By Michael W. Davis
Is courage enough when your morality is at stake?
Every tree adorned its own brown spaghetti-shaped webbing with some form of six-inch worms undulating along the strands. The vibration of so many bugs crawling across the matrix caused each tree to contract and expand as if it were a thriving, breathing organism throbbing with its own rhythm. Moss-colored arboreal creatures with hammer heads hung upside down from the major branches and munched on the squirming invertebrates. Derek caught movement in his peripheral vision—something pushing the black gooey matting atop the swamp in his direction.
“Holy crap.” He aimed at the base of the rippled dorsal gliding through the water toward his location and touched off three rounds.
The discharge from his weapon exploded on the surface. The sub-aquatic beast, mimicking a prehistoric monster from some horrid nightmare, bolted out of the muck and turned away from its pursuit of Derek as a meal.
Two triple volleys of popping sounds in the distance.
They’ve found her. Swamps so thick can’t see shit.
He trudged through the warm slimy liquid toward the telltale sound of M4 rifle fire. As he shrunk the distance to his shipmate, the frequency of small arms fire increased.
Must be all around her.
Thirty yards forward and the distinctive blue flicker of her gun crept through the water soaked trees. He ignored the pain in his hip muscles and made six virtual leaps across the surface of the bog.
There she is.
Propped against the crashed survival module, her back covered by a pile of fallen debris, Marla toasted one after another of the cocoa-colored creatures with flailing octopus-type extremities. “You bastards!”
He joined the defensive posture and cut down a dozen slugs before the onslaught of aliens redirected their T-shaped weapons at the new human invader. Several hyper-pressured projectiles ripped at the tree just to his left and still he kept a barrage of blue bolts zapping toward the dozen remaining Tarians. Each hit to a near man-sized beast exploded into an omnidirectional mist of mucus. Another series of shots from them and all targets were destroyed.
Derek rushed the remaining distance to his wingman and squeezed her around the chest, then grabbed each shoulder and yelled, “I told ya to lead them, damn it. Why won’t you ever listen to me?”
Stubs winced and favored her left side. “I missed you too, mommy bird.”
Three inches to the right of her belt buckle, blood oozed from a hole in her flight suit. “You’re hit.”
“Now you notice.”
“Pain or not, we need to haul ass. Four squadrons of slimers are headed our way. We’ll never take off if they get to my ship first.”
Marla placed one arm around his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s go.”
Like two kids in a potato sack race, they sludged through the dense quagmire. “Listen, hear that?”
“Hey, Falco. Don’t you pass out on me. Your butt is too big to drag back to the Stryker.”
She lifted her head. “Yeah, yeah I hear it.” Marla inhaled. “The fleet’s begun their bombardment.”
“Means the interceptors headed for us will redirect their focus on our cruisers. We just need to make it to my ship. Come on.”
Another forty strides and Derek pointed to the left at the arm-length lobster-shaped creature snapping chunks of yellow flesh off a smaller bug-eyed fish.
“There she is.” Again, no response. He smacked her face twice. “Damn it Stubs, wake up.”
Marla opened her eyes. “I see it.”
Once at their ship, Derek made a support with his hands beside the rear seat of the cockpit. “Go ahead. Jump in the back.”
She staggered slightly, then stepped upward onto the makeshift stirrup the instant a bullet projectile clipped the edge of the vertical stabilizer.
A hot poker sensation burned through his upper thigh. He spun in place and instinctively aimed at the closer of two Tarians skimming through the water clocking twice the speed of a biped. The targeted slimer ignited immediately but before he could swing the weapon at the second, the slug slapped the pennons extending along each side of its slimy leathery skin and launched out of the water. The airborne alien released a series of screeching sounds and clenched its triple layer of spine teeth into Derek’s shoulder.
“Ahhh!” He dropped his rifle, snatched one gimbaled yellow eyeball in each fist and ripped two of its four visual sensors out of its body.
The creature released a curdling howl while he removed the knife from his belt and continued cutting at the tentacles wrapped around his throat. Finally, he found the plasma pistol in his holster, stuck it in the slimer’s chest, “Suck on this you smelly bastard,” and pulled the trigger.
He wiped the green mucus material from his face and lifted himself into the pilot seat. “Would have appreciated a little help, Stubs,” but the body in the back seat remained inanimate. “Marla!”
He pushed her torso backward from the bulkhead and surveyed the new wound just below her heart. Derek felt for a pulse.
She’s still alive. If I can just get her to the cruiser.
He strapped in his comrade, closed the canopy and fired both booster engines. The fighter disappeared back inside the dense atmosphere. He retracted all control surfaces to minimize drag and pressed the throttle full forward.
You’re tough, Stubs. If I can just get ya to the Med techs, I know you’ll make it.