(A/N: This story can be read as a standalone, or it can be read as the third in a short story series I am working on, “The Dennis & Bruce Adventures”. You can read the first two stories here and here. Enjoy! ~Jenn H.)
“Eggs.” I poked more grass off the nest, observing the mottled blue orbs impassively.
Sergeant Bruce T’shano leaned over my shoulder, his furry ears silhouetted against the blue sky. “Y’up. Th—se a’re eggs,” he replied, equally impassive. Between Patricia’s techies fiddling with his translator and the big alien picking up a smattering of English, he’d gotten much easier to understand, but he still sounded like a bear with a mouthful of marbles.
I stood from my crouch, dusting off worn fatigues. “What do you think? Safe to take?”
The eight-foot-tall dog-centaur alien rolled one shoulder, readjusting the cross-body strap that held his giant holster and its equally giant gretzi rifle to his upper half’s back. He crouched on beefy forelegs, turning over one of the basketball-sized eggs with a padded hand. “C’ould be. They’re not fr’m a thunder liz—d. Maybe a ch’kal daim or a harken.”
“And which of those is deadlier?”
Bruce grinned, wrinkling the wide rubbery patch on the end of his otherwise humanoid nose. “Dep’ends which one c’atches you.”
The twin suns beat down on our equatorial jungle location, sending sweat trickling down my temples as I tried to think. I could only imagine how hot furry Bruce must be, but he never showed it. The jerk.
Patricia had sent us on this food-gathering mission three hours ago, and so far, the packs on our backs were not filled halfway to my liking. You wouldn’t think food would be especially difficult to find in such a flourishing environment, but try gathering for an entire scientific expedition while avoiding everything poisonous to humans on a planet where three-fourths of the vegetation had yet to be identified. Bruce was immune to practically everything, but also the only felnim in a camp of twenty-odd humans, and even he had preferences. These eggs would be a huge boon to our failing pantry. Then again, did we want to risk incurring the wrath of whatever beast was big enough to make eggs this size?
But we’ve been gone too long! I thought with a wave of frustration. No matter how convinced Garrity was that he could handle security measures (and, to be fair, he’d been pretty reliable), I didn’t like leaving Patricia – or the rest of the camp – without its two most experienced defenders. A traitorous growl from my stomach added to my indecision as I briefly beheld a mouth-watering vision of giant sunny-sides-up.
“It’d be nice to know if Mama is small enough to give us more meat, or big enough to make us more dead,” I muttered, half to myself and half to Bruce. “Any thoughts, Sergeant?”
Rustling drew my attention just in time to see Bruce grabbing the thick leaf of a nearby jungle plant and ripping off a mouthful. I glared at him. “Wh’t?” he asked, feigning innocence.
“You know perfectly well what,” I grumbled along with my stomach. Stupid overpowered felnim metabolisms.
Bruce shrugged, swallowing his mouthful of alien flora. “It’s your c’all, Sparky.” He patted the Gretzi Geli .3T rifle on his back, its fuel chamber glowing pale blue in the sunlight. I’d never gotten an understandable explanation of what .3T meant in felnim measurements. “I have f’ive full ch’arges prepped, and my I’gna will let us know if anyth’ing’s c—ming in h’ot. J’ust keep in mind, if we’re c’aught with our h’ands full of eggs, it’ll be h’arder to defend ourselves.”
“You could carry the eggs while I carried the gun,” I suggested, feigning nonchalance.
Bruce grinned, his eight incisors gleaming. “Sparky, if you can hit a tr’ee from twenty kleps with my Geli, I will n—t only be impr’essed, I w’ill carry all of y—r g’ear for a w’eek.” He hefted the massive weapon for emphasis. It was easily five feet long, its fuel and receiver chambers glowing a pleasant cerulean where the pre-charged gretzi sloshed in preparation for firing. I’d seen him fry horse-sized beasts in a single shot with the biological energy bullets that came from that barrel, burning anything organic and electrifying anything metal they touched. A gorgeous gun, alien or not, but the one time he’d let me hold it, I almost fell on my backside. But hey, a man could dream.
I waved off his ridicule and changed the subject back to the eggs. My itch to return to camp won out. “Alright, I guess we’ll risk it. Help me put together a stretcher.” Bruce nodded once and trotted towards a nearby stand of trees. That was one other thing I could admit I liked about Bruce; for all his snark, he got right to business when it counted.
We had the stretcher built in ten minutes, cobbled together from long grass, sturdy branches, and thick leaves (when Bruce wasn’t munching on them). I managed, through great force of will, not to crack jokes about carthorses while I rigged our makeshift conveyance to Bruce’s haunches. More sweat trickled down my temples as I painstakingly loaded our precious cargo; with our luck, the eggs would spontaneously hatch halfway to camp.
