Solia Faris slammed on the brakes of her armored jeep, released the seat harness, and launched herself out the driver’s side door. She tumbled down a steep grade, bounced, rolled, and then slammed to a stop against a pillar of goraxian rock. Solia spat blood from her mouth and scrunched into a ball.
Her jeep exploded. Blue, white, and orange flames surged skyward. The distinct vanilla and sulfur smell of a spent vorniece shell permeated the air.
Solia uncurled, sprang to her feet, and sprinted back up the grade. She dove under the burning remains of her jeep and splayed flat. Her chest heaved up and down. Molten droplets sizzled onto the leg of her body armor, melting through the protective layers and eating towards her skin. She gritted her teeth but held still.
The ground trembled. Vibrations flooded her ears. Something large and fast roared overhead, raising a wall of dust all around the jeep and shooting baking hot air into Solia’s face. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath.
The sound vanished. Flames burned down, spitting and shifting. Dribbles of burning fluid crackled and sputtered on the roadway dirt. Solia rolled to the edge of the undercarriage, wincing at the speckles of pain lighting up her calves. The air smelled of burnt rubber, hot metal, and scorched skin. But at least she hadn’t turned into a supernova like her jeep. Not that that couldn’t still happen, or something worse. There were lots of ways to die on planet Rus, war notwithstanding.
Hands shaking, Solia eased onto her hip and drew a silver communications device from her pocket. She tapped the surface, keying in a complicated series of letters and numerals. After a moment, the screen blinked twice, then went blue. The word “Identify” appeared on the screen. She keyed in more numbers and letters, then held it, waiting. Hot smoke wafted into her face, alternating with the astringent smell of Colora trees. Solia peered beyond the crumpled frame of the jeep, taking in a vast landscape. It resembled the remains of her vehicle: black, ashy, and jagged. Toothlike protrusions of goraxian rock mingled with blood-red Colora trees. Ditches and gullies criss-crossed the land like open wounds, harboring small mammals, carrion-feeders, and the deadliest snake on planet: the eruscan mamba.
The device in Solia’s hand buzzed, and she jerked her attention back to the screen. She tapped another key. The screen went green.“Vocal ident,” said a noise, tinny and distant.
“Code name Shrike,” said Solia.
“Grounded at blackmoor.russet.choir. Request extract.”
The screen went blue again for several minutes, then green. “Unable,” said the tinny voice. “Can extract from ark.mellow.holiday at 2700 triple down.”
Solia’s eyes drifted back to the landscape. She bit her lip. Her fingers turned white where they held the edges of her communication device. Ark.mellow.holiday lay 50 koras qi north. Fifty koras across the most formidable terrain on planet. Fifty koras of ditches, snake pits, steam vents, and possible airstrikes. Her anti-venom and overland gear had been vaporized. All she had was her armor, her tactical knife, a compass, and her comm device. One sun had already set. She had 4 hours until twin down, 6 more until triple down and full dark. Ten hours. Fifty koras.
“Shrike, come in. Do you copy?”
“Ark.mellow.holiday. 2700 triple down. I copy. Over and out.” She killed power on the comm unit, shoved it back into her pocket and army crawled from the wreckage. She hauled herself upright and stared north. She rocked up and down on her toes, swung her arms front to back, and took a couple deep breaths. “Okay.” She rubbed her hands together. “I got this. I can make it out alive. I can. I will. On your marks, get set, g— Agh!”
Solia threw herself belly down in the dirt as a T-91 rimcha fighter jet screamed overhead. She craned her neck and peered skyward, blowing dust off her lips. The jet plummeted fast, rocking back and forth on its wings, dipping up and down in the air. Plumes of oily smoke bloomed from its turbines. The aircraft twisted. Sunlight from both suns blazed on the Qanian emblem painted on its sides: three intertwined circles rimmed in fire. Solia bore the same emblem on her armor.
“Pull up!” Solia yelled, jumping to her knees and clenching her fists against her thighs.
The jet smashed into the earth. A pillar of dust rushed skyward. “Blast, blast, blast!” Solia pounded her fists on her legs. What good did it do to make it out if everybody else had been blown to pieces? When would it end?
Then Solia gasped and sat up straighter, shading her eyes. What was that? A bit of silver caught her eye and wended downward. Yes! A parachute. It sank sideways as the wind carried it qi southeast, then dipped out of view into a distant mass of goraxian rock columns.
Yanking her compass from her pocket, Solia made some quick calculations, gauging the distance and direction. She tapped her fingers and pressed her lips together, shifting her gaze from the distant pillar of jet smoke to qi north and the extract point.
“Crap.” If she went after the parachute, she’d never make it to ark.mellow.holiday by 2700 triple down.
Oh well. She might not have made it anyway. She nodded, jabbing her chin up and down to strengthen her resolve. Then she sprang to her feet and sprinted down the embankment towards torchlight.gallery.war, the rough location of the parachute’s landfall.
She ran hard, skirting goraxian columns and leaping over downed Colora tree trunks bleeding crimson sap. At first the ditches didn’t give her much trouble. She jumped over gaps, or plunged down shallow gullies and scrambled up the opposite sides. Air huffed in and out of her lungs. Sweat soaked the wicking layers of her armor.
