Marilyn Stone eyeballed the greenish brown mass that occupied the main course indentation of her cafeteria tray. While she knew on a conscious level that it was safe, healthy, and would most likely be unobjectionable in flavor, she nonetheless felt distrustful of putting it in her mouth, let alone digesting it.
It looked angry somehow, she mused as she studied the small lumps in its form, trying to find some plausible reason to discard the mass. Sighing with resignation, Marilyn knew she couldn’t afford anything better to eat, which meant stomaching the E.A.R.T.H. organization‘s slop of the day. They might boast of its nutritional value, good for the everyday person to ‘thrive’ on, but Marilyn, along with what was left of humanity, would rather eat just about anything else. Since it was the only free food available, however, she was left with no real options. She glared down at the substance with menace before taking her first resentful bite.
“Another day, another nameless grub for the grunts, eh Stone?” Dana grinned with surprisingly white, straight teeth across the metal table at her friend, apparently having noticed Marilyn’s expressions as she wrestled between her need to eat and her desire to not. Absently, Dana brushed a stray black strand of hair out from in front of her dark brown eyes, which were now looking down at her own share of nameless glop sitting innocently yet still vaguely threatening on her tray. “Almost makes you want to join the core again just to eat real food, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t get why you humans object so much.” Idari tossed her light yellow-green curls over her shoulder, her golden brown eyes reflecting the proud smile she wore. Her accent was smooth and rich and lyrical in its delivery, reminding Marilyn of the people from south India mixed with French. The young woman’s human-like face with mint-green skin was wearing an expression of mischievous joy. “Food shortage was a real problem back on Earth, and within a week of our arrival we figured out your nutritional needs and made a widely available sustenance to keep you all healthy. Just think, world hunger is a thing of the past!”
“Maybe so, but I don’t see you eating this slop.” Dana countered with a grin. Idari laughed wickedly.
“Naturally! I wouldn’t be caught dead eating that horrid stuff. We Ulmakians will allow you lower lifeforms to scour for scraps while we sit in our castles and lord over you.” Idari gave rise to a good natured ‘evil laugh’ as Dana gasped theatrically and vowed loudly to overthrow such villainy. As their antics caused people to glance at their table in disapproval, they quieted, snickering and giggling softly. Marilyn poked absently at her food with a fork.
“I don’t object to its taste; it’s how it looks that makes me uneasy.” Marilyn complained.
“Judging something by how it looks? I thought you were better than that.” Idari teased, fluttering her white lashes. Marilyn snorted through her nose.
“Only when I have to put it in my mouth.”
Dana chuckled. “That could be taken in so many wrong ways.”
“If it makes you two feel any better, my food is not much better.” Idari sighed, pouting her thin, green lips. “I think it is simply a rule of the universe: all food served en-masse must be ugly in presentation and bland in taste so as to offend everyone and noone at the same time.”
The two humans nodded in agreement. Their conversation quieted, though the noise around them remained constant. Marilyn found her eyes roaming around their environment as she avoided eating the rest of her food.
The cafeteria was massive, taking up quite a bit of the bow on that level. While their ship, the Helios, was fairly small in size compared to the other vessels currently in orbit, only housing around two thousand individuals at any given time, its cafeteria was large and open, the tall windows along the parameter giving a panoramic view of the stars and, when they were pointed in the right direction, Earth. At that particular moment, the very edge of the blue planet glowed on the far end, swirls of white clouds covering what little she could see.
All around the cafeteria roamed the allies and saviors of humanity, the Ulmakians. Most preferred to stand and meander from table to table as they chatted with friends and colleagues while they ate finger food rather than sitting at any one table. Those who were seated tended to sit at tables with their human friends, talking casually as though the two species had known each other for a century rather than the few short years it had been. If it weren’t for their tough, green hide-like skin and duel-pointed ears, Marilyn would have believed the Ulmakians to be human entirely. Their features and basic body builds were the same as a human, though their penchant for wearing elaborately embroidered robes in hues of gold, blue, and deep reds helped them stand out a little more. The only visible differences beyond their skin coloration were their nasal folds, usually a set of two on each side of the bridge of their nose, and slightly protruding, rounded forehead crests above their eyebrows. Some were pronounced heavily, while others barely showed at all. Their hair was normally pale in color, in hues of gold to white, and all genders tended to favor long hair over short cropped. The fact that they were so human-like in appearance had made it easier for the frightened people of Earth to trust them, and now they lived side by side as though they’d always been that way. They certainly had made themselves at home orbiting around the Earth if nothing else.
Turning her wandering eyes back to the panoramic view of the stars, Marilyn sighed heavily. From where she sat, she couldn’t see anything but distant stars and a small sliver of her home planet; a fact which made her both glad and disappointed. While she doubted the novelty of seeing Earth from space would ever wear off, looking at it also brought back bitter memories of why they were no longer walking on it in the first place.
