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Chapter Text

.1.

-In which things go very poorly-

.x.

I’m naked, and that thing is in the room with me. I can hear its heavy tread as it moves, as it begins a thorough circuit of the decontamination chamber. Each foot step seems forbiddingly deliberate, as though it knows I’m in here and it’s trying to spook me into revealing my hiding place. And it almost works — crouched and shaking in the corner of one of the decontamination stalls, I have to ball my hand into a fist and shove it in my mouth to keep myself from screaming.

The footsteps cease. I stop breathing. A clicking sound rises on the air and trails off into what I’d almost call a growl. Almost. The footsteps resume, slow, resounding, as it continues its inspection of the room. I catch a glimpse of its head over the cubicle wall as it rounds the corner and I press my face against my knees, hunching up into a little ball in hopes I can render myself invisible through sheer desperation alone. It doesn’t work. The footsteps halt again, and I can feel the weight of its gaze. I slowly lift my head and there it is, standing before me, fierce and primal and so incredibly inhuman. Even though I’d examined it closely such a short time ago, I’m unable to reconcile reality with what I’m seeing now. The Predator is huge, easily reaching eight feet, with a muscular build that heavily hints at the raptorial nature of its race. Its head, though - the protruding brow, the black, hair-like protuberances that hang to its shoulders, the tusk-tipped mandibles that frame a maw lined with sharp inner teeth - it’s more than enough to leave any single human that sees it numb and paralyzed with fear.

I should know.

Eyes like haggard amber are observing me unblinking and if there’s an expression on that terrible face, I can’t decipher it. It’s making that noise again, that rolling, clicking, guttural trill. I’m assuming it’s telling me I’m about to have my spine ripped out of my body. I open my mouth to voice some kind of supplication, but all I manage is a stammering wheeze. And so we regard each other in suspended silence, predator and prey. I’m a naked, defenseless, quivering mass of flesh and I’m facing off against a towering humanoid, a former “prisoner” - and oh look! Its managed to regain some of its armor and weapons. It strikes me now just how unbelievably stupid and arrogant Will Traeger was, to make the decision to keep both his captive and its formidable technology in the same fucking building. I start wishing, with everything I am, that time will abruptly rewind itself and I’ll find myself back at the dog park outside of Johns Hopkins this morning, leashes in hand, wonderfully oblivious to Traeger and the actual scope of Project Stargazer.

The Predator stirs. I cringe, unable to prevent the pathetic whimper that spills from my mouth. It tilts its head just a fraction, still studying me, likely pondering evisceration or dismemberment. Perhaps both? It moves, then, after giving me one last dismissive and decidedly scornful look over. It turns its back on me and begins to leave the room — and poor helpless me — behind. My breath escapes me in a ragged moan of relief and at the sound, the Predator halts. It cranes its head around, looking back at me over its shoulder. Those hard yellow eyes are pitiless and cold and I fully expect it to reverse whatever silent decision it has just made to let me live.

Please, I beg it silently, fervently, desperately. Please.

I think, somehow, that maybe it’s heard my thoughts, considers my plea. For some reason, it decides in my favor. I live to fight another day.

.x.

Let’s amend that last bit. I live to fight another twenty minutes.

The emotions that roll through me after the Predator leaves are staggering. Foremost among them? Relief, of course. But there’s also rage, a rage I’ve never felt before, an urge to be spiteful and vindictive because I have never, ever been this terrified before. Rage because I hated being this afraid, rage because I never want to be this scared again. An hour ago that alien had been sedated and restrained and under my intense scrutiny. I’d been in awe, truth be told - my exact words upon seeing it? “You are one beautiful motherfucker.” The Predator was everything I’d ever dared to hope to believe in, everything I often wondered I was foolish for believing in. Today all those beliefs had been realized. Today I, Doctor Casey Brackett, the government’s evolutionary biologist on call, had witnessed actual proof that mankind was not alone in the universe. Nope, not alone in the universe at all. And, as the last hour has proved so well, spectacularly unprepared for any kind of confrontation with life beyond our own planet.

And so, driven by this peculiar rage, the rage born of fear unlike any I’d ever known, I pick myself up off the floor of the decontamination stall. On trembling legs I locate the clothing I’d shed in a panic and don them again before staggering out of the room, following the path of the Predator. It’s not hard to guess which way it went; it’s left a helpful breadcrumb trail of blood and viscera and other scattered bits of unidentifiable gore. Along the way I stumble over a mutilated corpse, hit my knees, and almost fall face first into a still spreading pool of blood. This close, the smell is overwhelming. The next few seconds I spend emptying the contents of my stomach, trying and failing not to puke directly into the blood puddle. It’s not a pleasant visual. I wipe at my watering eyes, blink the world back into focus, and see a sleek white rifle lying on the floor some five feet away. I recognize it as one of tranquilizer guns from the main lab. Handy and fortuitous. I stand, scoop up the rifle, and resume my trek. I’m not really certain at this point if I’m following the Predator or if I’m trying to escape; it’s funny how logical thought abandons you once you’re smack dab in the middle of literal chaos.

This place is a fucking labyrinth of corners, stairs, and corpses and in my current state of mind, I can’t recall which way I’d come upon entering. After stubbing my toe on yet another dead body, I start thinking that for a top secret government program, everyone in here is woefully unarmed considering the creature they’d so cavalierly captured and brought back to study. Eventually I round a corner and find myself facing Doctor Keyes through a window and realize I’ve sort of come full circle. He’s still in the main lab where I’d last seen him. The bottom half of his lab coat is soaked with his own blood and he’s clutching at his gut with one hand. With the other he’s frantically gesturing to me, indicating I go right. I cautiously draw closer to the window in order to better hear his muffled shouting.

“It can’t get away!”

My first thought is an incredulous, are you fucking kidding me? But he keeps repeating it, keeps gesturing, and finally I nod my head in a wordless agreement to do as he’s telling me to do. There are more bodies here and scattered among them their assorted dismembered parts. I make a concentrated effort not to stare at the gruesome landscape and instead grimly continue on, rifle clutched tightly in my grasp. As I walk I think about every life the Predator has taken here, every life it took where it crashed in Mexico. I think of just what it’s capable of now that it’s free and fully armed. I also think of the fact that there’s still so much that can be learned from it, such as just why it possesses fragments of human DNA. It holds the key to answers we don’t even have questions for yet. Keyes is right. It can’t escape.

Tucked away in my pants pocket, my phone rings. The sudden blaring of The X-Files theme song startles me so badly that I drop the rifle. I fumble in my pocket to retrieve my phone and it takes me three attempts to swipe and answer.

“Where is it?” It takes me a moment to recognize Traeger’s terse voice.

“On the way out,” I say, bending to recover the rifle. “I’m following it. I have tranquilizers.”

Traeger makes a sound low in his throat. I can’t tell if he’s scoffing at the frankly ludicrous idea that I, an evolutionary biologist and professor, will be able to subdue an alien creature that is the very definition of deadly, or whether he’s in approval of my admittedly surprising initiative. “We’ve dispatched teams to retrieve it,” he says. “It won’t get far.”

“There’s a lot of dead people back there,” I tell him. My voice sounds strange, made thready by the stress of the violence and horror I’ve just witnessed. I wait for a response for several moments before I realize he’s already killed the call. What a dick.

