He was moments from taking her.
Whether she was ready or not.
Selena couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “Are you reading this, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Strabo’s lips moved soundlessly, even as the blonde officer’s ponytail bobbed, her gaze locked on the same view screen they all watched.
It wasn’t the first time Selena had seen the rituals of a primitive culture. Their entire mission aboard the UTCS Gambier Bay was focused on just such a thing.
But this was the first time she’d felt heat—and wetness—gathering between her thighs at what she watched.
The command deck crew—four in all, including Selena—were utterly silent as the scene played out far below on the planet’s surface.
On the screen, a nubile—and quite well-endowed—humanoid female, awaited her fate. Her gorgeous violet eyes were frantic through the wild fringe of dark auburn hair, as she looked toward the inky blackness of the cave opening she’d been led before, her hands twisting at the vines binding her wrists solidly behind her back. Two other females, both much older matrons dressed in drab greenish robes, hoods covering their heads, held the young, practically naked female subject by the upper arms.
The female was herself clad in but the briefest of loincloths made from multicolored flowers woven together with delicate vines. Her heavy breasts—surprisingly generous for so slight a creature—were only barely concealed by the thick, tangled fall of her ruddy tresses.
The dominant humanoid race—they’d dubbed them ‘the pixies’ for short—on HW14-3, the planet they’d been assigned to survey, were remarkably similar to humans, really, save for longer, slightly pointed ears and a somewhat more diminutive stature. Their very pale, clear skin and iridescent eyes—distinctly marking them as other than human—were nevertheless striking, a most attractive species, by any human standards, anyway. Like other pre-agrarian species, they fit every other standard measure of the typical primitive.
But this particular tribe had a distinct difference, one that the orbital survey satellites had transmitted variance reports about nearly from the first hour the initial satellite had taken up geo-stationary low orbit.
This tribe seemed to practice ritual sacrifice.
Though it would have little real significance regarding whether or not fleet command would assign a colonization anchor team—the likelihood of that would depend upon the final results of the still ongoing planetary resources analysis—that difference was one that fascinated and horrified Warrant Officer Selena Marks.
It didn’t really matter though. Selena wasn’t paid to care about those details.
Paid to get the ship there and back, once on station, she was largely just there for the ride. She liked it that way, most of the time.
In the quiet of her berth that night though, she suspected those images might be replaying in her head, as she tried to rationalize away the unsettling implications of their effect on her. That her body might be admitting a truth her mind wasn’t able to face.
The image flickered, and Lieutenant Strabo flicked a glance over her shoulder at the science officer, Nils Lindemann. “Can we fix that signal?”
The square jaw of Lindemann twitched. “This isn’t a signal issue. I already told you—this was the interference all of the surface probes have reported. It’s consistent.”
“Which means it’s intentional,” Selena murmured, more to herself than her crewmates.
“Not necessarily.” Strabo sighed, scrubbing her chin with her palm, not taking her eyes from the screen for one moment. “Let’s just see if this one lasts a little longer.”
The fourth member of the command crew, Kara Richland—one of a cadre of Marine corporals regularly rotated into service aboard the Gambier Bay—cursed under her breath. “You know what this means. Do I have to say it?”
“We’re not there yet, Corporal.” Strabo cracked a wry grin. “Afraid you might have to pull your weight for once on a survey?”
Richland grunted, her pale eyes glittering in the low green and cyan light of the command deck. “Gladly. Anything to get off of this crate.”
The view on the screen changed, switching over to a distance shot, focused on the yawning opening, carved like a jagged scar into the rock face. There was little to judge scale but it had to be big. It was clearly an entrance to some sort of cave, immense boulders piled at either side, gnarled trees and verdant brush covering the top and coating either side in thick undergrowth. The entrance itself stood in a grassy clearing, perhaps a hundred and fifty meters across, surrounded on all sides by a dense jungle, the tangled canopy soaring high overhead.
“That’s gotta be… twenty meters high?” Selena was uneasy just seeing it on the viewer.
Something was… off.
