Kwelengsen Storm

Chapter 1

“And yet there is only one great thing
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.”
— Inuit poem

 

The early morning sun washed the foliage around Logan Twofeathers with a dull, pink light that made the tree trunks look black and tinged their leaves the color of old blood. The sun had done little to warm the air yet, and the moss below his feet was slick with dew. Not that he felt it inside his self-contained TACS combat armor. He kneeled at the top of a shallow rise overlooking a thick expanse of native Kwelengsen trees, a single narrow path vaguely visible through the canopy as it meandered north toward the distant ridgeline. The mountains slashed west, a series of almost black serrations dominating the horizon like thick blades.

A week ago, he and the rest of his team had been escorted under those mountains and along the trail he was now contemplating. So much had happened since then it was hard to believe so little time had passed. This was where the giant gorillasaur creatures had attacked—that being the name Neeta Havji had subsequently given them. He hesitated to use the word “ambushed,” despite feeling as though that was exactly what had happened. The word implied too much deliberate thought for comfort, and the creatures had shown little beyond animal instincts so far. Despite that, he was well aware how Earth creatures, and even people, had often been dismissed as savage and brutish in the past.

The sky was clear, for which he was grateful. The flying lizards had spent hours after the Corporate attack swooping around the caves devouring any bodies left behind, and in the days since, at least one or two had been constantly wheeling around looking for easy pickings. The only thing airborne was the small dot of the sentinel drone he’d launched, weaving over the treetops in long arcs as it scanned for signs of danger.

So far, it hadn’t detected any threats. Logan got to his feet awkwardly and followed the trail, his movement hampered by wounds that were still healing and the makeshift repairs to his suit. He’d spent the last couple of days refurbishing it with parts scavenged from those used by Ogawa and Lwao. And although he’d managed to bring the suit back to life, without the equipment to tune the components properly, it was a partial fix at best.

The trail dropped into the shallow valley, the trees rising above him and plunging him into a shadowy gloom. His suit’s systems automatically adjusted the image on his visor, brightening the view to make it as clear as if the sun were high in the sky. Logan took the further protection of setting the sensors to scan for infrared signals, adjusting the level to avoid everything glowing like a neon display. That, combined with the sentinel’s feed, should be enough to stop anything from catching him unawares.

A few hundred meters along were several broken tree stumps that must have been destroyed when the creatures attacked. Life flourished here close to the equator, and the splintered surfaces were already covered in a layer of purply-green moss.

Their situation had been relatively quiet since Heskith and the rest of the Corporate forces had departed, leaving the survivors inside the caves taking stock of their losses. While the rock had protected most of those inside, they’d lost fifteen of their already small group. The attack by the Corporates had ended abruptly when the defenses at the capital, New Hope, were brought down. Since then, from what Logan could gather, they’d had their hands full fighting off the new creatures as they rebuilt. Without better equipment, it was difficult to fully understand the situation at New Hope. But there was one thing he could count on—the Corporates would return once they’d regrouped.

A blip from the sentinel alerted him to movement, and he dropped, one knee digging into the soft, mushy soil. He couldn’t see anything, the thick vegetation limiting his vision to a few meters. His helmet HUD displayed several signals picked up by the drone—indicating at least four creatures approaching.

Logan ducked into the bushes off the trail and activated his Cloak. His suit’s external microphones amplified the faint trudging footfalls. The signals were close, and he activated an optical feed from the sentinel drone.

The image overlaid on his visor in a small rectangle. It was initially hard to make out the creatures through the trees, but after a short time he recognized the bulky, ambling animals as a group of rhison and relaxed. The bovine-like creatures were gentle and harmless—especially compared to the gorillasaurs and flying lizards. The only threat they posed was getting trampled if they didn’t see you in time.

Logan switched off his Cloak to save energy, but stayed hidden in the undergrowth. There was no reason to startle them unnecessarily. The first couple of animals passed by, then the large bull at the front of the pack gave a short, bass-heavy snort and they stopped.

