I could see it moving in the distance, shuffling furtively from rock to rock, bush to bush. It was watching us. Waiting. Hunting us, while we hunted it. It was going to attack – it was just a matter of when.
“You got eyes on it?” Elix whispered.
“Yup,” I replied.
The night was dark and yet, still uncomfortably warm. Such was life on Gorndyr – the armpit of the galaxy. This galaxy anyway. I was born in a mining colony on the planet Rudra – which was the armpit of that particular galaxy.
Which was to say that when I talked about the armpit of a galaxy, I knew what I was talking about.
“How far out?” he asked.
“Two hundred meters,” I said.
Vujans were a constant menace to our base and the surrounding cities. They were a creature native to Gorndyr, small, humanoid – things – usually with dark colored skin, elongated arms that ended in wicked sharp claws that could slice through human flesh like a hot knife through butter, and large, red eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. They stood about three feet tall and had a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. Vujans were small but fast and strong for their size. Not to mention the fact that they were absolutely vicious.
And they had a taste for flesh.
Gorndyr was a God-forsaken planet that was mostly inhabitable. Nothing but dry, dusty, craggy land filled with arid scrub brush as well as jagged red and black rocks as far as the eye could see. It was a horribly depressing place and why the USF decided that Gorndyr needed a garrison was beyond me. It's not like the planet had valuable minerals or anything of strategic importance that I could see. It was a glorified gas station, with USF vessels coming in to fuel up and then get out as fast as they could.
Not that I blamed them. If I'd had the choice, I would have gotten the hell off of this rock too.
“It's on the move,” I said softly.
Elix adjusted his infrared goggles and nodded. “I got him.”
I watched the shadowy creature move through the pockets of thick, inky shadows out on the desert landscape. Dense clouds covered the twin moons of the planet, leaving the world in darkness. Thunder rumbled out in the distance and was occasionally punctuated by brief flashes of green lightning.
I swallowed hard and focused my attention on the Vujan that was closing in on our position. No doubt it could smell us. The Vujans had a nasty habit of wandering into the town built up around our garrison and carrying a few people off. It was our job to keep them at bay. It wasn't hard – they weren't the smartest of creatures. But, if you took your eye off of them for an instant or let yourself get otherwise distracted, you'd end up looking at your guts spilling out onto the scrubby desert floor. We'd had more than our fair share of soldiers end up that way.
The knots in my stomach tightened and I had to fight back the butterfly wings of nerves battering my insides. This was nothing new. I'd been on Vujan hunts dozens of times over the year and a half since being stationed on Gorndyr. It was part of our regular duty – a task we were assigned to once a week, on a rotating basis, just like any of our other mundane duties.
But, most of our mundane duties didn't usually include a high risk of death. Meh. At least it added a little thrill and excitement to an otherwise bland, mundane existence out there on that God-forsaken rock.
“Movement to the right,” I said. “We've got a second.”
“They don't usually hunt in groups,” Elix said. “They're solo creatures.”
I shrugged. “Just our dumb luck, I guess,” I said. “Stay with the original. I'll take the newcomer.”
Sprawled out on the roof of our vehicle, Elix and I raised our sniper rifles and sighted them in on our targets. The darkness of the land around us provided some cover – the Vujans didn't have the best eyesight, making up for it with a keen sense of smell.
“On three,” I said.
“On three,” he repeated, letting out a long breath to steady himself.
In situations where multiple Vujans were in sight, it was usually best to coordinate the shots. Take them out at the same time if possible. And above all else, make sure that when you took the shot, that you killed them. The absolute last thing you wanted was a wounded and pissed off Vujan coming for you.
“Three,” I started to count down, “two... one... ”
The crack of our shots echoed across the desert landscape. I grinned as I watched my shot tear through the Vujan, dropping it where it stood.
“Mine's down,” I said. “How'd you do?”
Elix cast me a sidelong look, a cocky grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “How do you think?” he asked.
“Not sure,” I said, sitting up, cradling my weapon in my lap. “That's why I asked.”
Elix sat up and smiled, pulling me to him and planting a kiss on my lips. I pulled back and smiled at him, then leaned in for another kiss. Yeah, the thrill and excitement of the Vujan hunts kept things interesting at the garrison, but not nearly as interesting as Elix.
Though USF rules and regs forbade us from being together – I was technically his superior – we hadn't let that stop us. We'd secretly been together for the last year or so. Not that it was any great secret among the rank and file like us, but we'd managed to be discreet enough that we stayed off the radars of the officers.
