By Corry L. Lee
Read by MK Hobson
Discuss on our forums.
First appeared in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Vol. 28 (winner) (2011)
All stories by MK Hobson
All stories read by Corry L. Lee
Rated 17 and up for language
By Corry L. Lee
The alarm blared over the forest’s metallic rustling, and my HUD’s red warning light glazed the view through my faceplate. Ten seconds until the defense scan hit my position. Ten seconds until any motion, any electrical signature would whip vines down from the iron-cored trees, wrapping me as surely as steel cables, pinning me while cutter-bugs took me apart.
My muscles clenched, and I froze. The training sims hadn’t prepared me for the terror twisting my gut, for the way my heart seemed to dance a _pas-de-bourrée_, its ballerina toes rapping against my ribs.
I didn’t have time to panic. I chinned my skinsuit’s kill switch and dropped to the forest floor. In the silence after the klaxon died, my breather hissed out one final gasp of oxygen. The red glow faded from my faceplate and the forest closed in, dark without the HUD’s gain and unnaturally silent without the suit’s audio pickups. Weak sunlight filtered through the thick canopy, yellowed by sulfur gas, enough to make out shapes but not details. In sims, they’d cut our visual enhancement, but they must have extrapolated badly because the shadows had never been this deep, the shafts of sunlight never so diseased.
I crouched on a patch of dirt, crumpling fallen leaves but avoiding the forest’s ragged undergrowth. I folded my legs beneath me, splaying my arms for balance. My hands slipped on the metal-rich berries that covered the ground as if someone had derailed a freight train of ball bearings. I swept some impatiently aside and rested my helmeted forehead on the dirt. How much time had passed? Eight seconds? No time to worry.
Gritting my teeth, I stopped my heart.
A vise seemed to close about my chest. Sweat beaded on my brow as I dragged in one last breath, my body panicking, automatic reflexes screaming at me to fight, to struggle, to escape. I fought them as Sergeant Miller and Captain Johnston trained me, fought them and stopped breathing. My vision narrowed. My lips tingled and went numb. _Twelve minutes_, I repeated to myself as the forest grew dark and disappeared.
_You’ll come back._ The words echoed in Sergeant Miller’s clipped bark. Just a few minutes ago he’d given me the thumbs-up after checking my suit’s seals. He’d rapped his knuckles against my helmet for luck, and I’d stridden toward this forested hell.
“So, Amaechi,” Private Yaradua said as I topped my glass off from her flask. “If we were back on Hope’s Landing, what would you do with your last night?”
“I’d go whoring,” Obasanjo said. “Nice place in Makurdi where–”
“Wouldn’t call it _nice_,” Tamunosaki said. “You mean cheap.”
“No, not that place we went with Akpu-nku. There’s one uptown.” Obasanjo shrugged. “Might as well spend all my money, right?” He said it like a joke, but nobody laughed.
Yaradua knocked her glass back, and Balogun focused on twirling her knife. We headed planetside at 0800 tomorrow, and MilComm gave slim odds that we’d make it back. The silence stretched, Obasanjo looking expectantly around for someone to agree with him.
Yaradua clanged her empty glass down on the table. “I didn’t fucking ask you, Obasanjo. I asked Amaechi.”
“She’d probably go to the ballet,” he said with a snort.
The corners of my glass dug into my palms; I wondered if I could squeeze it hard enough for it to shatter. The two missing fingers on my left hand itched. I twitched the stub of my middle finger, and contemplated slamming my glass into Obasanjo’s forehead. If it weren’t for those fingers, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be about to land on a planet that would probably kill me.
“Obasanjo’s an asshole,” Tamunosaki said softly. “Ignore him.”
“He thinks he’s funny,” Balogun said, like we didn’t all know it.
“What?” Obasanjo said. “What’d I say?”
“Forget it,” I said. I didn’t want to think about the ballet. “I sure as hell wouldn’t spend my last night watching those princesses stick their noses so high…” my teeth were grinding, “you’d think they were giraffes,” I finished lamely.
“Fuck that,” Balogun said, jamming the point of her knife into the table and letting it waver there. “This isn’t my last night. I’m coming back.”