Soon, with Bruce pulling while holding his rifle at the ready and me keeping the back end off the ground, we set off towards through scaly alien trees towards camp. My shoulders immediately protested the weight. It was going to be a long walk.
“So,” Bruce said conversationally as we navigated around a swampy puddle, “h’ow are things g’oing with P’atricia?”
I groaned. A very long walk. “Great. You were just waiting until you had a captive audience, weren’t you?”
Bruce chuckled, his thick arm ripping an obstructing branch out of our path and tossing it aside. “I h’ave to stay entert’ained someh—w. You sh’ould just c’ourt her already.”
“I won’t even ask where you learned an archaic English term like ‘court’,” I grumbled, forgetting about the translator. It still boggled my mind that this huge could-smash-my-head-with-his-fist alien soldier had such an interest in human romance. It was a source of regular consternation among my fellow Earthlings how he could pick out who was interested in whom while most of us were still trying to sort out our feelings. Maybe he could sense hormones or something. Regardless, I did not want to discuss this while trudging through brush-thick jungle with sweat dripping in my eyes and all senses straining for the sound of a giant mama beast coming to maul me.
Or ever, really.
But, of course, none of this bothered Bruce, who continued with great cheer. “She l’ikes you b’ack, you kn—w. I’d g’uess she isn’t purs’uing the m’atter bec—se your c’ulture shares mine’s st—dard that the m’ale st’art the rel’ationsh—p.”
“That’s not as common as you’d think anymore,” I replied distractedly, shifting my grip to keep the egg carrier level. I kept the rest of my thoughts to myself – the dozen other reasons why Patricia and I didn’t have a chance. “Seriously, can we just go back to shooting at each other? I think I preferred that to your invasive attempts at matchmaking.”
I’d meant it as a joke, but winced at the amount of venom that leaked out. An awkward silence ensued, broken only by footsteps and animal noises. Great job, Rales. The big soldier was trying to make conversation, maybe even bridge this awkward gap between us. The least I could do was not stab his efforts in the throat.
In my search for a change of topic and a peace offering, I almost rejected the first idea that came to mind. But I’d been honestly curious what his thoughts were on the matter. Maybe now was the right time to bring it up – soldier/captive to soldier/captive.
“While we’re on the subject of Patricia,” I grunted, scrambling awkwardly to lift the egg stretcher over a rocky outcropping. “What do you think about this little expedition we’re on?”
Bruce cast a glance of mild surprise back at me. His brow lowered in thought as he faced forward again, pointed ears twitching. For a moment, I didn’t think he would answer.
“I th’ink I underst—nd why they d’on’t want ei’ther of our p’eople to kn—w they’re h’ere,” he said shortly.
Now it was my turn to be surprised. I’d been playing with similar thoughts, but hadn’t spoken them aloud. The silence stretched for a moment. “Think they’d object, do you?”
Bruce snorted, his four padded feet smashing through a patch of tough undergrowth. His good humor from earlier vanished like the sunlight overhead, blocked by dense alien foliage. “I don’t kn’ow about your p—ple, but mine are pr’etty c’onvinced th’at this m’oon is ours. Even if Patr’s t’eam weren’t l—king for s’omething that w’ould be of int’erest to the Space C‘oalition, they’re st’ill h’umans on felnim-cl’aimed s’oil.”
“The verdict is still out on that,” I muttered, hackles rising. Not the smartest thing to say when I’d been intending this topic as a peace offering, but old habits die hard. As have more of my men than I care to count, I thought bitterly.
He shot a sharp glance back at me, face unreadable. “R’ight. And at this r’ate, it won’t be s’ettled until the d’irt is well-w’atered with som—ne’s bl’ood.” His own voice dropped to a mutter. “Not a’s if we h’aven’t done a sparking g—d j’ob drenching it alr’eady.”
This was getting too close to old wounds. I tried to casually readjust the course of the conversation, studying the back of the felnim’s head. “I can’t say my people would be that thrilled, either. Like you said, it’ll catch the interest of Earth and the Space Coalition. Could mean any number of things we don’t want.” Funny how “we” in regard to my adopted settlement didn’t feel as natural as it once had.
Bruce nodded, once. “I s’uppose the patri’otic th’ing w—ld be to let s’omeone know so it c’an be p’ut to an end.”
The words were spoken with such casual dismissal that it took me a moment for the meaning to sink in. Then I nearly froze, the ice in my veins fit to counter the jungle heat.
