Dennis & Bruce Adventures (So Far):
PART TWO: (COMING SOON)
It was always a pain understanding Bruce over the radio. “Can you repeat that, Sergeant?”
“I said, the fr—pack’s com’ing over the h’ill from the –west q’uadrant!” A tapping sound on the other end, accompanied by an irritated growl. “Are you s’ure this –ing rork’s?”
The woman lying on the mound near me stifled a chuckle. I ground my teeth. “It’s not going to work better if you keep prodding it! Look, just join the rest of us. Those monsters will be here any minute, and we could use your firepower.”
That was the fun of traversing the unexplored environment of an alien planet: you got to experience delightful new wildlife every day, most of which was happy to eat you. Add in the constant supply shortages, technological issues, and now a pack of thunder lizards picking up our scent, and we were having a regular summer camp experience. I rubbed my temples, cursing the day I’d ever stepped off Terran soil. It was a comforting habit of mine.
“I’ he—r ya, Sparky. Over –and o’ut.”
Now my mound-mate was outright laughing. I glared at her. “Quit it! This is serious!”
“S-sorry! It’s just… Sparky,” Patricia gasped, shaking with giggles. I grumbled and turned to check my rifle sight. Just because we aren’t a military operation, people think they can goof off.
That wasn’t fair, and I knew it; even soldiers need humor to offset the pressures of life-threatening combat. While Patricia’s outfit wasn’t military, they’d been doing an admirable job surviving out here even before they’d “invited” Bruce and me into the fold. But even though I had decided to work with them – for my own survival as much as theirs – that didn’t mean I had to be happy about the situation they’d landed me in. I could be back on Earth right now, free from anything and everything extraterrestrial, instead of bracing for an attack from the depths of an alien nightmare jungle.
Rustling from the blue-leaved trees across the clearing jerked me from my thoughts, and my hand shot up. Everyone froze – at least that much training had sunk in – plunging the camp into eerie silence. Even the forest insects had gone quiet. I darted glances left and right to check our defense squad and felt an unexpected ripple of pride at the sight of them standing focused and ready. Not bad for a bunch of civvie eggheads.
These moments of emotional mush were happening more than I cared to admit. But this one died a quick death as the forest exploded, and I realized Bruce hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said these lizards were fast.
Purplish-orange gunfire cracked across the field as horse-sized, black-mottled reptiles burst into the open, freakish squeals pouring from their tooth-lined throats. “Left flank! Watch that one going for the tents!” I roared, and men and women tilted their guns to cover it. The hollow boom of one of our precious rocket launchers preceded a crater that filled the air with dirt and the smell of burnt flesh. But they kept coming, and soon screams were sharing airtime with the weapons fire on our side. There were way more than we’d planned for.
One of my men – My men? – screamed in pain as a lizard nearly bit off his leg. I turned my barrel and added to the rain of photon fire and standard bullets that dropped the beast, leaving Evans moaning under its carcass while our medics scrambled to seal his wound. Flashbacks of blood and graves and six-limbed monsters tore at my focus – Not now, not now! – and then I was on a dark, muddy field choked in smoke, surrounded by the dead and dying, the screams of pain and rocket fire deadening my ears, blood running down my hands as I knelt over the prostrate form of Corporal Stan, firing shot after shot at the towering beast pounding towards us. The brightening glow of the alien’s weapon pointed towards me, and then Stan was shoving me, pushing his body between mine and the burning blue fire…
Rage took me, past and present merged into one as my photon rifle blazed into screaming alien lizards and six-limbed alien soldiers. Blast aliens, blast this planet, blast the blood on my hands, I barely heard the scream ripping from my throat as I stood on my mound firing like a maniac, Nobody else is dying on my watch—
Patricia’s scream tore me from the past to a more deadly present: the sight of a gigantic black thunder lizard leaping towards me, its three rows of teeth showing bold and terrible within its gaping maw. Bullets peppered its chest in seeming slow motion, ineffective as paintballs on a charging rhino. Time stopped as I fell backwards on my mound, my soldier brain calculating the impossibility of turning my weapon in time for a saving shot.
So this is how it ends. Three years enduring the space jungle version of Hell, and I’d bought it at the maw of a dumb reptile. Sorry, Corporal, I thought, hoping I’d fulfilled my promise enough to count. And in the infinitely-stretched final second before those teeth found my head, I had time for my favorite complaint one last time:
I really, REALLY hate aliens.
A four-legged, two-armed alien barreled into the monster midair, both crashing out of my line of sight. I spun on my side and watched as they rolled over each other, the centaur-like alien coming out on top. His burly front legs held the lizard down as his upper arms lifted a massive rifle, the fuel chamber charging up to a blinding glow I knew all too well. With an animal roar from his too-human face, he pulled the trigger, firing a neon-blue energy shot into the beast’s head.
It died instantly. So did the next three that he sniped in quick succession from his perch on top of the fried carcass. One of the shots hit a fallen pulse rifle, and blue lightning lanced out from it, spearing two more lizards like spitted pigs. My brain resurfaced through the shock of near-death long enough to thank God that none of my men had been too close; gretzi had a violent reaction to metal. I still get a metallic tang on my tongue at the memory of my first encounter with the alien ammo. But that was better than the nightmares.
