Chapter One: Sakev

Sakev

“Is it too much to ask for one of these trees to start moving?” I asked, looking from mossy trunk to mossy trunk for some sign of life.

“Why would you want that in the first place?” Axtin, our resident heavy hitter, replied. I’d think he’d be the first to jump at the chance to fight one of the sentient tree beasts that roamed the forest.

“Because as much as I love our daily nature walks,” I started, practically feeling Vrehx bristle at my description of our routine patrols, “I’d like to do something useful.”

“How is fighting one of those damn walking trees useful?” Vrehx asked. I’d definitely gotten under his skin. It was an art form I’d perfected at this point. One day it was going to get me punched in the face. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Maybe it’s not useful, but it’s entertaining,” I grinned back.

“So, you’re whining because you’re bored?” Vrehx sighed. “Sorry the Xathi war isn’t entertaining enough.”

“Don’t get me wrong, fighting Xathi, saving people, and all that good stuff is plenty entertaining. We just don’t do any of that very often,” I remarked. “You can’t expect me to believe that the best we can do is to walk along the same forest paths every day.” Aside from a few isolated incidents, we’d barely made a dent against the Xathi invasion. The massive, crystalline insect-like creatures had been slowly choking the life out of this planet. The humans who inhabited it were ill prepared for something like this. When we fell through the rift in space and landed here, we became their only hope. And the best we could do was stroll through the woods near our ship, the Vengeance. It wasn’t enough, but it looked like I was the only one who’d admit it.

“Do you want to be on galley duty tonight? If so, keep running your mouth,” Vrehx seethed. I was having fun now. The others in our strike team were silent but I could see by the tightness in the corners of their mouths and the rigid way they held their shoulders, they were trying not to laugh.

“I don’t mind helping out in the galley. Snipes is a good guy, though his cooking leaves much to be desired,” I shrugged. Axtin snorted.

“Silence,” Tu’ver said, sharply. He’d stopped moving entirely. The witty remark I’d planned died in my throat. I gave Tu’ver as hard of a time as I gave everyone else, but when he stood still like that in the field, even I knew it was best to shut my trap.

“What is it?” Vrehx asked in a hushed voice.

“Movement to the east,” Tu’ver said. “Whatever it is, there’s more than one.” He lifted his impressive rifle and peered through the scope. I knew it had a ton of fancy upgrades and mods, not that Tu’ver would ever let me try it out.

“There’s a refugee camp somewhere nearby,” Axtin said. “Maybe it’s them.”

“Let’s check it out,” Vrehx ordered. “We’ll offer aid if we can. Is that a satisfactory use of your time, Sakev?”

“It’s not taking down a sentient tree, but I guess it’ll do,” I grinned. If there were people nearby fleeing the Xathi, of course I wanted to help them. Since we were no closer to actually defeating the Xathi, helping people was the next best thing.

“I’m going to get a better vantage point,” Tu’ver said, quickly scaling a tree and disappearing into the canopy. Hard to believe someone that big could move like that. Though K’ver weren’t as heavily built as Skotans. Tu’ver and I were of similar heights and builds but I outweighed him. A branch that supported him would snap under me.

It wasn’t long before Tu’ver’s voice crackled through our radios.

“Not humans. Hybrids. Four of them. Hunting for something,” he said in sharp bursts.

“Didn’t you say there were refugees in the area?” I asked Vrehx, who nodded. “That must be what they’re hunting. We have to take the hybrids out.”

Tu’ver dropped out of the trees and landed silently beside Vrehx. Under different circumstances, I would’ve been equally impressed and creeped out. He moved way too quietly.

“Do we have a location on the human refugees?” Vrehx asked.

“They move each day,” Tu’ver replied. “They weren’t far from here yesterday but who knows where they are now.”

“What does it matter?” I asked. “The hybrids will find them eventually no matter where they are. We have to take them down.”

“We don’t know that the hybrids are hunting the refugees,” Vrehx replied.

“What else would they be hunting?” Axtin asked.

“Us,” was Tu’ver’s grim reply. “It must be driving the Queen mad knowing we’re here but being unable to find us.” The Vengeance had the most sophisticated cloaking devise I’d ever seen. I didn’t fully understand how it worked, but it was extremely effective. We’d been here for weeks and the Xathi still didn’t know where we were.