Two months had passed since Bruce and I reached our truce. It had become clear we weren’t going anywhere; no transportation within reach could break us free from the jungle interior, and any ideas of walking out of this death trap came as near to suicidal as if I put a bullet in my head. But the less-spoken fact was that we both – I had thought – grew to sympathize with those loony scientists. For all that it was their fault we were stuck with them, out in the middle of the Death Stretch with no way back to our respective Settlements, they treated us well. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like, but they really seemed to have good intentions. So we’d agreed to stop trying to kill each other and work together, for our own and their survival.
We’d gotten along better since then, albeit with a few hiccups. Bruce seemed almost comfortable in our company, whereas I still fought the occasional impulse to shoot him on sight. (I’d gotten better since the thunder lizard attack, though.) Maybe he had an easier time of it because he was one felnim in a company of thirty peaceful humans (and me), whereas I only had him as an example of what a reasonable, non-human-shooting felnim looked like. And, in some small ways, I had started to… well, almost like the guy. He was down-to-earth, had a sharp wit, and he’d saved my life from rampaging reptiles.
But right now, staring at the back of his head with that offhand comment ringing in my ears, the old doubts reared up. Was he really so comfortable? Could a felnim settler on this planet honestly care for humans? Did he still dream of escaping this jungle, even this whole planet, like I did?
And was he willing to betray everyone in our little camp if he could do it?
You can’t blame him for that, my logic pointed out irritably. You’d drop this whole escapade in a heartbeat if you could get back to Earth.
But I wouldn’t rat on Patricia’s team! I shot back. They’re not bad people. Who cares what old ruins they find on this rock? It wouldn’t make a difference, anyway.
Maybe, my traitorous thoughts retorted. But then, you don’t care one way or the other anymore. Bruce might have more invested in it than you. And if he does make it back while you’re still here, what’s that going to do to your so-called “truce?”
Old habits die hard, indeed. As much as I wanted to trust, even like, the big furry centaur in front of me, aliens had only ever brought me grief. It would be foolish to let my guard down now.
I was just glancing back to check my rifle when Bruce stopped short, making me lurch against the stretcher. “Hey, watch the eggs!”
His mitt of a hand went up, nose tracking to the left. “H’old up. There’s s’omething—”
The high, musical trill of a bird reached our ears a split-second before an explosion rocked the trees, sending us both staggering. Black smoke rose in a pillar over the forest to our left. Bruce and I stared at the cloud, then at each other. Then we were scrambling to get him out of the harness.
That had not come from camp!
Eggs abandoned (but not forgotten), we bolted through the jungle. Bruce had me far beat on kilometers per hour, but my smaller frame made it easier to weave through thick clusters of trees. So I found myself beating a felnim in a race as I reached the edge of a clearing, photon rifle ready and Bruce’s muffled curses behind. What I saw, though, wiped all smug thoughts from my mind.
A human aircraft – an actual ship! – lay parked amidst a recently-burned clearing. It looked like a beat-up four-man Mark VII Kingfisher: chunkily-armored silver body, blocky cobalt-blue grav lifters, two mounted wing turrets. One turret was turning, trying to lock onto its target. And the second was being savaged by a gray monster fifteen feet tall.
I flattened myself against the earth as another close impact shook the ground; the gunner was attempting to fire its turret at its attacker, but the angle was all wrong, and the powerful shot exploded violently against the ground. This time, it was accompanied by an angry groan as the furry quadruped startled backward, briefly releasing its hold on the second turret. Its head looked like a cross between a beaked triceratops and a horse, and the lumpy body balanced on four thick, elephantine feet. Recovering from its scare, the creature shook its crested head and charged back in with an angry trumpet.
Something dove past my head, scaring me half to death. Then Bruce was crouching at my side. A brown-plumaged bird, roughly the size of a crow, landed on his shoulder with a chorus of twittering and flapping. Bruce muttered something to it with his translator turned off. It hopped down his back and settled into the fur between his middle pair of shoulder blades, the little purple crest on its neck ruffling. Bruce clicked his translator back on, staring with cold eyes at the commotion.
“Harken,” he growled.
I did a double-take. “That’s a harken?! How can that be a harken?! Mammals don’t lay eggs!”
“What m’akes you so s’ure it’s a m—mal?” Bruce asked, swinging the gretzi rifle off his shoulder and activating three gauges. The transparent fuel chamber sloshed with blue goop as the weapon began to hum.
“Because it’s got fur, and, and—” An image of a platypus flashed through my mind, and I scowled. “Why in the Franklin sun didn’t you say they got that BIG?!”
“B’ecause I’ve n’ever s—n one th’at b’ig!” Bruce snapped. “And th’ey don’t n—rmally get that m’ad. S’omething set th’is one off.”
We stared at each other, the same realization hitting us both at once.