Idari, noticing the general depressed mood coming off her friend, quickly tried to divert her attention. “Did you ladies by chance notice the bustle on the main dock when you got back?” She asked enthusiastically. Marilyn perked up slightly, turning back to her friends and their conversation.
“Yeah, it was filled with guards. Poor Turric was forced to leave us hovering outside Helios while they rerouted us. They finally sent us to one of the more distant docking stations. What’s up? Someone important visiting?” Marilyn asked. Idari smiled brightly.
“You could say that; the first wave of the Ulmakian fighters are arriving in the morning!” She squealed delightfully, clapping her hands with excited enthusiasm. Dana nodded to herself.
“I’d heard about that. How many are we getting?”
“A couple hundred. It will mostly be the younger students and initiates, with only a few higher ranked individuals, but it is better than nothing.” Idari took a small bite of her food, chewing and swallowing quickly. Marilyn figured it was partly to avoid tasting it and partly to continue their conversation. Nothing ever seemed to slow down Idari when she’d found something to discuss. “Now that we’ve got the approval of the Galactic Council, entire armies are being prepared for fighting the Maat on Earth. In another month or so, our professional fighters will arrive, and then the battles to reclaim Earth should go much smoother. You will be living on your home world before long; just you wait!”
Marilyn paused in the act of shoveling food into her mouth to smirk at her friend’s comment. “Thanks for having faith in us humans and our fighting techniques.”
Idari blinked in confusion before she realized what she’d implied. “I’m so sorry; I did not mean that you’re not good fighters. However, you’re all spread so thin after the plague, and many of you are working with outdated equipment. Our military and special forces have dealt with the Maat and the various other creatures you’ve seen, and they will be bringing better weaponry and armor. They will help balance out your inexperience until you have caught up to our level. Who knows? Perhaps some of the Masters will even take on some human students as well.”
“So these arrivals; they’re just the students?” Marilyn asked between mouthfuls.
“Yes, but even so, they will be a great asset. At the very least, since they’re only students, they will have to work for free. The fully ranked fighters will come with a service fee. Your groups would be smart to grab a student now and get them integrated with your teammates. You will have the benefit of getting free help that, while not as experienced as a ranked fighter, will still have extensive training. And the student will gain important ground training and a chance to practice their leadership skills since they will be working outside the normal Ulmakian units. It is what you humans would call a win-win!” Idari smiled so proudly that Dana chuckled. “I also heard a few of the special forces students will be arriving as well. They will not be as numerous as the standard military students, but they will be the best.”
“Okay, I know you have various factions within the military branch of your government, but political structures bore me so I kinda skipped over the info sheet on how it all works. What kinda training do these special forces have?” Dana asked, though her tone indicated that she knew already that the information would go straight over her. Idari laughed.
“It would all depend on what group they have been recruited into. Everyone relatively healthy and able are encouraged to join the military and be trained as a standard soldier, since it comes with several life-long perks, but to get into one of the Special Forces, you have to be recruited by a Master.”
“Do the Masters only select from within the military?” Marilyn asked curiously. Idari shook her head.
“Technically, a Master can recruit anyone they see as fit, no matter who that person is or whether or not they have already had some training. They don’t even have to be an Ulmakian, technically; any of the recognized galactic races are eligible, so long as they swear fealty to follow our laws. Most Masters prefer to recruit from within the military, simply so they don’t have to train them in the basics, but there are exceptions. The only people exempt from recruitment are Ulmakians like myself.” Idari’s golden eyes seemed to dim slightly, but she quickly pressed on before Marilyn could ask her to elaborate. “For the most part, the special forces are groups who specialize in a fighting style: big guns, explosives, hand-to-hand, and so forth. They tend to be very independent, but the military can call on them for aid in times of need; like now.”
Marilyn shrugged, tossing her napkin over the last of her uneaten food as she stood. “It’s not my call to make, but I’ll pass on your recommendations to Khalid. In the meantime, I’m going to bed. Boss says he’s got another mission for us bright and early tomorrow.”
Dana gasped in mock surprise. “One mission right after another? Can your group handle it?”
Marilyn chuckled at her friend’s tease, privately worried. It was no secret within the group that their last mission had been counted as another failure, meaning they were that much closer to being disbanded or reassigned. She refused to say anything though; her friends had enough problems of their own without her adding to the pile. Instead, she kept up a brave front, as though nothing was truly wrong. “Probably not, but we’re gonna try. See y’all when we get back.” She waved as she departed, grinning as Dana called after her to kick some ass.
