Read on for part two of our Evolve fan-fiction…
TWO | Shear
The dropship’s lights blitzed a path through the darkness, chasing a pack of trapjaws into cover and making nightmarish monsters from the silhouettes of leaves. The twin engines, as quiet as Abe could engineer them to be, whirred like growling beasts. Bucket brought it to a hover, and the red light began to spin in the hold.
Cabot stood in his run, one hand on the safety rail, one on his earpiece. “Bucket, sweep the area before we drop. I don’t want any surprises.” He glanced sideways at Parnell. “You got a plan for this one?”
“Yeah,” said the former Sol Guard. “Walk really fuckin’ fast.”
“Nice. Listen, Abe, when we find Harker, keep your mouth shut. You probably know more secrets than she does.”
“Not my fault I’ve been around a few times…”
Bucket’s voice buzzed in Cabot’s ear. “LZ is clear, Marshal. Drop when ready.”
“Thank you, Bucket. Pop the hatch.”
The siren began to wail and the drop doors slid slowly open. The weather exploded into the hold with a personal hatred for the drop team.
“Why we always gotta do this in the fuckin’ rain?” shouted the trapper.
“A job’s a job, Abe!” Cabot reminded him.
“Yeah. ‘Cept when it ain’t!”
“Except when it ain’t. See you in the mud!”
It was monsoon season in the wetlands, and Cabot leapt out into a face-ful of stinging rain and wind. It was like passing through a tsunami, buffeted by howling gales and battered by needles of icy water. After about a hundred feet, his jetpack kicked in to slow his descent, and his boots splashed firmly into the mud, drenching his legs in filthy rainwater. Abe landed roughly beside him, and Parnell cannonballed down on the opposite side with a violent splash. Val settled some way to the right, finding dry ground with a grace the others couldn’t match. The dropship was gone by the time they touched down, and despite the lashing rain Cabot felt an ominous absence of sound and movement, as though the whole jungle had paused just to receive them. Instinct told him the others felt it, too.
He waded out of the puddle and crouched, adjusting his left shoulder-lamp. Abe knelt beside him, bringing up the tactical map on his wrist-reader. “We’re here,” he said, jabbing at the holo-display. “And Harker is… here, first station. It’s a few clicks in a straight line due east. Walk in the park, right?”
“It never is,” Cabot replied. “Bucket, we’re pretty close to the VIP’s position. Head back to the Laurie-Anne, then rendezvous at the evac point near the relay – I’ll let you know when.” Cabot clapped Abe on the shoulder and stood. “Parnell, you’re on point. Val, with me. Let’s mo–”
His words were cut off by a sudden roar that seemed to shake the very trees in the ground. It was guttural, primal, wholly wild, filled with hunger, hate and rage.
Abe looked at them all in turn. “Caira said these things we’re up against get bigger as they eat, and when they grow it hurts like hell. That makes me not like that noise.”
Cabot nodded, spat rainwater. “Let’s move.”
They picked their way through the foliage, using their jetpacks to stay off the ground where possible and hop between shards of rock, tree branches and low plateaus. The packs used a self-replenishing kinetic fuel system, which couldn’t handle sustained flight but which could, with practice and timing, be a major benefit either in a fight or in transit.
They passed a hydro-plant on the way, its dark structures towering over the tree canopy like over-protective sentinels. The noise was cacophonous, thousands of tons of water on a constant rotational cycle. The plant was designed to run with minimal manpower, and was likely able to sustain itself for several weeks.
“No one around,” Abe shouted. “Why not just switch it all off?”
“Colonial Water & Power have shares in Shear,” Cabot explained, shouting to be heard. “Business doesn’t stop, Abe.”
“Not just CWP, either,” Val added. “Rank-Rajat, EbonStar, April Communications & Research. Shear is an industrialist’s paradise. Borium, Generyst, they even farm Marsh Striders for fuel, medicine, tallow, you name it…”
Abe laughed. “And now it’s all going to shit. No wonder they called us.”
Cabot nodded, carrying on past them. “The money lost here if we have to abandon Shear… You couldn’t count it, let alone earn it, in ten lifetimes, Abe.”
They moved on, soon leaving the noise behind. It wasn’t long before Cabot began to doubt the solidity of this whole operation. Shear was almost purpose-built to keep humanity out. The colony was sustained by virtue of two highly-lucrative exports: firstly, the wildlife. Shear was home to some of the most finely evolved fauna in the galaxy. Mostly saurian or cephalopod in nature, Shear’s wildlife was like a snapshot of what Earth might have become had the dinosaurs remained dominant. Because the atmosphere was almost identical to Earth’s (and thus identical to the worlds humanity had terraformed in the Hub), Shear’s wildlife was exported all over the place. Secondly, the Generyst, a highly-complex chemical compound harvested in its raw state from Shear that was able to exponentially increase rapid cell regeneration. It was the main ingredient for the plasma in a medgun, and had made Salveron Industries more money than people knew existed in the Hub.
But Cabot couldn’t help thinking that Shear had evolved to keep people out. Everything here could kill you, and most things wanted to. The Generyst did weird things to evolution, sometimes mutating generations of a given species in a matter of years, not millennia. It was one of Caira’s theories about the recent insurgence of these so-called Alphas, these monsters Cabot and his team had been hired to kill. Cabot’s theory, on the other hand, was more simple.
