(Inspired by @Matthew and his character backstories. Please forgive me in advance, Matt, for everything that I’ve gotten completely wrong!)
It wasn’t the first time Cassie had had that particular thought. But at this moment, as she watched her last flare fizzle and die in the night sky, it seemed apt. She groped feebly in her pack for confirmation, fingers slick with blood. Her blood? Probably. Yep, that was the last flare.
Nearby, someone screamed. Anders. He had kept running when Cassie had been cut down, firing a spray of bullets as a parting gift. The thing had changed its mind when it felt the gentle tickle of the gunfire; one second it was there, and then it was gone, leaving a trail of iridescent dust.
Thanks, Anders. Now I get to bleed to death instead.
Anders wasn’t the one who had grabbed just three flares, though. Cassie had herself to blame for that. It had been an easy decision at the time: flares or bullets? No time to think about it! Gotta run to the evac zone! Take the ammo!
The extra rounds dug into her back. She’d never get to use them. Her rifle was only a few yards away, but the distance could have been miles for all the good it did her.
Cassie had held the rifle like it was a dead rat. “Weapons training? I’m R&D, Lem, not Security.”
“You’re headed to station 81, right? In the Arm? You get weapons training. Policy from Corporate.” Lem handed her a clip for the rifle and showed her where to load it.
“That’s what the damned Guild is for.” Cassie sighed and shouldered the rifle. Nordita and its ridiculous policies. No unapproved genetic splicing! All samples must come from known non-mutagenic organisms! Weapons training for research personnel!
She tried to picture Anders with a rifle. She couldn’t.
Lem grinned and pointed her downrange. “The Guild has their hands full. Besides, even William Cabot himself would need a good six months or so to tame station 81’s planet.” Lem lowered his voice theatrically. “I’ve heard stories, Cassie. Ostriches with lightning on their face! Roving packs of lizard wolves! Venus flytraps that swallow men whole! Booga booga!” He waggled his fingers in front of his face and laughed.
Cassie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s so spooky.” She aimed down the range at the target. “So what else does Corporate think R&D needs to learn? Emergency medical training? Evacuation protocols? Wilderness survival?”
Lem coughed slightly. “Well, actually, yes.”
“Wait, what? Which one?”
She had been at station 81 for less than a day when she fired her new rifle for the first time. Their guide had turned around to tell everyone to watch their step, but he hadn’t had a chance to say what to watch out for before a pair of toothy leaves had snapped shut around him like a crocodile’s jaws.
Someone screamed. It wasn’t the guide, because the guide was still talking from inside the plant.
“…bloody botanical bastards sit around all day and wait for you to walk into ‘em, just like this. Any of you lot got a rifle? Just put a few rounds into it and we’ll be on our way.”
Anders spoke up, voice shaky. “B-but won’t the bullets hit you?”
The guide’s voice grew impatient from his leafy prison. “Look here, if you do manage to hit me, I’m sure I’ll be much better off than if you let me suffocate and be digested in here. If you’re so very worried for my safety, shoot at the base of the damned thing. Preferably before it finishes killing me?”
Cassie raised her rifle, aimed, and fired. The plant flopped apart, and the guide stepped out and continued walking towards the station as if nothing had happened. He turned around, grinning. “Welcome to Shear, ladies and gentlemen.”
Cassie and the others fell back in behind him, watching the ground carefully.
“…are coming in from stations 78 and 79, Cass. Those things are in our damn sector.”
Cassie really wished Anders would choose better times for his nervous breakdowns. No, Anders, it’s fine, this sample can just analyze itself. Please, tell me for the twelfth time how Kieran from the flora labs is hogging all the equipment.
“And there’s rumors that they’ve brought in the Guild, but they’re way out of their league here! How can they hope to—Cass, are you even listening to me?”
Cassie sighed and looked up from the microscope. Anders’ face was blotchy with anxiety. Sweat stood out on his forehead.