“We all are,” Tamunosaki said, voice loud as he tried to sound convincing. We all glared at him, then tried to pretend that we hadn’t. MilComm had assigned him to penetrate only two shutdowns deep into the forest before returning to his lander. The rest of us were headed for the center and whatever might be hiding there. If anyone would make it back, Tamunosaki would.
A rushing sound like a raging waterfall. Colors and faces flashing past. A jumble of words. _Private Amaechi? Focus. Come back._ It sounded like Sergeant Miller, screaming over a buzz like Hope’s Landing’s insects at dusk.
My back arched. Shadows and shapes flitted behind my eyes: my squad members, mission briefings. Sergeant Miller was shaking me. No, I was shaking myself. Reboot convulsions. I gasped, and stale, humid air poured into my lungs. Nothing had ever tasted so sweet.
Panting, I licked dry lips. My vision stuttered in, greyscale. Motion out of the corner of my eye made me flinch. A fist-sized gather-bug skittered over on eight legs, gunmetal gray and dragging a mesh sack filled with fallen berries. Its mottled exoskeleton glinted in the jaundiced sunlight, its forelimbs in constant motion, spearing berries with sharp stabs of steel-tipped limbs.
My brain snapped out of the reboot haze. A green light winked in my periphery, and a knot in my throat loosened. My reboot seizures had started the suit and HUD reboot. I switched my attention to my environment. “Not a sim,” I whispered as I assessed my physical condition.
I hadn’t fallen out of my crouch during the seizures, so I scanned my surroundings without lifting my head, eyes darting in threat-assessment, not wasting time interpreting details. The gather-bug skittered over my hand and I stiffened. I held myself motionless, expecting a sharp stab, expecting the rotten-egg tang of sulfur dioxide to poison my air. But the bug apparently found my skinsuit’s carbon-fiber uninteresting, and it marched on, spearing a berry next to my thumb.
My pulse hammered loud in the enclosed helmet, and each inhale grew more labored as I depleted the bubble of stagnant oxygen. Each exhale fogged my faceplate, and the green light kept blinking. Was the suit’s reboot taking too long? I could barely see through the fog.
This would be one hell of a time for the suit to crash reboot.
Sergeant Miller called me into his office after three grueling hours of weapons training. I’d joined MilComm a month ago and hated how Basic left me no time to practice my _pirouettes_ and _soubresauts_. Hell, I rarely had enough energy at the end of the day to lace on my slippers and get up on my toes. I hated MilComm for that, hated the way my form was slipping. But mostly I hated myself for being so stupid, so distracted that I burned off two and a half fingers with a fucking cutting torch.
To be a prima ballerina, you had to be perfect. And little Adanna Amaechi from Gwantu Village would never be able to afford finger prosthetics on a factory worker salary.
When the MilComm fleet arrived in system and started recruiting, and rumors flew about them paying for high-tech implants, I figured them for my last chance. So far, though, they’d just driven me through grueling drills and stuffed my head with military propaganda.
“Take a seat,” Sergeant Miller said.
I dropped my salute. Maybe this would be quick and I’d have time to practice a few _grand battements_ before lights out.
“You used to be a dancer,” he said, voice gruff like when he walked us through psych control drills.
I narrowed my eyes. He didn’t say it like a question and I was pretty sure he didn’t want to hear me say that even though I wore fucking combat fatigues, I still was.
“You’ve got excellent control.”
That took me aback. “Sir?”
“Your regulation of breath, heartrate. You’re leagues ahead of the other recruits.” He fiddled with a stylus on his desk before deliberately placing it aside. “You’ve heard the latest reports from Helinski Five.”
“The cutter-bugs?” They’d splashed the footage all over base: gleaming metal bugs hacking apart a recon probe that twitched helplessly beneath a tangle of vines. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to scare us or motivate us.
“We’re losing a war we haven’t started fighting,” he said. “To be frank, Amaechi, we don’t even know if it _is_ a war.”
“So it’s true then? There haven’t been any survivors?” Five worlds had succumbed to the alien attacks, but the details were sparse and always distorted by speculation. I didn’t have the faintest idea why Miller was talking to me, but the chance to get the story straight seemed too good to pass up.