Shouts from the clearing brought my head around, and I saw several raggedly-garbed humans firing at the harken from behind the ship. Their photon bullets barely singed its fur. Someone screamed an inarticulate command as it stomped the ground, rocking the Kingfisher on its docking stabilizers. “We’ve got to help them.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “We d’o, d’o we? D’id you m’iss the l’ogo on the s’ide of that sh’ip?”
I hadn’t. The scratched paint was still recognizable: a simple, blue spaceship angled against a hexagon. Settlement airship. But what were they doing all the way out here?
No time to consider the possibilities. I gritted my teeth, sliding up onto my knees. “Fine. Stay out of sight or they’ll shoot you, too. I’m going down there.”
“And wh’at are y’ou g’oing to do?” Bruce snapped. He leaned towards me, his furry face deadly serious. “Th’ink, C’aptain; they alr—dy have ph’oton r’ifles, and those aren’t m’aking much of a dif—rence.”
“Don’t worry about me.” I felt in my side pouch for the special treat I’d been saving. Seemed a shame to use them up, but…
Nobody else is dying on my watch. “I’ve got to do something,” I muttered. Maybe they weren’t my men, but they were close enough to count.
I heard a sigh of long-suffering from the trees, but by then I was racing down the hillside.
The monster towered over me as I made for the ship, zigzagging around fallen and charred tree trunks. I should have asked Bruce if he knew any weaknesses, but I couldn’t expect him to help. These were people who might have killed friends of his, who would shoot him on sight. You could only ask a guy to tolerate so much. I knew what I might have done in his place, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
“Hey!” I called, trying to get the attention of one of the ship’s crew. Ashy photon discharge mixed with the rank odor of singed animal hair, stinging my nostrils. A woman near the port turret turned on me, eyes wild. I threw my hands up. “Don’t shoot! I’m here to help!” Two men were firing from underneath the ship, and I could spy a third up in the cockpit. Full crew accounted for.
The woman heaved a breath and nodded as the ship shook under another impact. I could see now that the docking stabilizers had been reinforced with steel grounding rods – an extra defense against exactly this sort of threat, keeping the ship upright against the onslaught. Settlement ingenuity was not to be scorned. “Great! Scout Andrea Libbens; this here’s my ship. Don’t suppose ya have any heavy artillery in that jacket o’ yours?” Her AustraIndian accent didn’t surprise me; the Settlements had humans from all over Earth.
“Captain Dennis Rales. And maybe.” I dug out one of the glassy orbs from the bottom of my pack, keeping an eye on the angry mother. Her thick head was tilted towards the ship’s starboard side, worrying it with stubby horns. “Are you equipped against electrical discharge?”
The woman’s eyes lit with recognition at what lay in my hand, and she patted the ship’s bulkhead. “Got a basic layer o’ insulation under here, but we’re a cast-off scout ship; ha’nt been modified ‘gainst dogtaur witchfire yet. But i’ might be okay for a li’l volt grenade.” She tilted her chin at the angry beast, her jaw tight. “Dunno if it’ll stop that beastie. Have a plan in mind, hero?”
I’d been thinking hard since I left the tree line, and was relieved to find that I did. “Concentrate fire on her head until I get in position. I’m going to lead her away and try to stun her. That should give your gunner a chance to lock on with your working turret.” It was a hair-brained plan just as likely to get me mashed to paste, but I couldn’t see any better options.
My new acquaintance agreed to the plan by directing her photon rifle towards the creature’s face. “Our new friend’s gonna do a run ‘n hob, boys!” she shouted. “Aim for the blinkers an’ watch for lightnin’!” On cue, the two men underneath turned their fire to match hers. The harken finally took a step back, unleashing a moan that rattled my eardrums as gunfire pocked her armored face.
I took off at a run, dodging around afterburner-seared trunks towards the briefly blinded beast. This is incredibly stupid. So it fits my M.O. perfectly, I guess. Patricia would probably scold me for being negative, but she wasn’t about to run directly underneath an enraged animal the size of a garbage transport.
As if to heighten my awareness of impending death, the harken reared up on her back legs, turning sidelong to the ship and shielding her face with the boney ridges that lined her neck and jowls like a triceratops’s crest. From my uncomfortably close-up range, I could see that similar plates grew beneath the dense fur all over her body, like someone had draped a shag rug over a suit of armor. My doubts about my hackneyed plan were growing by the second, but there was no time to back out now. She had seen me. Four furious black eyes, tiny in her huge head, followed my path until she turned after me, bugling her outrage. At least if she did kill me, she’d be taking out the right culprit.
Not that I planned to let her. I reached my spot as her thundering footsteps pounded towards me, turned, and took aim, thanking my dearly departed dad for forcing me through years of grueling Little League baseball. A little closer… just a little closer… NOW! I hurled my weapon and dove for cover as fast as humanly possible. The volt grenade sailed through the air and smacked dead-center into the creature’s mid-section. AW YES, MVP’S STILL GOT IT!