After a long sprint, Solia slowed to catch her breath. Then she stopped dead. The ground opened up before her feet, descending in a rapid slope to a wide-bottomed gorge. On the far side, rising a half kora skyward, stood a bastion of goraxian rock. Partway up, snagged and twisted, hung a tattered parachute. Something held it taut, but Solia couldn’t make out the figure of the fighter pilot.
Between her and the parachute lay a pitted, steaming, rock-strewn gorge. Solia’s throat closed and her hand clamped onto her tactical knife. She shuddered. Eruscan mambas favor steam vents. They curl in the hollows of warm rock, tasting the air with their pitch-black tongues, sensing vibrations. This was madness. She ought to turn back.
Turn back to what? Besides, the planet’s second sun had begun its descent. She’d chosen not to head to the extract point. She’d never make it there now.
Forward then, while she had decent light.
Solia picked her way down the slope and then, with a shaky inhale, sprinted forward. She ran on her toes, forcing her breath to an even cadence. In through her nose, out through her lips. Steam wrapped around her, burning the melted circles of skin on her calf. Tears quivered on her eyeballs, then shook loose. Her breathing grew ragged.
An hour passed, perhaps more. Shadows beamed from the bastion of rock, hiding the parachute from view. Solia gasped for air, she forced her feet to keep pounding sand and rock. She dodged, tripping and stumbling, growing clumsy. Steam stung her eyes. She blinked and swiped sweat off her forehead. A rock clipped her shin and she sprawled, biting back a cry. The pain crested and pulsed, swallowing her vision in a wave of tar. Solia huddled into a ball, pressing her hands to the dented armor.
A flicker of movement caught her eye. She turned her head, staring into the shifting plumes of steam. A head rose from a nearby pit, triangular and blood red. A tongue slid from its mouth, tasted the air. Its body rippled back and forth. Then it turned its head and looked right at her.
Solia eased to her feet. She looked at the snake. She took a step backwards, then another. Eruscan mambas can move at speeds of five meters per second. If it followed her, she didn’t stand a chance.
She turned on her heels and ran.
Twilight descended as the planet’s second sun plummeted into the horizon. In her periphery, the gorge became a seething mass of crimson ribbons as snakes rose from their holes. The cliff lay before her. The parachute dangled at the top edge of her vision, ragged and forlorn.
The snakes turned their heads. They looked at her. Their tongues flickered out. Then they opened their mouths, unhinging their jaws, exposing fangs that dripped with necrotizing venom. Then they moved. A blur of red rushed straight for her.
Could the snakes climb? She couldn’t remember.
Solia ran. Her lungs expanded. Steam burned the roof of her mouth. She almost twisted her foot on a rock. Then she reached the base of the cliff and lunged upwards, finding holds, launching skyward with feet and arms. Pain burst along her shoulder like fire. She heard the hiss and snap of jaws. The crack and pop of a pistol.
A pistol? No time to think, not now. Up, up. She scrambled, gasped. Bits of gorax spat and bit her cheeks. A tide of red ribbons writhed below. She saw one strike for her boot, then reel back, its head blown off.
She reached a ledge. Tattered bits of parachute material fluttered above her. Swinging beneath it, twisted in cord, hung the pilot. Sandy hair, large grin. He might have been young, but he had so much oil smeared on his face, Solia couldn’t tell. He held a pistol.
“You’re mad,” he said. “Got a knife to cut me down?”
Solia sucked air into her lungs. She peered down the cliff at the hissing ribbons below. “Will they climb up?”
“Not once you blow a few of their heads off.”
“Well, that’s good.” Solia tore her eyes away, then climbed the last few feet to the pilot. She hooked the cords with her feet and pulled him closer, then sawed at the tangle.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see you,” said the pilot. “But what possessed you to cross the gorge?” One of his arms came free and he grabbed the cliff with a gasp of relief.
Solia grunted, then shrugged. “Jeep got blown up. Saw your chute. Figured I’d check to see if you survived. ”
His eyebrows went up. “No kidding? Well. Thanks.”
The pilot’s leg came free, then his other arm. Solia sawed some more and the parachute cords snapped away. He clung to the cliff.
“Easy on your way down,” said Solia. “You’re probably stiff.”
After a few grunts and hisses, they both collapsed onto the larger ledge, panting and rubbing sweat out of their eyes. The pilot held out his hand. “Name’s Hank. Much obliged.”
“Solia. Thanks for shooting the mambas.”
“Sure.” Hank peered over the cliff, then scratched his head. “Now what? Got an extract point? My comm unit got smashed.”
Solia leaned her head against the wall of the cliff. If felt good to sit down. Her muscles quivered. Blood dripped from her shoulder where one of Hank’s bullets had grazed her.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’ve got my comm. Won’t make the extract point though.”
“Are you sure? Where is it?”
“Then let’s request a new one.”
She handed Hank the comm and closed her eyes, listening as he keyed in.
“Vocal ident,” said a tinny voice.
“Code name Black jacket.”
“Shot down. Bane.trebuchet.star. Request extract for two.”
The comm went still. Then the tinny voice returned. “Unable. Can extract from wellington.tork.pin.”
“Are you mad?” said Hank. “That’s 80 koras from here! We’re surrounded by mambas and all we have is a pistol and a knife.”
“Wellington.tork.pin,” repeated the voice.
Solia smiled a little. She’d survived so far. The jeep, the gullies, the steam, the mambas, and the bullets. Maybe there was hope for her, for Hank, for everyone. Maybe the war would end soon.
“It’s okay. We can do it,” she said, “we can make it out alive.”