A piercing shriek filled the air, followed by a heavy bellow. The bushes and trees opposite split with a sound like crackling gunfire. Several huge, dark figures crashed through the undergrowth, and the rhison broke into a charge.

Gorillasaurs smashed through the trees, chasing down the fleeing rhison. Logan reactivated his Cloak, as another of the creatures burst from the trees behind him and charged by less than a meter away. With the sweep of a giant hand, the creature swatted a rhison, sending it crashing into a large rock alongside the path. It let out a pained shriek and there was a sharp crack as its hindmost leg fractured.

The rhison trilled in distress, a strange high-pitched ululation reminiscent of a small child screaming in terror. The gorillasaur leaped on the helpless creature, and with one movement tore the crippled rhison’s head from its shoulders, holding it up as though in triumph.

Purple blood dripped down, and the gorillasaur spread its cavernous maw to swallow the fluids. After a few seconds, the ape shook its head, then scooped the brain from the skull and gulped it down, before tossing the rhison’s head into the bush with a snarl.

“Where the hell are you, Logan?” Aurore’s voice snapped through Logan’s comm-link.

He shrunk back against the foliage. Her words came from the tiny speakers inside his helmet. There should be no way the creatures could hear it, but his muscles tightened and his heart raced at the unexpected transmission. The gorillasaur stopped, its head tilting to one side as it looked around. Logan’s breath caught as it faced him directly.
“You damn well better answer me,” Aurore continued. “I can’t believe you abandoned me again.”

The gorillasaur twisted its head from one side to the other, lifting its snout as if sniffing the air. Logan hadn’t noticed before, but the creature had two prominent tusks curling up from the corners of its mouth, complementing the ridge of dorsal spines running down its back. It took a step toward him, as if unsure, and Logan did his best not to move. Had the animal detected him despite the Cloak?

He gripped his rifle tighter, fumbling to find the safety by touch, the weapon visible as a faint outline through his visor. He’d brought it with him hoping not to need it. It only had half a magpack of ammunition—he hadn’t wanted to take more for fear of depleting the settlers’ supplies. Now he tasted the bitter tang of regret.

The gorillasaur lurched forward two steps. Logan slipped his finger inside the trigger guard, sweat running down his temples. The creature jumped around at an ear-piercing skree in the distance, and charged down the trail after the others. The noise had to have come from one of the other rhison. Another had been caught and undoubtedly shared the same fate as the corpse lying across the track from him.

Logan snapped the safety back on his gun and emerged onto the trail, shuffling away from the hunting grounds. The suit should have been able to carry him faster, but neither he nor it were capable of a greater pace.

As he staggered along, he clicked open the comm-link channel to Aurore. “I’m here,” he gasped. “Had a situation to deal with.”

Aurore’s reply was slow coming. “Are you okay?”

“Encountered some gorillasaurs. Those things are vicious.” Logan followed the path as it twisted left. The power indicators on his helmet flashed, warning him his suit’s energy levels were dropping rapidly because he was moving while operating the Cloak.

“What are you doing out there?”

Her voice had that edge to it that meant she was struggling to keep her temper in check. “We need the Nomad,” he said. “It has essential supplies that—”

“We discussed this, Logan.” Aurore sighed. “Yes, the ship is important, but if the VulCaps return, we need everyone here to defend our position.”

They had discussed it with several of the senior members of Aurore’s group, along with Havji, Samara, and Malette. A twinge of guilt made him shiver. He’d started with a team of eight, including Manners, and they’d been whittled down until only four were left.

“Any ideas on what these creatures are? They’re nothing like we’ve seen before on Kwelengsen. Could the Corporates have brought them? Even Geneered them?”

She didn’t answer for a few moments. “It’s possible, I suppose. But why? They’re as much a danger to them as us.”