Volt grenades are tricky things. We’d designed them to imitate the devastating electrical discharge created by felnim gretzi when it struck metal, except these were designed to pierce organic targets like the aliens’ plant-based armor. A good one would adhere to the target, pierce it with impact-activated hook prods, and direct all the stored charge directly into the body. But if the prods were off or the casing was damaged, the electricity could lance, latching onto anything metallic or positively charged nearby. That included humans and their weapons, which was why even the more-distant scout ship crew dropped their guns and dove for cover.
But we got lucky. This little beauty, stuffed in my pack for months, had managed to stay in good condition. The five of us peered out from our shelters to watch as the beast took all 1,500 volts directly to the chest region. Her groan shook the air with her pain as she staggered through the destruction caused by the ship’s fire.
Come on, gunny, turn! Turn! I pleaded, watching the ship’s single working turret twist into position. Seconds seemed like eternities, and the harken hadn’t fallen. No living creature could take that much voltage without blinking, and she wavered now, swaying blearily. Please let this work!
The haze fell from her eyes just as the turret locked into position and fired, sending a blast of roaring purple-orange fire into her backside. I opened my mouth, but the cheer died in my throat. With a roar – there was no mistaking the sound as a moan this time – the maddened animal whipped back around and charged full-force back at the ship. Straight into the second turret.
My harebrained plan had failed.
I watched helpless, my nerves screaming along with the shriek of rending metal until the turret fell to smoking scrap on the forest floor. There went the Kingfisher’s last real defense; all that was left was to watch as the harken dismantled the ship piece by piece. And took my hope of getting off this rock with it. Stupid, bloody, blazing death planet and its jacking alien monsters!
Time to focus on what we could save, and that meant getting the crew to the tree line. Desperate rifle shots still peppered the creature’s head and chest, but it was as unaffected as an elephant in a cloud of gnats. I started walking back towards the ship, unhurried; as focused as she was on destroying the Kingfisher, I didn’t think it would be hard to sneak ourselves away to the trees where she couldn’t easily pursue.
On the plus side, my logic volunteered, maybe our new friends can help carry the eggs. Assuming they don’t shoot Bruce in the face. I chuckled mirthlessly at the thought of Patricia’s reaction when we brought four new “guests” in to upset the already awkward balance of her team’s scientific expedition.
A strangely familiar whistle distracted me just before something landed on my head, scaring me half to death again.
Ah. Right. Bruce’s weird bird.
The brown-feathered, purple-crested i’gna hopped down onto a log in front of me, chirping and flapping in a complicated jig. I stared, perplexed. Was it doing a mating dance or something?
No, no, I knew this one. Most of the felnim had these odd little birds, although I’d never quizzed Bruce on all the reasons. As far as I could tell, his was a sort of animal scout, used to gather basic info on enemies and resources in the area. I think it also picked bugs out of his fur, which seemed handy. I didn’t pay a lot of attention; it was just one more alien creature, even if it did look remarkably like an Earth bird. But it wouldn’t be twittering at me without reason. It wouldn’t even be acknowledging me without reason. Which meant Bruce had sent it.
I glanced towards the trees but couldn’t see any sign of the four-legged alien. Was he actually trying to help? Did he have a plan? My doubts from earlier mixed with mental flashes of the big centaur tackling a thunder lizard for me. Come on, Rales; if you can’t trust a guy who saved your life already, who CAN you trust?
And it wasn’t like we had other options. With that cheerful thought in mind, I turned my attention on the bird. “Okay, bird. What are we doing?” I really needed to learn the stupid thing’s name.
The i’gna – I decided to call it Iggy – chirped as if satisfied to have my attention before gliding another twenty feet away from the ship. I thought it was leading me somewhere, but it stopped there and performed another dance. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the message:
Come to this spot.
After a quick check to be sure the harken was still preoccupied with the Kingfisher, I dashed across and skidded to a crouch beside the bird. Iggy hopped in a circle around me before fluttering up onto my rifle-wielding arm. I watched in fascination as it stilt-walked down the length of my gun. It did this twice more while I stared in confusion. “Okay, something to do with my gun, but I’m not following what—”
With an agile loop, the bird flew up and out – towards the harken. It hovered over the distracted beast’s back for a moment, then swooped back to land on the end of my gun. It did this twice more.
I got the message. And groaned. “That didn’t work last time!” I hissed. “Is he trying to get me killed?” We were at least a hundred yards from the trees where I’d left Bruce. Even if he made the shot, why would his gretzi bullets penetrate that boney armor any better than photon fire? It was complete lunacy.