Minutes later, or maybe years, the gunfire petered out, the smells of spent gretzi and pulse bullets wafting on the breeze. I could finally hear again. As the haze of shock faded, I was annoyed to find my hands still desperately clutching the bluish grass at my sides and my breath still coming in heaves. Field Commander Robinson would’ve died of shame at this sorry display. Patricia gently slipped the rifle from my shaking hands while I slumped on my back, staring up at the sunset-orange sky.
I wasn’t dead. 724 days. A new record.
A glance to my left confirmed that the canine-ish centaur still stood by the dead lizard that almost had my name on it. He was casually checking his gretzi rifle and cleaning blood from his swirly, plant-based geoarmor. And while part of me loathed to do it, I lifted my hand in a weak wave and panted the deserved words.
“Thanks… for… the help… Bruce…”
Sergeant Bruce T’shano, the name and rank given by us humans to approximate a real name and rank we couldn’t pronounce, shot me a toothy grin and a twitch of his rubbery nose. “N’o pr—blem, Sparky. I sh—ld’a kn’own you’d try –to h’ave a’ll the f—n w’ithout m’e.” His too-human face twisted in a grimace, and he tapped a furry finger against the device strapped to the side of his head. “But se—riously, Patr, this i’s the wors’t it’s bkin si—nce you st’uck me w’ith it. C’an we –please g’et the tech’ies to w—ork on this tr’ansl—tor?”
“I’ll have someone look at it after we clean up,” Patricia chuckled, patting my leg as she stood. The transition was almost visible: with the fighting and our soldierly duties done, this fiery little woman confidently retook command of her expedition. “You can rest a few minutes, Sparky. Looks like we’ve got dinner for the next week.” She winked at the big felnim, as unphased by his intimidating alien presence now as she had been the day they’d met. “Freshly cooked, too.” Bruce barked a laugh and shouldered his massive, glowing-blue gun.
Patricia trotted off while Bruce hefted one of the massive lizards by the tail, preparing to drag it towards the mess tent. He paused to look down at me, though, eyes unreadable. I was close enough to hear the deep rumble of his natural voice underneath the translator. “You al’right, C’aptain?”
Was I? I lay still, absorbing the events of the past twenty minutes, unable to sort all the conflicting signals from my body and brain. My adrenalin was still buzzing, yet I wanted to sleep for a week. Old war ghosts, some in the shape of alien centaurs, still haunted the corners of my vision; but now they were competing with new images of a giant alien centaur saving my bacon. Sometimes it would be nice if the universe was a little more black and white. But then again, if it were, I wouldn’t be breathing right now.
Finally I just nodded, letting the bone-deep exhaustion wash over me. Sorting out my mess of a life wasn’t worth the effort right now.
Bruce grinned and held out a fuzzy, padded hand. He had to lean down from his tall horseback-height position to reach where I still lay on the ground. “B’et this h—s done w’onders for y’our love of all th’ings non-T’erran, eh, Sparky?”
I spat out a laugh that surprised us both. Then I surprised us both again by accepting his plate-sized hand, allowing him to haul me upright as effortlessly as a loose blanket. “One or two of them might be growing on me,” I admitted, dusting myself off so I wouldn’t have to look him in the face. A feeling of betrayal warred with my gratitude, and Corporal Stan’s blackened corpse flashed before my eyes.
Death and life. Promises and regrets. I should have died a long time ago, yet here I was, working with my worst enemy to guard a bunch of crazy civvies from the alien hellforest I’d made every plan to leave. The universe oughta have a quota for how much irony it can dish out.
There was a chuckle, and I looked up to see Bruce dragging a lizard carcass away. I took the excuse to escape my philosophical quandary and went to check on the status of the wounded. Evans had taken the worst damage, but the medics were grafting his nearly-severed leg, pouring all of their advanced medical technology into saving the limb. Deep relief soothed the aches in my body. No casualties. I’d kept my promise a little longer.
Patricia joined me at the entrance to the tent, her head just reaching my chin. Blood smeared her cheek, making my heart jolt; but it was lizard blood, not hers. “Good work out there,” she said quietly. “I knew it was the right thing bringing you two in.” The little scientist ignored my grudging grunt in favor of a knowing glance between me and the alien sergeant piling up thunder lizards by the mess tent. Then she elbowed me lightly. “Maybe he’s not so bad after all, huh?”
I turned away with responding, but not before I caught her grin turning smug. She knew the significance as I walked away in silence. It was the first time I’d found myself unable to disagree.
More of Bruce, Dennis, and Patricia to come…
(I have plans in the works to do a series of short stories abut these guys. The felnim (Bruce’s race) have been a favorite of mine for some time now, and the story of Bruce and Dennis was originally intended to be a book. But I think that this will be a fun way to explore their story a bit at a time.)
(If you see any typos, please let me know! You can read all of my posted short stories by clicking “Writing Shorts” in the top Menu. Thanks for reading! – Jenn H.)