Purge | Teen Ink


January 9, 2013
By Sablecat BRONZE, Mona, Utah
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Sablecat BRONZE, Mona, Utah
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Author's note: The inspiration of this piece came from a dream I had.

I woke up on the floor, chest heaving, and sweat traveling down my forehead in salty rivulets to spill over my brow. My legs were tangled in moisture-ridden sheets, and for a moment I just laid there, feeling the cold metal floor of my quarters seep into my skin. I held my left hand nearer to my face, absentmindedly tracing my thumb over the ragged gangrene scar across my palm, thinking hard about what was expected of me today. They told me the pills would help me sleep. I snorted and grabbed the bottle from my desk, flinging it angrily at the wall. The canister exploded and a confetti of blue plastic and white capsules scattered haphazardly around the room, the cap ricocheting and narrowly missing my ear. I sat down on the mattress and pressed the palms of my hands against my eyes, shaking my head, trying to rid my mind of the morbid images that were swirling through my mind in a dizzying kaleidoscope. My nostrils stung as I remembered the stench of charred flesh, the acrid scent of scorched carcasses. My head was buzzing with the screams of infants and women pleading us to spare their children. Even with my eyes open I could picture the smoke rising into the bleeding sky like some kind of macabre warning.
I gradually stood up and made my way into the bathroom, shoving my head under the sink as freezing water poured from the faucet. I glanced up at the mirror above the sink and glared at the face staring back at me. There were veins protruding through the skin in my neck like bloated gray channels pulsing with blood. I gently probed a particularly swollen vein, feeling the throb of my heart within my throat.
I’m the result of gene splicing: one part human and one part skad, a humanoid species created by accident during a military experiment on a mutagenic virus some two centuries ago when Lunar Prime was first being settled. The virus that created the skad species spread like wildfire across the surface of the earth and without a viable vaccine the entire human race was reduced to primitive, cannibalistic humanoids, leaving Lunar Prime and the international space station as the remainder of the human civilization.
I was pulled right from the murkiest depths of the gene pool, where most people don’t dare go out of fear of what the end result might be. My body is held in complete and perfect suspension between skad and human, making me immune to the virus on earth. At first I was thought of as a possible treatment to the virus, but any attempts to develop a cure had resulted in failure. I spent the first weeks of my life in a test tube before being implanted into a surrogate mother, a homeless woman in the Gamma quadrant of Lunar Prime named Tanis Voss. She knew what I was from the beginning, what with the eyes and the gills in my neck just below my ears and jawbone. Thanks to my ‘dad’ and a group of dedicated geneticists I’m the perfect freak, and my mom found herself with a bouncing baby thing. I suppose I was an infant grotesque enough to make even the most stalwart woman’s gut heave: Bulging yellow eyes with constricted pupils that dilate like crazy when I’m in the dark thanks to my paternal heritage, and folds of skin behind my ears and down my neck for air filtration as well as a predatory threat display. I got my genetic mom’s hair, chestnut brown, buzzed relatively short except for the three inch strip of hair running from the top of my head to the bottom of my neck in a traditional Mohawk hairstyle.

I peeled my tank top away from my skin, swapping it for a black short-sleeved cotton tee and my uniform jacket. Like every other night, I’d slept in my boots and slacks. Around here you get three hours of sleep tops, and most of the time those serving on decontamination units get even less, which means you don’t exactly have time to be picky about when and where you get your forty winks.

It’s a dirty job serving on a decontamination unit, even more so if it happens to be mine. But someone has to do it, that’s why there’re people like me. The entire crew of Dirigo 3, the Lunar-class space station in orbit around Terra Prime, knew who we were, and they knew we were rebels. Decontamination Unit One: we were the best of the bottom dwellers; the pride and joy of the scrud. Most of my team grew up in the lesser sector of Lunar Prime, right out of the gutter: Gamma Quadrant. I guess that’s why they chose us, because of what we’ve seen. They knew books could only get you so far, and that sometimes acting on pure instinct proves more effective than planning and executing elaborate stratagems.