I pick up the pace, breaking into a faltering run. Finally I see a set of double doors up ahead, one side broken and hanging by a single hinge. Beyond it lies the telltale darkness of the outdoors. I cross the threshold running, but stumble to a halt on the other side. Disconcertingly, I’m on the roof and I struggle for a moment to get my bearings. And then I see it, not too far ahead, making its way swiftly across the roof. I suck in a deep breath, making the foolish decision to try and give chase. What follows is a minutes long endurance test as I attempt to keep even with the Predator, because considering its impressive stride length, there’s no way I’m going to catch up with it. Instead I doggedly trail it, still clutching the rifle, as it bounds up stairs and races across catwalks. I’m seriously starting to reconsider my viewpoint on the merits of cardio workouts.

The chase comes to an abrupt end as the Predator abruptly leaps from the roof, hitting the ground far below in a roll before getting effortlessly back to its feet. I shout in frustration, because I’m absolutely not going to survive if I attempt that jump. But just then I catch sight of a white bus on a road below, approaching in a haphazard trajectory parallel to the roof, and the most reckless part of me makes a terrible fucking decision without consulting the rest of my brain. I leap off the roof, legs churning, and actually land on the bus. Hard. It takes some wild flailing, but I manage to A) not slide off and B) get myself into a semi-stable kneeling position. And now I’m like a knight on a drunk horse, trying to aim the rifle as the bus roars after the Predator. It’s exactly as difficult as it sounds.

This doesn’t end well for me. I attempt a shot, but the bus swerves at the exact same moment. I shoot myself in the foot with a tranquilizer dart.

.x.

So now I’m on the ground. The bus had halted almost immediately after I shot myself. A man in military garb, who’d been inside the vehicle, has reached up and pulled me down from the roof of the bus. The wooziness from the tranquilizer floods in very quickly and now it’s difficult for me to comprehend what the man is saying. Ultimately, after giving an apologetic shrug, he turns and leaves me where I’ve fallen face down in the cool grass. I try to push myself up onto my knees, but my muscles refuse to cooperate fully. I do eventually manage to roll over onto my back with a grunt, and find myself staring up at another, different man, clad all in tactical black and carrying an assault rifle, which he’s aiming at me. Traeger’s man. And, I realize slowly, eyes tracing the length of the rifle, Traeger’s orders. He doesn’t want any word of the Predator reaching the outside world. The moment it escaped, I became a liability. I lift one hand and wave it weakly in an attempt to have my life spared. I know I’m seconds away from dying and it infuriates me that I’m going to go out like this, on the ground with a self-inflicted tranquilizer dart still embedded in my foot. I hear the man above me voice an affirmative into his comm piece, undoubtedly relaying to Traeger that he’s about to put a bullet in my head. I watch him tighten his stance and grip the rifle firmly.

Here it comes.

Except it doesn’t. Instead, I watch curved blades burst through his chest. Droplets of warm blood spatter onto my face. The man emits a wet, gurgling groan as the blades are wrenched free. I fully expect him to topple forward on top of me, but instead he remains upright. And then I see why - there’s a hand on his shoulder holding him, an alien hand, more than twice the size of my own and tipped with thick black talons. There’s a flurry of movement my eyes can’t properly track and suddenly the man’s now headless corpse is tossed aside. And now it’s just the two of us again, Predator and human, regarding each other in much the same way we did the first time, except that in the interim its found a helmet, one of the very same I’d observed in the display case upon first coming to this base. Somehow, the sleek contours of the mask and dark, sinister slant of the visor are even more unnerving than its actual face. I find myself wishing I’d taken that bullet to the head because I’m fairly certain I’m about to be disemboweled while still alive.

Gunshots erupt nearby. I’m fading fast, the tranquilizer doing its thing, but the gunshots are still loud and startlingly clear. The Predator looks away, in the direction of the noise, and then it looks back at me. Maybe it doesn’t have time to kill me with the violent artistry it prefers. Maybe I’ll get that bullet after all. Or maybe not. It crouches beside me. I attempt to roll away but only manage to flop around in a purely futile manner.

“No, no, no, nononono,” I mumble through numb lips, and swat unsteadily at its hand as it reaches for me. It makes a sound that I think could be laughter, a low growling trill that's both mocking and grating. It reaches for me again with those taloned hands, and without any exertion at all, it hefts me off the ground. I’m immediately slung roughly over its shoulder, my chest colliding with the solid wall of its back in the process. Tranqed up as I am, I can still feel that, and I grunt in pain. I’m given no time to adjust to this new situation and things get a whole lot more uncomfortable when the Predator begins to move again with its swift bounding stride. Thankfully, or perhaps unfortunately (or maybe both?), consciousness isn’t going to stick around. The edges of my vision finally darken with the promise of oblivion. The last thing I see is the ground beneath me, swaying crazily with in rhythm with the Predator’s running steps.

.x.

Chapter Text

.2.

- In which bad goes to worse -

.x.

I come awake gasping for breath, freezing and wet and utterly confused. I flail wildly for a few minutes in blind panic before I realize I’m on my back, immersed in water. Above me is a clear night sky complete with a full moon and a canvas of stars, all around me the black waters of a lake, and standing right in front of me is the Predator. Recollection floods back and I splash around frantically, trying to get to my feet. Once I’m upright I’m off and running, except the water’s above my knees so all I manage to do is flounder through it toward the dark line of the shore I can see maybe twenty feet away. I keep looking over my shoulder for signs of pursuit. The Predator hasn’t moved except to turn to watch my progress, and for some reason its inaction alarms me more than if it had given chase. By the time I reach the muddy shore I’m a panting mess, and I stumble and fall to my hands and knees in exhaustion. I risk another glance over my shoulder. The Predator is wading through the water toward me.

I heave myself up and stagger into a run. I’m not really sure where I’m going, but in the distance there’s the shadowed outline of trees that seems as good a bet as any. I don’t make it very far. The ground in front of me explodes in a flare of white light and sparks, effectively knocking me back several feet to land right on my ass. Stunned, blinking spots out of my vision, I lay on the ground and wait for the world to piece itself together again. When I’m capable of seeing and thinking properly, I’m not at all surprised to see the Predator looming over me. I roll over onto my knees, so carefully, so slowly, looking up at it the entire time, bracing for another blast from that cannon riding on its shoulder to effectively reduce me to cinders and gore. It —no, fuck that, he, definitely a he — doesn’t move. Just as slowly, I get up on one knee, and then I stand. The Predator is utterly still, and I have this awful feeling that he’s toying with me, just letting me exhaust every option I have in order to prove that I’m never going to make it out of this. I unwisely decide to put that suspicion to the test. I back up one step, and then another, and yet another before I whirl around with the intent of getting right the fuck out of here.

Nope.

I’m facedown on the ground before I even really realize it. When I try to get back up, I’m immediately knocked back down again. The Predator’s methods aren’t gentle; it’s hard to breathe through the pain blossoming across my lower back. Despite that, I persist in trying to get up anyway, driven now by a feral, abject desperation. This time he knocks me down so hard that it dazes me. And now I feel pressure on the back of my head, a slow, inexorable pressure that I can’t escape, pushing my face into the ground. I strain against it, struggling to turn my head just a bit, to see that the Predator is using his foot to force me into a position of ultimate submission. I give up trying to resist and become limp, wet blades of grass crushed beneath my cheek and tickling my nostrils, clumps of dirt pushing against my sealed lips. He keeps me this way for a long, humiliating string of minutes before lifting his foot and stepping away. I roll over onto my back, wincing, and make no effort to rise. Instead I raise my hands in the global gesture for surrender.

