Authors: Ann Aguirre
Tags: #Science fiction
Nobody else seems to notice that a long slash on Jael’s arm has now closed itself up. His blood-soaked clothing offers camouflage as well. With everything happening at once and the uncertain light, it’s easy to miss, or to think you were mistaken. I know better.
I push down the raw grief clawing at me, trying to compartmentalize. At this moment I need another Jax, one who’s tough and capable, but she won’t manifest. I can’t banish this loss as I have so many others. March got to me the way nobody ever has, burrowed beneath my skin in a way that I don’t think I’ll
get over him. And I’ve lost enough people to know.
Glenna, my best friend from the academy, burned out faster than most. She was twenty-three when she died. I said some empty words at her service, took some mental-health days, and drank myself stupid in some scroungy spaceport bar. And I haven’t thought about her in ten turns. Odd that her memory would surface here, now.
I shake off the melancholy, noticing that the tunnels seem to be sloping up. At first I’m not sure because it’s subtle, but as we go along, I decide the bounty hunter’s leading us in the right direction. The new pilot sticks close to Vel, shadowing him as he guides us around corners. His handheld feeds him data he doesn’t bother sharing. We only need to know about bad news coming at us.
So much stone. The ceilings are barely tall enough for Hit to pass without stooping. She’s easily as tall as Jael. I draw my fingers along the walls as we move, listening for the telltale sound of wings.
In the darkness I can barely make out a ragged hole above our heads. The broken stone doesn’t look as though the Gunnars included this in their original construction either. Dread crawls over me like maggots from an old corpse.
Even assuming her sled had that much lift, Dina couldn’t clear the opening, so I take that for a rhetorical question. I can’t imagine how she feels, if she’s put the pieces together. These monsters I’m so scared of, they
part of her. I don’t know how she isn’t one giant ball of terror.
“We have to assume the tunnels ahead are infested,” Dina says flatly. “Vel, can you get a message back to camp? They need to know the bunker’s not as safe as they thought. With the wounded, the Teras
find them sooner or later.”
My imagination supplies the details. Death exploding into an unsuspecting camp with claws and fangs. Rending, devouring—I have to shut down the images; they come too quick and violent for me to bear. If they get to Keri, Lex, and . . .
Maybe that will be enough. If he can’t, we’ll have to go back. Make our last stand with them. The others watch him with varying degrees of tension. I’m not alone in how badly I want off this desolate rock.
We all heave a collective sigh. Part of me feels it isn’t enough. I want to turn and run back down the dark stone passage toward March. It will drive me nuts, not knowing what happens here after we go.
Only the fact that he made his choice prevents me from doing just that. Well, that and my secret, shameful fear of the dark. But March made it clear we’re on diverging paths, and only time will tell whether that’s always going to be the case. I don’t have enough faith left in me to believe, but I curl my hand into a fist, fingering the cheap ring he gave me.
Two kilometers between us and daylight. I wonder if the dead we left behind will draw them, all hunger and keening sonic rage. Fighting Teras underground sounds like suicide. Fuck that. If I meant to take that route, I’d have chosen an easy death. Made my appointment with a Psych, and then visited a clean, safe Eutha-booth.
I’m conscious of each footfall, each scrape against stone. We try to move as a unit, permitting no space between us, but the soft hum from Dina’s sled echoes down the corridors. Can the Teras detect vibrations? Each meter feels like a kilometer since I expect at any moment to hear the terrifying sound of wings.
He’s right. We can’t even pass two abreast, and from what I recall, the Teras have a two-meter wingspan. So Vel will bear the brunt of a first attack. Perhaps his faux-human skill will shield him somewhat.
The bounty hunter responds by tossing a weapon to Jael. They take up a position just around the corner, and I shudder, barely registering a keen of pure hunger from the beasts. I remember the way their song nearly killed poor Loras.
A burst of orange lightning zags from their hands, igniting the very air before them. The Teras’ camouflage fails under such duress, and for an instant, I watch their silhouettes inside the pocket inferno, watch them writhe. Heat washes over me.
Fearing an explosion, I hit the floor, and Dina guides her sled over me. I appreciate the gesture; even now she’s got my back. When I’m greeted by the stench of sizzling meat, I chance a peek. Hit stands her ground, watching the monsters burn. Jael and Vel have designed something that propels an incendiary cloud.
“We will burn a path out.” Vel holsters the oddly shaped weapon. “They cannot swarm us in the tunnels, and if we move cautiously, they will not detect us easily. I believe they utilize sonar to locate their prey.”
Personally, I don’t care. I’ve seen what they can do; so has Dina. I suspect she and I are content to watch the action from a safe distance this time. After checking his handheld, Vel maneuvers past the smoking pile with a precision that once again reveals his inhuman nature, once you know what you’re looking for. He waves us on.
The smell damn near makes me sick. There’s no climate control down here, no ventilation, and the smell of charred meat flashes me dangerously close to the
. By itself, the dark was bad enough. Add this stench to it, and I struggle to stay in the here and now.
I grit my teeth until pain shoots up my jaw to my temple. I won’t lose it. I’m stronger than that. March would’ve known how bad this is for me. I could’ve counted on a touch on the shoulder, a reassuring nod. So would Doc, for that matter. But those days are gone.
Dina slaps at him, which improves my mood somewhat. I’m not sure she’s all right with the battlefield medicine that went into saving her life, but we don’t have a Psych on hand. Just as well, most of them are crazy bastards. After all, look what they did to me in the name of mental health. When we get out of here, I’ll fix her the Jax way: loads of liquor and some pretty girls.
Vel leads us out of that hallway and into the next turn. It’s a maze, and I’m hopelessly lost, just as I was when Doc found our way in. Dirtside, I have no sense of direction, something Kai loved teasing me about. When I got lost at the Gehenna starport market, he never let me live it down.
Listening for the rasp of talons and claws against the rock. A dragging sound or a leathery flap of wings. Sonic shrieks echo in the distance, making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. My nipples perk from the chills running over me steadily, like I have a fever. But I don’t think fear counts as an illness.
In Jael’s hand the torch-tube starts to flicker, casting odd shadows along the floor, and then it winks out. At first I’m just blind; it’s like that long moment after I jack in, but before we jump. And then the walls kindle with their own light, a pale, ethereal twinkle that reminds me of the stars.
Once my eyes adjust, it’s better than the tubes, more pervasive. I feel less like we’re scuttling along in the oily dark, huddled in our tiny isle of illumination. It also smells fresher now that we’ve moved away from the funeral pyre.
As a Slider, he can grow human skin to pass among us, concealing his mantis form. But I’m not going to out him since Hit hasn’t seen him au naturel. No more than I’ll tell her about Jael being Bred. Like I told him before, we all have our secrets.
For the first time, I wonder what that would be. He said he left Ithiss-Tor because sexual relations between his people sometimes became deadly. So that means he’s been alone this whole time? Not that it’s any of my business.
On some level, I’m aware I’m losing myself in these inane speculations in order to distract myself from the soul-scouring fear engendered by the echoing shrieks. The Teras sound so goddamn close now; they should be on Vel’s screen.