* * *
“One of our ships was returning from its latest mission and happened to pick up an S.O.S signal over the radio. They had too large a payload to check it out themselves, so I managed to convince Command to let us handle it. Our latest missions have been one failure after another, so please, be on your best so we can all keep our jobs.” Khalid eyed the weary looking group, his dark brown eyes looking tired. His weathered, brown skin was wrinkled beyond his fifty some-odd years, and there appeared to be even more gray by his temples then the week previous.
“Tough to be ‘on our best’ when we have to wake up so damn early.” Mike complained, his young face covered in a dusting of stubble and his scraggly black hair looking rumpled and uncombed. Jack punched him weakly in the arm, though his eyelids were sagging as well. Marilyn rolled her eyes at the two of them before turning to Khalid.
“What’re the details?” She asked, eliciting a nod from him.
“We don’t have much solid information to go on.” Khalid reported, pacing slowly in front of the bedraggled looking group. “The signal is coming from inside Kissimmee, Florida. Initial surveillance tells us the entire place is crawling with an invasive plant known as tanglevine, though there may be other nasties in the area. After all, multiple Imp reports have come from Orlando, just to the north. To complicate matters, the amusement part located just west of the area used to be a major settlement after the Fall. However, according to the report, there’s a good chance the entire resort has been overtaken by raiders or opportunists. That makes this mission a bit more risky than we’re used to, but I think we can handle it.” Khalid said aloud, though Marilyn could read other comments hidden in the lines of his face. It was either perform well on this mission, or be disbanded completely. Coughing once, he turned to Marilyn who sat up straighter. “Stone, you’re our resident plant enthusiast; know anything about the tanglevine?”
Marilyn shrugged. “Not much, I’m afraid. I know it grows in big clumps and can be very tricky if not handled correctly. It’s also on the Ulmakian’s highly endangered species list, so I’d advise we don’t just destroy it” She nudged Griffin with her boot, getting his attention. “What’s the database tell us, Grif?”
Griffin pulled out his reader, a book-sized tablet-like device that connected to the numerous databases the Ulmakians had. Most of the group hated using their readers to look anything up, but Griffin had proven fairly competent with the interface in the past, so now all searches were delegated to him; a fact that he groused over constantly. With an annoyed huff, he punched in a few commands and scrolled through the database until he found the correct entry.
“The tanglevine is called such because its long, thin, whitish-yellow vines grow in such masses that it’s easy for victims to become ‘tangled up’ in them,” Griffin read off the data sheet in a bored tone. “It’s considered an intelligent plant, and can move itself independently, however it’s not all that smart and can be outmaneuvered easily. It’s got thorns, but they’re fairly soft, and it’s not poisonous unless eaten, so no danger there. Most of it was apparently killed off in a blight about 300 years ago, with only a few left in some Ulmakian-run greenhouses. Only ability that seems troubling is that it can—” Griffin paused, his expression turning skeptical, “—is that it can supposedly read minds when it touches a person, and some of the bigger ones can even take over a person’s mind. Sounds like a bunch of hooey to me.” Griffin put away his reader, leaning back. Khalid nodded.
“It sounds ridiculous, but then again, these are alien creatures. Let’s not underestimate them. We’ve also got rumors of Imps as well, with which we’ve had previous experience, but they tend to stay away from large groups, so we shouldn’t have much trouble unless they’ve got a nest in the area. This isn’t supposed to be a complicated mission. We get in, check the message, respond in whatever way survivors need if there are any left, and get back out. No engagement unless it's forced. Even so, I want everyone combat ready just in case. We’ll be taking down a few recovery boxes as well, in the event that there’s nothing else to do, but the SOS obviously takes precedence.
“That’s it for this briefing. Pack your gear and be at the docks at 0800, or we leave without you. If we’re really lucky, I’ll be able to requisition an Ulmakian fighter to accompany us, but no promises. Dismissed.”
* * *
It didn’t take long for the group to pack their bags, since most of them hadn’t bothered to unpack them from the last mission. After donning their standard, black E.A.R.T.H. Recovery Agent uniforms, they slowly trickled down to the lowest level at the stern of the ship where the docks were located. Where there had been mild activity on the docks the evening before, they were positively jammed with bodies that morning. Humans, Ulmakians, and even a few of the other alien workers were present, all running about in every direction it seemed.
Marilyn was forced to press her robust form against the wall multiple times as she made her way to the main dock. Jack, his pack laying at his side, was leaning against the wall, talking idly with Matt, their resident gentle giant. The two nodded towards Marilyn as she joined them, her eyes roaming through the crowds. There was no sign of their small, rickety ship anywhere, unsurprisingly. Their ship was normally housed somewhere where it could be repaired between missions, since they had yet to take off or land without something going wrong.
“Looks like we’ve got some important visitors incoming.” Jack huffed. Pulling off his helmet, he ran a hand over his sweaty, close-cropped black hair. Marilyn huffed.