My uniform was composed of a dark green fireproof material, and a circular patch with the letters DCU-1 embroidered in scarlet thread was sewn into the left shoulder of my jacket. It reminds me every day of what I am and though half of me detests the lack of ethicality experienced in my career, my animal side views my duties with a different perspective. You can’t worry about ethics. In Gamma Quadrant there’s no such thing as ethics. You learn to fight to the top and stay on top during conflicts, no matter who gets in the way. We’ve been hardened through streetwise lessons of constant struggle to survive.
Commander Hastings’ words sounded in my ears again. “There’s something I want you to do for me, Loder.” He’d beckoned me over so I could view the screen he was looking at. “This sector of Earth is currently inhabited by a colony of skads. Problem is, we need another station up and in orbit in three years, and in order to meet the rapidity of population growth we’re going to have to speed up production process, which means we need more manufacturing facilities. That sector has to be cleared, and I want you to do it for me.”

I’d tipped my head to one side but remained silent.

“It used to be we could just nuke the colony and wipe them all out at once, but the Terra-Lunar Treaty of 2389 zeroed out the use of nuclear extermination. Loder, it’s time for another purging.”


“Loder, you’ve done this before and you’re team’s the only one I’d trust to carry my orders out the way I want them carried out.”

“Sir, with all due respect, after Omega Quadrant-”

“Loder, Omega was different.”

I looked down at my boots, biting my lip. Omega hadn’t been different. No time had been wasted in dispatching a decontamination unit to the site when the news of a contagion breach finally reached us. We’d destroyed their oxygen generators, killing some, while leaving others to suffocate.

Hastings jabbed his finger at the monitor. “I know how you feel, lieutenant, but we’ve got ourselves a real infestation down there, and it needs to be taken care of. A perimeter can be established from orbit, but someone’s got to take care of any skads within the boundary. I don’t want any debating on the matter. You and your team are expected to be in the ready room and suited up at 0600 tomorrow morning. From there you will take a shuttle down to sector G-5 and begin executing your orders. Is that clear?”

I’d nodded curtly. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

The communications pad in my room emitted a riling buzz, sending my heart pounding against my ribcage as I was torn away from my state of reverie. I spoke into the transmitter. “This is Voss, go ahead.”

“You ready for this, Loder?” I recognized the voice of my fellow team member, Lieutenant Junior Grade, (or JG) Reugen Sereda.

I snorted. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” I glanced down at my watch. 0530. “I’ll see you in the ready room. You got with the other three, right?”

There was silence for a long while before he offered a response. “Yeah. They’re already headed down.”

“Alright. Get going, Sereda, I’ll see you there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I took a moment to lean against the wall, still massaging the peeling scar on my palm, trying to shut my mind of the memories. There was no denying what I’d seen, which made what I was about to do all the more severe.

I left my quarters, striding briskly down the hall. Crewman Lasseter caught sight of me and hurriedly pressed himself against the wall as if willing the gray metal to hide him from sight.

The ready room was occupied by four other people when I entered, three male, one female, three of whom I would sacrifice my life for, one of whom I would stand by and laugh as she was dragged down to that unheard of place where only she-devils go. I was the shortest of the team, a good head shorter than Rhodes and at least four inches beneath Ensign Thorne’s height. I tried not to let matters of my inferior height impede on my ability to command my team, though I felt increasingly threatened with our new female addition. Hastings had transferred Thorne to my team nearly three months before and I had my doubts of her ability as an advantageous member of my team from the beginning. All of the members of Decontamination Unit One were young adults, their ages ranging from eighteen to twenty-three, Tolinev being the youngest while Thorne was the eldest. From the beginning Thorne made it obvious that she loathed taking orders from someone three years her junior.

Rhodes approached me, looking anxious to get going. “Lieutenant.”

“Ensign.” I responded, staring calmly up at him.

“Do we have a plan or do we just torch the mold-suckers and get it over with?”

I snorted as I positioned my dark gray survival suit over my uniform. “I think you’re forgetting just how nasty those little mold-suckers can be, Rhodes.” I said, lifting my left hand to display the horizontal scar that marred my palm. “I’d like to remind you that once a skad’s got hold of you, chances are you’ve found yourself in deep crap. I got off lucky, and it nearly cost me my hand. Others haven’t had it so easy.”