She had been half-listening, at least. She tried to piece together what Anders was so worried about. Was it the wildlife again? Anders had been convinced since day one that he’d be eaten by a plant or torn apart by trapjaws.
Christ, just reassure him so he’ll go away. “Anders, relax. The Guild knows what they’re doing. Hell, that’s why Corporate called for them in the first place. I mean, I’ll agree that Shear needs taming more than anywhere else in the Arm, but…” Cassie’s voice trailed off when she saw the look on Anders’ face. “What? What did I miss?”
Anders wiped his brow. “Cass, have you been reading the reports from the outer stations?”
Ugh. Reports. Cassie gave Anders a withering look. “I think I have better things to do than read about the latest ore quotas from the mines, Anders.”
“The mines are gone, Cassandra!”
That stopped her. “What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“I mean there’s nobody left. Nobody.” Anders paced the room. “We’ve been losing contact with stations all over the continent in the past week, and we just got a crisis report from 78. 79 didn’t give us a crisis report, but we didn’t really need one, since their damned cameras stayed on!”
Cassie sat back in her chair and took a deep breath. “Do I want to know what the cameras saw?”
“No, but I’ll tell you anyway. It’s not the wildlife, Cass – not any wildlife we’ve seen. It’s—“
The lights in the room flashed. From the center of station 81, a klaxon began to wail. Anders went from blotchy to dead white. “Oh god,” he whispered. “Here?”
Cassie was already on her feet. “Evacuation? Anders, why the fuck didn’t you say so earlier?”
Anders just stared out the window, eyes bulging. Cassie grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him. “Come on!” She half-dragged him out of the room. The supply lockers. If they could get there, they’d be able to grab flares, ammo, emergency supplies, whatever they needed, and then they would run to the evac zone and everything would be fine, everything would be fine, they just had to run—
Anders let himself be towed behind her, his face still ashen.
Cassie’s vision was black around the edges. It was almost peaceful, here on the ground. The wailing evacuation klaxon seemed muffled and faint. The ammunition pressing into her back didn’t hurt anymore; nothing did. Her legs looked like they belonged to someone else, twisted and mangled as they were.
Screams and gunfire sounded in the distance. She closed her eyes for the last time as her blood seeped into the alien soil.
She awoke. Had she been sleeping? She had dreamed of an evacuation, of a nightmare creature that cut her legs apart, of the evacuation klaxon…
The klaxon was still sounding.
Cassie opened her eyes. Above her stood a man. Her eyes took a moment to focus, but she could tell that he was offering to help her up. She took his hand and stood.
Stood. On her legs. She leaned over and touched her calves. She could feel the gash in her clothes where just minutes earlier the nightmare creature had slashed her, cutting flesh and muscle like paper. Beneath the gash in her clothes, her skin was smooth and whole.
Her eyes were coming back into focus. She looked at her rescuer: bald head, full beard, strange symbol on his shoulder, gloved hand topped with syringes. Her eyes widened.
Lazarus men. Myths. Rumors. Impossible.
The man saw her expression and gave her a cold smile. “Death is but an inconvenience, Miss…”
It took a moment for Cassie to find her voice. “Hayashi.”
“Miss Hayashi, I recommend you leave here with us. We’re headed for the evac zone.”
She turned. A man in a large powered suit – Rage, said part of her mind – had spoken. He smiled down at her. Next to him was a bearded man with a cigar. A woman with wild hair watched the tree line, and a trapjaw calmly sniffed the breeze.
Next to the trapjaw stood Anders. He gave her a sheepish wave.
Cassie realized that she was grinning wildly. She bent down and retrieved her rifle and her ammunition. The flare gun she left in the mud.
The group started off through the woods. Cassie scanned the forest for a glimpse of the nightmare creature, rifle raised. If any of the others had been looking at her at that moment, they would have seen a furious, gleeful vengeance in her eyes.