“I’d heard they were bringing a lot of fighters in, but I didn’t expect it to be this busy.” She frowned. “Is it just me, or are there more Ulmakian Security guards than normal?”
Jack nodded. “You noticed, huh? They look so serious. Guess they don’t want their kids running amok.”
“Okay, ‘students’. Sorry, but I keep thinking we’re going to end up with some Ulmakian rugrat.” Jack quipped. Marilyn laughed sharply.
“Damn kid would probably still be able to whoop all our asses.” She chortled.
Jack grinned. “Yeah, we are kinda sad like that.”
“Do you think w-we’ll actually be able to get a fighter?” Matt asked hesitantly, his quiet yet deep voice barely carrying over the din. Jack shrugged.
“Probably not. Let’s face it, we suck.” Jack chuffed, his shoulders sagging. “Don’t know why they haven’t disbanded us and put us all behind desks yet.”
“Because we’d find a way to mess that up, too?” Marilyn snarked without humor. The other two agreed, then they fell quiet, content to watch the circus of people parading in front of them. James joined them after a few minutes, nodding to Marilyn, followed not long after by the wiry Griffin. The last to saunter in just under the clock was Mike, who yawned mightily. They stood and waited until Khalid finally showed up, looking miffed.
“Alright. It would appear that our shuttle has been moved recently, more than likely to one of the repair docks. I’ll go navigate the crowd and see if I can’t find the Dock Manager to find out where it’s been shoved. If I’m lucky, he’ll accidentally let us kidnap a fighter as well. Stay here and try not to fall asleep.” He turned and dove into the crowd, pushing and pleading his way through the masses. Marilyn and the others watched him go, then as one, all sat down to wait it out.
* * *
Several minutes of navigating the jungle of warm bodies and Khalid finally heard the Dock Manager’s bellow over the noise and slowly made his way towards it. The small Ulmakian stood in the midst of several security guards, arguing in their native tongue. Just beyond them was a large transport ship, it’s gate open and several Ulmakian’s trotting off it. Guards lined the way on either side, making a very clear path for them to follow towards the large lift. Anyone seen straggling was barked at sharply or prodded with a round-topped spear-like weapon to move faster.
Khalid waited until there was a lull in the arguing, as the Dock Manager turned to his reader with a frown, before approaching. The manager, referred to as Bull by the humans who worked for him, turned his one good eye to Khalid, the other eye having been replaced at some point with a cybernetic replica. The scar running from just behind his long, duel-pointed ear down to his chin sparked rumors as to why he had that replacement in the first place. Though short, he was an imposing person, known for his temper and his stubbornness. Khalid hoped Bull would be busy enough to grant his request, if only to get him out of the way. However, the sneer on Bull’s face as he turned rudely away spoke otherwise.
“Piss off, pinkie. I’m too busy to deal with your kind right now.” Bull snarled, his booming voice filled with contempt as he turned his back to Khalid. Pulling himself upright, Khalid was determined not to let the man’s attitude deter him.
“I’ll be out of your way just as soon as I requisition a fighter and get the location for our shuttle. We’ve a mission schedule to keep, and you’ve obviously got a full day ahead of you, so let’s not make things difficult for each other, shall we?” Khalid kept his voice mild, though he silently detested the man. Bull flipped his dark green hand dismissively at Khalid without bothering to turn around. Seeing that he was getting nowhere quick, Khalid slowly and deliberately stepped in front of Bull, easily blocking the smaller man’s view. Bull glared venomously up at the human, who simply stood there, arms crossed, quiet and impassive.
“Dock location and a fighter, please.” Khalid asked quietly, his tone pleasant to mask his ire. For a moment, it looked as though Bull would refuse him again. Then one of the military dressed Ulmakians stepped forward, distracting Bull for a few moments. Khalid’s frown deepened as the two Ulmakians conversed in their own language. Not for the first time, Khalid lamented the fact that his implanted translator, embedded behind his ear, only translated the top three spoken languages of Ulmak. Like Earth, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of spoken and written languages among the Ulmakian people and their numerous colonies. Though he could upgrade the device to translate all languages, it was a very pricey upgrade. And since many of the Ulmakians who worked on their ship, the Helios, spoke both English and Spanish, he had become spoiled. Why upgrade when so many were already speaking your language competently, if not fluently? Briefly, he wondered how and when these people had learned all the various human languages.