“Okay,” I say. “I give up.” My voice cracks on the last word.

He stares down at me unmoving for another span of moments before giving his head a dismissive shake and half-turning. He begins keying something into the device on his gauntlet, prompting a red three dimensional projection to pop up. He navigates the dizzying array of strange symbols with swift surety, my presence seemingly forgotten. This seems like another test but I’ve learned my lesson, though I do briefly consider making another run for it. Instead I slowly ease into a sitting position, reaching around to rub at the soreness in my back with one hand. There’s going to be a hell of a bruise there later. I sit in the wet grass and attempt to gather my thoughts, but it’s more difficult than I anticipate. Now that my adrenaline rush has dissipated I realize there’s a still a fog coating my mind, leftover from the tranquilizer. What’s worse is the dread that’s settled over me like a shroud, seeping into my bones so thoroughly that I’m shaking. Or maybe that’s the fact that I’m soaking wet and it’s the end of October. Or the beginning of November, depending on whether midnight has come and gone.

I risk a look at the Predator. He’s still navigating his gauntlet’s display, paying me no attention whatsoever. The reason for that is pretty clear — he’s made it more than obvious I’m no match for him. Anything I can attempt, he’ll thwart without having to exert much in the way of effort. I’m a nonentity to him. So that begs the question as to why exactly he prevented Traeger’s man from killing me, picked me up, and lugged me all the way out here — wherever the fuck here is. I take a look around. The moon’s bright enough to offer some decent illumination. The lake I’d woken up in isn’t far behind us. Before us there’s a curving line of trees and it looks like more trees border the lake itself. There’s a glow in the sky off to my right, the kind of glow that a city’s light pollution causes. I’m willing to bet any money that it’s the very same city I’d seen during the helicopter ride to the government facility disguised as a water reclamation plant. Which means we aren’t that all that far from Traeger and his men. Great. Yet another reason to fear for my life.

The Predator concludes his business, emitting an abrupt growl that has me scrambling to my feet. He turns back to face me, lifts an arm, and points in the direction of the glow in the sky.

“Look,” I say, holding up my hands in the please don’t fuck me up gesture once again, “I don’t think back there is—”

He makes a distinctly hostile noise and begins approaching. I rapidly back up, stumbling and nearly falling in my haste. “Okay!” I bleat. “Okay. I’ll go that way.”

I turn and start to walk, casting frequent fearful glances over my shoulder. The Predator is always right there, only about four or five feet behind me. Our path takes us back across the lake shore, through a border of some tall wetlands grasses, and up a mild incline into the forest proper. It’s fairly easy to see where I’m going given the considerable light of the moon, but once we cross the tree line that changes given the fact that most the trees are still clinging to the remnants of their summer foliage. I make it about seven feet into the forest before I trip over a piece of deadfall and immediately faceplant.

“Fuck this,” I mutter, pushing myself back up. I don’t have to look to know the Predator is still there, bearing silent witness to my ineptitude. I try to muster some resolve, fail miserably, and begin to walk again. I go a little slower this time. I’m straining my eyes to see anything in my path that might be an obstacle and manage to stumble over several anyway. I momentarily contemplate pretending to faint in hopes that he’ll decide to leave me behind or at the very least carry me like last time, but I suspect he’ll just take me back and drop me in the lake again. After hitting my knees for the hundredth time, the Predator grips the back of my jacket, hauls me to my feet, and propels me forward with a shove. I react without thinking, whipping around angrily. “Stop it!” I snap.

He’s got me pinned to the trunk of a tree before I can blink, one hand wrapped around my throat, squeezing. I claw at his grip, knowing that there’s no fucking way I could ever dislodge it, also knowing that he could strangle me to death with only minimum effort. And as he keeps squeezing I realize that maybe he’s going to do it, that maybe he’s changed his mind and decided I’m really not worth the trouble. As panic overrides every instinct I have I begin to fight in earnest. I squirm furiously, still pawing at his hand, and lash out with several frantic kicks. I manage to connect with more than one, eliciting a grunt, and that’s when I realize shit’s about to get real because he reaches up with his free hand and removes his helmet. Oh fuck.

Fingers still wrapped around my throat, the Predator leans in close, too close, until the strange savagery of his features fill my vision. I stop fighting. I can feel the heat from his breath as he flares his mandibles and emits a clicking hiss. Even if I’d wanted to look away I can’t, can’t look away from those fierce, furious, blazing yellow eyes. They bore into my own with an intensity I’ve never experienced before, as if his gaze can penetrate into my brain to see the frantic, useless way my thoughts flit about. Time passes, minutes or seconds I’m unsure. My heart is laboring so strongly I honestly think it’s going to burst, and I know he can feel my rapid pulse beneath his still too tight fingers. As though aware of my thoughts he flexes his fingers, slowly and one by one, so that I can feel them tighten individually around my throat. His message is crystal fucking clear - I’m still alive only through his indulgence, and that’s something he can withdraw on a whim.

He gives one last warning growl, one last threatening squeeze, before letting his hand fall and stepping away. I sag back against the tree, rubbing at my throat and blinking rapidly in an effort to keep tears born of mingled fear, pain, and relief at bay. All I really want to do is erupt into full-blown hysterics, but that’s a quick trip to me ending up dead. Instead I push myself away from the tree and try not to look at the Predator as he reattaches his helmet. I resume walking, my shoulder blades itching with the weight of his stare, and focus as hard as I possibly can on moving quickly. Now that I have a better understanding of just how trivial my existence is in the grand scheme of things, I seem to be capable of navigating the detritus of the forest floor with improved skill. It’s crazy what soul-deep terror for your life can do to boost your survival skills. And so we walk. The only sounds are that of our passage - or rather, my passage. I’m fairly certain the Predator is entirely capable of moving in utter silence; most creatures that hunt by nature usually are. I’m still wet, I’m cold, and I’m as close to utter misery as I’ve ever been. I can’t envision this scenario ending with me in a good place. It’s obvious by now that he needs me for something, but once I’ve fulfilled that requirement it seems a foregone conclusion that he’ll tie up loose ends by eradicating them. I wish I’d never written that letter to the president as a child, wish I’d never chosen biology as a field of study, wish I’d never agreed to be a consultant on call. Most of all I wish I’d told Agent Church to go fuck himself when he’d approached me at the dog park with his lame “stargazing” code phrase.

Gradually, the sky begins to lighten. Dawn’s approaching quickly, which makes me wonder what my captor’s next plan of action is because I’m pretty sure if people see him in broad daylight it’s going to cause an absolute shitstorm. Halloween is well and truly over. It’s still dark enough that we can manage to be covert if we need to, but it won’t stay that way for long. The solution to my concerns presents itself a few minutes later. I can see that the trees are thinning out ahead and see the dark outlines of buildings through them. If we keep steady on, we’re going to end up right beside them. I hesitate, shooting a quick glance over my shoulder, but the Predator isn’t pausing. Okay then. Straight on we go.

