“Stand down! That’s an order!” the captain yells.
I grumble under my breath, not liking this one bit. Movement sounds from behind me. I crane my head around and see people re-emerging from their hiding spots, still others lowering their weapons, wearing confused or curious expressions. Thanks to the new hole in the door, everyone heard that order.
My gaze snags on Cora. She doesn’t look confused or curious. She looks like she might finally snap. Her weapon is clutched to her chest in a death grip, and her eyes are wide in her face.
I slip my oxygen mask up so everyone can hear me. “Drop your weapons.” Nick I trust not to accidentally shoot someone. Cora, not so much.
The others comply, but Cora just stares at me, jaw clenched in defiance.
“We don’t have time for this,” I say, marching over to her.
I nearly sneeze as I approach, the fear wafting off her is so strong. She pivots the weapon like she might actually try to shoot me, and I see terror and panic in her eyes. Shit. Whip fast, I yank the gun up and around, pulling it from her grip as easily as a child could pull the wings off a butterfly. I pass it to Charles, who stands beside her. When he doesn’t immediately take it, I glance over at him, then around at everyone else. They’re all staring at me with wide eyes. Great. I must have moved too fast again.
I shake the gun, and finally Charles takes it. Turning back to Cora, I roll the taste of her fear around in my mouth and lean in, towering over her. A great way to snap someone out of fear is to piss them off, and Cora is fiery enough that I hope this tactic will work on her.
“I thought you were stronger than this,” I say, twisting my mouth in disgust. I’m not really disgusted, but she doesn’t know that.
Her eyes narrow, and she clenches her jaw like she has to physically hold back whatever insult she wants to fire at me. I know she doesn’t like me, but I don’t care. She doesn’t have to like me; she just has to keep from accidentally getting one of my brainiacs killed. If I have to make her hate me, I will. Hate is a great motivator but an even better distractor. I’d take her hate over her fear any day.
I lean in even closer, letting a sneer slip over my face. “Get your shit together.”
She opens her mouth.
David steps between us and pulls off his mask, reflexively straightening his glasses. His eyes are on me. “Enough, corporal.”
I blink and drag in a breath. He’s right. Cora doesn’t smell afraid anymore. She smells enraged. With a nod, I step away from her and return to the door, where Nick has been trading shouts with the captain.
“Sir, how do we know –” Nick starts, only to be cut off.
“That’s an order, do you hear me!” the captain bellows.
Nick looks over at me.
“Yes, sir!” he yells back, then lower, just loud enough to carry through the room, “Is that really the captain?”
“Maybe,” Hannah says from behind us, her tone just as soft. “Or the aliens could be so advanced that they’re mimicking his voice somehow.”
Nick stiffens. “I didn’t even think of that.”
“It’s the captain,” I say. I can smell him through the hole, along with several other scents my brain is struggling to make sense of, and I recognized his particular gait when he got close to the door, right before he first shouted at us, but no one needs to know just how much I catalog every sound and smell. I’ve already creeped them out enough today.
“They’re going to open the door!” the captain yells. “They are not human! Do not fire on them!”
Nick and I share a glance. These aliens must look pretty freaky if the captain thinks our first response to seeing them would be to shoot. Then again, humans have a long history of killing anyone who doesn’t look exactly like they do, so maybe he’s just playing it safe.
There’s a beep, and then the door whooshes open, and –
I pride myself on having fast reflexes, even amongst my fellow shock troops. On thinking quickly. On rapidly assessing a situation, categorizing everything I see, and then moving past any weirdness I encounter. But the sight and smell of these aliens freezes me in my tracks. There are three of them right in front of the door. The tallest barely comes to the captain’s chest. All of them are buck-ass naked, but I don’t see anything on their bodies that would mark them as male or female. Their skin isn’t skin so much as green and gold mottled scales, paler on their…stomachs? Darker on their backs. The only humanoid thing about them is that they stand upright on two feet. They have four arms and long tails pressed against the floor that they seem to use for balance. That must have been what I heard slithering through the hall all day.
The closest creature I can compare them to are geckos. Wide mouths nearly split their faces in half. Their eyes are huge, noses barely more than slight bulges with slits. They smell like a weird mixture of snakes and marijuana and dirt, and it makes me want to sneeze.
Behind them are two big burly bastards that look like they could have evolved from something akin to a lion. They stand on two feet – er, paws – and only have one set of arms. Dark brown fur covers their bodies, mottled patches of black deepening it in places. Dense muscles crowd their wide frames, thickest on their legs and arms, like they still drop to all fours to chase down prey.
My gaze dips lower. Oh, great, they’re naked too, and now I know they’re both male, because while I only see slight protuberances low on their abdomens, like where a penis of some kind might be tucked away, both of them have huge, swinging balls. I jerk my gaze up, reminded more and more of felines as I look them over. They don’t have tails, but they have thick, luxuriant manes around their faces.
I frown, staring at the mane on the closest one. Actually, is that fur? It looks too thin to be the kind of fur you find on earth. It’s feather light, floating in the air around them as if it weighs a fraction of a fraction of what a human hair might.
