Our descent into the jungle was treacherous. Using the wrist cables, we carefully propelled down the side of the cliff ahead of the Firebrand. After securing our hooks to the top of the cliff, we plunged into the shadow of the plateau. The cliff ledge was an overhang, so the first step of our descent had us dangling in open air, meters away from the wall. Our cloaks billowed out from under the sides of our backpacks, and my ears twitched when a bird-like caw broke free from beneath the jungle canopy in the distance, amplified by the resonant cliff. For the most part only our own cables rubbing on the cliff made any sound as we gingerly descended, relying on the strength of our devices, and our arms to hold on. The cliff began sloping back toward us, and at last we touched ground; even at a nearly ninety degree incline, it felt much more stable, and thankfully the rock wall was rough and littered with hand and foot holds.
Stones tumbled under our feet and echoed across the deep green roof of the forest as we found a thin ledge where we could stand for a moment, bodies pressed against the wall, panting. We’d both run out of cable length, so we detached them and found new holds for our hooks at this lower level. Stray purple-tipped brambles latched onto the edge of the steep, rocky cliff, and K and I were extra cautious to avoid being pricked by them in case they were toxic. As we got closer to the shadowed, saturated branches of the forest, the cliff slowly started to level out. Thick purple and green vines snaked up the amber wall. The leaves of the trees were massive, and swayed slowly in the slight breeze. Dust wafted through the open air from the plateau above us, and tiny particles of sand gently grazed the tops of the trees. I looked up at how much lower we already were from the cliff ledge, and began to worry about how we’d manage ascending it on our way back, and with packs full of heavy water, too. One step at a time, I thought. Perhaps we’d have to find an easier section of cliff to climb. Duhrnan’s timer had spurred us on to take whatever chance we could get coming down.
Slowly climbing down the steep slope, K turned to me. “So, you were going to say something to me earlier?”
I paused to catch my breath, and looked across to her. In that moment I didn’t have the time or energy to worry about anything other than getting to the forest floor. “I- Sorry, I don’t remember what you’re talking about,” I panted.
“Fair enough,” said K, and we continued down the wall. But as we edged closer to the forest, something nagged at the back of my mind- something I had read about the jungles of Malum.
My nostrils furrowed at the scent of fresh spores, and something I can’t describe. Sunlight snaked in through the thick net of leaves above us. Barely illuminated, the forest floor was thick with bushes that brushed our legs, and the noise of creatures moving and chittering underneath. The earth was a grey-brown colour here, and the foliage was a blend of green, purple, red, and blue. There were faint blue glows coming from some low, bioluminescent plant life, giving the place a distinctly alien feeling, completely unlike Earth, and I tried not to let it remind me of the few bioluminescent plants of Astraloth.
Spiny creatures littered the landscape like sea urchins, nestled against the gnarly off-colour roots of thick trees, and resting gently atop buoyant green moss. At a glance they appeared to be part of the plant life, but I noticed one wiggling and moving slowly after staring at it for a few seconds. The trees were tall, but their branches hung low and I had to duck my head to avoid clipping the claustrophobic ceiling of the jungle. Thankfully, there were no large creatures in sight. I kept my eyes peeled for myroks; I had never seen one in person before since I had never been on Malum, but I had seen the few pictures and videos available in the university’s computer system. They were nearly as strong as K, and possessed an unusual organ which enabled them to discharge energy blasts from their tail like their were firing a gun. Not only that, but their beaks were shaped like ice picks, and could puncture bones with ease when combined with their immense strength. If we encountered just one, even with our weaponry and armour, we might be outmatched. Of course it would all depend on what stage of metamorphoses we found it in. And luckily for us, I knew they preferred the caves of Malum to the surface, though I couldn’t remember why...
K trailed behind, her sleek black pistol active in her gloved hands, red sparks flitting out of the barrel every few seconds. She kept it trained on the ground, flinching every time she heard a new creature beneath the foliage. Her eyes were narrowed.
I withdrew the silver molecular sword and extended its blade. The sheer metal plates rang as they shifted and solidified into place as one solid, ultra-sharp edge. I used the sword like a machete to hack away at vines and brambles which blocked our path. Traveling this way was slow, and took a lot of energy, but the blade made things much faster.
Adrenaline trickled into my bloodstream. Beads of sweat dotted my face, and I could feel myself sweating under my armour. The jungle was like a thick blanket, trapping in the heat of the sun, and my body was trying to cool off. In practice, all I was doing was dehydrating myself even faster.
I stopped. If it was hot enough for me to be sweating this much, K must have been having an even harder time. Skythers have a much higher temperature tolerance.