As long as we weren't blatant about it, they'd probably look the other way anyway though. It's not like there was much out on Gorndyr that could break up the monotony or keep morale up.
Elix leaned forward to kiss me again when we heard a strange sound. I turned my head to the rear of the vehicle. It almost sounded like...
“Shit,” I said, trying to quickly draw my sidearm, knowing my rifle would be useless. “Oh, shit.”
Before my sidearm cleared the holster though, the Vujan burst upward like it had been shot out of a cannon. The creature landed on the rooftop, those glowing red eyes fixed on me. Behind me, I felt Elix scrambling as he reached for his own sidearm. The Vujan moved quickly. I tried to roll out of the way, which wasn't easy to do without throwing myself off the roof of the vehicle – though, in hindsight, that's probably what I should have done.
Pain exploded in my body and my leg felt like it had been set on fire as the creature's long, sharp nail gashed my thigh. I cried out, feeling the blood flowing down my leg, wondering how bad it was, but not having the time to worry about it just yet. If I felt pain, I was still alive. I'd tend to my wounds after.
The Vujan hissed malevolently, its glowing red eyes fixed on mine, no doubt half-mad by the scent of blood that filled the air – my blood. Elix was moving though, trying to push me behind him as he scrambled forward. The shots rang out, three in quick succession.
I watched as each shot punched into the doughy flesh of the creature, making it twitch and jerk. The Vujan's eyes widened and its mouth fell open. When it hissed though, the sound was more of a wet, gurgling noise. It advanced on me though, its hunger-driven need for flesh and blood propelling it forward.
Moving on his knees, Elix moved forward, a look of pure rage on his face. He grabbed the creature by the neck and lifted it up. I noticed belatedly that his sidearm was back in its holster and heard the almost animalistic growl that escaped his throat. Elix held the wounded, weakened creature up with one hand and drove his fist forward. I watched in horrified awe as Elix's hand punched through the creature, exploding out of its back in a spray of blood and tissue matter.
He dropped the lifeless body over the side of the vehicle and turned to me. The look of rage had dissipated completely and now there was nothing but fear in his eyes. He looked down at my leg, gently peeling my hands away. Turning on the light attached to his helmet, he bent down, looking at it closer.
I could still feel the blood flowing from the wound, and it felt like a lot. As a fuzzy darkness crept in at the edges of my vision, I was becoming increasingly sure I was going to bleed out right there on the top of our vehicle.
“I – I don't know how we didn't see the third one,” I said, alarmed by how weak my voice sounded.
“Shhhh,” he said as he took my helmet off and stroked the sweaty hair off my forehead. “Don't speak. Save your strength.”
“How bad is it?”
He didn't say anything, but I could see the look in his eyes. It was bad. Really bad. I was definitely bleeding out.
“You need to get out of here,” I croaked. “The smell of blood is going to bring those things running. Just get out of here, Elix.”
“Shut up,” he said.
“Just put me down on the ground and get out of here.”
“Stay here,” he said.
“Don't think I can go anywhere even if I wanted to.”
A wry grin touched his lips as he jumped off the roof of the vehicle. I heard his boots land on the hard-packed earth below. The next sound was the door opening and him, rummaging around inside, cursing under his breath.
I stared up at the sky overhead, wishing I could at least, look at the stars as I died. This was not the way I wanted to go out. I never thought I'd actually be killed in a USF uniform. After all, it's peacetime. There are no wars to fight. I joined the USF as a way out of that mining colony I was trapped in. Because I wanted to see distant worlds. I wanted a future for myself – something I would never have had back on Rudra.
And I'd lived that for a little while. I'd gotten to see a few of those distant worlds I'd imagined. Of course, Gorndyr wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind. But, I knew that my tour was coming up in the not too distant future and that if I re-enlisted, I'd be able to have my pick of postings. I'd been planning on re-upping and picking a station on a world that was not only more populated and interesting but had a climate that was a lot more temperate. After a lifetime living in the heat, I wanted to feel a cool breeze on my skin for a change.
Didn't look like I was going to get that chance after all.
I started to feel like I was getting colder – maybe the gods were granting me one last wish. Or, maybe I was just growing numb with shock. I couldn't tell the difference really. All I knew was that the pain had thankfully faded some and my body no longer felt like it was on fire.