Abe suddenly raised a hand, signalling a halt. He sniffed, stuck out his tongue to taste the rain. As he unclipped his shotgun, Cabot thumbed the safety on his rail cannon. Abe looked back over his shoulder, bending two fingers twice to indicate movement. Cabot paused, eyeing the bush either side of him. Tree fronds dripped with water, obscuring what little view was afforded by his lights. The steady patter hid the sound of anything that might be approaching, but Abe was never wrong. He blinked water out of his eyes, squinting – and something hammered him from his feet.
Tree branches sliced stinging cuts into his face as he smashed through the thicket beside him. He tried to move his cannon, but something wet and cold pressed its weight against him, pinning him on his back. Chaos erupted around him and he heard Val and Abe shouting instructions to each other. From Parnell, the only sound was his combat shotgun tearing chunks out of the undergrowth. Cabot half-rolled, knocking his left shoulder lamp so that it illuminated the face of his attacker: wide black eyes in a round face, vicious teeth in a mouth too big for its head. Long, pale, sharply-angled limbs, like a spider; black, bristling hair like porcupine spines.
Reavers. Lots of reavers…
“Abe!” Cabot shouted. “Goddammit, get this fucking thing offa me!”
A shotgun blast granted his request and he rolled to his knees, swinging the rail gun around in time to blast a coil of super-heated air into the face of the next reaver to chance its luck. The pale body rag-dolled into the undergrowth. Another appeared in its place, chittering and growling; Val shouted something unintelligible and its head popped like a raindrop on concrete.
“Parnell!” Cabot called in the sudden silence that followed. “Sit-rep!”
“Clear!” came the reply.
Abe appeared beside him. “Had your back there, boss man,” he grinned, extending a hand to haul him up. “Fuckin’ vermin.”
“Hold still, Marshal,” Val ordered him. “Lemme fix you up.”
Cabot didn’t argue. A few cuts to the face might be minor, but there were things in the jungles of Shear that could smell a graze from over a mile away. Val triggered the med-gun and green light enveloped him, warming him through as the Generyst went to work on his tissue. The wounds on his face closed, leaving pale scar-tissue that tingled in the rain. Cabot rubbed his cheek. The scars would fade in due course. Shame. Sometimes, he kinda missed scars.
The beast in the wilderness spoke again, this time issuing a piercing roar that shook the birds from the trees. It wasn’t the roar that made Cabot start though, it was the sound that followed it: splintering wood, and the strange, hollow crack of falling timber.
“Something wicked, Abe. We need to move – now.”
“Big motherfucker musta heard all your belly-achin’, hoss.”
Parnell hurried back towards them. “We just gotta keep heading this way. Bucket dropped us pretty close. Couple hundred metres and we’re dry.”
Cabot nodded, pressing his finger to his ear-piece. “Bucket, this is Cabot. Drop a dust-cloud, would you? I need eyes in the dark.”
“Payload in 5, Marshal.”
There was a quiet boom, like a distant firecracker, and radioactive dust blasted through the jungle like the head of a mushroom cloud. Cabot raised his wrist-reader and flipped up the viewer; through it, he could see the green outlines of every living thing the dust had painted. Swinging in a slow circle clockwise he picked up a grazing mammoth-bird, a couple of snoozing blitzleopards, a tyrant waiting like a prehistoric crocodile in a shallow river half a click behind them – and then he stopped. Coming through the trees less than a hundred yards away was another Alpha, different from the cephalopod that had kicked their asses yesterday. This one was bipedal, saurian, big, fast. Caira had called it a “Goliath” in her initial recon and Cabot could see why.
“That’s gonna take more than a slingshot…” he muttered. He looked up at Parnell. “Let’s go. Double-time.”
No one needed telling twice. They turned and galloped through the rain and mud, leaping tangled roots and ducking tree-branches, disturbing a pair of grazing, long-legged Nomads that bellowed in surprise but didn’t give chase. They burst from the treeline to find a wide, shallow river, the frothing, rain-battered water bubbling around jutting rocks and gnarled tree-trunks. On an island at the centre of the clearing was a solitary building, the main body of which was squat but situated beneath a towering spire covered in blinking lights and dish arrays. Opposite the building was a massive containment tank, cylindrical in shape and reinforced with bands of black titanium. It was open, but flashing LEDs and occasional vents of steam told Cabot it was still operational.
Behind them the undergrowth erupted with a violent, ear-splitting crash and the Goliath showed itself. Cabot half-spun, taking several backwards running steps. He’d seen some shit in his years, but nothing quite like this. It was jet black, streaked with grey and crimson; big, maybe 30 feet tall, hugely muscular, covered in spines and protrusions like splintered rock. Certainly saurian, but its glowing red eyes suggested either some form of bio-luminescence or internal combustion. Whatever the hell it was, it was pissed off. It raged at them, bellowing, uprooting entire trees and hurling them away.
Cabot swung back, saw the door of the building open ahead of them. A woman stood in the jamb, waving them on, shouting frantically. They weren’t going to make it; their pursuer was too fast, too determined. He was about to spin around and dig his heels in, buy the others the time they needed, when there was a sound like a huge spring suddenly uncoiling, followed by a whoosh of warm air that scattered the falling rain above Cabot’s head. The Goliath roared in pain, and the Marshal looked back as another mine went off, popping into the air, hovering at around twenty feet and then bursting with a blast of superheated steam. The beast, hit by two in quick succession, staggered, slapping at its body as though it could somehow dislodge the pain. It bellowed again, stumbling, kicking up chunks of mud and waves of rainwater, before changing direction on a dime and launching itself back into the forest…
Read Evolve:Something Wicked – Part Three tomorrow