“By the time our probes have arrived to investigate those worlds, they’ve already been terraformed past a human-breathable atmosphere. As far as we can tell, the aliens destroy all our electronics on their approach to the settled system. We’ve never received any transmissions about the attacks, and all colonial tech we’ve recovered has been slagged.”
The reports I’d heard always painted MilComm in a more powerful light. They understood these aliens. They had a plan. Apparently that was more propaganda.
“MilComm needs something to go on,” he said, “and our best shot is that forest on Helinski Five.”
“The one with the cutter-bugs?” My stomach twisted. Whatever point he was getting at, I wasn’t going to like it.
He nodded. “It’s roughly a hundred kilometers in diameter and radio opaque. We’ve sent probes in, but they’ve never returned. What Lieutenant Aldren’s team found is that some sort of defense scan sweeps the area roughly every eight minutes. The scans short all active electronics, and any motion attracts cutter-bugs.”
The sinking in my gut worsened. He was going to send me into that hell.
“Aldern’s team sent back detailed intel on the first ten meters of the forest, but–” His jaw muscles worked and he took a minute before saying anything else. “–but once they started deeper, something got them.”
I swallowed hard. “Dead?”
My jaw tightened, and I struggled not to run from the room. That forest had murdered a career MilComm team, so now they’d send the new recruits. The ones that didn’t matter.
Could I quit MilComm? I could still dance in the cheap traveling productions the aristocracy put on as a token effort to bring culture to the masses. Commoners wouldn’t care if a ballerina in the back was disfigured.
Miller ran a hand over his shaved head. “Captain Johnston and I got approval for a mission, but we need local recruits–without implants–to pull it off. We can teach you to escape the scans, which, at least at the forest’s perimeter last a consistent twelve minutes each.”
“You want someone who can hold her breath for twelve minutes?” Was this why he was talking to me? “I’m not an otter–sir.”
A faint smile pulled at his stubbly cheeks. “We don’t want you to hold your breath, Amaechi. We want you to stop breathing.”
I tried to come up with something to say. I didn’t want to die. There still had to be a chance, somehow, that I could make it into the Abuja Ballet Academy.
Sergeant Miller must have taken my silence for confusion. “Soldiers have mastered the art of self-stasis before. But no one has revived without external stimulus.”
Self-stasis was an awfully pretty word for death. “Stimulus like a defibrillator?” We’d learned how to use AEDs in the factory.
“Yeah.” Sergeant Miller actually looked sheepish. I didn’t know sergeants could. “But Johnston and I developed a new method. We’ll start training on base, and as soon as MilComm gets a dreadnought resupplied, we’ll depart for Helinski Five.”
“I didn’t join up to die, sir.”
“You’ll come back from these deaths, Private. And MilComm will pay big bonuses for solid intel on these aliens. We don’t even know what these creatures look like–you could make a big discovery.”
A few temporary deaths would be worth it if they got me into the Academy. But the footage of cutter-bugs chopping apart that probe still haunted me.
“Only a handful of the ten thousand grunts who lined up with you show any promise,” Miller said. “We need you for this mission.”
I rubbed my thumb over the scarred skin where the cutting torch had burned through my fingers and my carefully planned future. Sergeant Miller caught the gesture.
“That doesn’t matter here. You’ve got seven and a half perfectly good ones.”
“If I make it back with intel on these aliens, will MilComm pay for lifelike prosthetics?”
I took a deep breath and flexed the two and a half fingers on my left hand. I didn’t care about aliens. I wanted my life back. “Then teach me how to die, sir.”
With a faint hiss, my faceplate cleared. A heartbeat later, the HUD came online, brightening the gather-bug’s outlines and transmitting the _scritch_ and _crumple_ of its steps across aluminum-plated leaves. Its sack of iron berries clacked like a child’s bag of marbles.
“Alien defense scan has passed your position,” the HUD said, its accent flat like Captain Johnston’s.
“Roger.” I leapt up and slipped through narrow gaps between hanging vines, keeping my steps as much on dirt and the uncertain footing of metal berries as I could. No one knew what foliage encompassed the defensive array. The other team had warned MilComm only of the vines, and I shuddered as I skirted some of the gray-green tendrils, imagining them pinning me while the cutter-bugs swarmed.
Step after step, I stole forward in my armored carbon-fiber skinsuit, wondering if the next defensive scan would come in eight minutes, or if it would strobe more frequently as I approached whatever lay at the forest’s heart.
