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.