her a few days back – which ship she was stationed on, what she was doing on it, what scant records they had on file. I’ve been rolling the taste of her name around on my tongue ever since. Gabrielle. I imagine myself growling it into her ear as I thrust inside her hot, tight pussy. Roaring it as I come. Moaning it as she rises above me.
It’d be one thing if all of my thoughts were sexual, but I’ve found myself obsessing over her in other ways. What is she like? Does she have a sense of humor? Is she loud and boisterous, or quiet and serious? Which fighting style does she prefer? Hand-to-hand, plasma spears, or does she crave the cold metal of a sniper’s rifle? Was her training similar to mine? Or has it changed in the decades since I went through it?
Kic wasn’t wrong when he said she might be better than me. I’ve watched the video of her fight half a dozen times every single day since receiving it, pausing, rewinding, and analyzing every move she made. She might very well be better than me if she learns to quit fucking around and dragging shit out.
I fight a smile as I walk. Small as it might be, that little morsel is one of the few glimpses of her personality I’ve had. She revels in a good fight. She prolonged it because she didn’t want it to end. She likes violence. Perhaps as much as I do. Her goading her captors was another indication of who Gabrielle Booker really is. “Is this the best you can do?” No, it wasn’t. But then they weren’t trying to kill her. And she knew that.
I need to stop thinking about her laughing as she vented her rage. It’s turning me on again, not that I haven’t been rock hard for over a week straight. No matter how many times I grip my dick and make myself come to thoughts of her, the wanting, the needing never really goes away. If anything, it’s like the more I jerk off to her, the hornier I get. Goddamn mating instincts. At least with my hormone levels balanced, I haven’t lost it again. And I can think past the overwhelming urge to make her mine, remind myself that I can’t just rip her clothes off and plunge into her the second I have her on my ship. Even at my worst, I never forced anyone. Hell, for all I know, she might not even want me back.
I nearly trip as that thought skirts across my mind. No, I growl inwardly. She will want me back because she has the same goddamn instincts I do. I’ve done plenty of research on our bastardized genetics. The havik species isn’t particular like humans are. They don’t give a shit about outward appearances. All that matters to them is the ability to breed. Makes sense since they’re technically a lesser lifeform on a very advanced, very violent planet. One look, one smell is all it can take for their mating instincts to trigger. And I’m the only option Gabrielle has out here. Her lizard brain will realize that, just like mine did with her, and it will imprint on me. Of that, I’m goddamn sure.
At least it won’t hit her that hard if she’s on her meds. I might be an unevolved bastard, I might have more blood on my hands than most, but consent matters to me. Out here, I’ve seen what sexual slavery does to intelligent lifeforms, and I want no fucking part of it. If Gabrielle is out of her mind with a mating frenzy she didn’t see coming, she won’t be in her right mind. She can’t really say, “Yes, Ryker. You can absolutely fuck me up against this bulkhead.” Which means that if she launches herself at me, I have to find some way to resist her until she gains enough control over her instincts to make the choice for herself.
I snarl at the thought of turning her down. I’ve never claimed to be good. I don’t give a shit about fairness. In space, the strong survive, and the weak die. She is my mate, so why shouldn’t I have her?
Because you don’t want your potential mate to fucking hate you, you dumb prick, I remind myself.
Fine. Yes, that. She definitely won’t want to be my mate if she hates me, and my obsession with her means that I want more than sex anyway. I want her to be okay out here. I want her to be safe. And I won’t be able to ensure she is if I make her my enemy. More than anything, I want to protect her. I want to shield her from the worst of what will happen when she comes off her meds. I want to be there for her, guide her, shelter her, like I wish someone had been there for me.
I want to wrap her up in bubble wrap and protect her from all the shit space will throw at her, which I recognize is both irrational and futile. She’s a bioengineered super-soldier, just like I am. If anyone tried to do that to me, I would murder them, slowly and painfully. But knowing that doesn’t stop the urges I have. I haven’t even met her, and yet I know I would take a bullet for her. I think I would even if my mating instincts weren’t riding me so hard. She’s my kind. The only other one that I’ve come across out here, the only other one I might ever come across, and I would die to protect her.
I’m roused from my thoughts by the quiet around me. The air is thick with what might be the threat of a storm, or anticipation. It feels like the forest is holding its breath. I shove my daydreams of her aside and focus.
I’m not the only one who senses something is off. Without speaking, my crew gathers closer to each other and falls silent. It was one thing to fuck around a little near the edge of the clearing, with light still creeping in and the illusion of safety just a short sprint away. But the beating pulse of Tau Ceti E is a dark, predatory thing, and it’s most at home in the heart of the jungle. We slow our steps, cast our gazes out around us. Ceres walks in a crouch, her huge ears swiveling to and fro as she listens to sounds not even I can detect. Nin and Sita stalk through the undergrowth like creatures born from it. Now, they choose their steps with care. Now, fronds don’t twitch to mark their passage. The only reason I know they’re on either side of me is because I can hear their shallow breaths.