When I step out of the trees I find myself standing in a yard. There’s a small house of older design off to the right and some smaller outbuildings to the left. The driveway in front of the house is empty. I stop walking, straining my ears to hear anything indicating human presence. What I do eventually hear surprises me - the unmistakable sound of water lapping at a shore. Either the lake we left behind curves around in this direction, or this house was built right next to another one. The Predator draws even with me, head turning as he scans the area. Without looking at me he points at the house. I hesitate only briefly before obeying his unspoken directive. The driveway’s loose gravel is loud beneath our feet. I suspect the Predator somehow has a way of knowing if anyone is in fact home. I doubt he’d have us out in the open like this if that weren’t the case. As we draw nearer I see my earlier assumption is right - I can see a lake beyond the house, can see a dock starting at the end of the yard and extending out into the water. This may not be a permanent residence. It’s most likely a summer home, a lakefront cottage, which could account for its diminutive size. If that’s the case, the owners have probably closed up for the season and headed home.

There are three stairs leading up to the front door, which the Predator clears in one simple step. His method of gaining entry is blunt and simple - he simply kicks the door open. It’s explosively loud and I look around a little wildly, half expecting someone to jump out from around the corner or for an alarm to start blaring. There’s only silence. The Predator stands at the threshold of the house, looking back at me. I heave a sigh and trudge toward him, up the stairs, and precede him into the house. It’s unsurprisingly dim inside, and as I pass through the small entryway I flick a light switch. Nothing happens. I guess the power’s off until next summer. The entry attaches to the kitchen, and I stand in the middle of it, watching as the Predator ducks to clear the doorway. He gives the room a once over and then moves through it, into the adjoining living room. I remain where I am, unsure of why we’re here, unsure of what happens next, but certain that whatever the reason and the result I’m not going to like them.

I hear the soft rumbling trill of the Predator coming from the next room. I cautiously move forward, just enough to take a peek. He’s standing next to a small coffee table, doing something with his gauntlet device. I take advantage of his distraction to rummage through the kitchen. I do so quietly, not wanting to draw his attention. The cupboards are mostly empty, though I do find a half-empty box of Triscuits and a couple of cans of club soda. I’m not exactly hungry, given the fact that my stomach is still churning with the aftershocks of the evening’s events, but I’m trying to think rationally. Food and water are a necessity. I pluck at the front of my wet shirt, hating the clinging, clammy feel of it. Dry clothes are a necessity too, but that’s a problem I don’t feel like tackling right now, not with the Predator standing one room over.

I eat a couple crackers, swallowing and feeling them instantly settle into a hard, unyielding lump in my belly. Well, that was clearly a mistake. I set the box down on the counter and fold my arms across my chest. I don’t know what to do. I have two options, as I see it: make another run for it (and probably end up dead or seriously wounded as a result) or stay here. In this house. With the amazingly volatile space alien I’ve had the recent misfortune to become acquainted with. I lean back against the counter, trying to think of a way out of this even though I know there are none. An image of my phone comes to mind, the thought striking me out of nowhere. As I pat down my pockets I curse myself for not thinking of this sooner. The powerful surge of hope I just experienced fades away swiftly, however, as I realize my phone is nowhere on my person. It could have fallen at any point after the Predator had carried me off. It could also be at the bottom of the lake. I lift my hands and run them through my hair, my fingers massaging at my scalp as I try again to think of an escape plan, of another option I’m too tired or stressed or frightened to see. Finally I can’t handle the useless frenzy of my own looping thoughts so I straighten up, inhale deeply in an effort to fortify myself, and edge my way into the living room. It’s not very big, furnished with a ratty looking couch, an armchair, coffee table, and a single stand up lamp. There’s a large window in the wall opposite, shrouded by heavy curtains that have been drawn closed. The Predator is standing where he’d been the last time I looked. This time there’s a large three dimensional projection emitting from his gauntlet. He turns his head in my direction as I enter, lifts his other arm, and crooks a finger. Come here.

I do so with extreme hesitation. As I draw nearer he does something to the projection, expanding it so that it’s larger and easier to see, and what I do see are two shapes that I can’t identify at first. I draw a little closer, squinting, and then murmur in surprise as I realize I do in fact know what I’m looking at. They are pieces of the Predator’s armor, the two missing pieces I’d asked Traeger about back in the lab: the gauntlet for his right arm and his helmet. The predator’s finger dances over the gauntlet’s controls and the projection changes, and now I’m looking at what seems to be a map, sans any helpful wording or distinguishing symbols. There are two pulsing dots on the map, on extreme opposite sides, and he points to first one and then the other. I understand. Those dots mark the location of his missing gear.

“Okay,” I say. “So you want to get them back?”

I don’t get an answer, didn’t really expect one. The Predator makes an unpleasant snarling noise abruptly, and my eyes flit back to the projection display. It takes me a moment to see what the problem is - one of the dots is moving. Somebody, anybody, could have it in their possession. My bet is on Traeger or someone in his employ, meaning that it’s most likely heavily guarded. While that would most assuredly pose a problem for me, based on what I’ve seen of the Predator in action, he could probably handle it easy-peasy - and, I feel it’s safe to assume, he most likely will. Further input from the Predator zooms the map display in even more. It’s now focused on the stationary dot, in what is most definitely a house on a street lined with other houses. He points at it again, emphasizing, before the map dissolves and reforms into an image so incongruous that I shake my head, bewildered. It’s a home address, scrawled in a child’s handwriting: Rory McKenna, 3807 38th Street.

McKenna. The very same surname as the sniper that had been the first to make contact with the Predator in Monterrey, Mexico. No way this is mere coincidence. Now I know why the missing gear wasn’t found on site. Quinn McKenna had taken it and sent it here. But why take it in the first place? And then why send it to a house, a residential area? Why not to a more secure location? Surely he had to know just how much danger that package would attract. I stow my inner questions as the Predator once again points, this time at the address, and then at me. Memorize it. I open my mouth to ask why, but snap it shut suddenly as I comprehend what he’s really telling me. He wants me to retrieve whichever piece of armor is at that house while he goes after the other.

Me. Alone.

“How the fuck am I supposed to do that?” I ask him, my volume probably a little louder than it should be. I have another question, too, but it’s one I don’t dare voice aloud: And what’s going to keep me from running away, from hiding from you? I can think of one obstacle right off the bat, and that would be the fact that Agent Will Traeger of the CIA has most likely declared me KOS due to the knowledge I’m now in possession of. The Predator, as it turns out, has another obstacle that will prevent me from making any escape attempts. The red projection fades away. He inputs something into the gauntlet controls and a small compartment snaps open on the underside, ejecting a small disc shaped device. The Predator grips it between two fingers and the compartment slides shut. I look at the object he holds with intense curiosity, wondering what exactly it is. When he takes a step in my direction, I realize it’s meant for me.

I immediately dart back. He emits that rattling growl that I’ve learned to interpret as a warning, but fuck that because whatever he’s holding, I don’t want it near me. The chase starts and ends almost immediately; he catches me by the shoulder as I attempt to flee into the kitchen. I’m whipped around and slammed against the wall so hard the breath leaves my body in an explosive, pained exhale. I attempt to push him away with my hands on his upper arms, but it’s like trying to dislodge a boulder. He moves closer, uses his bulk to keep me trapped against the wall before grabbing me by the chin and forcibly turning my head to the side to expose the length my neck. I feel him pushing away my hair and then there’s a sudden, sharp pain there, like that of a needle except magnified a dozen times over. I cry out. Once it’s done the Predator releases me and steps back, and I lift my hand to gently probe at the device now attached to the side of my neck. The skin around it is sore, very sore, and I feel a surge of panic as I wonder just what kind of terrible technological torture it’s capable of putting me through.