Had Yaradua, Balogun, Obasanjo, and Tamunosaki made it through their first shutdown already? Were they seeing the same critters as we converged from our five points around the perimeter?
The HUD’s alarm blared, and I dropped to the forest floor, heart hammering in an adrenaline burst I didn’t clamp down on fast enough. My HUD shut down and the world went silent.
As I stopped my heart, the shadows seemed to crawl with cutter-bugs poised to attack. _Make sure you come back_, Sarge had said as my feet hit the alien dirt and I glanced back at him silhouetted in the airlock.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered before squeezing my eyes closed and stilling my lungs.
Kilometers bled past. My head grew fuzzy from too many shutdowns, and my chest ached each time I inhaled.
I checked the time; it felt like twenty minutes had passed since my last shutdown. It had only been five.
According to my HUD, I was coming up on my twentieth shutdown. Over six hours and fourteen kilometers had passed since I’d entered this hellhole. I slipped through some spiny shrubs and came out in a clearing. Exhausted, I sat crosslegged in the middle of it, sucking at my nutrient tube. My HUD counted down the minutes until the next anticipated defensive scan.
The backup scanner strapped to my calf felt like a brick weighing down my every step. I pulled it off, contemplating leaving it behind. The defensive scans had been coming like clockwork every eight minutes, so I probably wouldn’t need it. I sipped water through another tube, beyond caring that it was recycled piss. Grimacing, I transferred the scanner to my other leg. Its crude circuits might survive if something took out my HUD, and I still didn’t know what lay at the heart of this forest.
I hoped to hell that whatever it was, I’d find it soon.
I envied Tamunosaki, who was probably back on the dreadnought already, kicking back with a pilfered glass of Yaradua’s whiskey. I bit my lip. Were the others even still alive?
They had to be.
A metal-shelled creature the size of a dog scuttled past, and I reminded myself that everything I was seeing, everything my HUD was recording and writing to archaic plastic storage devices, was new intel. I had to make it out. I would get my prosthetic and be able to dance again.
But right now, that hardly seemed to matter.
My HUD blared its warning, and I killed myself again.
Up ahead, the vines thickened. I crouched low, sweeping foliage gently aside. Forward, ever forward.
The vines grew denser. I backtracked, cursing the extra distance as I sought a way around the thicket. But the tangle of vines stretched on. After wasting two precious minutes trying to go around, I steeled myself to go through.
My muscles quivered as I crawled on hands and toes through a narrow gap, feeling for solid footing through the thin fabric on my skinsuit’s hands and feet, trying to disturb the vines as little as possible. I groped forward and the vines constricted. My pulse ratcheted up. They must have identified me as an intruder.
Somehow I kept my wits and froze. Breathing deep, I studied the vines, arms shaking with the strain of holding myself still. They weren’t moving. They simply grew close together, knotting and weaving around each other as though in a deliberate barrier.
My pulse still pounded in my ears, but now as I twisted my shoulders and hips, my heart hammered with excitement. I shimmied, pulled, and wiggled through, anxious for sweet, bonus-worthy intel on the other side.
Another meter forward, and the light brightened suddenly. My HUD dropped its gain and I blinked past the spots in my eyes, confused by the open space stretching before me. Disbelieving after so many hours in the forest’s close confines.
I craned my head to see the roof of the canopy arching high above, and for a moment, I forgot the protests of my muscles, forgot the vines gripping my ribs and tangling my feet. A dozen meters of open space stretched before me, ending in what I first took to be a building. As my gaze traversed it, I realized it was an enormous tree.
My neck began to ache from craning up, and my body rushed back to me, screaming protest at holding such an unnatural position after so many hours of travel.
I pulled myself forward and somersaulted, slipping my legs out from the vines and crouching, one hand on my slugthrower as MilComm training kicked back in. My eyes tracked the open space in automatic threat assessment, but soon I was gaping like a tourist.
The vines I had just pulled myself out of ended abruptly in what, as far as I could tell, was an enormous, gently curving ring, stretching off into the distance, fading into a yellowish mist. The thick tangle of vines climbed twenty meters into the sky. Above that, enormous branches arched outward from the forest I’d just escaped, forming a cathedral ceiling thousands of times bigger than anything on Hope’s Landing.