As he continued to watch, quite willing to wait as long as it took, Bull and the military dressed Ulmakian were becoming more heated with their arguments. Bull didn’t look overly happy about some of the things his compatriot was saying, but the military dressed person was adamant. After several minutes of cursing (and Khalid didn’t need a translation to know what Bull was saying to go along with his hand gestures), Bull happened to glance back at him with his cybernetic eye. Khalid continued to stare at him, trying to convey the idea of being unmovable. However, as Bull looked at him, his face suddenly split into a wicked grin that made Khalid go cold. The Dock Manager turned back to his fellow Ulmakian, and his tone became wheedling. The military Ulmakian stiffened, his eyes going wide, and then he began to argue passionately. Bull left that overly offensive grin on his face, refusing to budge, and finally the military man threw his hands up, his face a much darker green than when they’d begun arguing. Bull turned back to Khalid, mimicking a sweet tone of voice laced with poison.
“So sorry for the wait, human. My good friend Commander Lucinea here was just being difficult. A fighter, you say? Yes of course. Anything to help our human friends.” His barbed but pleasant tone caused the edge of Khalid’s eyelid to twitch, but he held himself steady, refusing to lose eye contact. Bull moved himself slightly to be seen past Khalid and bellowed something in Ulmakian to the guards lining the makeshift pathway. One of them appeared startled, but nodded and stepped forward. Khalid half turned to watch, as the guard stopped one of the fighters.
He wore the tight breeches and black top with the gold stripes of a special forces student, and his long, pale hair was pulled back sharply into two ponytails, one on top of the other. He was tall and built more like a dancer than a fighter, though the thin scar above his right eye that crossed into his hairline spoke of a history familiar with fighting. Most alarming, Khalid noticed, were the cuffs around his wrists, as well a thick, black bracelet around his left wrist.
The person looked surprised as the guard gave him orders, giving him a slight shove when the fighter failed to move quickly enough. His long legs made him close the gap between himself and the Dock Manager quickly, though he prudently kept his distance. Bull reached out and grabbed the fighter by the ear, jerking him forward. The Special Forces student winced but said nothing. Bull spoke quietly in Ulmakian to him, his tone dangerous. After he was done, Bull held the fighter’s gaze until the young man nodded before roughly releasing him. Turning, Bull smiled with false kindness to Khalid.
“Meet Zeravis, one of Ulmak’s most famous Hunters.” Bull gave the man a rough shove towards Khalid, his false smile fading into an expression of disdain. “He’s all yours. Your wreck of a ship is currently at Bay 12. Unless, my companion here has any objections?” Bull turned back to Commander Lucinea, who scowled heavily at him.
“You’re an--” the word he used didn’t translate, but the meaning was clear. Khalid nodded towards the man, who stepped forward hesitantly, uncuffing Zeravis with great reluctance. He spoke quietly, apparently giving him orders, because the moment he was free of the cuffs, the fighter smartly saluted the Commander, a firm fist held over his heart. Bull snorted at the entire display.
“Now, if you two don’t mind, I have real problems to deal with. Leave!” Rather deliberately, he turned away, screaming orders once more to his startled countrymen. Commander Lucinea made a rude gesture at Bull’s back then motioned for Khalid and Zeravis to follow him. They made their way through the thick crowds, and Khalid noticed several evil and surprised looks sent Zeravis’ way. Swallowing a growl, Khalid silently entertained the idea of accidentally dropping his next recovery box on Bull’s foot.
They stopped just short of a station tucked into the far corner of the dock, where several other fighters, all wearing general uniforms and similarly cuffed and wearing bracelets of black and red were gathered. Multiple high ranking military people were barking orders at them, several guards surrounding them with their weapons drawn and aimed. Khalid noticed Zeravis’ long ears twitch slightly at the sight, but he said nothing. Commander Lucinea motioned for them to wait where they were and then pushed passed the congregation to where a box was situated with several wand-looking devices about the size of large pens. He picked one up, said a few quiet words to one of the other military members, who looked stunned, and then turned and walked back to Khalid.
“I want it on record that I am only doing this because that bastard Dock Manager has way more sway on a privately owned vessel like this and we have standing orders to stay on his good side. Otherwise I’d have refused his request.” Lucinea muttered angrily, then held up the wand for Khalid to see. “Keep this on your person at all times. There’s not enough time right now to give you a full rundown of how it works, since I have to report to my own unit. However, “ Lucinea’s eyes focused with laser precision on Zeravis, who stood up straighter. “--you should not have to use it at any time. Isn’t that right, Zeravis?”
Zeravis nodded once, and Lucinea held his gaze for another moment, before making a motion with his hand. Zeravis obediently raised his left arm, and Lucinea touched the bulbous end of the wand to the bracelet. There was a small beep, and he turned and handed the wand to Khalid. Khalid huffed as he took it.
“What have I got myself into now?” Khalid asked, only half-serious. Lucinea chuffed.
“It better not be a problem, that’s all I’m saying.” He said, then turned back to Zeravis. “You were supposed to serve my unit, so I’m down a Hunter. I expect you to repay my generosity in allowing you to work directly with a Recovery Group by behaving in an exemplary fashion. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir. Very clear.” Zeravis spoke for the first time, his accent thick but his words well enunciated. Lucinea held his gaze for another moment, nodded once, and turned back to Khalid.