Kic and Am share a glance and then pull on their night goggles. Without them, they would be near-blind soon. With them, they can see almost as well as I can. My eyes adjust quickly to the darkness, like they always do. In the distance, I catch a vibrant flash of white, the bioluminescence of some small lizard-like creature as it scurries up a trunk. The sound of something big moving up ahead hits my ears a second after Ceres’. Without a word, we correct course, moving away from it.
Far overhead, thunder rumbles. The skies open up not long after, but down here beneath the towering canopy, barely a trickle of the deluge reaches us. Instead it manifests as humidity, clinging to our suits and skins and fur and scales, turning the air fetid and oppressive. The smell of rot slowly overtakes that of burning peat. This jungle is forever caught in a cycle of growth and decay. One tree, one creature falls, and dozens of others surge over it in their bid for survival. Add moisture and heat, and the smell of all that death is thick enough to choke on.
I glance over at Kic. He looks as miserable as I thought he might. The thick fur on his head and neck lays flat, soaked through. Our suits are made from a filmy sort of fabric imbued with smart nanotech. Once on, they adjust to their wearer, clinging to our bodies so an enemy can’t grab a loose handful in a fight. It might be less than a millimeter thick, but Kic once told me that clothing of any kind drives him crazy after too long, so he must be about ready to tear it off.
Somehow, he manages to ignore his growing discomfort, nostrils twitching as he scents the air. Between his nose and Ceres’ ears and Nin and Sita’s eyes, we should have advanced warning of any attack. It’s hard to sneak up on my crew. I pride myself on the fact that we damn near always get the drop on enemy combatants, so I’m understandably annoyed when a truck-sized insect drops down from the canopy almost on top of us.
The thing looks like a nightmarish mix between a spider, a grasshopper, and a shrimp. Only huge. Its thick carapace is pitch black, and wavy fronds sway off its back, which is why we didn’t see it. Goddamn bug must have evolved to camouflage with the trees. It lands on twelve spiky legs, rising ten feet above the undergrowth.
One of those legs nearly impales Ceres, but she manages to roll out of the way at the last second. We don’t yell: we’re too well-trained for that. We don’t talk battle strategy: there’s no time. Even as we heft our weapons, the thing is moving. Legs flash out lightning fast. Each one is tipped with a single claw, made for spearing its prey. My crew scatters, Kic and Am taking cover behind tree trunks, Ceres leaping out of sight. I stay where I am and face the thing down, drawing its attention. I’m the fastest one; I can probably dodge anything this monster throws at me. Plus, I need to serve as a distraction from Nin and Sita. They’ve taken up positions in front of me, so that when they nuke it with their sonar, they don’t accidentally take me out in the process.
The whine of weapons priming fills the forest, and then the first blinding flash of a ray gun explodes over my sight like a firework. In the light, the bug is even uglier than in darkness. Its face, if you can call it a face, is mostly mouth. A wide, gaping oubliette yawns open in front of me, as if it could suck me up whole. I don’t see any teeth, just folds and folds of backward-facing inner lips. Fuck me, it looks like a mad scientist sat down in his lab and had a good long think about how to turn a human vagina into a nightmare. For the first time in a week, my dick goes soft.
I lift my gun and fire straight into all of those folds. Not much turns my stomach anymore, but the sight of my plasma round tearing into them makes me want to vomit up everything I’ve ever eaten.
The thing screeches in pain, rearing on its back legs, lashing out in every direction with its front ones. We unload into its underbelly, aiming for anything that looks like a weak spot. A barely detectable whine underlays the sounds of battle, and I can hear soft things exploding within the creature’s carapace as Nin and Sita go to work on its organs.
And then it’s gone just as fast as it appeared, zooming up and away by its ass end. I catch a glittering glimpse of something like spider silk before it disappears. The whole fight lasted maybe two minutes.
“What the fuck was that?” Am asks, stepping out from behind a tree. His goggles flash as he stares up into the canopy.
I can still hear the thing whinnying in pain as it flees overhead. “No idea,” I tell him. I’ve never seen one of those things before and sure as shit never want to see one again. I haven’t come this close to puking in years.
Kic joins us, his mouth turned down. “Is it me, or did that thing’s mouth look like a-”
“Don’t say it,” I bark at him. Goddamn it, I will never be able to unsee what I just saw.
Nin and Sita titter in laughter, still hidden by the ferns.
Ceres strides back into sight, her weapon forgotten in her hands as she grins at me. “Now I know what to remind you of every time your mating stink gets too strong.”
“You do, and I’ll push you out of an airlock midflight,” I tell her. Then, to everyone else. “Let’s keep moving.”
I can tell from how quickly they snap to that I’m not the only one who wants to put this godforsaken jungle behind me.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.