Vertigo swept me, and I put one hand on the springy moss carpeting the open space, glad I hadn’t stood from my crouch. I knew I should move on, should pay more attention to the tactical data scrolling in my periphery, but I kept staring upwards. The limbs from the trees behind me merged with those sprouting like spiky hair from the great structure in front of me, and I felt like an ant crouched between two skyscrapers. That analogy wasn’t quite right. An ant in an inverted donut of skyscapers–forest to my back, the enormous tree in front of me, and a thin ring of open space between, fading away into the distance on my right and left.
The canopy wavered and shifted in a breeze I couldn’t feel, and the sunlight, which had looked so sickly before, seemed suddenly beautiful. Gold glinted off aluminum-plated leaves, and I took a deep breath, somehow expecting the fresh scent of new growth.
The faintly metallic tang of my suit’s air shook me, reminding me I was in hostile territory. I swept my surroundings. A few bugs skittered across the moss, absorbed in their own tasks.
I studied the enormous tree, its sides a familiar, mottled gray bark. The HUD used its faint curvature to calculate a diameter of 200 meters. It had to be a building; why else would it be so large, so isolated?
Whatever I was going to find, I would find it there.
I slipped the safety off my slugthrower and launched from my crouch like a runner from the starting blocks, beelining for the tree and hoping to hell that my sprint wouldn’t trigger new defenses.
No cutter-bugs swarmed, and I pressed my back against the giant tree-building, scanning the way I had come. Time to stop being a tourist and become a spy.
I realized with a start that fifteen minutes had passed since my last shutdown. No other scan had taken so long. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, and I wondered if I’d made it past the scans. My stomach knotted in anticipation of what else awaited me.
I wouldn’t come so far only to die.
Gritting my teeth, I slunk along the tree wall, seeking an opening. Ten minutes passed before I found it.
Three meters up from the ground, the HUD outlined a jagged shadow. Magnified, it resolved into an opening, and I couldn’t help but smile. At least all those years drilling _soubresauts_ would be good for something.
I holstered my gun and leapt, catching the fissure’s lip and chinning myself up. I hung with just my eyes above the edge, toes digging into rough bark. An empty tunnel twisted into darkness, a meter wide at its center, three meters tall, narrowing to sharp points at ceiling and floor.
I heaved myself over the lip. Nothing rushed out of the darkness to attack me, so I pressed my back against the tunnel, one leg on the steep wall beneath me, the other angled out to the wall opposite. Slugthrower in hand, I scanned back the way I had come. No sign of pursuit.
After a few steps down the tunnel, I holstered my gun. I needed my hands to balance against the tunnel walls as I placed one foot in front of the other like a tightrope walker, struggling to step on the narrow crack where the sloping walls met. Whenever I stepped too far to the right or left, my ankles protested.
The aliens must not walk on the floor, I decided, because this tunnel was hell. The image of giant, sentient cutter-bugs skittering out of the shadows sent a chill down my spine.
Something was watching me, my hindbrain screamed, and my hand closed about the slugthrower. I squinted up into the darkness at the peak of the narrowing crevice, but even at full gain, my HUD failed to distinguish anything from the shadows.
Swallowing hard, I blamed the fear on shutdown stress. After a few deep breaths, I managed to holster the gun and keep walking.
The passageway darkened until my HUD failed to pick the merest outlines from the black. I wanted to turn on my headlamp, wanted to activate the suit’s sonar. But those could trigger defenses, so I kept on, trailing my fingertips along the walls, groping forward with my feet. The tunnel branched, and I turned right then left, right then left, climbing and descending. My breath sounded loud over the breather’s hiss, and the audio inputs amplified the scuff of my steps.
A faint _squelch-pop_. I froze, holding my breath. My hand dropped to my gun. _Squelch-pop_.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I concentrated on the sound, trying to pinpoint its direction, trying to imagine the creature that could make it. When I opened my eyes, a faint light shone down a tunnel ahead on my left.
I crept toward the glow, weapons holstered to keep my hands free for stealth and balance.
The tunnel opened into a lumpy, spherical room. Flattening myself in the shadows, I craned forward.