She had removed her gloves and tucked them into her belt, and was wiping away sweat from her forehead. Her sleeves were rolled up, and her skin was so reflective it looked like she had just dipped her forearms in oil. She was breathing heavily, through her mouth.
That was what had been bothering me on the way down. I recalled hearing about how the trees of Malum acted like a super-effective greenhouse, trapping in all the heat that hit them from the sun, and all the heat expelled from the creatures which crawled about the forest floor. And that’s why the myroks preferred the caves; they were more adapted to the cold, not the intense heat of the jungle. Even dead plant and animal matter as it decomposed would emit heat that, given the biology of the forest, would remain trapped inside its tightly-knit leafed shell for an extended amount of time. Even though the plateau the Firebrand had landed on was hot in the sunlight, the breeze and open air made it significantly cooler than the muggy interior of the forest.
K staggered and caught herself on a tree trunk, pausing to catch her breath.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed. She pulled her hand back, shaking it. She had accidentally poked her hand on one of the spiny creatures which had been camouflaged against the tree. She took a step to the side and leaned up against another tree, rubbing her stung hand.
I shouldn’t have brought her along, I thought. I should have known this was dangerous!
I stepped over to her, deactivating and replacing my sword. My ears lowered as I looked into her face; she was clearly losing focus.
“K?” I said. I placed both hands on her shoulders. “K, are you alright? Talk to me.”
She panted. “It’s too hot,” she managed.
I nodded, sweat trickling down my face. “We have to find you someplace to cool down.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know if I can make it back up the cliff.”
I grit my mandibles, and tightened my grip on her shoulders. “Okay. Then we’re not going back. We’re going to find some water to get you hydrated, and someplace to cool off.”
I left her leaning against the tree and panting for a second, activating my holo-gauntlet and scanning the area. The scans flickered. The atmospheric interference wasn’t as bad in the forest, but the physical interference of the trees limited my scanner’s range. I was looking for a cave, or clearing in the forest where we might sit in the shade but with open air above us, when I noticed a faint energy signature not far from our location ahead of us, blinking in and out as the scanner struggled to work.
Wiping away some sweat from my head I spun back to K. “There’s an energy signature not far from here,” I said. “It could be anything… chances are it’s dangerous, but, it could be a loro structure.”
K blinked blearily. “Okay...”
“I’m going to go scope it out.”
“Sure.” K slid down the side of the tree into a sitting position.
I tapped her on the shoulder. “You just sit tight. Keep that pistol armed just in case.”
She nodded a few times slowly.
I turned away toward the direction of the energy signature and began creeping toward it, trying not to make any sound. Thankfully the forest was loud with the noise of creatures buzzing and rustling around, but the foliage trapped the sound so well that there was hardly any echoing between the trees, which made each sound sharper.
With each second I got further from K, and closer to the energy signature. I weaved between trees and over and under fallen and twisted trunks. I wrapped my bare left hand around the side of a tree for leverage as I pulled myself over massive roots and between two trunks, but my hand got pricked by something.
The side of my hand stung, and I twisted my head to get a look at what I’d accidentally shoved my hand into on the tree. It was one of those spiny, sluggish creatures. It was purple with red splotches, and it was moving slowly around the curve of the smooth, mossy trunk. I rubbed my hand absentmindedly, but the pain wasn’t going away.
I tried to shake it off and kept moving to the energy signature.
I was almost upon the energy signature, and it appeared to disperse somewhat, as though the scan was picking up multiple smaller signatures clumped together. I heard movement ahead of me through some thick red vines which wove together. And then the sound of breathing, muffled by the forest. No, I thought, muffled by a helmet.
I stepped up to the vines and crouched low, cautiously sliding my fingers into them at eye level and gently pulling them apart so I could see through.
Adrenaline jolted me awake. In a clearing only a few meters wide, fully immersed in shade from the tall trees, stood five figures. Each figure stood upright on two legs, and wore a full suit of beige power armour, adorned with small green lights. The helmets they wore had green visor-plates which stretched across their face. They each wore an oxygen tank on their right thighs, with a thick grey tube running from it to the muzzle of the helmet. Their helmets were equipped with lights on either side which shined wide beams of light that illuminated the spores and dust floating around the air in white cones. They each held in their hands a thick, dark E-rifle, equipped with a molecular bayonet protruding from the tip. Their shoulder pads were wide and rounded, and a white skull insignia was emblazoned on the left shoulder of each one.
