Content Warning: Shooting, Death, and Suicide
Kayt gazed up at the palace that loomed above them. Its spiraling turrets, which appeared to be constructed from coral—or grown, perhaps?—punctured the caramel-colored clouds that hung low over the barren surface of the planet. When they had arrived, all four of them had stood for several minutes side by side, silently taking in the elaborate, alien details of the structure. Though Kayt was leader of the mission, it had been Neeve who urged them to begin their patrol of the rocky terrace that encircled the top of the hillock upon which the palace stood. Now Neeve widened her eyes at Kayt, who had slowed to a halt again, the butt of her rifle tapping uselessly against her calf.
“Still can’t see any lights on up there,” Kayt muttered. “Do you think anyone’s at home? I could murder a coffee.”
Russ sidestepped smartly past the two fifteen-year-old girls, keeping close to the balcony that separated the terrace from the sheer drop to ground level. His rifle was raised to his shoulder, trained on the flat horizon. Mikhail trotted behind him, attempting to mimic the older boy’s posture and failing badly. Before the start of the mission, their commanding officer had taken Kayt to one side and had made clear that instilling a sense of military rigor was as much an objective as the defense of the palace. But Mikhail would never make an effective soldier, any more than Kayt would herself. She grinned at Mikhail as he loped past, and his cheeks flushed in response.
“So, do you feel like doling out any orders?” Neeve said, nudging Kayt in the ribs.
“Sure.” Kayt waved a hand airily, gesturing at the curve of the terrace. “Keep an eye out.”
“Stuff. And occurrences.”
Russ about-faced and stomped past them again. Now there was a soldier-in-waiting, Kayt thought. All clenched teeth and unresolvable anger issues. Ripped, too, despite him having only hit puberty within the last year.
“Get your bloody act together, team leader,” Russ snarled. “We’re not here to enjoy the view.”
Kayt tapped her chin thoughtfully. “The architecture, on the other hand – this palace is worth the trip. Seriously, have you ever seen anything quite so… I mean, it’s like a fish-tank model of Dracula’s castle.” She noted Russ’s infuriated expression but made a point of ignoring it. “I agree that the landscape’s a bit bleak, though. Rock, rock, rock… Oh.”
Neeve followed the direction of her gaze. She gulped.
“Oh is right,” Mikhail said quietly.
Russ lingered on each of them in turn, perhaps trying to determine whether a trick was being pulled on him. Then he spun around to see what they saw. When his gun raised again, Kayt couldn’t help but interpret it as a military form of arousal.
The perfectly straight gray horizon was decorated with silhouettes. Twenty of them, maybe more. Their limbs appeared thin, their bodies bulkier. They seemed to be carrying weapons in both hands.
His gun still trained on the horizon, Russ glared at her. “Orders, ma’am?”
“Cancel the picnic,” Kayt replied.
Neeve hefted her rifle up and onto her shoulder. “You want us to fire a warning shot or something?”
“They’re too far away,” Mikhail said. “Bolts from these rifles travel only a quarter of a mile before they dissipate. At this distance, they’d barely even see the flash.”
Kayt reached out to tousle the boy’s hair. His cheeks flushed and his expression flickered between shame and delight. Neeve shot Kayt a look that she understood immediately: Leave the poor guy alone.
Neeve had been right. Mikhail had the hots for her. She’d have to keep her distance; she wouldn’t want to lead him on. Not because she was leading the mission. Because she wasn’t a monster.
Speaking of monsters—
“They’re not human,” Neeve said.
The figures had drawn closer. They must be traveling at a tremendous speed, navigating the jagged rocks with ease. There were thirty of them, easily. What Kayt had taken to be weapons were actually part of their bodies. Each of their limbs ended in a bulky club with a sharp tip. And they had a lot of limbs.
“Just makes it easier,” Russ hissed. “Make the call to fry the lot of them.”
“Are we going to fire?” Mikhail said, glancing sidelong but not quite meeting Kayt’s eye.
“Not yet, she means,” Neeve added. “You were right, Mikhail. Our accuracy will be far better if we let them get closer.”
