By Linda Tiernan Kepner
Linda T. Kepner has five published novels including a novel version of this story Planting Walnuts. You can learn more about her at www.lindatkepner.com.
When I heard the screeching I didn’t hesitate. I hit the dirt, diving into the underbrush and rolling just like Cyntoj had said to do. My foot hit something, but I was already rolling out the other side, gun in hand. I saw something about two meters away with bat wings, a pasty humanoid face, and blue claws, and I fired.
I heard screams of death, but I heard pistols firing, too. Nearby, I heard Araee yell, “Come on, you bastards!” I was so amazed I almost dropped my gun.
A harpy dived at Araee’s little bald head, but Araee squatted, aimed her pistol, and blam. The second one dived. And blam. It took her a lot of moving to finish them off, but by then I was busy with some more.
Something was also getting its head banged on my far right. Cyntoj’s pistol lay in the gritty jungle mud. It hadn’t even slowed him down. He knocked a harpy up into the air. I saw teeth flying.
The boyfriends were defending each other’s backs. Eduardo yelled, “They’re not giving up!”
I couldn’t fire without hitting them. “Move, dammit!”
I heard a growl from somewhere waist-high near me. “Stupid bastards!” Tiny Araee shot forward, dived beneath the harpies’ wings, and tackled one knee of each man, knocking them to the ground. I saw my chance and shot.
The last word on the subject reached them before they reached me.
Mrs. Gonderjhee took aim with the interphase rifle, blasting one of the harpies circling Cyntoj. The other tried to take flight, but Cyntoj literally leaped into the air to bring it down, and finished it off with his own knife.
Again the rifle spoke. Two more harpies died.
In a moment, the entire clearing was silent.
We were still figuring out what hit us. I looked at Cyntoj and realized he wasn’t staring at me.
My heart sank when I saw what Mrs. Gonderjhee was doing: pulling a ruby-thorn out of her left hand. She must have dived under a thornbush. Her right hand trembled when she opened her knife, but she was doing just what she’d been told — cut away the poison blister. Blood flowed, but that was more because of the shakes and not the poison.
Gently, Cyntoj grasped her hand, sucked a mouthful of blood, and spat. The rest of us stood paralyzed, watching them.
Mrs. Gonderjhee tried to make her voice sound normal. “I think I’m all right. Not even palpitations.”
Cyntoj still had her red blood on his lips when he realized they were holding both hands together and gazing in each other’s eyes. He backed off so fast it would have been comical if we hadn’t all been scared shitless.
“Wipe off your mouth,” I said. He did it without looking me in the eye. I thought the man was made of stone up until then. I kept my astonishment to myself.
We gathered up the supplies from the dead bodies and redistributed them. Cyntoj surveyed the damage. “We will not camp here. The smell of blood carries for kilometers. In an hour, this place will be crawling.”
“We need to bury or burn the bodies,” Mrs. Gonderjhee objected.
“You are not listening to me,” Cyntoj contradicted patiently. “This is not Earth.” He pointed toward the edge of the jungle clearing.
Something scuttled into the clearing and dived into the Brazilian’s body with an audible thud. We heard it crunching its way through the flesh.
“We leave now,” Cyntoj said emphatically.
I was already out of there, with Araee and Tyler on my heels.
“Watch the trees!”
Tyler swore, and swatted something. He used his engineer’s level to bat a tree-scorpion to the ground. It tried to squirt acid into his eyes, but got his cheek.
Tyler wiped it off and kept hiking.
When we had traveled another kilometer, judging by our pedometers, Araee planted another walnut-sized sensor a decimeter deep in the disgusting soil. We would have at least one decent line of survey sensors in this filthy place. Occasionally, we stopped and took surface readings.
I was becoming more and more impressed with modern surveying equipment. Mrs. Gonderjhee knew modern surveying technology, even if she had been victimized by a get-rich-quick husband.
It was hard to tell, in the heat and the erratic lighting, when night actually began to fall. Cyntoj, true to form, looked neither tired nor fresh. I was OK; so was Araee, but she couldn’t surprise me any more. Mrs. Polly Gonderjhee had been running on adrenaline for weeks. The rest were beginning to wilt. Six weeks of training from Cyntoj and me hadn’t been enough. I was glad we’d left Sam Byner back with the Rustbucket on the coast, though he was going to have a devil of the time holding up his end.
“We are going uphill,” said the Tyrellian. “We should soon reach a ridge. That will offer more safety.”
“I’m all for safety,” I muttered. “Let’s go.”
Within a couple more kilometers, Cyntoj found an overgrown cave. Cyntoj squatted, and growled into the dark opening. Something in the cave responded. He stood up as if confirming his worst expectations.
“Wolf-spiders,” he told Mrs. Gonderjhee, “but we need that cave.”
Mrs. Gonderjhee unslung the interphase rifle, changed the setting to wide-area, stepped to the mouth of the cave, and gave it a good dose. I thought, And this is the woman who hated to swat flies three weeks ago.
She commented, “I am all in favor of preserving endangered species, Mr. Brannon. In Hellforest, that’s us.” Even Chico, the Brazilian, grinned.
That cave was as clean as a whistle. Even the wolf-shit had evaporated. The boyfriends made a fire. Our food came out of packets we were carrying.
“Stop hovering,” I said, “you’re making me nervous. Sit.”
Cyntoj sat beside me. “You nervous? I doubt it.”
“I recognize sarcasm when I hear it. How do you want to split the duty?”
“Four off, four on. Pick two buddies.” Despite the parsecs between our birthplaces, we’d both picked up military shorthand over the years.
“You take Eduardo and Brad.”
The boyfriends. “Sure, good enough.”
“I take Chico and Tyler.” Between us, we had the only men who looked like they’d be any good in a scrap.
Araee faced me at the door. “Don’t you want me on duty?”
I grinned, and touched the top of the little bald head. “With you in here, I don’t have to worry about internal security. You’re an appalling little girl, do you realize that?”
“So long as you mean that. But watch out, Brannon!”
“I will, sweetheart. You get some sleep.”
Sentry duty was uneventful, though we jumped at every movement of the brush. Then we headed back inside. Only a few men, and Araee, were sleeping.
Cyntoj and his detachment stood, and went outside without a word. I sat, and thought how I got into this mess. I had no one to blame but myself.
The office of Gonderjhee & Co. wasn’t listed on the space-station directory. I’d expected that. Not seeing them listed brought back my original opinion of people who’d hire someone like me. I was 3B — bad record, blacklisted, and broke. I admit that Sam Byner, who I met at the bar, had seemed all business. But hell, the Confederation Bureau of Investigation could look like Boy Scouts when they wanted to.
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