by S Shane Thomas

Jillian and Leroy checked the readouts on one another’s counter-vibration packs and fitted their night vision goggles into place. The planetoid should not be able to support life since it drifts rogue in space, free from the orbit and light of a mother star. However heat from the planetoid’s core and an oxygen rich atmosphere created a cradle for a half dozen unique non sentient life forms. At the top of the food chain, flew an animal the size of their shuttle that hunted everything else on the planetoid with eco location. They originally planned to let their drone do the exploration while they remained safely within the shuttle. Then the drone lodged itself between two tree-like organisms.

“Are you sure these packs will work?” Jillian asked.

Leroy shook his head no. He liked the sight of his bubbly blonde partner even through night vision. “If the pack doesn’t work, I’ve got a spare clip right here” he said and patted his pistol.

They walked in the open for a few minutes until they reached the edge of dense vegetation, the reason they simply couldn’t take their shuttle to retrieve the drone. The pair scrambled over roots and under branches for hours, they came upon a clearing and stretched out for brief break. Jillian tugged at her partner’s shoulder and pointed skyward. Massive leathery wings beat overhead as one of the giant bat like creatures hunted. A rustle in the brush across the clearing caught its attention and the raptor bore down upon its prey. Leroy and Jillian silently crept back into the protection of the dense dark forest.

After a tight squeeze between branches they heard a pop and a crunch, Leroy swore.

“Let me take a look at your gear,” Jillian said. She examined the display panel for a moment. “Bad news, the pack won’t vibrate anymore. When we are in clearings, we had better link arms and hope my pack is enough of a shield for us both.”

They trekked deeper until a giant clearing opened up. On the far side of the lake, the drone’s tracking signal blipped. Arm in arm, Leroy and Jillian made their around the shore. Small wildlife skittered back into the safety of the forest on their approach. Leroy scanned the black skies constantly for the avian hunters.

The pair dislodged the drone and entered instructions for its return to their shuttle. An animal similar to a wild hog approached them as the probe departed. It grunted soft greetings and sniffed the air around them. Leroy noticed the creature had no eyes, it made sense he supposed. Why develop an organ that had no use?

The leathery sound of rapid descent ended in the boar’s frightened squeal as the giant flying hunter dove upon its quarry. Jillian gasped in shock and fell on her back. The device crunched and popped. Leroy helped her up and the pair slinked into the brush as the predator devoured the curious boar.

“Your pack is busted too” Leroy said.

“We’ll have to avoid the clearings. In the forest we should be safe” Jillian said.

The pair crept back through the vegetation without an incident. When they reached the clearing Leroy peered into the skyline in search of the leathery raptors. He was dismayed to see a pair of them perched upon their shuttle. Leroy took a knee and pulled is pistol from its holster.

“Wait a minute,” Jillian said. “That shot will tell them both where we are, we need a distraction instead.”

The pair rifled through their supplies and came up with pocket knives, pistols, first aid kits, and their slates. The slate, used mainly for data entry and communication, but Jillian had uploaded her music collection to her device to pass time on the long shuttle rides. She played a song from Gift of Destiny at full volume and tossed the device like a Frisbee. Unlike their broken counter-vibration packs, the slate sat protected in a rubber casing. Both predators leapt into the air. Jillian and Leroy ran for the shuttle, pistols in hand. After closing half the distance the song cut off abruptly and the flap of massive wings could be heard. Jillian and Leroy dropped onto one knee and sighted the hunters overhead. Shots rang out; the muzzles intense glow in their night vision goggles temporarily blinded the pair. A bone shattering thump a dozen feet off and the gurgle of the creatures dying breath followed. As their sight returned, Jillian gasped in shock at the approach of the other raptor. Before either person could shoot the hunter landed on its dying companion and sunk teeth into flesh. Jillian and Leroy dashed for the safety of the shuttle.

“You’re taste in music is strange for such a bubbly, upbeat girl.” 

“Ya, well heavy metal just saved our skins” Jillian said with a giggle.

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