Kayt crouched behind the balcony, peering at the oncoming horde. She would have called the creatures arachnid, if not for their bodies. While their limbs were spiderlike, their lumpy bodies shone, reflecting the moonlight. As the legs skittered over the rocks, the bodies contorted wetly. Giant blobs of goo with spider legs. Nice.
She rose and pressed her hands upon on the stone balcony, testing its strength. Without looking back at her team, she bunny-hopped to stand upon the ledge.
“Kayt?” Neeve said behind her.
“I’m going to blast them,” Russ said.
“Don’t you bloody dare,” Kayt said, sidestepping to stand before the barrel of his rifle.
“Kayt,” Neeve said again, closer.
Kayt turned to see that Neeve had hopped onto the balcony too. Her hand was held out. Kayt took it and blew a kiss.
Together, they jumped.
The impact jarred Kayt’s knees. She looked up at the terrace upon its rocky outcrop. Only the tips of the palace spires were visible now. Mikhail’s and Russ’s faces appeared over the balcony wall, their eyes wide in shock and disgust, respectively.
Neeve nodded, rubbing her calves. “It’s weird that it doesn’t hurt. Maybe we’ll feel the pain later?”
Still hand in hand, they strode across the gray plain, towards the approaching throng. Kayt shielded her eyes to reduce the glare of the light from the twin moons.
“Hard claws. Eyestalks,” Kayt muttered. “Strange there’s no hard shell. That suggests they’re deadly enough not to fear being attacked.”
Neeve didn’t answer, but gripped Kayt’s hand tighter.
Kayt turned her attention from the army of creatures to the rock beneath their feet. She lifted her right foot, then brought the heel down hard. The surface was brittle and her kick produced a meter-long hairline crack.
“Get the hell back here!” Russ yelled from above and behind them.
They both ignored him.
“I swear I’m going to let loose!”
Kayt and Neeve exchanged looks. “He won’t, will he?” Neeve asked.
Kayt shrugged. She brought her heel down again. This time the crack split open and a puff of white dust burst up.
The ground shook now. The creatures were close enough that Kayt could see the wet holes of their eyes upon their stalks.
“You haven’t a chance down there, you maniacs!” Russ bellowed.
The creatures remained in loose formation, but the line began to curl at the edges, making a crescent as they zeroed in on Kayt and Neeve’s location.
“He’s right, you know,” Neeve said. “We haven’t a chance.”
Kayt nodded soberly. She swung her gun as though just testing its weight rather than considering using it. Then she lifted it all the way to her shoulder. It was pointing directly at Neeve.
She pulled the trigger. Neeve grimaced, then crumpled messily to the ground.
Ignoring the yelp of concern from up on the terrace, Kayt turned the rifle to her own forehead. The weapon was long, and the trigger difficult to operate this way around. But she managed it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Russ grumbled as he shrugged off his harness. Petrel, their commanding officer, stepped forward to help him out of the rig. He didn’t speak, though. He was glaring at the girls.
“You’re not the one who was shot in the face,” Neeve said. Her complaint sounded only partly ironic. Kayt flashed an apologetic smile. At some point, she would have to make up for the insult.
Kayt helped Mikhail with his rig before dealing with her own—like a parent on a downed flight, she thought, attending to her child first. Mikhail made little whimpering noises. Sensitive. Kayt wondered if he’d have nightmares about having witnessed her suicide.
She took her time releasing the straps and harness of her VR kit, aware that everybody’s eyes were on her. When she had freed herself she kicked the apparatus to one side. Then she turned to face Petrel, her arms folded across her chest, mirroring his posture of disapproval.
“A little help here?” Kayt said from under the table.
After several seconds of silence, Neeve replied, “I think you’ve got it covered.”
Something dropped from the tabletop and landed beside Kayt’s head with a wet splodge. Porridge spattered onto her cheek. She flailed with the cloth.
“Missed a bit,” Neeve said.
Kayt struggled out from beneath the table, yanking the mop behind her. The bench tipped precariously. Neeve leapt to one side.
“Oh, come on,” Kayt said. “It could be worse.”