“Twice that. Maybe more,” Strabo said. “But what I care about is what they’re about to do… right… now.”
The two women hustled the young captive toward the entrance, the girl clearly pulling now at their grip, her bare feet scrabbling for purchase, her toes digging into the soft loam of the jungle clearing.
Then the image brightened, the focus bleeding in and out for a moment—before alighting on the entrance once more.
Selena’s heart leapt into her throat, and she blinked, not quite believing what she was seeing.
“Only getting it on IFR,” Lindemann muttered.
“Try to get it to cycle the feeds,” Strabo said. “Maybe it picked it up for a second or two on one of the others?”
“I already tried that, Lieutenant. Nothing on visual, or UV. But loud and clear on infrared.”
It was… definitely not an it at all.
It was a man. Or at least a male.
The image appeared to depict him—whoever it was—at a profile, standing just inside the entrance to the cave. The imagery was ostensibly an infrared signature, the colors a mishmash of whites, grays, and deep purples, signifying different temperatures.
“That’s all wrong though,” Strabo said, holding out a hand. “If that’s IFR, then our probe’s on its last legs.”
“It’s reading correctly,” Lindemann said, the first hint of tension just beginning to creep into his voice. “Just like all the others have. It checks out.”
But even Selena knew it couldn’t be. In every IFR image she’d ever seen the core body mass was always the hottest, showing as a bright white on the screen. In the image they were all watching the core body mass seemed to be… utterly devoid of any temperature at all.
That wasn’t the only remarkable thing. It also appeared to catch the… arousal of the male. Quite prominently.
Strabo cleared her throat. “Yes, I know what it looks like, people. Stay focused.”
“We’re about to lose it,” Lindemann growled. “Damn.”
“Maybe he’s not into big-titted savages,” Richland drawled.
The lieutenant’s voice grew cool. “That’s enough, Marine.”
“Just a little more,” Strabo said, leaning forward toward her own screen. “A little bit—”
Then the image on the screen winked out entirely, scrawling the carrier wave frequency across a black background.
“Fuck,” Lieutenant Strabo hissed.
“Just wait.” Lindemann flicked a glance down at the lieutenant, the commander’s jump seat one of the two located below his own station at the upper rear of the command deck. “It’ll come back in just a second.”
Before he’d said the last word, the imagery flickered back to life, forcing Selena to blink against the intensity and brightness filling the command deck once more.
“I’ll… damn, this just makes no sense,” Richland said, rubbing her chin. “I… anyone got any idea?”
On the screen, the struggling captive fought no more. Instead, she was walking back out of the cave entrance, a serene, almost dazed smile lighting up her face. She appeared clean and unharmed. She was entirely nude though, with not even her garland of flowers to hide behind any longer. Her breasts swayed slightly as she walked, the nipples hard, prominent, and somewhat inflamed. The dark, dense pubic hair formed a stark contrast against the pale, lush thighs.
In a surreal reverse replay of the earlier images, the same two matrons moved into frame, flanking the girl, shrouding her in a rich cloak of sable and gray furs. The women chattered at the girl in their primitive tongue.
Then they led her away by the hand, the girl gladly following, the last image before the feed ended showing the girl looking back over her shoulder at the cave entrance, an almost wistful expression on her face.
Something most definitely wasn’t right.
The readout scrolled its ghostly white pattern across the attractive features of their mission commander, Lieutenant Strabo. Her lips pursed as she read, her long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. “They’re all the same then?”
Across the table, Lindemann perused his own screen, nodding. “Every one. Mother satellite has been transmitting the incident reports almost continuously.”
Strabo touched the top of her screen, looking over at Lindemann.
“But it’s the same problem? The gap in the recording?”
“It’s not a gap.” Lindemann folded his screen down, fixing his gray-eyed gaze upon the commander. “It’s an absence of recording. The carrier wave is there—the whole time—but nothing is being recorded. The probes—both the ground rovers and the aerial units—they show they’re all in the green. No malfunctioning at all. But every single one has had the same problem when filming this little… ritual.”