I drag in a breath. They don’t smell like lions. They smell a little like birds. My nose hates that. Or maybe it’s my brain that does. My over-engineered senses see one thing, expect to smell something at least somewhat similar to what I’m seeing, but smell something else instead, and so now I’m stuck on does not compute.
A drilling sound comes from my right, and I turn toward it. Two more of the small alien things stand outside the next SIP down, back from the door as if supervising. Several other lion aliens are doing the drilling. Guess the big ones are the muscle and the small ones are the brains.
Stop fixating, I tell myself, snapping out of my trance. Okay, it’s aliens after all. Move on, Gabi. Find a way to survive this. Find a way to keep the scientists safe. You still have a job to do.
I face the captain. “What happens now, sir?”
“Now you’re led to the med bay,” he says. “Don’t fight them. They haven’t harmed anyone who hasn’t attacked first.”
I nod. “What happens in the med bay?”
He frowns and looks down at one of the aliens. The alien nods up at him as if in encouragement. What the hell? Can they understand us?
The captain meets my eyes. “From what I can tell, they’re just running some basic blood tests. Nothing too intrusive. They have, uh…” he shifts, looking uncomfortable, “humans among their crew. They’re the ones administering the tests.”
Someone shoves between Nick and me. I glance down and see Cora.
She still looks pissed, but at least she’s glaring at the captain this time and not me. “What the fuck? What do you mean they have humans on their crew?”
“Moderate your tone,” I tell her. “He’s still the captain.”
She snorts. “He’s not my fucking captain.”
I nearly grin. She might be a pain in the ass, but I can’t help liking her sometimes.
The captain narrows his eyes right back at her. “They’re doctors and scientists who were recovered from earlier captures.”
David lets out a soft breath. “So these are the creatures who have been taking the ships.”
It isn’t a question, but the captain nods anyway. Then his gaze swings to me. “Corporal Booker, you’re up first.”
I don’t like this. “With all due respect sir, these scientists are my directive. If it’s okay with you, I’d rather –”
A strange look passes over his face, a mixture of determination and regret. “Mission abort, Corporal Booker.”
Oof. It feels like the air was just knocked from my lungs. I take a staggered step backward, and Nick grabs my shoulder to steady me.
“You okay?” he asks.
“What just happened to her?” someone else says.
Several other questions ring through the hall, but I don’t hear them. Bioengineering has turned my protective instincts up to the next level. Training has done the rest. When shock troops are given a directive, we’re told mission confirmed and then given instructions. It sends something like a ping off in our brains. I have no other way to describe it. It’s like there’s a computer chip up there and it registers the directive and then programs us to follow it. For all I know, there actually is one. When our job is done, we’re told mission complete and we slowly detach from what we’ve been told to do. I haven’t heard mission abort since going into active duty, and I don’t like the way my body reacts – like it’s trying to reject the command. Like it doesn’t register it. The scientists are still right here. Still in obvious danger. How can my job protecting them be over?
I shake my head, trying to clear it.
“Mission abort, Corporal Booker,” the captain repeats. “Confirm.”
My lips form the appropriate response even as my mind revolts. “Confirmed.”
“I thought she was supposed to protect us!” Cora yells.
“What is happening?” David asks.
I’m still out of it, so the captain answers. “She’s been relieved of her duty. It’s the only way to ensure this goes smoothly.”
That manages to break through my confusion. “I wasn’t planning on fighting, sir.”
He eyes me. “Maybe not yet.”
What the hell?
With those ominous words echoing through my mind, I almost don’t feel the tug on my arm. I look down when it comes again, more insistent. There’s a small lizard alien standing there. Their mouth splits, revealing teeth. Are they trying to smile at me or are they planning to bite me? While I try to figure that out, they tug again and then gesture to the hall in front of us, as if asking me to proceed them out of it.
“Mission confirmed, Corporal Booker,” the captain says.
Oh, shit. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
I stare at him, dread in my stomach as I wait for the other shoe to drop.
“Do not resist,” he says.
A ping goes off in my brain.
He’s given me my command, and we’re about to be separated. Which means without him there to relieve it, I’ll be as helpless as a day-old kitten. These aliens could do anything to me, and with that directive roaring through my mind, I will not resist. Anything.
“Sir, you can’t leave me like this.”
He nods. “You may only act to save yourself from serious harm.”
I can’t help anyone else but I can save my own ass? I glare at him. “Why are you doing this, sir?”
“To protect you,” he says. He breaks eye contact and glances at the humans at my back. “To protect all of us. Your meds will wear off eventually.”
I want to demand that he explain that comment. What the hell does he think will happen when my meds wear off? Sure, I might get a bit crankier and hornier. And my instincts might get harder to resist. But I’m the latest generation of shock troop. I’ll be fine once I adjust. Right?
From the look on the captain’s face, he doesn’t think I’ll be fine at all, and his scent is just as cagey as his expression. It’s not outright fear, but something more like wariness.
I open my mouth to ask him to explain, but another tug comes on my arm. The small alien gestures again in a way that I interpret as asking me to walk with them, and I do not resist.
More annoyed than I can ever remember being, I stomp away from the people I swore I would protect, slowing just long enough next to the man who has doomed me to God only knows what fate. “You’re not my fucking captain anymore either,” I say, for once, in perfect agreement with Cora.
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.