A bulbous creature with a dozen tentacle limbs clung to one wall, vines wrapping its body. The air before it shimmered and shifted–a display of some sort? I couldn’t resolve what it showed and wasn’t ready to waste time cycling my HUD through different EM frequencies. The scientists could sort that out later from the recording.
I studied the creature, but couldn’t find anything on it I could call eyes. Maybe it saw through the puke-colored splotches the vines didn’t cover.
_Squelch-pop_, _squelch-pop_. The sound came from above me. My head snapped up.
Another creature scuttled down from a fissure in the ceiling. A chittering screech emanated from it as it flowed down the wall and out of my line of sight. The vine-wrapped creature chittered back.
I leaned further into the room, hoping to see them interact. Was the new creature here to rescue the other from the vines, or had the first wrapped itself up intentionally? Had I stumbled upon a prisoner or bioengineered technology?
Several vines lashed out, wrapping the new arrival’s limbs as it chittered away. A shimmer appeared before it, then widened, extending around the room to merge with the other’s.
Suddenly, both fell silent. The shimmer disappeared.
My breath caught. Had they seen me?
Heart hammering my ribs, I flattened back into the shadows. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe they’d responded to something else.
A vine whipped around the corner and lashed about my arm. I yelped and jerked away, but the vine held. Without thinking, I grabbed my knife and hacked at the tendril. The blade bit, and I ducked another tendril as I sawed through the first. The vine tore loose, oozing greyish-white slime, and I stumbled back. More vines groped out from the room faster than I could retreat on that damn fissure floor. I slashed at one, but more flailed forward, whipping through the air around me and slapping my suit.
One caught me about the throat and yanked me forward. I hacked it off, but not before the tip of another wrapped my leg and jerked my feet out from under me. I fell hard, helmet cracking against the floor. But I was too desperate to register pain, and my fall loosened the vine’s hold.
I kicked free. Knife in hand, I scrambled back on all fours until I could get my feet under me. My left ankle screamed in protest–I must have twisted it in the fall–but the vines no longer slapped my suit.
I edged backward. The vines still lashed the air, but could no longer reach me. Part of me wanted to hang around and learn more, but the aliens had clearly spotted me, and who knew what they would do next.
Suddenly, the vines retreated and three of the bulbous creatures scuttled into the tunnel, clinging to the walls. I picked up my pace, reaching for my slugthrower. One of the aliens clutched a dark, boxy device in a front tentacle, and before I could grab my gun, the boxy muzzle flashed, and something slammed into my chest, sending me sprawling backward while my HUD screeched alarms. The enhanced image flared white then black.
I landed hard on my back. Impact drove the air from my lungs.
Through my faceplate, I saw only darkness. I chinned the HUD’s reboot, but nothing happened. A bubble of silence quarantined me from the creatures’ chittering.
Something rubbery grabbed my bad ankle, squeezing tight. I jerked and kicked, but a tentacle caught my other leg and pinned me. I struggled but another wrapped my arm, squeezing so hard the knife fell from my grip.
Before they could catch my other hand, I went for my gun. A sudden pain cut through my right thigh. I screamed and fought their holds, but more tentacles wrapped me, pinning all my limbs, squeezing so tight that my fingers tingled and went numb.
Lightheaded with pain, I stopped fighting. The moment I went limp, the aliens started dragging me somewhere.
The nauseating taste of rotten eggs turned my stomach as I banged down the tunnel on my back. As my vision adapted, I saw dim outlines of tentacled forms crawling over and around me. There had to be a dozen of them, at least.
Just like everyone had said, I’d joined MilComm to die.
_Poor thing_, they whispered when they thought I couldn’t hear. _Lost the audition because she’s disfigured._
Pain twisted my vision as the creatures dragged me toward the room with the vines. I couldn’t stop them.
I had danced as well as any applicant and better than most. One judge had taken me aside and told me I was the best she had seen. But she clucked her tongue and waggled her fingers. “You will never achieve true grace with such a handicap.”
My eyes watered, burning from sulfuric acid and helplessness. Dark blood welled from a cut on my thigh. With my skinsuit compromised, I had maybe a minute to get to my patch kit before the atmosphere poisoned me. But pinned by the aliens, I was as powerless as I’d been after the audition.