He’s brought up the projection in the form of a map again, enlarging it and zooming in until I see the distinct and familiar shape of a house and some smaller buildings next to it. And inside that house — this house — is a pulsing red dot. It’s me. The thing on my neck is a tracking device. He’s tagged me like I’m a goddamn dog.

I say with great feeling, my voice low and thick and wavering, “Fuck you.”

He emits the same rattling trill I’d heard back at the base, which somehow manages to sound like laughter. I’m pretty sure it is. You sadistic fuck. I want to shout, to lash out at him, but I don’t. Instead I attempt to pull the tracking device off my neck. The repercussions are immediate - pain roars through me like a live wire, searing along every vein, tendon and bone I have. I collapse to my hands and knees in agony. As though from a distance I hear a pathetic whimpering sound. It takes me a moment to realize it’s coming from me.

The Predator takes the two steps it needs to be in front me and drops into a crouch. He gestures to get my attention, and I lift my head reluctantly, stare at him balefully through loose strands of hair. With one hand he mimics what I’d just attempted to do in removing the device from my neck. He then curls that hand into a fist before suddenly opening it and spreading his fingers wide. He does this three times before I’m able to clue in. He’s telling me that removing the tracker will cause it to explode. Boom.

Well, that’s one way to get me to cooperate.

The Predator stands. I gingerly transition into a sitting position, resisting the urge to touch my neck. I watch, numb and anxious and despairing, as the Predator throws one last look in my direction before striding through the kitchen and into the entryway. I watch as he pauses there, watch as suddenly his entire form appears to vanish. But no, not quite - movement catches my eyes, a fluid, rippling displacement of air. It’s some kind of cloaking device. My jaw should be hanging open at this point, but I’ve seen way too much other science fiction wizardry in the past twelve hours to be awed by this. My eyes track the ripple as it goes out through the broken door and disappears down the steps. And then he’s gone.

I’m left alone with my thoughts, my fear, my helplessness. I’d wondered why he’d assigned me the task of retrieving his lost equipment at first. Seemed ludicrous, considering I’m just human. But I get it now. The moment he’d tagged me with the tracker he’d ensured that I’d do whatever the fuck he wanted simply to stay alive. Desperation is a powerful driving force to succeed. He’s alone here, effectively stranded. His formidable arsenal is incomplete and while he’s basically still a walking wrecking ball he’s not invulnerable. Not yet. I’ve got to assume once he has his other gauntlet and helmet back that might change. And lucky, lucky me - I get to help him with that.

I lean my head back against the wall. He’d given me no deadline for my task but I’m going to operate under the assumption that sooner is better than later. He’ll be coming for me once he’s found what he’s looking for. It’ll go better for me if he doesn’t still find me here, sitting in an ungraceful heap on the floor. But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to move. I want to sit here, close my eyes, and open them again to find that everything that’s just happened was a dream. I lift my hand, hover my fingers over the tracking device. The memory of the pain I’d endured earlier is more than enough to keep me from touching it again.

“Fuck my life,” I mutter, sighing, before I get to my feet.

.x.

 

Chapter Text

.3.

-Unity crumbles-

.x.

The Renegade hated Earth.

He’d been here once before, many decades ago, for his Blooding hunt. He and the other younglings had hunted the kainde amedha deep beneath the planet’s surface, in a subterranean temple built eons ago for the sole purpose of housing the Hard Meat queen and her brood. What he had seen of the surface back then hadn’t impressed him; it was cold even despite the internal thermostat built within his gear, and featured a haggard landscape of ice and snow scoured by perpetual biting winds. Yautja, as their culture dictated, adapted to suit the Hunt. The Renegade had done just that. He’d exited the temple a Blooded warrior, a survivor of a nightmarish labyrinth designed to cull the weak from the strong, to hone the inherent predatory skills of an already deadly race. He’d stood tall and proud at the threshold to the caverns that led deep, deep underground and surveyed the hostile vista before him. Earth had but one use, as far as he was concerned – it was a Hunting ground and nothing more. And someday, when he’d earned the right and the honor to do so, he’d return to hunt the other prey it had to offer: the pyode amedha. The Soft Meat.

Humans.

That day had never come. There were other planets and on them other quarry, quarry far more exotic, more dangerous than anything Earth could offer. He’d pursued anything that promised a challenge, sometimes with other yautja, but often alone. He’d scoured the length and breadth of the known galaxy to fulfill the dtai’kai-de, and in doing so, had amassed trophies and renown enough to ensure that his name was known across all Clans. He’d lived a life to be proud of, could lay down his achievements at the feet of Cetanu when the time finally came without any fear of what would come later. It was a good life for a yautja, an admirable life.

And then came war.

Yautja, much like any other sentient species, battled with each other. Not often and not for long, but it happened regardless. Usually it was a matter of Clan honor, sometimes something more insignificant than that. Escalation to extremes seldom happened; in the event it got that far Arbitrators were sent to intervene, to great effect. The yautja, for all their ferocity and tenacity, had never known what it was to war upon each other the way humanity had. Perhaps that was why they did not foresee it when certain voices  among them began advocating for a particular kind of change. Improvements, they called it. Augmentation. A way to take their already formidable selves and engineer their transcendence into something greater.

What they were proposing was not simple science, even for the most exceptional minds among the yautja. It required precise and finicky manipulation of their genome, the insertion of foreign DNA into the adult body, and from there numerous tests to find the answers to a complex series of issues: foremost among those, how to isolate, expand upon, and integrate the most desirable traits housed within the foreign DNA. It was, many yautja decried, a ridiculous concept, outlandish and even sacrilegious. And besides, they were yautja – why tamper with something that for eons, had existed without peer?

The concept was not one so easily forced aside and subsequently seeds of dissent were strewn throughout the yautja. Dissent among their kind was not unusual – dissent is always present in the societies of sentient beings. What was unusual was how quickly this dissent spread, how deeply it rooted itself. Soon it was no longer a matter of whether or not this “upgrading” should occur; many yautja – the Renegade among them – were intrigued by the idea, by the possibilities offered in refining their species this way, in the untapped potential housed in the corpses of their most glorious kills. Once those who advocated for it had started the experimentations, they would not stop. Through genetic hybridization, their traits and senses were enhanced beyond conceivable limits, turning an already deadly race into something that defied definition. It was, to those who supported the idea, an unparalleled triumph. To others, to those that clung to the old ideals and the old beliefs, this hybridization was an affront to the Black Mother herself. It did not matter if the end result led to taller yautja, stronger yautja, yautja with greatly enhanced vision or olfactory senses - it was simply not meant to be. Yautja were already as they were intended, already matchless. In the eyes of the yautja that opposed hybridization, the “Upgrades” were quite simply abominations – u’darahje – and had to be stopped before they polluted all yautja bloodlines, muddying the genetics until nothing remained of actual, pure yautja.