Logan slowed and switched off the Cloak as the power levels flashed red. His suit needed time to recharge before it ground to a halt. “Hunting?”

“Like the old-time big game thing people used to do? For trophies?”

“It’s possible.” Logan frowned. “I’m sure there are people out there who’d pay a lot to take home the head of a Geneered monster.”

“I never got the feeling they invaded to set up a safari camp. They came expecting to live here.”

Logan paused, checking the sentinel for threats. “Perhaps there weren’t supposed to be so many of them. Then the creatures escaped?”

“I’m no Geneering expert, but if they’d created them, wouldn’t they have built in some kind of fail-safe to protect against that?” There was another longer silence. “I have a message from Dr. Havji, by the way.”

Logan’s stomach flip-flopped, wondering what new grisly statistic they’d reached. “What’s that?”

“She said you’d probably be doing something stupid and to tell you that you need time to heal.”

Logan hesitated, then laughed lightly. “She has a tendency to exaggerate.”

“I’d say she knows you rather well.” Aurore’s voice was icy. “Anything you want to tell me?”

“What?” Undergrowth crackled not far away, and he slowed, but nothing appeared. “She’s been a good friend, that’s all.”

“So why does she blush whenever your name comes up?”

“You’d have to ask her.” Despite being in the open, Logan suddenly felt confined, as though he was back in the caves with the walls pressing in.

“You need to come back, Logan.”

“Are you ordering me to return?” He fought to keep his voice neutral.

“I’m hoping it won’t come to that.” Aurore took a breath. “You’ve seen how things are here. How vulnerable we are now the Corporates know our location—since you led them to us. We need everyone ready for a fight.”

Logan ignored the barbed comment. There was murmuring over the comm-link, as if someone was talking quietly to Aurore. It made him guilty and angry at the same time—he hated the idea of having an argument with Aurore in “public.” Who was she with?

“I understand that, but we’ll be in a much better situation if we have the Nomad. More chance of fighting, or avoiding the Corporates.”

“We’re not running,” Aurore snapped. “We already discussed that.”

They had, and it had been equally fruitless. “I’m not turning back now.”

The trail led up a shallow incline, the trees thinning slightly as he left the lower terrain behind.

“If you don’t return immediately, I’ll…”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No… that is… I won’t be very happy, let’s say.”

“That makes two of us.” The sentinel triggered an aerial warning, and Logan scrunched down next to a large boulder, craning to spot what had caused it. “Better go. Company.”

“Logan? Wait. If you’re not back in twenty-four hours I’m coming looking for you.”
“If I’m not back in a day, there’s no point. I’ll be dead.”

He closed the transmission and fed the drone data onto his visor. The display pointed him in the right direction and highlighted what had caught the sentinel’s attention—a flight of three of the flying lizards. Some of the Pan-Asian settlers referred to them as “shinotori”—deathbird—and the name had been picked up by many of the others. This group crossed over him, moving east at a height of about five hundred meters. Logan stayed rooted to the spot, watching them for several minutes, but they didn’t appear to have seen him and vanished into the haze.

The path continued to rise, and the foliage gave way to a wide-open rocky expanse leading toward the craggy ridge a few kilometers away. Logan set a steady pace, watching the power levels nervously. The suit would recharge as long as he didn’t push too hard, but at the same time he wanted to reach the Nomad as fast as possible, and the stress of biding his time gnawed at his patience.

 

*

 

It took him a couple of hours to locate the passage through the mountainous ridge and find his way to the other side. Although the entrance wasn’t concealed, the desolate landscape made it difficult to pinpoint. Logan burned with shame. His ancestors would have had the foresight to observe closely enough to retrace their steps, but he was an inhabitant of the modern world, with satellite tracking and navigation systems.

When he finally emerged into the wide gully on the far side, the warning lights from his suit had returned despite his slower pace. Perhaps the charging circuits were damaged. He’d checked them and they’d seemed okay, but the TACS armor wasn’t behaving the way he’d expect.