“That was a Lunar-skad though-”

“It doesn’t matter where they come from, Rhodes! A skad is a skad.” I turned to the team as a whole. “I’ll take a moment to refresh your memories. Need I remind you that the surface is swarming with one of the most contagious viruses ever encountered by the human race? The earth we are going down to is not the happy go lucky place of the past that we’ve all read about. The moment we put a foot onto that soil we will find ourselves in hostile territory, and every one of those mold-suckers in gonna come after us. Skads don’t care what they eat. They have been known to display cannibalistic inclinations, and they will eat you, I repeat, eat you if you let your guard down for the briefest moment. I don’t want anybody eaten today. There have also been some who cling to the belief that after transformation, some part of humanity remains in the brain. Let me assure you that this notion is false. They are not people, they are skads. Lunar Prime and Dirigo 3 are all that is left of the human race, is that clear?”

Thorne smirked.

I glared over at her and stepped closer so I was right up in her face. “I said is that clear, ensign?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Thorne said.
I fastened the propane tank to my back, securing the straps across my chest and abdomen before attaching the hose of my flamethrower to the access tube in the tank and attaching my knife to the sheath on my outer thigh. I hefted my flamethrower from the weapons rack; the weapon’s bulky form felt reassuring when I held it. “Let’s get this done, people!”
Sereda remained behind with me and we watched the other three as they clambered into the shuttle. “Loder, you know this is a suicide mission.” He hissed. “You know what you’re asking them to-”
“I know very well what I’m asking of them, Sereda!” I shouted, my gills flaring and exposing the gray flesh beneath. “It’s not up to me to give the orders, but it is my duty to carry them out. And I intend to do just that.”
“Just like Omega Quadrant?” He asked quietly as he moved to join the others in the shuttle.
My gills flared even more, but I didn’t say anything and climbed into the shuttle, taking a seat at the back. I pressed a button on the communications pad in the shuttle. “This is Voss to Dirigo 3, requesting permission to embark.”
A woman’s voice answered us. “You are go for launch, lieutenant. Safe flight.”
“Roger that. Take us out.” I shouted to Tolinev.
The shuttle sped out of the bay doors, and I glanced back at the space station as its size began to diminish as we got farther away. “Beginning atmospheric entry.” Tolinev announced.
We encountered mild turbulence that set the shuttle shaking, but only slightly. Thorne’s face suddenly blanched, and I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction as she turned and heaved into the airlock disposal.
“Landing site in view.” Tolinev said.
“Roger that. Take her in nice and steady, ensign.” I said, glancing out the window as the shuttle broke tree cover and set down with a minor lurch onto Terran soil. “Helmets on!”
The entire team clamped their air filtration helmets over their heads, along with me though I didn’t need to, seeing as I had basically contracted the virus already. I opened the hatch of the shuttle and stepped out of the confined space into an entirely new world. We were surrounded by mutated trees that were twisted strangely. Moss was draped on the misshapen branches, and a humid fog filled the place with an eerie and gloomy atmosphere. I checked that the hose of my flamethrower was securely attached to the tank of propane before turning to look at the others. Tolinev and Rhodes were shouldering packs filled with nutrient injections and I turned and signaled for the team to move out.
Sereda and I took the lead. “How much sunlight you reckon we got left?” I asked.
He glanced up through the canopy of mutated trees. “Three or for hours tops.” He responded.
I nodded. “Right.” I turned to face the rest of the team. “We’ll find a good place to settle down and lie low for a few hours before dark. Then we’ll get to work.”
“Shouldn’t we just get right to it?” Rhodes asked impatiently, and I noticed him fingering his flamethrower, a look of anxiety pasted all over his face.
“Relax, Rhodes.” I kept walking. “The majority of Terran skads are nocturnal, unless of course they’ve caught our scent and they’re hungry. That being the case we would’ve been assaulted by now, however you’ve got to remember that these little suckers are smart. They know we’re not going anywhere in a hurry. They’ll choose to hunt in the dark, as will we.”
The rest of the team seemed to accept my advice and they chose to remain silent. We kept walking further into the trees, only pausing to divvy out nutrient injections. All teams who were trained to use survival suits were also trained in the art of using such injections. Just below the neckline of the suit helmet, there’s a small patch of bio-gel. The gel sterilizes everything that passes through it, including the needles on our injections that have been exposed to the skad virus. The nutrients in the injection get introduced directly into the salivary glands located into lower jaw, and they are excreted into your mouth with your spit and then into your stomach after you swallow.
“Couldn’t Hastings have found a nice flat field to build his new manufacturing facility?” Sereda grumbled as he tripped over a protruding tree root, gripping my shoulder to keep from falling on his face.
I grinned. “Good luck finding a flat area big enough down here.” The virus had affected the Terran plant life as much as it had the human race, causing uncontrolled and rapid growth of nearly all vegetation.
There was at least a good two hours left before sundown, and Sereda and I ensured that the rest of the team kept good pace. I was looking up at a bird flying overhead when the trees suddenly stopped and Sereda had to grab my propane hose to keep me from falling headfirst into a small body filled with some kind of liquid substance.
The pool was at least ten feet in width and three times that in length, and you could see where smaller tributaries led into it from the forest. Thorne curled her lip in disgust at the scent rising from the open drain. “That’s a cesspit!” She gasped.