The bird clearly did not care or understand my concerns about being used as bait for a raging alien beast. It did its little pantomime three more times, but what finally made me relent was a scream of fear and defiance from the Kingfisher. If we didn’t do something, anything, those people were going to get crushed. It was time to stop waffling and make a decision I’d been avoiding for some time: whether or not to trust the big alien in my camp.
With a sigh and a prayer, I raised my photon rifle, took sight between two of the harken’s furry backplates, and fired.
The animal turned immediately, as if I’d zinged her right in a sore spot. Perhaps I had. She spun back on me, and suddenly I felt less confident about my and the team’s ability to sneak off; Mama looked more than happy to attack something small and squishy after bashing her head against the stubborn scout ship. Or maybe she recognized me as the little punk who’d zapped her. Either way, she was thundering towards me now, and my bird friend showed no signs that I should move from this spot. As the harken came on like a runaway monster train, I pondered, in a detached sort of way, just how likely I was to die if Bruce’s inexplicable plan didn’t work.
My life sure seemed to be in the hands of aliens a lot these days. Thanks, Lord, really appreciate the irony. At the last moment, on some instinct I couldn’t name, I tossed my rifle away and dropped into a crouch.
A blue streak of light the size of a bottlecap zinged through the air, so fast I almost missed it. It reached the harken’s head… and kept going. My heart dropped as I watched the tiny blue speck fizzle off far in the distance. At least he tried—
If Iggy hadn’t screeched at me, I would have been flattened. I barely rolled out of the way as the harken’s shadow grew over where I’d been standing. The beast didn’t even groan; it just collapsed onto its side with an ashcloud-raising THOOOM.
Several minutes passed before the debris settled enough to see, which gave me time to get over my shock. I could hear Iggy through the choking dust, chattering in a tone that sounded decidedly smug. Once I could breathe evenly again, I scrambled through the debris field to the creature’s head. It towered over me like a truck cab, four eyes glazed, unmoving.
HOW?! I opened my mouth to articulate my disbelief, or maybe just swear a lot, but froze as something caught my eye. One of those glazed eyes was… gone. Closer examination confirmed my suspicions: the eye, smaller than my fist, was completely punctured. That rat-haired son of a mutt had managed to peg it right through the eye and into the brain, killing it instantly.
Bruce, you crazy luck-shooting genius.
Running footsteps snapped me out of my amazement, and I turned to see Scout Libbens approaching. She waved a hand in front of her face the last ten yards, coughing through the lingering dust cloud. But her face was beaming, and she slapped me hard on the back as she came alongside me.
“That was jarkin’ amazing!” she crowed. “I dunno whatcha did, Rales, but ya did it good! Gonna be bragging about this’n t’the commanders when we get back!” She looked over her shoulder and bellowed back at the ship. “All clear, mates! Th’ Cap’n took it out!”
She thought I had brought the creature down! And why shouldn’t she, with Bruce staying hidden in the trees? I almost opened my mouth to protest the crew’s praises as they swarmed around me, but stopped short. If I valued his life, the stupidest thing in the world right now would be to let them know about Bruce. I glanced around quickly for Iggy, but the bird had flown, leaving me alone with my false victory.
The next few minutes were a haze. Libbens and her crew whooped and hollered, pounding me on the back and marveling at the dead harken. The Kingfisher’s pilot, who introduced himself as Jamie Rays, took a special interest in my photon rifle and peppered me with awkward questions about how I’d made the shot. Some of the jubilation died down as I moved with my new friends to the ship, where we soberly assessed the damage.
“S’not as bad as it looks,” the engineer, Corbin Ledbetter, called after running diagnostics. “Engine’s still quality. No major warning lights. I think we can just make it back to camp if we run her careful.” He slapped the Kingfisher affectionately. “Real tough mother right here!”
“Good thing it was tougher than that mother,” I joked, glancing back at the mound of dead animal.
Libbens’s eyebrows rose. “Could’a sworn it was a bloke with the horns. Howd’ya figure it’s a sheila?”
Visions of basketball-sized eggs dancing in my head, I cleared my throat uncomfortably and feigned fresh interest in the ship. “So, what brings you all out this far into the Death Stretch?”
Libbens took the bait, her hands spreading wide. “Scouting for new territory. The dogtaurs’re getting’ fiercer by the day; last few attacks really pushed our borders. Commanders thought it’d be bright t’ look for a safe space, mebbe put the civi’s and kids in until we get a betta hold on our planet.” She sneered the words, and dark nods circled among the other crew members. I shifted uncomfortably, struck by the familiarity of it. And, stranger still, the fact that it didn’t feel so familiar anymore.
The woman eyed me, interest sparking in her green eyes. “But we didna think we’d run inta any other Setties out this far! How’d ya get all the way out here?”