“You know Russ told his mates to save part of their portions, just to chuck them on the floor before they left?”
“It’s not like you should care. You’re not even helping clear it up. This is supposed to be punishment for both of us.”
“That’s not my point. My point is that you’re making yourself hated, Kayt. And me too, just because I’m your roommate.”
“You’re not just my roommate.”
“Don’t be glib.” Neeve pushed another glob of porridge onto the ground, then sat down heavily on the bench.
“It’s just not how we win,” Kayt said.
“Win what? Win the training mission? Win a military apprenticeship? Win friends? Win at life?”
Neeve rolled her eyes. “You’re impossible.”
Kayt jabbed at the mess a few times with the mop. “You saw their eyes, didn’t you?”
“The things. The slug-spiders.”
“I did. Eyes on stalks, just like Mikhail’s whenever he’s ogling you.”
“They were wet.”
“I’m serious. Their legs too. I could see the moisture on them, trapped in the hairs.”
Neeve sighed. “Yep. Proper HD. Aren’t we lucky they spend so much money on our virtual training resources? Oh wait, they’re loaded with government contract cash. Who the hell cares, K?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Kayt looked up, then flinched. “Sorry. That was rude. I mean, nobody would introduce those kinds of details if they were designing from the ground up. Freaky as they were, those creatures were simulations of real life forms.”
She spent a minute pushing the remaining porridge into the corner of the canteen, then leaned the mop up against the wall so that its lower part obscured the sticky heap of food. Neeve stood, tutted, and put her hands on her hips, but stopped short of doing anything about the botch job. They peeled off their aprons and threw them onto the nearest table.
“Back to the batcave?” Neeve said. “We could cuddle up and watch a film.”
Kayt shook her head. “Library first.”
“Seriously? What are we going to do there?”
Kayt bent into a jog to make her way along the plain corridor. She called back over her shoulder, “Get digging.”
“Get digging,” Kayt said.
Mikhail and Russ whirled around on the spot, trying to get their bearings. They each came to a halt looking up at the sheer wall of the rock outcrop and the balustrades of the terrace above.
“We’re supposed to be guarding the palace,” Russ snapped. “We can’t do that from down here. This will be an immediate fail.”
“How did you do it?” Mikhail asked, looking from Neeve to Kayt.
Neeve pointed at Kayt. “All her.”
“Just a last-minute adjustment,” Kayt said, failing to disguise her pride. “I don’t think even Petrel noticed the setting change. It’s no big deal. I just pushed our start location a little north.”
Russ actually stomped his feet with rage. Kayt noted the cracks he made in the surface. “We have to begin again!” he shouted, looking for all the world like a beefy toddler throwing a tantrum.
Kayt shook her head. “Petrel gave us one more chance, and only one. This is our last shot.”
“I’ll show you shot,” Russ replied. He brought up his rifle and aimed it squarely at Kayt.
She gave him the hard stare she had been practicing in the mirror.
Neeve placed her hand flat on the top of the gun barrel, pushing it down gently. “Might as well hear her out, Russ. You’ll get a chance to lead another time. Without Kayt on your team.”
Russ seemed placated by the thought. He glanced at the empty horizon. “So?”
“Like I said,” Kayt replied. “Get digging.”
Following her lead, the team began striking the gray rock with the butts of their guns, then they pushed away the hard crust with their silicon shields. White dust rose up from the cracks. Mikhail sneezed.
“How much more?” Neeve asked.
Kayt flicked a glance at Russ. “A coffin-sized hole should do it.”
Neeve frowned. Russ didn’t seem to notice. She mouthed to Kayt, What the hell are you up to?
Kayt took a step back, watching as the others continued their work.
Mikhail glanced up. When Kayt met his eye he looked away, then over her shoulder in embarrassment. His cheeks turned from flushed to pale. “They’re coming,” he said.
Kayt only half-turned. “So they are.”
Russ reached for his gun, which he had laid aside to scoop at the dust with his baton. Kayt pinned it to the ground with her foot.