“Which means what?” Richland doffed a long drink from her tall, clear glass, the amber liquid sloshing slightly as she set it down on the table. “We don’t even know what’s causing it.”
“We do. I think.” Lindemann sat back in his chair. “Each time the absence has happened, there has been a burst of full-spectrum radiation. It’s been picked up clearly by the mother sat, and both the rover and aerial units confirm it. But the particulars of this emission are inconsistent with any known source or transmitter. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before—and neither has the ship’s computer.”
“So… the planet has a messed up magnetosphere.” Selena laid a hand on the cold table, trying to shake the growing unease in the pit of her belly. “We already know that. It was pretty bumpy coming in before we made high orbit. You all remember. Maybe it’s affecting things on the surface too?”
As a pilot, Selena was paid to consider contingencies, to weigh risks—and to make sure they all got back to Terra in one piece. Something didn’t sit right here… and she’d been a survey jock long enough to know it was stupid—and maybe even suicidal—to ignore one’s instinct.
“We can rule that out,” Lindemann said.
“And why is that?” Strabo tipped her head toward Selena. “Her explanation’s just as good as any other I can think of.”
Lindemann’s inscrutable gaze coursed over Selena for the briefest of moments, cool, assessing—and aloof.
She didn’t like him. He gave off a vibe that was about as human as the Gambier Bay’s central computer—and with even less personality.
But he was damned smart. Maybe too smart.
“We can rule it out, because we were able to use the rover, the aerial units, and the mother sat to triangulate an origin.” Lindemann flipped his screen back up, and turned it toward the other crewmembers at the table. He tapped the image shown on the glass. “Every single time, the radiation is emitted from that cave.”
“Holy shit,” Richland murmured.
Strabo didn’t say anything for a moment, looking intently at the image, then back at her own computer. She sighed, folding down her screen and rubbing the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger.
“This… I’d been hoping to avoid this.” Strabo flashed a sharp glance at her taciturn science officer. “You’re absolutely sure we’re not going to get anything more from the remotes then?”
Lindemann nodded slowly. “The mother sat has been in orbit for almost twenty months. She’s already sent her entire complement of remotes to the surface. They’ve all reported identical data. We’re at the limits of what we can learn from orbit, Lieutenant.”
Strabo frowned, fine lines deepening at the corners of her mouth. “All right. We don’t have much choice. It’s a surface mission then.”
Richland drained the last of her protein drink. “Full gear?”
“Full gear.” Strabo held up a finger, swiveling her chair toward Richland. “But no powered exo. We’re exploring, not going to war, Corporal.”
“You’re not giving me what I need then, Lieutenant. We’ll need two of us, if I’m going down there with one hand tied behind my back.”
“I’ll go,” Selena said. She was the only other crewmember with weapons training, and at the very least it would make her feel a little more useful. Once on station, and the survey had begun in earnest, as a pilot she often felt about as necessary as wings on a cruiser. “Lieutenant, you can man the crate while we’re gone.”
“Marks, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Strabo leaned back in her chair, looking up at the ceiling. “Last thing we need is a survey ship without a pilot.”
Selena grinned at Richland. “Jarhead’s gonna make sure I get back in one piece. It’ll be fine.”
“Bitch.” The marine said it through a barely suppressed chuckle. She stood. “I’ll prep the reconnoiter. How soon, Lieutenant?”
The expression on Strabo’s face resembled someone who’d just stepped in dog shit. “As soon as we can. I want to get this over with, and get you two back on board as soon as—”
The lights flickered twice. A piercing klaxon began sounding, the noise of it unsettling both because of the volume—and because Selena had never actually heard one outside of simulator.
It was the emergency distress beacon. And there was only one reason it would ever sound off while on a mission.
Imminent crew death.
“What in hell is that?” Strabo said, looking around. “Nav—systems report. Now.”
The computer’s voice was strangely attenuated.
Main reactor failing. Auxiliary power unit off line. Main computer emergency power failing.
“There’s no time,” Selena said, her heart already pounding. She leaped to her feet, waving toward the docking module. “Go! Go! Now!”