This was it. I could tell them about everything – my capture, the elicit scientific exploration, Patricia’s strange mission, my desire to get back to Earth. Bruce. I could leave it all behind, at last. I could finally go home.
I opened my mouth, but found different words coming out. “Uh, just a small survivalist group. Research, mapping. Sort of the same thing as you.” I shrugged roughly, gesturing to encompass the turret-blasted landscape, the dead harken, and the dense jungle beyond. “But like you probably guessed, it’s not too hospitable out here. I don’t think we’re going to find anything usable for a new outpost within a hundred miles.” I managed a chuckle that hopefully didn’t sound too nervous.
To my dismay, Libbens brightened. “Hey, you got another group out here? Mebbe we can get together and give ya a ride home. We got a little extra room in this bird.” She patted the Kingfisher’s dented hull.
I shook my head in a quick negative. “Afraid not. We got separated.” Technically true; it was just a voluntary food-gathering separation.
“So you’re out here alone?” Ledbetter stared at me, incredulous, before casting a shivery glance towards the harken. “You are one tough son, Rales.”
“Well, no matter. We can give ya a lift to the Settlements,” Libbens decided, already swinging herself aboard. “Can’t risk doin’ a search with this damage, but the Commanders’ll getcha back to your town an’ you can hold a merry welcome party when they get home.” The other three Settlers clapped me on the back as they hopped in after their leader, still laughing and talking animatedly to each other from the adrenaline high of their near-miss. Soon it was only me on the ground, and Libbens looked back expectantly and gestured for me to get in.
It would be so easy. Just a few steps, a swing up into the transport, and on my way out of this nightmare. I wouldn’t have to explain exactly what had happened; it would be tricky but not impossible to fudge a convincing story for how I’d ended up way out here in the aptly-named Death Stretch, hundreds of miles from my last-known position. Patricia would still have Bruce and her team to help with their cockamamy quest for some obscure lost civilization that wouldn’t benefit anyone but the history geeks of the galaxy.
So why was I hesitating?
Because memories flashed through my head. Memories of blood and fear, of endless, futile battles against alien centaurs wielding blue fire. And further back, struggles I’d come here to forget and only managed to bury beneath more pain.
And more recent ones. Another alien centaur, tackling a giant lizard off me. An amazing room of ancient alien technology, beauty unparalleled. People who relied on me to keep them safe.
A certain scientist’s face, lit with laughter.
Your job’s not done here yet. No one else dies on your watch.
Hardly believing myself, I took a step back. “Thanks, but… I… can’t leave them behind.” I swallowed, my good sense still screaming for me to reconsider before it was too late. “Think I’d prefer to keep looking. I’m sure we’ll… find each other soon.”
Libbens studied me for a long moment, and I wondered briefly if her shrewd gaze picked up more than I wanted to reveal. But finally, she gave me a quick, terse nod. “Alright. We’ll be singin’ yer praises when ye get home, mate. Ledbetter, pack!” Ledbetter tossed her a supply pack, which she chucked at me. I caught it on reflex. “Somethin’ to keep you alive, Rales. An’ you better stay alive; we can’t lose any more good men.”
I nodded soberly, and saluted. “Thanks, Scout. You all make it back safe.”
With a lopsided salute in return – the Settlements didn’t adhere to the strictest of military standards – Libbens slammed the door. I jogged a safe distance away and watched as the Mark VII Kingfisher lifted a little unsteadily into the air, stabilizers retracting and grav lifts sending up swirls of ash and dust. Soon they were zooming away over the treetops, the crew waving to me through the windows. There went my ride home.
Funny, though. Seeing it leave didn’t make me nearly as sad as I’d expected.
As the ship drifted out of sight, I wandered back over towards the dead harken. Bruce would come out eventually, and I wanted one more look at that unbelievable shot he’d taken.
The one eye was indeed completely gone, seared around the edges where the burning sap of felnim gretzi had cauterized the wound on its way through. I leaned down, poking a finger gingerly into the empty space, when I noticed… was that light?
Scrambling over the harken’s lumpy, armored head proved difficult, but I had to be sure. When I sat awkwardly on its shoulders, facing the left set of eyes, I stared in utter disbelief. Another eye, completely gone. No wonder the harken had died instantly; no wonder its armor hadn’t stopped his bullet winging off into the sky. He hadn’t just pegged it in the eye; he had angled it straight into one eye and out the other.
“How in the blue blazes?!”
A dry chuckle answered my yell of outrage. I whirled and pointed accusingly at the huge felnim standing ten feet away. “Since when are you a jarking sharpshooter?!”