“Very observant of you, ensign.” I said sarcastically, trying to cover up my embarrassment at not having seen the pool before it was almost too late. “I hadn’t necessarily noticed.”

“I don’t see a way around it.”Tolinev said, making a suggestion. “We could burn through the surrounding foliage.”

I snorted. “It’d take too long, and I don’t want to waste time and propane trying to burn through that!” I jerked my thumb over at the thick undergrowth around the pool and put a foot into the foul-smelling substance. “Man up and get your boots dirty, Tolinev. Our suits are made out of rubber and they’ll wash off easily enough. We go through it.” I told him decisively.

“But-” Thorne protested.

Sereda followed my example and stepped into the sewage drain, and we both laughed. “It’s not that deep, and besides what’s the point of having a job like this if you never get to enjoy yourself?”
The rest of my team watched us uncertainly but Sereda and I plowed forward without hesitation. I ignored the smell and the thought of what I was moving through and soon found that I was in up to my thighs. I continued forward, glancing back at the remainder of my team. “You ladies aren’t gonna let us have all the fun, are you?”

I didn’t bother to check to see if they were following, continuing through the drainage culvert and pulling myself out on the other side. The other three gradually made it through and joined me. Tolinev was ready to make a few choice remarks about a bit of fecal matter smeared on his boot when I signaled for silence.

“You guys smell that?” I depressurized my filtration helmet, my gills flaring as new air flooded in.

“Yeah, it’s a sewage gutter, Loder.” Sereda replied. “You think we can’t smell it?”

I breathed in again, feeling my pupils dilate as the air rushed through my lungs. I hefted my flamethrower, still sniffing the air. The new scent brought the smell of clammy skin, rotting leaves; and there was something sour, like vomit but not quite as vile. I closed my eyes, my heartbeat sounding like timpani within my inner ear. Through the rush of my breath and the surge of blood through my veins I could discern the sound of rustling leaves overhead. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe we have company.” I said, a grin spreading across my face. It looked as if it were time to go to work.

I looked up just as the skad launched itself from its perch, an ethereal shriek rending the silence of the trees as it bared its teeth at me. I pointed my flamethrower directly at it, narrowing my eyes and releasing a stream of scorching heat directly at my oppressor as it fell beside me. The creature thrashed wildly and then with a final spasmodic jerk its charred carcass went still. I nudged it with my toe. “One down.” I muttered.

At least four more skads came loping out of the trees, teeth showing from behind gray lips. Their bulbous yellow eyes flicked from the carcass to the four humans to me. “Who wants some?” I shouted, sprinting forward and laughing maniacally. We torched them all, and I was impervious to their cries of pain and anger. They’re just skads. I reminded myself as I kicked a body out of my way. The air was rank with the scent of burnt flesh, and corpses littered the ground like piles of roasted meat. I turned to look over at Sereda as he and Thorne attacked another skad, my eyes flashing fanatically. Lunar Prime showed red through the smoke like a splash of blood in the night sky. I could make out several dark splotches that were Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Delta Quadrant was only just visible, meaning that Gamma and Omega Quadrants were on the other side in the dark. At least what was left of Omega Quadrant.