“Is that less of a reason to grind them into dust?” I asked, though I was largely ignored. I guess that’s what I got for pissing off Vrehx. Fair enough.

While the others went back and forth about the best course of action, I pulled a small gadget out of my pack. It was something I’d been working on to beat the boredom of stagnant ship life. It was a standard scanner that measured heat signatures, but I amped it up. It could scan farther and in more detail. In theory, at least. I’d never actually tested it.

I quietly powered it up and scanned the surrounding forest. The good news was it worked like a charm. Heat signatures lit up the tiny screen, mostly small creatures of the forest. There was a large clump moving strangely, that had to be the hybrids. To the south, much closer than I would have liked, was another large group. The refugees. The hybrids were moving towards them. Quickly.

Before I could tell the others, the device threw sparks and the screen went black. It was totally fried.

My mind was racing. By the time Vrehx and the others decided on a course of action, it would be too late. They’d never believe what I saw now that my scanner was busted.

It was only four hybrids, according to Tu’ver. That was nothing. A warm up exercise. I could get there, take them out, and get back in no time. The refugees would be safe, and my strike team wouldn’t be at risk.

That was a win-win if I’d ever seen one.

“I’ll handle it,” I said over my shoulder before taking off into the forest.

“Sakev, get back here! That’s an order!” Vrehx yelled, but I wasn’t going to stop now.

The hybrids were not stealthy movers. I heard them long before I saw them. The first one never saw me coming as I fired a shot through its skull. The other three wailed and hissed, throwing themselves at me. As we fought, I noticed how they clicked and chirped to each other. Their attacks were more coordinated than they were last time I fought them. It was unusual for Xathi to create slaves with any level of intelligence or autonomy. It was worth mentioning to Rouhr.

I felled a second one. This would be over in no time. I was already planning on how I was going to rub this in Vrehx’s face. It’d probably earn me galley duty for a month, but it’d be worth it. And I really did like hanging out with Snipes.

One of the hybrids paused long enough to let out an ear shattering screech. I’d hear it before. It was calling for reinforcements. There must’ve been other groups nearby, groups Tu’ver hadn’t seen.

“You’re going to get us all killed!” a voiced yelled from behind me. The rest of my strike team emerged from the trees to join the brawl.

“You weren’t supposed to follow me,” I shouted back, but my words were drowned out by the sound of approaching hybrids.

“Skrell!”

We were overwhelmed. They were everywhere, more than I could count.

“Call for an evac!” Tu’ver shouted over the chaos. I barely heard Vrehx shouting into his radio. A hybrid scrambled toward me, but I didn’t have enough time to react. It practically exploded, just feet away from me, as Axtin’s gigantic hammer smashed into its side. Shards of crystal flew everywhere. I howled as a thick shard embedded itself deep in my arm.

“Strike team two is coming,” Vrehx called out. “We just need to hold out until then.”  There was a gash on the side of his head. Blood trickled down his face, blending in with the red of his skin. Tu’ver was firing with his off hand, his good arm bent at an incorrect angle.

This was my fault.

We pulled together in a clump, firing and lashing out in any way we could. The hybrids were smarter than they were before. But thankfully, most of them hadn’t developed a thick crystal coating yet. That was our only advantage. One shot from a blaster would bring them down.

I heard the sound of a shuttle from somewhere above us. Strike team two descended on ropes, joining the fray with vigor. With our efforts and ammunition doubled, we were eventually able to beat back the hybrids. Those that didn’t fall scurried back into the forest. No doubt the Xathi Queen already knew what transpired.

I looked around. No one had escaped unscathed, but we hadn’t lost anyone either. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I should’ve known they would follow me. It’s a good thing they did, but they weren’t supposed to get hurt.

The humans had a saying for this. I’d heard Axtin’s human mate say it once or twice.

No good deed goes unpunished, or something like that.

Vrehx stood off to the side, talking into his radio. I walked up to him but before I could open my mouth, he cut me off.

“Say even one word and I will leave you here for the hybrids to pick apart.”

I shut my mouth and nodded.

I deserved that.

***

Sakev is a work in progress. I’d love to know what you think! (and… Sakev is available for pre-order now!)

 

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