Bruce raised an eyebrow at me and my glare, hefting the giant gretzi rifle in his arms as his voice rumbled roughly through the translator. A rifle I was suddenly realizing might be designed for more than just power. “W’hat, didn’t I e’ver m—ntion th’at? We’ve h’ad s’o many in-d’epth c’onversations.” He started laughing at the expression on my face, not needing the device on his head to translate his deep, growling chuckles. “I h’ave the h’ighest longshot r’anking recogn—zed on my h’omeworld, T’ulath,” he added, a smug grin curving his mouth.
I scrambled down off the harken, shaking my head at one more startling revelation in an already crazy day. It struck me then just how much our animosity towards each other might have hidden skills that would be useful to the safeguarding of our group. That couldn’t be allowed to stand. “Remind me when we get back to camp to have a proper sit-down with you so we can go over all our assets,” I said seriously.
Bruce’s grin faded, and he gave me a solemn nod. “S’ounds wise, C’aptain Rales.” The approval in his voice – and his use of my proper name and rank – suggested that maybe he’d been thinking the same for some time.
Well, no one ever accused me of being the peacemaker in a company. Perhaps that was another skill I ought to practice.
Silence fell as we stood next to each other, felnim and human, studying the dead animal. The humid air pressed back in, making me tug at my damp collar. “Thanks for the save. Again,” I said at last, because it needed to be said. “You didn’t need to get involved.”
Bruce shrugged. His own features, so similar to a human’s aside from the fur and ears and rubbery nose, were unreadable. “You g’ave up y’our ride h’ome.” It was a statement, not a question.
I shifted uncomfortably, glancing in the direction the ship had vanished. “Yeah.” I didn’t have a better explanation than that; at least not until I sorted it out for myself.
Bruce studied me for a long moment. His i’gna bird clambered onto his shoulder and then his head, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Can’t say I w—ldn’t have d’one the s’ame thing,” he said finally, rolling his shoulder as if adjusting his gun strap.
I stared. “What… really? But… you’re all alone out here. One felnim with a bunch of humans, and… well, at least one enemy.” I gestured vaguely to myself, tensing. But I had a feeling now was the time to lay everything out in the open. “I wouldn’t have blamed you one bit if you’d leapt at a chance like that.”
The big felnim reached up and scratched his bird on the neck, causing it to frill its purple crest with pleasure. “I don’t kn’ow about y’ou,” he mused, as if talking to the bird, “but th’is str’ikes me as the one pl’ace on this j’ungle r’ock where I d’on’t have any enemies.” Bruce looked me in the eye. “Th’at seems l’ike a g—d change of p’ace to m’e.”
I held his gaze, studying his alien face. The features were too broad, the nose all wrong, the fur foreign. But his eyes were honest.
“You know… that sounds pretty good to me, too,” I admitted.
Bruce cracked a smile, and for once, it was genuinely pleasant. “Gl’ad to h’ear it.”
It was as close to an expression of solidarity as we two masculine, battle-hardened former war enemies were going to get. Which would drive Patricia absolutely crazy, I thought with a small grin. One last concern reared its head, though, and I glanced sidelong at the big felnim. “What about your ‘patriotic duty’?” I asked, the last vestige of my suspicions clawing to the surface.
“Wh’at?” Bruce squinted down at me for a moment before barking a laugh. “Oh, th’at! I was being f’acetious; I w’ouldn’t turn Patr in for a gretzi p’lantation. My people h’ave enough id’iotic pr—blems w’ithout thr’owing them a fr’esh bone.” He whapped me on the back, knocking the breath clean out of my body. “You’re a bit h’igh-strung, you kn’ow that, Sparky?”
“Sure,” I wheezed. “It’s part of my charm.”
“At l’east we’ll have f’ood for a g’ood long wh’ile.” Bruce nodded to the freshly-dead harken, a hungry smile growing on his lips. “Let’s get b’ack to c’amp and g’ive the g—d news. No s’ense l’etting all th’is meat go to w’aste.”
The eggs were right where we’d left them, possibly one short from an opportunistic scavenger, but I wasn’t going to complain. It took only moments to get Bruce hooked back up to his end of the stretcher – with granny knots this time. As we bumped along through the jungle and I reviewed recent events, I was startled to find that I felt… at peace. A sense of purpose I hadn’t felt in a long time. Like I’d finally found where I was supposed to be.
But we still had one more problem to face.
“So, Bruce,” I asked with feigned nonchalance, “think we can get away with not telling Patricia we killed a mom and stole her eggs?”
“Pr’obably not.” Bruce chuckled and broke into a light jog, jerking me along behind him. “And th’at’s why you get the pl’easure of t’elling her ab—t it.”
END D&B ADVENTURES PART ONE
More of Bruce, Dennis, and Patricia to come…
(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.)