Guilt hit me like a fist to the gut, and I doubled over, the flamethrower slipping from my fingers. “Loder?” Sereda’s voice sounded as if from a distance. He ran over and bent down. “Loder, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” I snarled, getting to my feet and trying to pull myself together. There were no skads in the immediate vicinity, and I took advantage of the moment. “Alright people, let’s move!” I shouted, shoving Sereda out of my way and scooping my flamethrower off of the ground. For a moment no one so much as budged. “That’s an order, gentlemen. Now move!”

We took off through the trees, the only light available to illuminate our path provided by Lunar Prime. I hung back momentarily to ensure everyone was moving and took up a position as rearguard, pushing Tolinev forward when he tripped. “You biff it you’re a goner!” I shouted.

“Yes ma’am.” He yelled in response.

I could hear movement in the forest, and once in a while an excited shriek sounded from the mutated limbs of the trees. Thorne started to fall behind until she was running only just ahead of me. Suddenly the toe of her boot caught in a raised root of a tree and she went down. I ran past her, coming to a skidding halt as I wheeled around. She was lying at least ten yards away from me, but I didn’t make a move towards her. I could make out two yellow eyes in the flora as a moist gray hand reached out and seized the ensign’s boot, dragging her halfway into the foliage.

“Lieutenant!” She screamed. Her arm was outstretched towards me as she kicked frantically at the skad that had hold of her. “Help me!”

I watched with a vile fascination as Ensign Sheila Thorne disappeared into the undergrowth, her fingers clawing tracks through the loam as a serrated scream of sheer horror tore from her throat. I turned and kept running, knowing that even if I had wanted to help there wasn’t anything I could do for her now.




Morning light came white and cold through the canopy like icicles as the remnants of Decontamination Unit One crawled out of the dark to congregate and lick their wounds. Even after one day of work my companions looked like creatures drawn out of a nightmare, whereas I’ve looked that way my whole life. I doubted that any of them excluding Sereda and me had been prepared for the traumatic and harsh reality of how ruthless skads could be. “What now?” Tolinev asked with wide eyes as he leaned against the trunk of a tree. Rhodes jumped at least three feet into the air when Sereda sent a stone crashing through the tops of a few surrounding trees as if he expected a dozen skads to leap down and begin disemboweling each of us.

“Now?” I asked. “We keep going. We can’t afford to stop.”

“They’re gonna kill us. You know that, don’t you?” Tolinev asked.

I grabbed the back of Tolinev’s suit, heaving him to his feet. “Positive thoughts, ensign.” I said, glancing around before pounding his shoulder. “Positive thoughts.”

He didn’t say anything.

“That’s an order.” I said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Positive thoughts.”

“Positive thoughts.” He repeated, then added under his breath, “But we’re gonna get eaten.”

Sereda laughed and thumped his hands on Tolinev’s helmet. “Positive thoughts, boy!”

I had moved ahead several paces, listening as Rhodes and Sereda whooped at Tolinev. Suddenly I froze. “Shut up!” I hissed.

Sereda went silent and trotted over to me. “Loder, what is it?”

“It’s too quiet.” I said. “No birds, no nothing.”

“It’s always quiet.”

“Not like this.” I whispered. The snap of a twig beneath Rhodes’ boot sent me recoiling as if a firecracker had gone off next to my ear. My gills were flaring again, puffing up to the point where I could feel the flaps of skin against my earlobes. I peered hard into the trees, my pupils widening when I made out the gray heap in the gloom. I led the rest of the team, striding briskly over to the object.

I knelt down next to the ruined suit, shaking my head disbelievingly as I did so. The dark gray rubber had been ripped apart by sharp teeth and avid fingers, and the helmet was smashed in jagged fragments of plastic. I picked up a scrap of the chest-piece. “Well here’s the suit, but where’s Thorne?”

“Loder.” I looked up at Sereda, who was staring over my shoulder with an ashen face.

I stood up and turned around slowly. A skeleton grinned down at us, hanging from the tree by a set of mangled ribs with flesh dangling from the bones in shreds like frayed cloth. I swore under my breath, looking up at the carcass in the tree with enthrallment, partially jealous that the skads had disposed of my competitor before I’d had the chance to get my hands on her.

“Lieutenant?” Rhodes asked.