The resulting war amplified the existing fracture running through their society, hammered at it until the schism was permanent and absolute. Though the u’darahje boasted the benefits of hybridization, they lacked the support of the latticed governing groups of the homeworld, of the Elders and Arbitrators and Leaders there who vehemently opposed the artificial evolutionary branch they had chosen. What the pure yautja lacked in enhanced physical strength, skills and senses, they more than made up for in sheer military might. The u’darahje had no choice but to withdraw, but that withdrawal was not surrender. They turned it to their advantage, slipping away, isolating themselves in order to continue making progress in their research. But to exist as such, exiled and without anchor, was insufficient. They needed a homeworld now that their own was lost to them, a place to firmly establish themselves. A similar hothouse environment was required, at least temporarily, until further augmentation allowed them to more easily adapt to more hostile atmospheres. Of the many, many planets available to them, one candidate stood out above all others: Earth.

The ranks of the u’darahje were not without doubters, those that questioned whether there would ever be a point in the genetic manipulations where the changes wrought were deemed “too much”. These doubters carefully extricated themselves from the ranks of the u’darahje. The Renegade was among this number. He had initially supported the science proposed by the u’darahje because he saw it as a means to enhance the Hunt and all it entailed, a way to make the code that dictated his life greater – transcendent, even. The Renegade’s involvement with the u’darahje had resulted in him receiving a few of the first, experimental enhancements. As time passed and the upgrades became more drastic and far more complex, he began to find the concept increasingly distasteful. No, it was more than that – it became a defilement, to see what had once been so pure become befouled. His defection had earned him distrust on both sides; he was still yautja, but was no longer pure.

Through the exodus of these defectors the pure yautja, the true yautja, learned of the u’darahje’s intentions to take Earth as their own, but not before they’d claimed from among the planet’s native dominant sentient race all desirable traits their genetic code had to offer. For all the shortcomings the pyode amedha had – and there were, to the mind of most yautja, many – they were intelligent, capable of true ingenuity, and far hardier than their outward appearance would lend credence to. The u’darahje could not be allowed to succeed at either goal, and thus a plan to derail their intentions was devised.

Though they had been victorious in the war for their homeworld, the true yautja had suffered considerable depletions of their forces and resources. They lacked the numbers to sufficiently prevent the u’darahje from finalizing their plans for Earth. What they could do, however, was support mankind in the future to come. The precise method of how proved problematic. The solution they eventually constructed was not without controversy because it so closely paralleled what the u’darahje had done to themselves. In order for humanity to stand even a remote chance at being able to defend their planet against the imminent incursion, their species needed to evolve, and it needed to evolve far faster than nature intended. The yautja would supply them with an upgrade, a way to integrate yautja DNA into their own genome, leading to greater speed, strength, and acumen, as well as a significant boost in all sensory capacities. This alone would not make them the equal of the u’darahje, no, but there was another aspect to this “gift.” Through this human/yautja hybridization, it would give all recipients the ability to fully operate yautja technology - in particular, a prototype project that combined advanced cybernetics with experimental weapon’s research to create what equated to an exoskeleton: nigh-indestructible, fully adapting armor keyed only to activate in response to particular sections of the true yautja genome.

Through their own espionage tactics, the u’darahje learned of this project, learned of its ultimate destination and the fact that some yautja defectors, whom they deemed renegades, had already been dispatched to Earth bearing this extremely valuable “gift.” The exoskeleton was useless to the upgraded yautja; their genetic code was too polluted now to be able to activate it. Regardless, they knew it was paramount to prevent it – and the method to fully hybridize human and true yautja – from reaching Earth. Their own agents, fully upgraded within the constraints of current possibility, were soon dispatched in hot pursuit.

The culmination of the events that followed led the Renegade here, to Earth, to first crash land and then to humiliatingly find himself subdued and captured by humans.

.x.

Chapter Text

.4.

-Threat increase-

.x.

From the onset of the Renegade’s mission, nothing had gone to plan. When the time had come to dispatch the “gift” to Earth, the Renegade hadn’t volunteered – he’d been chosen on sole merit that he technically was an Upgrade, an enhanced version of his former self. His familiarity with the operations of the u’darahje made him the most obvious choice. Others had been chosen too, some of them “true” yautja, the others defectors like himself. It became apparent immediately that any chance of succeeding would require a phenomenal amount of luck and skill. The u’darahje had already put countermeasures into effect. Subsequently he’d had his own taste of conflict with them not long after departing the homeworld with his precious cargo. He couldn’t afford to waste time with a firefight; instead he’d taken a calculated risk, opening a rift in order to make a jump through space, a rift coded to his own vessel’s engine signature, a rift his u’darahje opponent could not follow through. He’d gambled and lost, sustaining heavy damage before managing to escape through the rift. From there it had been a cascading series of failures, ultimately leading to his capture.

Upon escaping from Traeger’s facility, he’d had to improvise a great deal in a very short span of time. Contrary to the belief of those that had found him in the jungle, the Renegade was well-versed in English, as were most yautja who came to Earth to Hunt. Unlike the others, his knowledge of the language had been born of necessity. Drugged into submission though he’d been, he’d been semi-aware for most of the time, long enough to hear what they’d been saying, long enough to realize what they’d intended. They had no interest in why he was here – they just wanted everything about him. His technology. His knowledge. And, after taking a sample of his spinal fluid and discovering he had fragments of human DNA, answers to questions they had no right to know.

And now here he was, stranded and without crucial pieces of his gear, hunted by a militarized human organization. And, if his instincts were correct, soon to be hunted by one or more of the u’darahje. The project and the exoskeleton were safe, he’d seen to that, but he needed to regain them. To do that, he needed his gear. And if he managed all of this, if managed to live long enough to get to that point, he needed to deliver the gift to the appropriate individuals. The human leader that had kept him captive – Will Traeger – had proven himself unfit to receive it. The Renegade hated to admit it, loathed to admit it, but he needed help in that regard.

He was still unsure of his choice in choosing the human he’d picked up off the ground, but it was all he had to work with given the time constraints he found himself facing. He’d heard enough during his captivity to know this particular human had some knowledge in evolutionary biology, which meant it had the potential to be of use to him later on. He’d saved it from the other humans, making a quicksilver decision on the fly. If nothing else, it had proven amusingly defiant even as it drifted into unconsciousness. It hadn’t weighed much, either, but after running with it draped over his shoulder for several miles he’d decided he needed to save his strength. Dumping it into the lake had been amusing, too, and he’d enjoyed the way it had run from him immediately afterward. It wasn’t until after, when he’d deterred it with a show of force from the burner mounted on his shoulder, that he’d noticed that the human’s wet, clinging clothes revealed a feminine outline. As different as humans and yautja were, their physiology was not incomparable.

So. His little captive was a she. Interesting. He’d heard differing accounts of human females from other yautja who had spent considerable time hunting on Earth. Depending on who he spoke to, the females were either weaker and less clever than the males, or were smarter and better at survival. The Renegade was curious to see which side of hearsay this one would fall on, though given the current state of things, it would be healthier for her if she proved to be a survivor. It seemed she was, or had the makings of being one. The way she’d spun on him in the forest had told him as much. Human eyes, though far too small and close-set, somehow still managed to be remarkably expressive and he hadn’t missed the hostile fury burning in hers. He’d pinned her to the tree by the throat and had enjoyed watching the anger fade in those eyes, watched them instead widen in panic and fear. Her life was s’yuit-de – he held domain over it now and only by his judgement did she still draw breath. He kept his hand around her throat until he was certain she understood as much and then let her go.