“These fellows behind me,” she said, adopting the tone of a teacher, “are examples of the species Sigmurethra Rex. Don’t be fooled by the legs. They’re essentially,” she cleared her throat, “pulmonate gastropod molluscs.”
“Slugs,” Neeve added.
“Yes, slugs. They’re common enough. Deadly, mind you, that goes without saying. But you’ll find them living on tons of planets in the Dyak region. But here’s the thing. I’m ninety-nine percent certain this planet is modeled on Orval Six. Or Seven, same difference. Take off your jackets.”
Mikhail did so immediately. Kayt wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t do if she commanded it.
“Piss off,” Russ said. But, as Neeve pulled her jacket off, he began unzipping his too. All the time, he watched the horizon. Kayt turned to see the looming Sigmurethra.
“Thing is,” she continued, keeping her voice level, “all of the planets in the Dyak region are humid swamps, every inch of them. Hence the water dripping from our squelchy simulated friends. Right, hold onto the tops of your jackets. Good. Stand back a bit and face this way.” She pointed to the far side of the rectangular hole they had dug into the surface of the planet. She shrugged off her own jacket.
They stood facing the horde, the four of them comical against the army they faced.
“Lift your arms.”
They did, raising their jackets above their heads. Mikhail looked as though he would have liked to wrap his around him, curl up in a ball and pretend none of this was happening.
The ground shook. The staccato clack of the Sigmurethran claws against rock was almost deafening. Once again, the creatures formed a crescent as they approached.
“Here’s the thing,” Kayt yelled over the noise, “Beneath the crust of Orval 6—and Orval 7—is a planet-wide dried lake of—”
The things were upon them, bodies squirming, forelimbs raised, spear claws directed at their faces.
“Down!” Kayt yelled.
The others stared at her for a moment. She led by example, yanking her jacket downwards, then raising and repeating the action. Immediately, her team copied her.
Fine salt grains burst from the coffin hole, instantly forming a whirling flurry of mist. Kayt pulled her arm over her eyes to protect them, even as she continued wafting. The dust stung her skin.
But not nearly as much as it stung the Sigmurethra Rex.
Through the haze, Kayt saw the first of them react as the salt made contact with their fleshy bodies. They fizzed and recoiled. Some part of them emitted piercing screams. The spider limbs became suddenly too numerous for each creature to manage. The Sigmurethra stumbled, tripping one another before colliding and collapsing heavily in heaps of brown flesh and wet, hairy legs.
Kayt felt sorry for them, simulation or no simulation.
She let her jacket fall to the ground. It was caked in salt.
The fog cleared as the salt grains fluttered back to the ground or breezed away.
Neeve grinned at her.
Mikhail stared at the wheezing creatures. He couldn’t have looked more horrified.
“It’s all right,” Kayt said in as reassuring a voice as she could manage. She resisted the urge to put an arm around the boy. “They’re only incapacitated. They’ll recover.”
Russ rubbed his eyes. “Then what’s the point, moron?”
“The point is it’d take weeks for them to become fully mobile again.”
Neeve pitched in. “So there’d be plenty of time to accomplish whatever the aim of this hypothetical mission might be.”
“But—” Russ shook his head in an attempt to either shake off the salt or to clear his head. “But we didn’t even—”
Kayt reached forward and took his rifle from him gently.
“No,” she said. “No, we didn’t.”
Petrel’s pose was just as Kayt had expected when she removed the rig and regained vision through her own eyes. Arms folded, vein throbbing in his neck, a glare that could stop a Sigmurethra Rex in its tracks without the aid of salt.
Kayt winked at the officer, then turned her attention to waking her team.
“You know you’ll have to give us a pass,” she said without turning to face Petrel. “Rules are rules, and we fulfilled the primary objective.”
Neeve, Russ, and Mikhail patted themselves down as if in memory of the cloying salt.
“To the social?” Kayt said breezily.
The others looked from Kayt to Petrel, trying to size up the situation.
Kayt led the way. Petrel didn’t say anything. But as she neared the exit, he moved to block her path.
“I know, I know,” she said, waving him away. “I’m on canteen-cleaning duty for the foreseeable future.”