My MilComm training was as useless as my perfect _pliés_. I flexed my left hand, my forefinger digging into my palm, the stub of my middle finger barely brushing it.
I opened my hand and lifted it slowly–the alien had relaxed its deathgrip now that I’d stopped fighting. My two and a half digits made an awkward silhouette in the dim room, and I remembered Sergeant Miller’s gruff voice in that tiny office lightyears away. “You’ve got seven and a half perfectly good ones.”
I couldn’t die here. MilComm needed the data I’d collected. And unlike on Hope’s Landing, in MilComm, I had people who cared if I made it back. I wouldn’t make Sergeant Miller blast back into orbit alone.
The aliens stopped dragging me. The creature holding my left wrist chittered loud enough that I heard it through the skinsuit; with another tentacle, it gestured with a blocky shape. I recognized that shape. That alien gun had slammed me to the ground and shorted out my HUD.
If I could bring the gun home, MilComm might unravel how the aliens slagged our electronics.
I twisted violently in my captors’ holds and grabbed the alien gun with my left hand, two and a half fingers perfectly sufficient to wrench it free of the tentacle. The creature screeched, distracting the others enough that I jerked my other hand free and pulled the slugthrower from its holster. I pressed it against a bulbous body and fired.
“I’m going home,” I yelled, rotten eggs thick on my tongue. I fired again, and the creature fell away. The tentacle around my right leg loosened, that creature reaching one arm out to its fallen comrade.
Had I killed it? The creatures screeched louder. I gripped the alien gun like a lifeline–MilComm needed this tech. Still firing, I kicked my legs free and stumbled to my feet. Agony shot down my leg.
An alien lunged down the wall, knife in its tentacle. My chest armor stopped the blade and I aimed dead center on its bulbous form and pulled the trigger. The creature fell from the wall like a heap of rubber hose.
I scrambled out of the room and down the passageway, firing over my shoulder as several creatures scurried forward. I tripped and slipped along the angled crevice, bracing my shoulder against the wall to stabilize myself when I fired. The air tasted worse and worse, but my faceplate wasn’t fogging, so the weapon that shorted my HUD hadn’t compromised my breather.
Alien screeches penetrated my skinsuit, but after I picked off a few more of them, they stopped advancing. I holstered my gun and ran, sealing the alien weapon in a pocket, then fumbling for the patch kit strapped to my side.
Teeth gritted with pain and lurching on the awkward footing like a crazed drunk, I grabbed the largest patch, tore off the backing, and slapped it to my thigh. My lungs burned, each breath searing like acid as I gulped poisonous air.
The passage forked and I turned right. Sprinting, I mouthed the words “Make it out, make it out” to the slap of my feet on the angled ground.
I pictured Sergeant Miller’s pale face as he rapped his knuckles on my helmet for luck. The alien gun banged against my thigh, and I smiled through gritted teeth. That gun was intel gold.
If I made it out.
A quick glance behind me: no creatures. Had I scared them off? Were they too slow to give chase? I tried not to question my luck.
Another fork, turn left. The passageway descended then climbed. Right then left, I retraced my route, fighting not to second guess myself or worry that I’d missed a turn.
More creatures appeared as I rounded a bend. I drew and fired, emptying my clip before one shot me in the leg. I turned the fall into a roll, hands already chambering another clip as I leapt to my feet. My aim would have made Corporal White proud as I brought down the one that had shot me, before picking off a couple of its friends. Still firing, I dove through the ambush, sprinting across twitching tentacles.
They must not have expected a fight, I decided, lungs burning as I raced back the way I had come. Blood slicked the inside of my skinsuit from the cut on my thigh, but I gritted my teeth and kept going, slugthrower in hand. I kept expecting another ambush, but it seemed I must have outrun them.
Daylight pierced the darkness as I rounded a bend, and seeing that sulfur-gas sunlight felt like winning the lottery. A muzzle-flash made me jerk to the side, and I stumbled. A handful of creatures blocked my exit. I kept running, firing as I did, their shots slapping me around like giant fists. But their weapons didn’t penetrate my armor, and my slugthrower dropped them from the walls like rain.
Chanting a MilComm marching song under my breath, I sprinted past the ambush and leapt from the tunnel into open space.