She chose to be obedient after that, at least temporarily, resuming her walk in the direction he’d previously indicated. Scanning the area through the vision modes of his visor had revealed structures in the distance, structures devoid of any living presence. There were things he needed to ascertain before he could proceed, things he needed to attend to from within enclosed walls, away from the light of encroaching dawn and any inquisitive eyes that might chance upon them. At his direction the human preceded him into the house and stood uneasily in one large room as he passed into another. Wasting no time, he’d activated his gauntlet’s scanning system to first determine the location of his cargo and then pinpoint the missing pieces of his gear. The first matter was troublesome; the wreckage of his ship was a considerable distance away. The second matter could be rectified quickly providing there were no unforeseen obstacles.

The human had strayed into the room. An idea occurred to him. He beckoned her over, noting the the obvious hesitance of her posture and the extreme reluctance in the way she walked. She feared him. Good. He could – and would – use her fear to his advantage. He enhanced the image of his gauntlet’s projection, first showing her the two locations of his gear and then honing in on one in particular. It was located in a human residence in the city not far away and of the two of them, the chances of retrieving that item without drawing unnecessary attention was far lower with her. The Renegade was no fool; he knew those that had held him captive would want her, want to strip from her anything she’d learned in his company, knew that they’d be looking for her as much as they were for himself. To that end, he intended to use her as a distraction. He doubted she’d succeed at the task he’d set – she’d be openly visible to anybody looking. Hidden from human methods of discovery by virtue of his cloak, he’d be virtually undetectable. Those hunting them both would more easily locate her, giving him the time and the freedom to obtain the first piece before turning his attention to the second.

He debated for a moment. He didn’t intend that she die, though she was a liability given her knowledge of his existence. He could use her later, or more specifically, use her expertise. He reached a decision. He inputted a sequence of prompts into the gauntlet’s controls. A small compartment on the bottom of his gauntlet ejected a tracking device. He’d taken it between two fingers and approached the human, but she’d guessed his intention and made to flee. It wasn’t difficult to stop her, shoving her against the wall and pinning her there with his weight. He’d used one clawed hand to twist her head at the side, the other to swat away the thick dark strands that covered her head. The tracker was easily enough attached to her skin, her sharp cry letting him know that the process was not without pain.

He stepped back, bringing up the projection again, navigating the three dimensional map of the area until it clearly showed the building they stood in and more importantly, the blinking red dot of the tracker attached to her body. As comprehension dawned, the human said something in a low voice, her small dark eyes narrowed to mere slits. He’d understood her words – it was the human equivalent of ell-osde’pauk. Her temerity elicited a laugh from him and given the way the expression on her face contorted, she was entirely aware he was mocking her. She reached up to try and remove the tracker and he watched, still amused, as the resulting shock dropped her to her hands and knees. The only way it was coming off was if he removed it.

He dropped to a crouch and gestured to catch her attention. He didn’t need to be familiar with human facial queues to know she was glaring at him, half her face obscured by dark strands. He mimed removing the tracker before using his fist to indicate an explosion. He did this three times before she figured it out. Her eyes widened. Good. She understood the stakes. He left her where she was, collapsed in a heap on the floor, certain that her instinct for self-preservation would prompt her to do what he’d indicated she was to do. If she obeyed his unspoken directive it would go easier for her. If she didn’t, if she tried to run or seek asylum somewhere, from someone – well, he supposed they’d find the threshold for human pain tolerance together.

.x.

Finding the first piece of his equipment was not so difficult because as it happened, it was actually heading in his direction. He’d been tracking the signal, moving on an intercept course. It was quite obviously being transported in a vehicle. He weighed his options: at this point, discretion was pointless. He needed to retrieve it swiftly and move on to the other. With the perpetual threat of the u’darahje hanging over his head, remaining in one spot for too long was both unwise and dangerous.

The road he followed toward his target was a rural one, paved but remote as it wound through thick forest. Another quick check with the tracking system revealed his equipment followed the very same road and would reach this location in a matter of minutes. The Renegade chose a suitable spot for an ambush and began setting the trap. It took him very little time. He moved off the road, leaping up into the thick high branches of the bordering trees. He climbed until he found an ideal perch, doing so deftly enough that the bright autumn leaves barely rustled. His line of sight was largely uninterrupted, not that it would matter. He settled in to wait with the unshakeable patience of a hunter. He didn’t wait long. Soon enough a convoy of trucks rumbled into view, three of them, large and boxy and all clearly military. He remained unmoving, only watching, until the lead truck was in position.

A simple tap from one of his fingers set off the first device, launching the truck high into the air with a resounding, rolling BOOM and a pillar of fire. The second and third devices were triggered by the first, detonating within fractions of a second of each other. In the aftermath the debris from the three vehicles lay scattered across the road and well into the trees, thick oily plumes of smoke billowing upward. Bodies lay strewn about in all directions, some whole, some not. The Renegade dropped from the tree, landing with a predator’s nimble grace before moving out onto the road and dropping his cloak. He scanned the scene before him with first one vision mode and then another until he located what he sought. Part of it protruded from beneath a body. As the Renegade drew closer, he saw the body still moved.

He reached down and gripped the human soldier by the back of the neck, twisting as he did so. He felt the bones break beneath his hand and tossed the body to land in the ditch some several feet away. And there it was at his feet, the bio-helmet that had been stolen from him at the crash site. He removed the mask he wore and with a twist of his wrist lobbed it up and away, soaring end over end to be lost in the forest. Picking up his own helmet, he ran his fingers almost fondly over the slash marks that scored the right side, a gift from the second kainde amedha queen he’d ever encountered. He fit the mask over his face, emitting a pleased trill as the helmet’s familiar information overlay filled his vision. One piece down, one to go.

He caught movement in his field of view. A wounded human was dragging itself toward its firearm, making a tortured, wheezing noise at it did so. The Renegade observed this futility as he approached. The human heard his heavy footsteps, reached frantically for the gun, and rolled over onto its back in order to shoot. It lacked the strength to aim properly and the shots went wide. Flexing his forearm, the Renegade extended the dual blades of his ki’cti-pa. The human tried frantically to push itself backward with its legs, but one limb had been shattered by the explosion. It was an entertaining sight. Giving an amused grunt from behind his mask, the Renegade brought his foot down on the human’s arm, the arm holding the gun. The human screamed as he exerted steady pressure, kept screaming as his bones were slowly crushed. The Renegade savored the sound and when it finally trailed off into pathetic, whimpering cries, he drove the blades of his ki’cti-pa through its throat.

Sounds from the road ahead. Another vehicle was approaching. He wrenched his blades free, shook his arm to rid them of blood before retracting them back into the gauntlet. He stepped back, casting one last satisfied look over the devastation he’d wrought before activating his cloak and disappearing into the trees.

.x.