“Good luck to you, sir. If he misbehaves in any way, feel free to depress those buttons on the control rod until he stops moving.”
Both of Khalid’s eyebrows shot up as the Commander turned and left. Khalid glanced down at the wand in his hand like it was a viper, then noticed the Hunter also looking at it. Their eyes met, but the Ulmakian looked just as confused as Khalid felt.
“I really don’t know what’s going on, but please don’t make me use this thing. It’s making me nervous.” Khalid put the wand in one of his chest pockets, then turned and walked back the way he’d come, Zeravis following just behind.
* * *
Marilyn was sitting with her back against the cold metal wall, her eyelids fluttering as she fought back a wave of sleepiness. The overall noise of the dock was somehow soothing, with no one conversation rising above the others. Her teammates had devolved into several small petty arguments, but Marilyn was so used to tuning them out that she barely even noticed them anymore.
It wasn’t until someone, most likely on the other side of the dock, dropped something with a loud ‘clang’ that she came to immediately. Ignoring the scattered applause that followed, Marilyn's eyes quickly scanned the crowd for Khalid. She didn’t expect to see him so soon; everyone knew how much trouble Bull could be. Thus she was mildly surprised to spot him walking back, only his head visible in the crowds.
Clambering to her feet, she turned and shushed her teammates. Mike looked about to argue, until Jack nudged him lightly in the side. Slowly, they quieted and stood at something remotely resembling attention, watching intently as the two approached.
Marilyn felt a shock register through her as she saw a tall, fit looking Ulmakian in Special Forces gear following behind Khalid. Not only had Khalid managed to get their dock location quickly, but he’d managed to get a fighter as well? Marilyn was thoroughly impressed. As her eyes looked over the Hunter, her gaze fell on the black band visible against his jade green skin. Her eyes widened somewhat in recognition, but she quickly shook it off. Instead, she grinned at Khalid as he approached.
“You actually managed to wrangle Bull successfully, boss?” Marilyn teased. “Next time there’s a storm planetside, we’ll have to send you out to convince it to leave. Bull’s almost as agreeable as the weather.”
Khalid snorted without amusement, making a motion to follow him. Without a word, everyone grabbed their gear and trotted after him and the Ulmakian. Marilyn noticed Mike in particular was staring openly at their newest member. She couldn’t blame him, since most of the Ulmakians this group would have seen before were all ship workers, science staff, and official types. Only herself and Griffin had ever fought alongside their Ulmakian allies before. Briefly, she wondered if Khalid had also fought with them before, and found her eyes lingering on the Hunter’s black bracelet as she pondered.
Docking Bay 12 was located as far from the main dock as possible, where ships in need of repair were parked. Marilyn felt this was appropriate, given that they had yet to do a mission with the small shuttle where something hadn’t broken, caught fire, or fallen off completely. Sure enough, as they approached, she could see their Ulmakian pilot hunkered underneath one of the wings, swearing sulphurously in a humorous mix of his native language and several random Earth languages. Amused, she watched as Khalid paced around the short, squat vehicle until he stood by the offending wing. Shaking her head, Marilyn busied herself elsewhere, though she could easily see them as well as overhear their conversation.
“Trouble already? What a surprise.” Khalid drawled sarcastically as a greeting. Turric peeked out from under the wing, grinning through his squint, the various oil and debris settling into the many fine lines around his face, making him appear even older. Offering a hand, Khalid pulled the old Ulmakian out from under the ship and helped him to his feet. Brushing his hands off on what must have once been a tan uniform, Turric looked back at the wing he’d been working on.
“I thought I would take the opportunity to try and fix the stabilizer before your next mission. I hadn’t expected you to find work again so quick.” He grinned at Khalid.
“That makes two of us, but I guess we’re the only ones available to do all the small, uncomfortable missions nobody else wants.” Khalid huffed without amusement. Turric scoffed, shaking his head.
As the rest of the crew began boarding the shuttle, Turric’s eyes rested on their newest member. Slowly, as if only just realizing what he saw was real, Turric’s eyes went wide. Khalid heard his sharp intake of breath and saw the way he took a half-step back. Khalid pressed in closer, lowering his voice so it didn’t carry far. Marilyn felt her ears straining to pick up the conversation.
“So you recognize our newest crew member, I take it?” Khalid asked in a concerned voice. Turric nodded numbly, then seemed to shake himself.
“He’s Zeravis. Almost everyone on Ulmak knows his name at this point.”
“Please lie to me and say it’s because he’s a famous actor or something. I really don’t want anymore surprises.” Khalid rubbed his temples, sighing. Turric blinked at him in surprise, then laughed shortly.