“What?”I growled.

“Shouldn’t we do something about this?” He gestured up at Thorne’s remains.

I snorted and continued through the trees, passing directly beneath the skeleton in the tree and sneering inwardly. “No.”

“Nothing at all?” He asked desperately.

I paused, tilting my head to one side before starting to walk again. “That’s funny Rhodes. I specifically remember a certain word leaving my lips just a moment ago, but maybe you didn’t hear me correctly the first time. No.”

The rest of my team followed behind slowly, their feet dragging across the ground in resignation.




“Lieutenant? Can I ask you a question, ma’am?” Tolinev asked hesitantly.

I snorted and leaned back against one of the trees. “Shoot.”

“Are you afraid, lieutenant?”

I sighed. “I can’t afford to be afraid, ensign.” I answered quietly.

“I always thought it’d be easy to do this, and that I’d get to go home and be a hero.” He mumbled.

“We can’t always have happy endings, kid.” I said curtly. “Get some rest.”

“What about you? Everyone’s gotta sleep sooner or later.”

“Then I’ll sleep later.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A slight breeze drifted through our small camp, sending dried leaves tumbling over my boots to snag in the laces. I glanced over at Tolinev, who had fallen asleep almost instantly after our brief conversation. He’s just a kid. I thought with pity. Like most of the naïve recruits onboard Dirigo 3, he probably had no idea what he was getting into when he signed up to serve on a Decontamination Unit. Most of them just think it sounds fun, but burning a living creature is easier said than done, and that’s something I can personally attest to. Tolinev and I had grown up on opposite sides of Gamma Quadrant. Being the reclusive and suspicious hybrid that I am, I hadn’t had the opportunity of bumping into him before. When Sereda and I began our task of seeking out new recruits to reassemble our unit, and once Tolinev revealed he hailed from Gamma Quadrant, instinct prompted us to let him into the circle.

Gallagher had been young, just like Tolinev. Commander Hastings had told me that the young crewman was to be my responsibility, and yet I hadn’t been able to spare him from dying in one of the worst ways imaginable during the Purging of Omega Quadrant. Once a survival suit has been ruptured the wearer is immediately exposed to the virus, and transformation from human to skad begins seconds after. That’s painful enough, combined with the sensation of having your flesh torn from your bones by claws and teeth. I flinched inwardly, and rubbed the palm of my left hand, thinking of the scar that disfigured the flesh beneath my suit’s glove. I wouldn’t let the same fate fall upon Tolinev, or any other member of my devastated team. I looked up at Lunar Prime again, clenching my left hand into a tight fist. As much as I detested myself for saying it, Thorne hadn’t deserved to die. She was our first casualty. I had to make sure she was the last as well.

“Rise and shine, sleeping beauties!” I shouted, less than cordially kicking Rhodes’ helmet with my boot. Tolinev jolted awake, blinking sleep from his eyes. I pointed at the darkening sky, glancing up at the clouds which were streaked red from the dying sun, like animal entrails spilling from the gut of a bloating carcass. “We have work to do.”

“No breakfast?” Sereda asked jokingly.
I tossed him a nutrient injection smirking when the thin cylinder rebounded off of his helmet. “Bon appetit. Alrighty then ladies, let’s move out!”
Nightfall plunged the forest into a shroud of darkness and chaos that none of us could have imagined. The canopy wholly blocked out all light from both the stars and Lunar Prime. The lights on our air filtration helmets provided minimal but sufficient light to see with, penetrating through the gloom to illuminate trees that seemed to impersonate hostile creatures from out the corner of my eyes. A bird erupted from the undergrowth, and I leapt backwards, coming close to knocking Sereda to the ground. I swore under my breath, my heartbeat surging through my veins as I mentally ridiculed myself for being caught off guard so easily.
“Just a bird, Loder.” Sereda muttered, peering into the darkness of the forest and holding his flamethrower at the ready.
“Thank you, JG.” I growled inattentively, nostrils flaring as I sniffed the air. I depressurized my helmet to let the scent come to me more fully.
“Skads?” The junior grade lieutenant guessed.
I jerked my head in the slightest of nods. “Yeah. Ten, maybe twelve. That way.” I indicated the direction we ought to go, gesturing towards the trees with my flamethrower. As we drew nearer the skad scent grew stronger, this time bringing with it the reek of urine and blood. A repulsive sound of ripping and snarling came from a clearing just ahead. I looked back over at my team, signaling toward the clearing with my two forefingers. Sereda nodded grimly.
We burst from the undergrowth, screaming riotously with bloodlust burning unhindered in our eyes. A cluster of skads was crouched around a mangled carcass, but at the sound of our intrusion they abandoned their mutilated victim and ran to meet us. A pair of hands, glistening with blood like tar in the dark suddenly slammed against my filtration helmet, leaving prints across the plastic. As if by impulse I thrust my flamethrower up, the barrel-end cracking against the skad’s jaw. I beat the animal down using brute force before releasing a column of flames directly into its face, whooping hysterically. “Yeah buddy!”