The area looked no different from when they’d been captured, but circumstances gave the high, rocky walls a confining air, and Logan hurried through the narrow gully as fast as he dared. A power warning buzzed repeatedly inside his helmet. He stumbled to one knee then staggered back upright. His right foot dragged, the toe of his heavy boots plowing shallow lines in the sandy floor. He tried to correct his gait, but the suit refused, forcing him to lurch awkwardly.

The shadow of the mountains turned the crevices into a dark maze, making the going treacherous. While the filters on his helmet had switched his suit lights on, he’d been forced to suppress them to save power. It seemed like hours passed before he emerged onto the flat clearing where he’d landed the Nomad. He breathed heavily. The ship was still where they’d left it.

A crackling, crunching noise reached him, and he glanced to his left where the rocks plunged into a layer of sand. The soil churned like water, spraying up into the air as if it were boiling, and several black, spear-like protrusions slashed up through the ground. Logan scuttled toward the Nomad, not wanting to stick around for a clearer look at what was emerging. All too vividly, he remembered the pods they’d seen when they found Granger’s body, with unidentifiable creatures wriggling around inside them.

A black shape rose from the surface, followed by several pairs of segmented legs. The area filled with high-pitched chirping as one after another of the new creatures broke through the floor. He was fifty meters from the ship when the first one fully emerged. He didn’t want to stop, but an intense sense of dread dragged him to a halt on leaden feet. The creatures’ segmented bodies were about a meter long, but an extended tail doubled that, ending in a swollen lump that might have been a stinger, or perhaps a bludgeon. At the front, heavy pincers added to the length, providing a formidable weaponry that could probably kill an unprotected man with a single snap. They reminded him of cockroaches crossed with scorpions.

Still transfixed by the sight, Logan staggered back, away from the creatures and toward the Nomad. The first one cast around as if searching for something, then spotted him and let out a low skwaa. Whatever it was, it moved fast. He brought up his QuenchGun and fired a burst of needles at it. The creature dropped, letting out a screech, then came after him again.

He unloaded another volley, and this time the creature barely slowed. Logan launched the sentinel, hurriedly designating the new creatures as targets. The drone flew into the air, firing at the hellish swarm skittering toward him, but it was hopeless—his only chance was to get to the Nomad.

Logan ran for the ship, emptying his rifle at the monstrous group. He was nearly there when his knee gave out, and he went face-first into the dirt. Before he regained his footing, one of them was on him, large claws locked around his leg, and a second later its club-like tail slammed into his helmet.

Even inside the armor, the impact made him dizzy, and he staggered back. Without thinking, he grabbed the creature’s claws and pulled, using the augmented strength of his suit to force the talons apart. The creature squirmed in his grasp, the tail punching at his midriff several times. Each blow hard enough that without armor he’d have been severely injured or dead almost immediately.

Large mandibles snapped but couldn’t reach him. More of the things were closing, and Logan yelled, pulling his arms wide and ripping the claws off the creature’s torso. He tossed the still-struggling creature into the approaching mass, and the others fell on their unfortunate sibling in a frenzy, rapidly dismembering the injured one and finishing what he’d started. Lurching the last few meters, he hammered his fist against the door release, dragging himself inside before it opened completely, then slammed it shut again as the creatures reached the ship.

Moving toward the pilot seat, Logan collapsed to his knees as his suit lost power again. He strained to move his arms against the weight of the armor. It was supposedly fail-safe and movable without the enhancements working, but no one said it would be easy.

A thump reverberated around the cabin, followed by another, increasing in frequency until the cacophony of ringing blows sounded like a workshop full of hydraulic hammers programmed by a lunatic. The creatures were intent on finishing him and apparently weren’t going to allow the inconvenience of the ship to get in their way.
Straining to lower his hands, he unlocked the connector at his waist then kicked and flexed to wriggle free of the leg armor. The pounding outside rose in intensity as the creatures’ apparent frustration grew. Once free from the lower half, he twisted and shrugged. Still on the floor, he dragged himself from the upper half of the TACS suit. “Remind me to send the designers some considered feedback,” he muttered.