“Actually, in a strange way you’re not entirely wrong.” The amusement faded from Turric’s expression, replaced with a look of worry. “I’ve only heard rumors about what he’s done, and they grow wilder with each telling, so I won’t voice them here since I don’t believe in passing on false information or gossip. Even so, Zeravis isn’t seen as the most trustworthy of individuals. He’s built himself a nasty reputation of getting close to people and then betraying them when he no longer has a need of them. And he’s notoriously difficult to kill, if those same rumors are to be believed.”
“Considering he’s still breathing, I’d believe them. Anything in particular I should know?”
“All I know is what I’ve heard from those who’ve worked with him. They say it’s okay to like him, just don’t ever trust him.” Turric sighed. “You’ll watch your back down there, right? And keep him away from the little lady. Zeravis is known to be very charming, and I wouldn’t want her to get hurt.”
Marilyn was very proud that she somehow managed to keep her expression straight.
Khalid chuffed lightly. “Mrs. Stone will be alright. And I’ll take your caution under advisement. Right now, we should be underway.”
Turric nodded, saying absently that he needed to just close the stabilizer panel and he’d be ready. Marilyn made sure to look preoccupied as Khalid passed her, pretending she hadn’t been eavesdropping.
After a few minutes of final preparation they boarded and got settled, squeezed together on the small ride. Since seating was limited, Matt and Zeravis stood, holding a bar over their heads to hold themselves upright. Khalid took his usual co-pilot seat, though he knew nothing of flying. Matt pulled the door shut with a length of rope, since the closing mechanism was busted, and waited to hear the decompression hiss to tell them they were airtight.
As Khalid gave Turric the okay, they all waited with bated breath. The engine rattled to life, and everything seemed to go smoothly at first. Just as Mike began hooting about a clean take-off, the ship suddenly lurched and fell back down. Most of the crew erupted into laughter, clapping their hands in delight, while Zeravis looked around at them in confusion. Marilyn tried to give the alien a reassuring smile, though it didn’t seem to comfort the newcomer at all. At least the rest of the crew had learned to take it with humor by now, she mused.
A few minutes of fiddling and swearing from Turric, and they finally got airborne. Slowly, he navigated their bulky ship out of the dock, entering the empty black silence of space. Marilyn craned her neck, trying to see out the only window on the shuttle. Since Helios was following the Earth, for the first few minutes there was nothing but black glittering with stars to see. Then Turric turned the ship towards their destination, and everyone who looked got a beautiful view of their home planet.
As soon as the artificial gravity kicked in, Khalid stood and walked a few steps so everyone could see him, putting a hand above him to stabilize himself in the event they hit atmo before he could take his seat again. He nodded once to Zeravis, then directed the alien’s gaze over to the crew. Marilyn grinned, wondering just what this stranger would think of their little rag-tag group.
“That’s James Dreschner. He’s our resident explosive expert and squad sniper.” Khalid pointed towards the redhead. Jame’s green eyes flashed behind his rectangular glasses, and his skinny arms were crossed over his chest as he stared down Zeravis. Marilyn couldn’t help shaking her head as James’ expression registered distrust and disdain; he had been slow to warm up to any of them. Then again, he was easily the skinniest among them, and the shortest next to herself. While Marilyn had never had a problem with physical confidence, James was clearly far more used to keeping his distance.
“The big, quiet, bearded guy standing next to you is Matt Rostenburger.” Blanket, Marilyn mentally corrected Khalid. The nickname was far more fitting. A stark contrast to James, Blanket was easily the tallest and heaviest, with arms that could bench press the weight of most people. He was also the gentlest person Marilyn had ever met. With his round face hidden behind his bristly beard and shaggy brown hair, Matt still managed to wear his heart right out in the open for anyone to see. His baby blue eyes were always filled with trust and affection for anyone brave enough to get near him.
“Bayani Griffin, my unofficial second-in-command and our communications officer.” The Philipino-American was also the only one to have seen real combat besides herself and Khalid, Marilyn mused. Griffin had been one of those soldiers unfortunate enough to be sent to New Deli for the evacuation; the few who’d returned from that fight had returned with severe psychological scars. Griffin rarely smiled anymore, and Marilyn could hardly blame him. His near-black eyes were still sharp, though, as anyone unlucky enough to slack off while within his sight had been quick to learn. While Khalid might have given up on turning these wild civilians into anything remotely disciplined, Griffin never failed to put the starch back in their collective spines. In his mind, they were still soldiers, and needed to behave that way.
“Then we have Hyam Jaskolski, the most athletic of our group and the only one with any real underwater training.”