I straightened up in time to see one of the skads taking off through the trees, and without a moment’s hesitation I set off in pursuit. Grunting with exertion, I leapt towards the creature, tangling my arms in its legs and tackling the skad to the ground. The heat of its rancid breath steamed against my helmet, it’s snapping jaws narrowly missing my right hand. I thrust my left forearm beneath the skad’s chin, forcing its head back and exposing its neck. I watched as the mutated creature struggled to loosen the pressure on its throat, and my free hand went to the knife at my belt. The knife flashed once, and I stood holding the skad’s severed head by the hair.

Breathing heavily, I glanced over at the head I was still gripping, the waxy gray face snarling at me with wide yellow eyes. “What are you looking at?” I growled, releasing the grisly object to dropkick it into the trees. Then I turned to the body and made short work of burning the headless carcass.

“Loder!” Sereda’s voice came through the trees and I ran back the way I had come, my boots pounding against the ground in sync with my heart. The clearing had erupted in disarray. Rhodes was sprawled on the ground; the hose connecting his flamethrower to the propane tank on his back had been torn apart. He was groping for his flamethrower which was laying in the ground only inches away. A skad suddenly leapt onto his back and struck his head hard against a jagged stone. Cracks instantly spread through the clear plastic of his air filtration helmet. I launched myself at the ensign’s assailant like a juggernaut. The skad screamed angrily, a sound that was cut short as the trajectory of my assault carried it across the clearing to slam into the broad trunk of a tree. I listened as its spine snapped under the pressure of my crushing embrace.

Rhodes’ helmet was fractured, but the internal layer of the plastic seemed to be undamaged. The question was how long would it be able to hold out?

Sereda and Tolinev had successfully disposed of the remaining skads in the clearing. Sereda patted the younger ensign on the shoulder. “You did good, kid.”

I helped Rhodes to his feet, noting the sun as it shone through the trees as milky white light. “Head back to the shuttle.” I ordered brusquely.

“What?” Sereda asked with disbelief.

“You heard me, JG.” I said. “Rhodes’ helmet’s not gonna last forever, and I’d prefer to be off of this rock before it decides to give out. I don’t care what Hastings says, I’m scrapping this mission. Let’s get out of here before more of those mold-suckers show up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If we cut a swathe around those trees there should be a small meadow.” I pointed with my finger. “We can cut across that and to the shuttle.”

“How do you know that?”

“I studied the area using detailed satellite scans back on Dirigo 3.” I answered. A rustling came from the trees to my right.

Sereda’s head whipped around to stare at the forest. “I’ll take your word for it.”

I nodded. “Let’s get going.”

Tolinev supported Rhodes as we tore through the trees.

“I thought you said skads are nocturnal!” Tolinev shouted at me.

I smirked at him. “Unless they’re hungry!” I could see the meadow through the trees and quickened my pace. There was a single solitary tree in the field. We were making straight for it, Sereda keeping stride with me. One moment he was right beside me, and then the next he was gone and I was running alone. I wheeled around as Sereda’s body was swallowed up into the ground.

I didn’t hesitate as I’d done with Thorne, instead sprinting immediately to his aide. “Hold on, I’m coming!” I shouted. Tolinev turned and followed. The first wave of skads broke the tree cover and my gut plunged into ice.