My eyes darted between them as I struggled to breathe as quietly as possible. Casually, one of the soldiers lifted his gun toward a spiny-creature resting on a stone. For a half second the rifle whined in a rising pitch before it yelped. In a single click of the trigger his gun fired three purple energy bolts, long, thin and parallel with the ground like arrows, vertically aligned and evenly spaced from the tall tip of the gun, detonating like miniature bombs on impact. In a flash the creature was blasted apart. A tangy smell wafted my direction. Smoke rose from the three barrels of his gun, faintly illuminated by the purple energy bubbling in the core of the weapon. The group snickered ominously.
I shut my eyes for a moment, feeling my heartbeat in my throat. These must have been Brotherhood soldiers.
They matched the description Admiral Fiona O’Kane had given me, but why would the Brotherhood have soldiers out here on Malum? Were they also trying to stop Duhrnan? No, that didn’t make sense. We were presumably the only people who were able to track Duhrnan’s mothership to Malum. Unless they already knew Duhrnan would be here by other means.
That still didn’t make sense. It was my understanding that the Brotherhood’s main purpose was to dismantle the power-structures of the galaxy, specifically the TAU government. If Duhrnan succeeded at his goal, then the TAU would be destroyed, which would help the Brotherhood. But surely the Brotherhood didn’t want to destroy planets, and kill billions of people… unless they were sure it would lead them to their desired world-state.
I stared motionless at the soldiers, my ears peeled back. What if, somehow, they were working with Duhrnan?
“Where the hell is that loro site?” one of them said. “Jackie, check the scanner.”
I tensed. If their scanners were tuned to the right frequency, they might be able to pick up on the energy signatures of my devices, and if it was accurate enough they’d be able to discern my shape behind the vines. I tried to remain completely motionless.
Jackie, presumably, took out a hand scanning device and glanced at it. “We should be close by, not more than ten minutes walk from here. The cave entrance is just...”
He paused. “Huh... Sir, I’m picking up something strange.” He looked my way, his face completely obscured by the reflective green mask of his helmet.
I moved my hand to my pistol, and drew it slowly. I would have to move quickly to get the drop on them, and any chance of success in a fight.
I was poised to push through the vines and take them out. My holographic eyepiece blinked into view and connected with my pistol, which I activated. The soldiers all began turning toward me.
I ducked my head, ears back, and pushed through the red vines with both hands, my left tightly gripping the E-pistol. My feet dug into the ground, and my legs tensed and pushed against the plant life, before lifting off for the next step. I brushed most of the way through, my arms pushing past the plant-matter when I felt a force pulling them back, and I slowed down.
The soldiers all squatted slightly in a battle pose, guns aimed at me, fifteen barrels of purple energy aimed directly at me with five simultaneous electrical whines. I pulled my arm to aim at one of them, but found it was stuck. The red vines crept around my limbs, lacing inbetween my arms and legs, holding me in place and slowly tightening.
“Wait,” said one of them, holding up his hand to signal the others to lower their weapons. He snorted and closed the gap between us nonchalantly, while the other soldiers exchanged glances.
I stared up into his helmet, which he pushed close to my face.
“What are you doing here?!” I spouted.
The soldier paused, holding his face in front of mine for a few moments in silence before speaking. “What’s a skiller doing on a planet like Malum? A live skiller, for that matter?”
I grit my mandibles and struggled. “You’re part of the Brotherhood, aren’t you?”
He chuckled. “Aww, our little skiller knows his symbols!” He tapped the skull on his shoulder. “Good for you, kid.”
“I’m twenty-six cycles old,” I said.
“That’s like fifteen years, right?” he said, incorrectly. He laughed, pulling his face back. “Too bad, that’s pretty young to die.”
He powered up his rifle and aimed it into my eyes, and the vines continued tightening around me. I turned my head to the side, squinting.
“Wait,” I said, “Have you tuned into the Code-Alpha emergency signal? I’m here to stop Duhrnan. I know his mothership is here. You might not like the TAU, but do you really want Earth to be destroyed? Because if not, then we can help each other out. I’ve got friends with me here; we can all work together.”
He lowered his gun, and paused. Panting, I looked to him.
One of the other soldiers said, gruffly, “We’re not going to help you, skiller.”
“Yeah,” said the one next to me, “but we won’t kill you either.”
“Malum will do a good enough job with that.”
I tugged against the restraints.
“See if you can’t find one of his friends for us, Jackie.”
I gulped. The five soldiers began making their way out of the clearing. Jackie said, “Sir, I’m picking up a faint energy signature not unlike that skyther’s over this way. Possibly some kind of energy weapon.”
“It’s probably one of them. Why don’t we go introduce ourselves?”
Sweat dripped down my cheek as I struggled against the red vines in the heat. I just put K in grave danger. The soldiers disappeared from the clearing, heading back the way I had come, and I felt the prick on my left hand sting. I closed my eyes. I had to get free.