Strabo stood, but took hold of Selena by the shoulders. “Get to the pilothouse. This is a malfunction—it has to be.”
“And if it’s not?” The question didn’t need an answer. Every one of them knew it. Selena could see the truth of it in Strabo’s blue eyes. “Lieutenant, we don’t have time to wait. We have to get to the lifeboats now. Without aux power to light the motors, if we lose the mains before we punch out we’re stuck here. And we’ll die here.”
While it had never actually happened in over five hundred survey missions, it was theoretically possible to lose main power, auxiliary power, and the central computer all at once. But short of an EMP burst, there was nothing that was remotely capable of causing such a thing.
However it might have happened, Selena knew one thing for certain. If the central computer shut down, then life support shut down too.
They would die on their own vessel if they didn’t get the lifeboats away fast enough.
The Gambier Bay was mortally wounded. Somehow, she was dying.
“Nav—program lifeboats for surface coordinates. HW14-3.” Strabo’s jaw tightened as she looked from Selena to the other crewmembers. “Abandon ship.”
They were already running.
Lindemann and Richland got to theirs first, the hull shuddering as the lifeboats’ primary rockets fired. The tiny escape craft leapt clear of the ship, accelerating at a mind-bogglingly swift rate, arcing off and down toward the planet far below.
The lights went dead, and both Selena and Strabo made their way through almost inky blackness, only the illumination reflected through the windows from HW14-3 allowing them to find their way.
They reached Strabo’s boat, and Selena stopped to make sure the lieutenant got strapped in. They locked gazes for an instant, before the blast shield descended, locking Strabo inside.
Selena turned away, the shriek of the rocket reverberating through the steel of the launch silo. Strabo’s boat dashed into space, pirouetting as its rocket hurtled it toward the surface too.
Strapping into the grav seat, Selena’s heart was pounding, her mouth dry. Her training kicked in, allowing her to keep her terror at bay just enough to matter.
Leaning her head back against the grav seat, she closed her eyes as the blast shield descended around her, dropping her into utter sepulchral blackness, the sounds of even the klaxon completely cut off.
Only her breathing and the frantic pounding of her heart could be heard.
“Please God, get me the fuck out of this!”
Then the rocket motor lit and Selena was away, the impact of the acceleration like a giant sledgehammer against the bottom of her gravity chair, the Gambier Bay receding rapidly in her tiny viewport.
Relieved to be alive, Selena tried to calm her breathing, the bright surface of HW14-3 dominating her view.
She’d managed to save her life. But her troubles were only beginning.
The sound was like the tapping on a tin can, but far, far off. Muffled.
“Fuck,” Selena muttered, pulling sluggishly at her straps, the left one digging painfully into her shoulder.
Everything hurt, her vision blurry, head pounding.
Oh, dear God.
The shutdown. The bug-out. Abandon ship. Her crewmates!
The Gambier Bay… it was adrift. Dead. Floating somewhere up there.
It came flooding back all at once, as if her brain had finally successfully rebooted itself enough to process the memory of what had just happened.
Feeling around in the near pitch black, she found the light, flicking it on, bathing her in blood-red illumination. The acrid smell of hot metal could clearly be picked up on the air.
The beginnings of panic coiled in her belly.
It’s just the main rocket. There’s no fuel leak. It’s okay. It’s okay.
The emergency lighting wasn’t doing anything to calm her nerves, but she had to keep it together. She mentally took stock of her body, relieved to be able to move all of her extremities. Nothing was bleeding. She hurt like hell, but she’d live.
For a while.
The tiny screen flickered as she punched it up. Her memory of the lifeboats wasn’t rock solid, but she knew the batteries aboard one should be good for a day or so. Enough to power the tiny locator beacon, and keep a modicum of warmth—scavenged initially from residual rocket motor heat—in the lifeboat should it need to be used as a refuge of last resort.
But all it really did was buy time for a rescue.
“That’s… outside,” she whispered, unsure why the sound of her own voice in the tiny dark space suddenly filled her with such unease.