A short time later, a quick check revealed something surprising. The last piece of his missing equipment – his other gauntlet – was now on the move. According to the tracker he’d placed on the human female, it was in her possession. Either that, or she’d been captured by whoever else had found the gauntlet. He began to move with greater speed, entirely capable as yautja to run flat out for far longer than humans could ever hope to. His tracking system was unerring. As he closed the gap, he realized the human was moving too slowly to be in a vehicle. She was on foot, then, somewhere on the outskirts of the nearby city. His swift, sure steps made only the slightest of noises; stealth and speed together were something he did very well. When a final check revealed the human and his gauntlet were very close, he left the ground for the advantage offered by the trees. Leaping from one to another, it took him only a matter of seconds before he reached his destination.

Crouching on a thick branch, obscured from human vision by his cloaking mechanism, he observed the scene. Spreading out before him was a large field of grass, enclosed by a metal fence. Walking across that field, drawing ever nearer, was the human female. She was not alone, however – walking with her were several other humans, all of them bearing some manner of weapon. A rapid flip through vision modes eventually located his gauntlet. It was secure in a bag riding on the human female’s back. The Renegade was, despite himself, somewhat impressed. Despite heavy odds against her, she’d done it.

There was no point in waiting. He fired a shot from the burner on his shoulder, aiming for the ground to the right of the human group. As predicted, they scattered immediately and the Renegade jumped from the tree to the ground. As he strode toward the female he let his cloak melt away, boldly revealing himself in broad daylight to great effect. Shouts of alarm rose on the air as the humans attempted to regroup. The female, however, was steadily backing away. He closed the gap between them with a short burst of speed, catching her by the front of her shirt just as she attempted to turn and run. He lowered his head and roared in her face, the sound no less impressive from behind the barrier of his mask. He was aware the other humans were taking aim at him; he spun the female around, grabbed her by the back of the neck, pushed her forward and held her there. Any shot they took would go through her first.

“Don’t shoot him! Jesus fucking Christ, don’t shoot him!” Her voice exploded forth, a shrill and wavering plea. The Renegade rather liked the sound of it.

One of the humans was attempting to slowly circle around in a flanking maneuver. A quick examination revealed that the Renegade had encountered this particular human before – he recognized the face. It was the male soldier from the crash site, the one that had donned his gauntlet, the one that had wounded him. The Renegade uttered a low growling trill and walked backward, roughly dragging the female with him. The soldier stopped moving. The Renegade activated his animal loop and previously recorded words rose on the air.

Walk away from the tree, Dupree.”

The expression on the soldier’s face twisted, making it even uglier. He clearly recognized his own voice, recognized the last words he’d spoken to his fellow soldier before the Renegade had killed him.

“You ugly fucker,” the soldier spat. The Renegade gave a short bark of laughter.

The other humans were trying to take advantage of the situation, assembling themselves into a semi-strategic position, guns held at the ready. To deter them, the Renegade hefted the female into the air, still holding her by the back of the neck. She sputtered, clawing at his grip, legs flailing wildly. The Renegade raised his other hand, made sure the humans saw it, and indicated with a downward motion of one finger for them to drop their guns. They hesitated, arguing amongst themselves. He shook the female, prompting her to cry out, and repeated his gesture. This time, they slowly and reluctantly obeyed.

Once the last gun was laid down on the grass, the Renegade ripped the bag from the female’s shoulders and dropped her. She made to scramble away but he placed a foot on the small of her back and exerted just enough pressure that she stopped moving entirely. He tore the bag open as they all watched, retrieving his lost gauntlet with a trill of satisfaction before sliding his arm through it. It activated immediately, automatically adjusting itself so that it fit snug around his forearm. Systems that had been lost to him with its absence came online, informing him of two things simultaneously: the first, that a u’darahje engine signature had been detected on this planet’s surface and the second, that there were multiple u’darahje life signs rapidly approaching this location.

The Renegade snarled, whipping around. What bounded out of the trees wasn’t quite what he expected, but it was bad enough. Three u’darahje hounds, yet another perversion of nature wrought by excessive experimentation. If they were here, their master was most certainly not far behind. The hounds exploded into action, loping across the grass with their enormous strides, their focus on the Renegade and the Renegade alone. That changed the moment the humans opened fire on them, and then every living thing present became a target.

The Renegade’s newly found gauntlet contained yautja weaponry that was technically still considered experimental. He made use of it anyway, lifting that arm and aiming down it. A small burner seamlessly shaped itself out of the metal with an audible click, and when it fired the world explored in a brilliant, blinding burst of blue. The blast took the closest hound in the flank, blowing a hole clean through it. With a baying howl, it stumbled and fell, bowling into two of the humans. In the reigning chaos, the Renegade made a series of decisions in quick succession. The female had gotten to her feet and bolted the moment he’d become distracted by the hounds and had made it halfway across the field already. He fired another shot from his arm burner with the intention of creating even more chaos. Hounds and humans alike cringed at the blue light, either hitting the ground or diving to the side. The Renegade turned his back on it all and ran after the female. She’d slowed a bit to foolishly risk a glance over her shoulder. Seeing what was pursuing her prompted her to double her speed, which the Renegade easily matched in a matter of a few strides. She veered sharply to the side. He swerved to intercept, sticking out one arm and clotheslining her. She landed hard on her back with a muted grunt.

“Leave me the fuck alone!” She shouted, attempting to scuttle backwards. He followed her as she used her legs to frantically push herself across the grass. The sound of a hound’s guttural bark whipped his head around to find that his true enemy – the only living thing in existence that he considered an equal – had arrived, appearing from out of the trees. An urgent chittering sound escaped him and he whirled back around to deal with the female. She was trying to get up. He dropped to one knee and shoved her down with his hand. She actually snarled at him, features twisting, baring her teeth. At any other time, he might have been impressed this display of feral ferocity. He kept her pinned down. With his other hand he pointed back across the field, to where the u’darahje and its hounds were wreaking havoc upon the other humans. She twisted her head to see. Beneath his hand her abdomen rose and fell as she sucked in a sharp breath.

“Oh, fuck me,” she whisper-groaned. Her eyes flitted back to his masked face. “There are two of you?”

The Renegade made a sharp slashing gesture, shaking his head as he did so. He tilted his head and tapped the side of his neck. His reminder of the tracking device and just what it could do had the intended effect of taking the remaining fight right out of her. The threat of perpetual explosion would be enough to manipulate her into following him without a fight, but for the sake of expediting things from here on she needed a better understanding, or at least as much as he could convey in the very short time left to him. He made an effort to do what he’d never done before, his mouth forming words both foreign and awkward to him.

“Enemy," he said in English, pointing again at the u’darahje and its hounds.

Her eyes widened. Beneath his hand, her body went limp in astonishment. He was physiologically incapable of speaking her language well, but clearly she’d understood him regardless. The sounds of battle increased behind them, gunfire erupting from several locations and one very long, very loud scream abruptly rising and falling. The Renegade and female both jerked their heads around, just in time to see the u’darahje rip the arm off one of the humans and toss it to the hounds.

“Holy fuck!” the female gasped, beginning to breathe very quickly.

“Enemy,” the Renegade said again, making her look at him, and then gestured to himself with his thumb as his mouth formed yet another unfamiliar word. “Survive.”

He saw comprehension strike her, watched as her eyes darted between himself and the u’darahje, knew she was weighing the options of going with one brutal killer in order to escape the other. Another human scream made her wince, and as the Renegade stood she scrambled to get to her feet as well.

“Okay,” she whispered, clearly terrified. “Okay. I’m with you.”

.x.