Jumping across to the pilot’s chair, Logan flipped several switches in one movement. The turbines hummed, slowly accelerating to operating speed, and the instrument displays flickered into life. The rocky plain outside was black with the creatures. He glanced at the instruments. The engines were almost ready, and he checked the control surfaces were responding. By the time he finished, the turbines were at operating speed, and he lifted the aircraft straight up.

The hammering stopped, but the exterior displays showed half a dozen of the scorpioid creatures had locked their claws to the undercarriage. Logan wiggled the controls to whip the creatures around, then retracted the landing gear once they’d been thrown clear.

After rising above the mountainous ridge, he pulled on a comm-link and opened a broadcast to the base. A male voice he didn’t recognize answered.

“This is Logan Twofeathers. Tell my wife I’m airborne in the Nomad. I should be with you in around”—he checked the instruments—”thirty minutes.”

“Your wife? What are you talking about?”

“Aurore Vergari,” Logan said pointedly.

“Huh? I thought she was w—”

“And I’ve seen another new life-form. I think they hatch underground or possibly in caves. They’re fast, look similar to scorpions, but at least two meters long. Spread the word.”

“Caves? Two meters?” The implication seemed to sink in. “Shit. I’ll pass it on.”

The transmission closed and Logan turned his attention to flying. The sun had risen and the sky was cloudless. It should have been a beautiful day, yet a shiver ran through him. Maintaining a hover, he activated the sensor systems and did a steady sweep of the area. He didn’t expect to find anything but wanted to confirm no enemy forces were lurking.

At his current altitude, the sensors had an effective range of about one hundred kilometers and picked up several signals the systems categorized as biological in origin. Logan shivered. Some of the detections were dense groupings in the air and had to be flocks of the shinotori.

As the aircraft rotated to the east a new signal appeared. The sensors categorized it as “artificial” and likely a vehicle. Whatever the signal came from, it was on the ground, and from the strength of the reading, had to be something large—maybe a downed aircraft or one of the Mule armored walkers.

Logan activated the targeting system, and after a short delay it identified the signal as a Futen transport. Several had been part of the Corporates’ attack force, and it was possible one had been damaged badly enough that it didn’t make it back.

The range was close to the limit of his sensors, around ninety-five kilometers away. He should ignore it and head straight back. But if they recovered it, it would be useful in moving the settlers. He rolled the Nomad in that direction, pushing the throttles on the turbines forward. He’d be there and back before Aurore knew he was gone.

Twenty minutes later came the first visual sign—a thread of black smoke winding up through the tree branches below. It suggested the aircraft was more damaged than he’d hoped, but it was still worth a closer look.

Lowering the Nomad, he settled at an altitude of a hundred meters, the treetops skidding by underneath him. The foliage was dense here, which didn’t bode well for the downed aircraft—more likely a crash landing than an emergency one.

The proximity alert increased in frequency, becoming a constant whistle as he passed over a hole in the canopy. Logan got the impression of torn, smashed trees, and below them, a glimpse of something gray and metallic. He slowed the Nomad and swung around, making a second pass over the ravaged area.

There was definitely something down there, though as close as he was, he couldn’t make out the shape. The splintered foliage was enough to tell him the aircraft had come down hard and was probably too badly damaged to be recoverable.

He set a course back to the caves, then stopped. Even if the aircraft was heavily damaged, it might have some useful gear on board. There was a clearing a few hundred meters away. Perhaps the Futen had been heading for it and hadn’t made it. Logan slid the ship over to land.

He checked his TACS suit again. It was a risk going out without it, but the power levels hadn’t regenerated and he’d seen no signs of any of the newer life-forms. He grabbed the comm-link and his QuenchGun and thumbed the door release.

 

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