Finally, the little comm screen lit steadily, the diagram clear on the simple blue background.
Her heart stopped when she realized what it meant.
The trajectory of the launch and reentry had put her down… in the exact mountain valley they’d been observing.
It really shouldn’t have filled her with such dread, and yet it did.
Watching a ritual sacrifice will do that to a girl.
But was that really all that was? The girl had come back, apparently no worse for the wear.
What was there to be afraid of?
How about what the IFR picked up inside that cave entrance, idiot?
The pod was equipped with a survival pack that would be enough to last several days, but if she’d landed in the middle of the pixie valley… that was going to be the very least of her concerns.
Popping the seal, a deep hiss accompanied the flooding in of warmer, more humid air, a crack of light showing as the blast shield opened slightly.
Tap tap tap
It had to be the engine cooling, or the shell of the pod contracting as it shed the effects of the superheating caused by reentry.
There was really no other way of finding out. She had to get to the survival pack first thing as it had a sidearm included inside, then she’d try to figure out where she was in relation to her other crew. Assuming they’d made it to the surface alive at all.
She might be able to skip the sidearm though, especially if she could get out of the valley and into the dense forest surrounding it. In the event she encountered one of the pixies, it was unlikely she’d need her weapon; the pixies were armed with little more than simple slings and rudimentary bows and arrows, at least from the observation footage they’d reviewed.
Still, she was better safe than sorry.
“Here goes nothing,” she whispered, pushing the shield fully away. The light was blinding as the titanium alloy blast shield thunked to the dirt.
Closing her eyes tightly, unable to stand the brilliant sunlight, she sat up. The pod had fallen on its side, the terminal deceleration rockets apparently failing to keep her lifeboat upright as it impacted the surface.
At least they’d cushioned her landing. Being in one piece was a hell of a lot more important than being upright.
“Klathau ik luin.”
What in God’s name?
Something prodded her, and her eyes flew open. A pale-faced pixie—clearly male with its pronounced brow line and larger jaw—stood over her, its hair dark wild and matted. Some sort of leaf was woven into the locks hanging at his forehead. He was clad in a heavy loincloth and numerous furs. The spear he held, the sharp tip made of a jet black substance that looked very much like obsidian, was inches from her chest.
“Klathau ik luin. Ne!”
On pure instinct, she scrambled out of the lifeboat, springing to her feet. Unfortunately, she realized in a split second that she was on the wrong side of the boat from the survival pack.
And she was most mistaken about not needing her sidearm.
The pixies were lighter and slightly shorter than humans, and she was in decent physical condition. The forest edge towered behind him, the upper boughs shrouded in wispy mist. Perhaps two hundred meters away, she knew she’d be able to gain concealment if she could just make it. It was possible she’d be able to outrun this one, given a head start.
Holding up her hands, she gave him her friendliest smile. “Hey, little guy. I, uh, mean no harm.” She opened her hands, palms out, backing away slowly. “See? No harm. I… I need to get back to my ship though.” Pointing to the sky, she watched if he followed her gesturing.
He glanced up for the briefest of moments, then returned his gaze to her.
He was going to be a problem.
“Meeka sur janna min. Ne.”
He advanced upon her, spear jabbing threateningly.
Most definitely a problem.
Knowing surprise was her only real hope, she turned on her heel and dashed in the opposite direction.
Only to be confronted by an entire band of males, spears bristling from their group like the spines of a hedgehog.
Before she could so much as utter a word, something wrapped around her feet, sweeping her legs out from under her and bringing her to the ground, hard. The fall knocked the wind out of her, and she rolled over on her side, wheezing, willing her lungs to draw even a tiny bit of breath.
She kicked out, but her feet were bound tight, her struggles reduced to little more than helpless wriggling.
“Mother… fucker,” she rasped, trying desperately to breathe freely.
Laughter boomed from the group, now gathered all around her, the males chattering away amongst themselves.
She was in very deep trouble.
Then a thick cloth was thrown over her head, and blackness took her down into its infernal depths.