By: Catherine Olaso
The final explosion reverberated through Cole’s ears like bells on Christmas morning. He ducked his head from the flying debris, huddling tighter against the edge of the sandpit a mile back.
Thick, black smoke obscured most of his view, but Cole saw enough to know that nothing remained of the secret outpost he’d been sent to decimate. He smiled under a quick laugh, fogging the inside shield of his helmet. He could think of no better gift.
After months of brutal warfare, he’d succeeded in destroying the Rebel Base. Succeeded in restoring order to the Council, the insurgents exterminated for the vermin they were. Now, if he could just clear the crystalline planet before the third sun set and the Thales got hungry, his day would be perfect. Even with weapons and training, Cole preferred not to piss off lizards as big as whales.
Two of the blue suns had already descended below the Northern Peaks, rapidly dropping the temperature on the crystal rock Cole sat stranded on. He checked his cryolite suit, grateful for the fluxing insulation, then climbed out of the pit. He brushed white sand off of his sleeve before fiddling with his wrist compass.
“Hey, Jake!” Cole barked into the small speaker fitted to his helmet. “Where’s my transport?”
The speaker squelched, shooting notable static into Cole’s ear. He winced and turned down the volume. He’d endured his best friend’s pranks since the Academy.
“Sorry, Cole. You’re gonna have to wait. A faulty sensor short-circuited the main board. I’m working on it.”
“Working nothing. The third sun’s almost hit the Piraeus Summit. I didn’t just risk my ass so I could be the main entrée in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah…it’s a constant time crunch,” Jake mumbled around the pliers he clenched between his teeth. “You’re locked in.”
Cole scowled. “ ‘Locked in’ means jack-squat until I’m standing on the flight deck.”
“Always cantankerous.” Jake chuckled. “But I’ll still be glad to see your sorry butt.”
“You’re always cutting it close. Just get me out of here, Jake.” Cole scanned the blue-gray horizon for signs of movement. A faint tingle of warning pricked his flesh, surrounding him with an eerieness he couldn’t shake.
He groped for his taser, but saw too late the Rachpion scurrying across his knee. Arachnid head on a scorpion body, the Rachpion’s stings were both vicious and calculated.
A hot, searing pain stabbed Cole’s left leg. He cursed and snatched the poisonous bug in his gloved fist, squeezing hard. A pink, vitreous fluid splattered onto his helmet and oozed between his fingers, staining his white suit.
“Friggin’ hybrid.” Cole grunted, inspecting the small rip in the fabric above his knee. He probed the tender area, unable to feel pressure as numbness settled in.
With two stingers, Rachpions stung once to paralyze, then twice to speed putrefaction. Thales worked with Rachpions at sunset, seeking viable heat sources to serve as the next meal. Cole’s single sting would ensure he couldn’t escape, but avoiding the second sting had bought him time. Lucky for him, Thales liked their food half rotted. The Rachpions cleaned up the leftovers.
“Sick, symbiotic bastards,” Cole muttered. He’d seen plenty of victims to know that beneath his suit, his leg was already a purple-black and swelling rapidly. If he made it out alive, he’d most likely lose the limb.
Cole drew a long, deep breath, forcing his pulse to slow. He could feel the blood coagulating in his chest, tightening his lungs.
“Jake…” Cole fought to speak. “I’m down.”
Jake’s expletive drowned out his clanging. “Hold on, Cole.”
The third sun dipped and faded. Fiery blue solar flares illuminated the sky, then fizzled, leaving blackness.
Not yet fully disabled, Cole hastened to bury himself in the sand, hoping to camouflage his scent. Each stiff jerk of his arms grew progressively uncoordinated and slower. The sand stopped at his helmet.
“Jake… buddy. Can’t feel my toes.”
“Rachpion?” Jake asked, out of breath. “Oh, man. Dead toes, bad.”
“No.” Cole corrected. “Dead Cole, bad.”
“The power is –”
“Jake!” Cole shook off his lightheadedness, struggling to think.
The sand vibrated and shifted. First gentle, then building force, cutting the Thale’s path. Cole needed his taser, but only his neck moved. He squinted at the Thale’s outline hovering over him. Come eat me you ugly sack of scales.
“Cole. You there?” Jake’s voice sounded hollow to Cole, the venom affecting his senses.
Cole closed his eyes, praying for the weightless feeling of transport as the Thale’s forked tongue flicked around him, sniffing the sand. He choked out a strangled cry when the barbed end of the Thale’s tongue impaled his arm. The Thale screeched a dissatisfied hiss, angry at his inadequate meal. Cole’s eyes widened when eight Rachpions surfaced from the sand, their elongated tails poised to strike.
Before the stings pierced him, Cole felt the biomolecular shift he’d been waiting for and yielded to the pulsing trajectory of transport. He sighed with heavy relief.
Mid-transport, the force field sputtered, then surged with power, adjusting Cole’s course.
Splayed on the floor of the control room, Cole snapped open his eyes at the sound of scratching bodies scuttling over monitors and equipment, dodging in and out of the shadows.
Dozens of Rachpions infested the ship! Smuggled on board with the last transport, Cole realized. A traitor fought among them.
Jake’s decomposed corpse slumped over the main panel, his eyes already rotted from his skull. Rachpions fed on the sagging brown flesh of his arms.
“Jaaaake!” Cole yelled so loud his teeth hurt, his tortured voice hurling through the vast expanse of stars and planets.
Both of their epitaphs would forever penetrate the deepest recesses of space and time.