I just wished I could see the stars.
Suddenly, Elix's face, his eyes wide with panic popped back into my field of vision. He looked down at me and when he spoke, he sounded like he was speaking from a thousand miles away. His voice had a distant, echo-like quality about it.
“You're going to be okay,” I heard him say.
He was taking something out of a package. I vaguely recognized it as a protein bandage. He's been able to fill the gash in my leg with some artificial protein thing – I didn't pay attention all that well during med training. It would seal the wound and staunch the flow of blood. That much I remembered. I just didn't know if it was already too late.
There was a slight pinch and a tingle in my leg as he applied the sealant, but that too faded away quickly. Done, he tossed the packaging out into the desert landscape. Next, he picked me up like I weighed nothing and jumped down from the roof of the vehicle. The sudden impact of our landing jolted me and I groaned with the shot of pain that flooded my system.
“Sorry,” he said.
All around us, the night came alive with the growling, hissing sounds of the Vujans. It sounded like dozens of them were out there. Maybe hundreds. The smell of the blood that was saturating my pants, as well as was splashed all over the side of the vehicle, drew them like the proverbial moth to the flame.
They were coming. And they were coming in force.
“You're not going to make it out of here,” I said. “Leave me. Get out of – ”
“I said, shut up,” he snapped. “Like hell I'm leaving you out here.”
He quickly laid me across the seat in the rear of the vehicle, carefully propping my leg up on a blanket. We didn't have time for such niceties. As Elix fumbled with the belts, trying to strap me to the seat, the sound of the Vujans was growing louder. More urgent. They were almost on top of us.
“We have to go, Elix,” I said, making my voice as firm and commanding as possible. “We have to go now.”
“If I don't secure – ”
“If you take the time to figure that out, we're going to die anyway and the straps still won't matter,” I said. “Let's go. Get us out of here.”
He nodded and stepped back, slamming the door of our vehicle, and plunging me into total darkness. It was like being in a sensory deprivation tank and I found it disorienting as all hell. Outside, I heard the sound of weapons fire. It was muffled and distorted through the thick walls of the vehicle, but I knew Elix was out there fighting the Vujans. Fighting them on his own and without me. The damn fool was going to get himself killed.
There were several more gunshots and I heard the muffled howls of the Vujan. My heart raced and I feared for Elix. I was terrified for him. The man was my everything and the thought of him out there hurt, being torn apart by those savage creatures – it shattered my heart.
I struggled but managed to sit up. Grabbing the automatic rifle from the wall-mounted rack, I started trying to make my way to the door. I jumped and let out a startled gasp when the driver's side door was yanked open and Elix hurled himself inside, quickly pulling it shut behind him. He hunched over, trying to catch his breath.
Not a second later, the vehicle was rocking side to side as the creatures hurled themselves at it. The high-pitched shriek of their nails on the sides of the vehicle sounded like nails on a chalkboard and made me grimace. They were pounding on the vehicle, doing everything they could to claw and kick their way in to get us. Thankfully, the vehicle was strong, with reinforced steel and glass. They could beat on it for eternity, but they weren't getting in.
“You okay,” I croaked.
Elix nodded. “Yeah,” he replied. “I'm fine. Just out of breath.”
“Sounds like a herd of them out there.”
He nodded again. “I've never seen so many,” he said. “There are hundreds of them. Maybe thousands for all I know. It's crazy.”
Even from inside the vehicle, it sounded like chaos out there. Like somebody had opened up the gates of hell and let all the devils and demons loose upon the world – and they'd all decided to gather around our transport.
“We need to get you back to the garrison,” Elix said and turned to me. “Lay back on the seat. We'll get you help soon.”
I lay back and the darkness at the edges of my vision grew thicker. More solid. A cold numbness began to spread through me. As Elix punched the buttons and I felt the transport lift a few feet off the ground, I started to feel lightheaded.
He punched the accelerator, shooting our transport forward as fast as possible. I felt small things bumping against the sides of the vehicle – Vujans who hadn't gotten out of the way. Probably wasn't enough to kill them – just piss them off. As the transport shot forward into the night, I idly wondered if the Vujans were finally starting to organize and if that organization would lead to an all-out assault on the garrison.
Or, it could have just been the delirious, rambling thoughts of a woman standing on the threshold of death. As the transport heaved and bucked under us, I watched, as the darkness began closing in on me. My vision wavered.
And then my entire world went black.