“Not that it’s been useful or anything.” Jack shrugged with a smile. Always glib, Jack had cemented himself as both the intimidating muscle person as well as the group mom. Marilyn always had to laugh whenever Jack herded their group, lecturing them on eating breakfast and the like. Jack had more or less adopted Mike, their youngest member, and spent most of his time looking out for the kid. When he wasn’t standing around looking tough, Jack was by far their most fashion-sensitive individual. A notorious drag queen before the Fall, Jack was definitely not pleased with the limited supplies he had to work with. Marilyn was fairly certain he’d joined the E.A.R.T.H. Recovery corps just to have the opportunity to rifle through abandoned closets and take his pick first.
“Lastly we have Michael Raske and Marilyn Stone.” Marilyn couldn’t help but chuckle as Mike sat up straight and leaned forward, ever the puppy-like excitement radiating off him. While Mike might blunder and bluster, he was always eager to please. His big, brown eyes could melt even the toughest heart, and his happy-go-lucky personality helped him get along with everybody. His scruffy, unruly black hair looked recently combed, and Marilyn remembered seeing Jack fussing over it just before Khalid had arrived with Zeravis. “Mike is the baby of the group and pretty much useless—”
“—but Marilyn has the most combat experience besides Griffin and myself.” Marilyn smiled without showing teeth as Zeravis’ golden eyes met hers. Almost immediately, she felt him size her up, and found herself wanting to silently challenge him. He wouldn’t be the first person to underestimate her; she was short, and definitely on the chubbier side. Most people looked at her folded stomach and rounded arms and immediately assumed her to be indulgent or weak. But Marilyn was a Latina farmgirl, and she could bail hay or topple an idiot, should anyone cross her. And she was the only civilian in the group who had handled a firearm before joining. Born and raised in Iowa, married and moved to Texas; she definitely knew how to handle firearms.
Zeravis’ eyes did a quick flicker over her, before he turned them away. Marilyn relaxed back into her seat. Either she’d passed whatever mental test he’d run on her, or he was skilled enough to hide his personal opinions. Either worked for her.
“And on that note, I’m Ian Khalid, former Captain in the Canadian Royal Air Force and now Recovery Supervisor for our troupe.” And the unwilling father of their group, Marilyn mused. Khalid had been close to retirement, with his only daughter already in college when the Fall had occurred. Khalid and his wife had managed to make it out of Canada during the immediate evacuation of Earth. His daughter hadn’t. That loss still weighed heavily on him, and while he might like to come across as stoic, Marilyn could see the downward hunch of his shoulders, his less-than-rigid posture. Even so, Khalid was too proud to dwell on his grief, and preferred to focus on his work. In the short time they’d all worked together, Khalid had proven time and again that he cared about them in his own offhand way. Even though the crew might seem reckless and care-free, they were all sensitive towards Khalid’s mood and never pushed him too far.
“So that’s the crew. Any questions?” Khalid turned fully to Zeravis, who paused a moment before shaking his head. Nodding once, Khalid turned back to his crew. “This here is Zeravis, a student with the Hunters, one of their Special Forces groups. I had to go through hell to requisition him, so anyone caught giving him a hard time will find their sorry asses left behind.”
There were a few mutterings of agreement as everyone settled back down. Khalid glanced at Zeravis once more, and Marilyn noted the rather defensive stance to the newcomer’s form. Khalid said nothing as he turned and went to sit back down, leaving everyone to their own devices.
The ship shuddered violently as they entered the first layer of the atmosphere. Jack, his face slightly green in color, gulped and pressed himself against the hull, his eyes squeezed shut.
“I really hate this part.” He said in a sick tone, his voice wavering. Matt nodded, breathing deeply, evenly. Mike grinned slightly.
“Yeah, I think we’ve all had our share of bad space rides by now. Too bad we can’t get one of those newer shuttles. They look so swanky.” Mike sighed, somewhat theatrically.
Marilyn glared slightly. “Hey, don’t rag on Perkele!” She patted the ship’s hull affectionately. “We’ve been on dozens of surface missions, and not once have we been stranded. Sure, it may not be the fanciest ship, but at least it still works.”
James snorted with amusement from his spot in the corner, while Mike rolled his eyes.
“Mar-bear, this thing is a barely flying death trap. Please don’t treat it like it's your kid or anything.” Mike snorted. Marilyn smiled pleasantly at him.
Marilyn chuckled. “No, if it was my kid, I definitely wouldn’t let it hang around with such questionable people.” Mike guffawed, and looked about to respond, but Jack weakly punched him in the shoulder while still keeping his eyes shut.
“No arguing or I swear I’ll throw up all over you both.” Jack threatened. Out of respect for their friend, they both went quiet, though they exchanged mock fierce looks while Matt chuckled quietly. From up front, they heard Khalid’s tired voice drift back to them.
“Children, if you don’t behave, I’m gonna have Turric pull over the questionable death trap.”