The Downed Horizon shook as Cress brought them through the atmosphere and into the cloudy sky of Oomtpa. There were no viewports in the loading dock, so the crew mostly stared at each other or the floor as they waited.
“Rab! You’re lead! Trig, you’re following Rab—Anka and Grox, you take middle—T and I will cover the rear!”
Each of them nodded as Reese gave her orders. The radio squawked with Cress’ voice.
“Alright—I’m descending on the biggest clearing I’ve seen so far—it’s still a very tight fit!”
The loading dock ramp lowered and immediately the crew was awash in the humid air of Oomtpa.
“Don’t know why we bothered packing canteens! Just take a deep breath!”
It was time for business.
Minus Cress and Jek who remained with the ship and on call for a quick exit, the Blood Letters moveed swiftly and in a line, jumping off of the ramp and into the grassy clearing below them.
Cress wasn’t exaggerating—clearing was a strong word for the gap they stood in. As the Downed Horizon pulled away, Rab couldn’t help but grin, noticing that Cress had to crush a tree just to let them off the ship.
“I’ll be surprised if they can find anywhere to land.”
“I ordered them to stay in the air anyway—low, but in the air.”
“Fair. Which way, Chief?”
“I put you on lead. Call the shots.”
“Alright. Crew, we’re heading through this jungle—the target and their crew’s headquarters is approximately sixteen klicks south of here, I estimate it’ll be about three-and-a-half to four hours to get there. More depending on how rough the terrain is.”
Of course, Rab had already known everything he needed to know about the mission and how they’d proceed—Reese always made sure he was as equally briefed as she was, in case anything were to happen to her while they were in the field. But he always differed to her in front of the others—lest they ever get the idea that Reese wasn’t one-hundred percent in charge.
“Everyone ready? I want radio-silence unless something comes up—we don’t know if the enemy is as paranoid as we are. And go ahead and prep your machetes—I’m getting the idea this planet isn’t going to be very accommodating.”
Rab hated being right sometimes. As the lead, he was forced to deal with most of the vegetation that blocked their progress. Vines, sometimes as thick as a Human arm, extended from one broad tree trunk to another. The trees of Oomtpa must have had some kind of interconnected relationship—the vines literally connected the trees, creating lattices of green between every trunk. How this worked, Rab had no idea—he was a student of concrete and artificial illumination.
Jek’s super-heated machete, however, understood enough about plant life to deal with it. It wasn’t exactly relaxing, but Rab didn’t have any significant difficulty slicing through the vines and continuing toward their target.
“Trig—I think I’m taking care of most of this—but make sure I’m leaving enough room for Grox to pull his ass through.”
“On it, Rab.”
A low growling sound could be heard a few meters behind—Rab had to grin to himself. Grox had, of course, heard him—but the Nestapian wasn’t about to open himself to reprimand from Reese for calling back.
High up on the trees, closer to where Oomtpa’s sunlight could reach, Rab noticed clumps of what looked like red moss growing.
The group passed a flower standing nearly three feet tall—how the bulbous head of the plant was supported by such a a thin stalk, Rab couldn’t begin to guess. The bright purple petals of the flower spread out like a bird’s wingspan, exposing a yellow center. Rab couldn’t help but stare as the plant swiveled—following he and Trig’s progress as they moved past.
Is it carnivorous? Don’t see a mouth…or eyes…
Rab decided he didn’t want the answer to those questions.
In spite of the inconvenience, Rab had to admit—the vegetation of Oomtpa was beautiful—even if it might be interested in eating him.
The smell, on the other hand, was something Rab could have done without. Soil and vegetation, both living and decomposing, and humidity mixed to create a thick odor that was in too much opposition to the typically filtered environments Rab lived in.
“You doing alright?”
“Nothing but bullets and blades, sir.”
“How many times does Reese have to tell you we don’t do that ‘sir’ shit around here?”
“Probably enough times for me to give a fuck, sir.”
Rab could hear the shit-eating grin Trig had on her face with that remark.
“I swear to the galaxy—you save a fellow orphan and this is the thanks you get. Maybe—”
Rab stopped himself. Practically froze in place.
“No—nothing. Try to keep up on those Chig legs of yours, Trig.”
Maybe we should have left you on Ronden.
He couldn’t believe he’d almost said it. An image of Trig’s face reacting to that sentence filled Rab’s mind and he thought he’d rather throw himself on this super-heated machete.
Of course he wouldn’t have meant it—Rab loved having Trig with them as much as everyone else. Reese and Rab both felt like they were making up for the shit childhoods they’d had—not that Trig was really a child.