It was an old steam vent from an ancient thermal pocket. The grass growing around it must have disguised the opening, and with Sereda’s extra weight the thin crust of soil had given way. He was clinging to the exposed roots of the dead tree, and I fell to my knees next to the opening in the ground, reaching out with my hand.

“No, Loder!” Sereda yelled. “Loder, don’t-!”

“Shut up.” I interrupted, trying to heave him out of the vent.

“Lieutenant.” Rhodes said in a cautionary voice. I could hear the skads sniggering callously.

“Loder, you have to leave me! My feet can’t touch the bottom, there’s nothing for me to push off of.”

“I’m gonna get you out of here. I made a promise, Sereda. I fully intend to see the remainder of this team safely back aboard Dirigo 3.” I groaned, still trying to haul him up by the chest-piece of his suit.

“Loder you’re wasting time. If you don’t leave now you’ll never make it to the shuttle without being overwhelmed by skads.”

“You think I don’t know that already?” I grunted.

“Loder, please. There are times when things get hard and hard decisions have to be made. Sometimes we make the right ones, sometimes we don’t.”

“I’ve had this spill before.” I reminded him.

“There’s a time for heroes and a time for cowards. You’re a hero Loder, but just this once, do something cowardly for me.” He said.

“You listen to me, JG-”

“No heroics!” He snarled.

I glared at him, still holding my hand out with my jaw set firmly in stubborn persistence. “If it weren’t for heroics you would’ve died in Omega Quadrant.”

“So I would have died two years ago instead of today. But everyone dies eventually.”

“It always falls on me to make the hard decision.” I muttered hoarsely.

“I know. That’s why this time I’ll make the hard decision for you.” He grinned. “C’mon, man, get out of here. If I can make it out on my own then I will, but even if I do it won’t make much of a difference.”

“I don’t take orders from JG’s.” I said.

Sereda laughed wryly. It looked as if he’d given up trying to pull himself out of the fissure in the ground. “It’s been good serving with you, lieutenant.” He gasped through gritted teeth, giving me a small smile as his grip on the root started to fail.
“No!” I yelled. My shout echoed up through the shaft as my best friend disappeared into the darkness. My entire body went rigid with shock and I didn’t move, regardless of the horde of skads descending on my diminished team.
Tolinev shook my shoulder impatiently. “Lieutenant?”

My lips hardened into a straight gray line. Two out of five dead. We weren’t ready for this. I leapt to my feet and grabbed Rhodes’ propane tank, shoving him roughly away. “Go on!” I shouted. “I’ll buy you enough time to get to the shuttle!”

“Lieuten-” He protested.

“That’s an order, ensign!”

For a moment he looked as if he were about to make another objection, but then he nodded submissively. “Yes, ma’am.”

I watched as he and Tolinev sprinted away through the trees and I pulled the knife out of its sheath on my thigh, breathing hard. The first skad made a daring leap toward me, and I tackled it to the ground, plunging my blade repeatedly through its throat, yelling defiantly as a splash of crimson spattered my helmet. Another skad made towards my retreating team, and I shoved the knife roughly through the base of its spine before kicking another in the mouth, sending teeth spewing from between its lips. One of the skads jumped at me, the propulsion of its assault slammed my head against the dead tree, my helmet shattering around my face. The saltiness of blood trickled into my mouth in a warm rivulet of redness as the remaining part of my helmet depressurized and I yanked the fragmented piece away from the rest of my suit. I rolled onto my back as the skad leapt at me again, and without thinking I seized the closest object to hand and sent a broken branch through its gaping mouth; the broken wood emerged through the back of the thing’s head. I hefted my flamethrower, gills flaring as I got to my feet, my body tense in preparation for the next wave. Then I opened my mouth and screamed as I ran forward.

It was a good day to die.

I was yanked out of my slumber by the incessant buzz of the communications pad in my room, my eyes opening just before I toppled out of my bunk to hit the hard metal floor of my quarters. Tenderly prodding my nose, I walked over and pressed a button on the pad. “This is Voss. Go ahead.”

“You ready for this, Loder?” Sereda asked.

I took a deep breath, doing my best to push aside the foreboding chill that seemed to be hovering over the nape of my neck like the fangs of an unpleasantly large spider. “Ready as I’ll ever be. I’ll see you in the ready room. Voss out.”

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