I hit the ground with my hands, tucking around my gun and rolling to my feet, running for the vines. A few creatures streamed down the giant tree behind me, swarming across the forest floor. I holstered my gun and clawed through the thick web of vines at the forest’s edge.
A tentacle wrapped my ankle, but I shot it and dragged myself fully into the vines.
When the vines thinned, I crouched, turning to face my pursuers. But no tentacles wavered through, and I didn’t stop to worry why. I had the intel I’d come for.
My breath rasped in my ears as I pulled the backup scanner off my calf. I tore open its casing and stripped away the shielding, tossing it aside as I ran. Slipping on metal berries and tripping over vines, I pressed the scanner’s power button. “Come on,” I said as I shouldered through a thicket of yellow fronds.
A green light blinked on, and if it weren’t for my faceplate, I would have kissed it.
I stopped, leaning against the rough bark of an iron-cored tree, chest screaming with every rapid breath. Pain lancing my leg, I glanced back the way I had come. Still no sign of pursuit. I held my breath, but couldn’t hear anything through the skinsuit.
The scanner flashed red. I thumbed it off and dropped to my knees, arms and forehead resting on the ground. I chinned off my breather, sparing one glance back as I stopped my heart, wondering if I would come back from this shutdown, or if the aliens would lead the cutter-bugs straight to me.
Strong hands held me as I convulsed, and over the rushing in my ears and jumble of torn scrapbook images flashing past my eyes, Sergeant Miller smiled at me. Sucking air reminded me how dry my mouth was, and God did I feel like I needed to puke.
“How long?” I choked out. The ailing tree outside our practice room window wavered in the wind.
“Twelve minutes–exactly,” Miller said, gruff voice at odds with the grin that split his face. “I knew you could do it.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, assessing my body the way Miller had taught us. My first shutdown, and I’d come back right on time.
A babble of voices burst over my tenuous understanding of the world, and more faces grinned at me past the wires and tubes sprouting from my body.
“Guess you won the bet, Amaechi,” Obasanjo said.
“I was going to be first, damn you,” Yaradua said, her voice light and her teeth shining white against skin almost as dark as mine.
“I guess we don’t have an excuse anymore, do we Sarge?” Tamunosaki said. “We can’t let Amaechi show us up.”
A waterfall roared in my ears. Reds and yellows, blues and purples flashed past my eyes. Faces fleeted by, and bulbous creatures scurried, chittering like insects.
I cried out and flailed back, away from the creatures. They retreated into the shadows. Panicked, my head whipped around, seeking pursuers.
But I crouched alone in that dimly lit forest. “Memories,” I told myself, “that’s all.” The jumble of reboot.
Gripping the scanner, I punched its power button and chinned my breather on. Air hissed around me, tasting faintly of rotten eggs. I was alive. Somehow, the creatures hadn’t followed me. The defenses must attack them, too. And who knew if they could shut them down–or how long that would take.
I didn’t waste time thinking about it. I had to get out, get my intel to MilComm, get home. I remembered last night like it was an eternity ago, sitting around drinking with Yaradua, Balogun, Obasanjo, and Tamunosaki. Had Tamunosaki gotten out after his two shutdowns? Had the others made it to the tree-building like I had?
I swallowed hard and prayed that I’d see their faces on the other side. With whatever bonus MilComm gave me, I wanted to drink with Yaradua and have Bologun teach me to throw knives. Even Obasanjo, who managed to effortlessly piss me off every time he opened his mouth–even him I wanted to see on the other side. I’d never felt like that about anyone on Hope’s Landing.
Before MilComm, I’d pushed away everyone I knew. Other dancers were always the competition, and nothing mattered but dancing. To make it in that world, you couldn’t care about anyone else.
I flexed the two and a half fingers on my left hand. Sergeant Miller had been right. Those fingers didn’t matter. I had an alien gun in my pocket and a dozen kilometers to cover before I was back with the people I loved.
Fuck dancing. I was Private Adanna Amaechi, and MilComm had worlds to save.
Corry L. Lee is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer living in Seattle, Washington. She also has a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics from Harvard University. Corry’s military science fiction short story “Shutdown” won the Writers of the Future Competition, an international contest for new writers in speculative fiction.