How old is she again? Shit. Have to ask T later.
After an hour of pushing through the Oomtpa forest, Rab was displeased to see it was already getting dark. The group had covered almost eight klicks by now—approximately half-way to the target location.
Cress or T could have mentioned how close sundown was when we landed.
Yet, at only half of the distance they should have covered, Rab could see faint firelight ahead. And hear the sounds of…was that labor? A voice crying out. Another yelling in response?
Rab put a fist up at his shoulder—the universal, and seemingly eternal, sign for Stop. Trig stepped to Rab’s shoulder and they both looked forward. Rab was impressed—she didn’t ask him anything, understood immediately that they needed to focus on what was going on ahead.
“Sounds like…some kind of camp?”
“Good call. I’m willing to bet Cress wasn’t able to check the path from his drop-off spot to the enemy headquarters—accidentally put one of the slave camps between us and them.”
“A slave camp.”
“We’ll wait and see what Reese thinks—this is outside of our parameters.”
“I thought you were in charge.”
There was ribbing in that, which Rab could appreciate. The Blood Letters weren’t an overly serious group. But there was something else there.
Venom. Not directed at him, but…there was a sting for someone in those words.
“I am—but I trust Reese’s call in the field—as you should.”
Not at Reese. Then who was Trig… The camp, you idiot. It’s a slave camp. Big surprise the kid would be less than pleased at the site of it.
They heard another cry—more of a scream this time—from a non-Human throat. Pain and suffering were universal sounds—Rab noticed Trig flinch at the sound. He would have too if he weren’t more deadened to it. He tried to comfort her.
“I don’t think we’ll be here long—this is going to slow us down too much—we’ll figure out the best route around and get out of here.”
Rab turned to see the rest of the group’s approach to their position.
Anka, in typical fashion, moved silently and sleekly through the foliage.
Stars help me if I ever have to go toe-to-toe with her.
Like most people whose living is made at least partially on their combat skills, Rab couldn’t help but compare himself to his compatriots and wonder who he could or could not beat in a battle.
Anka was easily on the ‘could not’ list. Rab might have physical strength on his side, but Anka was traveling through intraspace compared to him—and she was deadly from a distance or up-close. In a weaponless fight, Rab would still be at a ridiculous disadvantage, given Anka’s acidic bodily fluids.
No—the only hypothetical fight with Anka Rab would ever even consider would be a group assault—she relied so much on her blades that a well-trained group would be able to take her down—or at least force her to retreat. And that hardly seemed fair.
Grox huffed after Anka, not making nearly enough of an effort to move in stealth.
As far as Grox went, Rab felt the fight might be more even. Obviously a fight between any Human and Nestapian was unequal in terms of physical strength—but Nestapian eyes were shit for long-range. That was why Grox only carried his crater-gun—anything else would have been a waste of ammo. So if Rab could keep Grox at a distance with his rifle, he might be able to walk away from that fight.
But if Grox got in close, crater-gun or not…well, that would become a question of how long Rab could stay alive, not if he could.
T-12 walked through the jungle, seemingly unconcerned with the vines in his path. They snapped and his gait never changed.
Should have let him take lead.
Rab laughed at the idea of ever going head to head with the war bot. He supposed that if he had to, it would be with some kind of EMP weapon. They did exist—at least on the black market—and there might even be one strong enough to stop T-12. But Rab expected that he would only get one shot.
Reese came up last, her rifle in her arms, enjoying the path T-12 was carving for her. Like always, she looked the part of the fearless leader to the last atom. Her eyes moved with confidence as they scanned the area—not frantically popping from target to target like a rookie, but gracefully looking at all of it. Because Reese knew—like only seasoned fighters could—that danger didn’t always come from the obvious places.
In terms of physical ability, Rab might be able to beat Reese. He was stronger—but she was faster. He was a better shot—but she the better strategist.
And she’d taught him everything he knew.
So. You’re in the lead of a group of sentients and you’re pretty sure the only one you can even have a chance of a fight with is the Nestapian you’re probably underestimating. Except the kid, sure—you could take her. She isn’t trained enough yet—but let Reese train her aim a little more and…
Reese wasn’t used to seeing Rab with a look of panic on his face. It was an expression neither of them had allowed themselves in a long time.
But there it was—the rest of the group formed a small circle with their focus on Rab and he genuinely looked anxious about something.
“What’s going on?”
“We were walking up on a slave camp. Cress didn’t know it was there, I guess.”
“Ok—then we go around it and—Where’s…Trig?”
Now Rab’s expression made sense.