The carrier left superlight, spraying a technicolor cloud of gas and dust as it punched a hole back into reality, its massive, blocky bulk drifted idly as the residue slowly dissipated. Before it, a lush, green world hung in space, snaking rivers and verdant jungles visible even at such great distances. The mixed crew of humans and aliens, strapped into crash couches in landing craft nestled in recesses along its hull, clenched their teeth around plastic bits lest they bite off their own tongues as the dimensional transition wracked their bodies, their muscles twitching and convulsing. The autopilot maneuvered the one hundred and twenty thousand ton ship, taking an evasive route while the pilot came to his senses, his addled brain struggling to reboot. Superlight travel wreaked havoc with the nervous system, some people were more susceptible than others and experienced temporary madness, nausea, unconsciousness or blindness, pilots were chosen partly for their resistance to the effects, but even they would take a minute or two to regain enough sanity to steer a vessel. In that period of time the autopilot would take control, performing evasive maneuvers to minimize the risk of taking incoming fire, as exiting superlight was when a ship and her crew were at their most vulnerable.

As predicted by naval intelligence, orbital defensive structures began to fire on the carrier at extreme range, unguided tungsten rods thrown by magnetic accelerators blew past the space where the carrier had been only moments ago, the ship's computer tracking the trajectories of the projectiles and compensating, chemical engines along the hull of the vessel flared, orange plasma streaming into space as it heaved out of their path in its single-minded mission to protect the crew.

The pilot came to, like crawling through wet concrete his mind dragged itself back to awareness, he shook his head vigorously and examined the HUD display on his helmet.

Good, the reentry point was only a few thousand miles off course, they were almost exactly on target. The UNN Shiroyama was on a mission to deliver a contingent of human and Borealan commandos to the surface of Epsilon Eridani IV, it was the only habitable planet in the disputed Epsilon Eridani system and had been heavily fortified by Betelgeusian forces, who had stormed the planet in a surprise attack and erected formidable defense systems in order to dissuade a counter invasion. Any battle group that got too close would be shredded by concentrated fire, the only option was to send in small landing craft that the anti-ship weaponry mounted to the orbital stations could not track, and disable their ground-based control systems. EE-4 was a jungle planet, lush with exotic flora that would be dense enough to conceal the commandos as they made their way to their targets.

The pilot took the helm, allowing the auto-pilot to make minor corrections as he steered the mammoth vessel towards the planet, more crew were coming to now, and winding trails of point defense fire snaked from the ship, destroying torpedoes that were only now coming into range, bright flashes of orange illuminating the darkness.

They had to do this quickly, the closer the carrier got to the planet, the more accurate the enemy fire would become, beyond a certain range the Shiroyama would not have time to dodge those ship-killer magnetic accelerator rounds.

"All hands, all hands, prepare for drive-by insertion. Repeat; prepare for drive-by insertion."

The four main engines in the ship's stern flared to life, acceleration pinning the occupants to their seats as the carrier barreled towards the planet, covering the distance at an alarming rate. The green sphere grew rapidly, filling the pilot's field of view. The orbital stations that ringed it became visible, fat, grey rods with a central torus, suspended above the atmosphere, pinpoints of light flashed around their central hubs as they fired on the speeding target, but it was going too fast for their weapons to track it.

Collision warnings blared on the HUD, the pilot engaged the superlight drive countdown, a colorful aura growing around the ship as energy from the aether was drawn to its wormhole drive, the vast energies preparing to tear a breach in the fabric of space and time. As the jump countdown reached four seconds, he hit the emergency release on the docking clamps. A cloud of tiny landing craft broke away from the carrier, propelled forward by inertia as the giant vessel warped, then blinked out of reality, leaving an expanding cloud of red, blue and green dust in its wake like a tiny nebula.

The landing craft, small, agile shuttles with a cockpit canopy and short, stubby wings for atmospheric flight fired their retro thrusters as they sped towards the planet, attempting to slow their descent. They weaved and banked, dodging fire that was still directed at the expanding gas cloud where the carrier had been only seconds ago, punctured by torpedo trails.

They approached the line of defensive installations, blowing past them as AA fire tried in vain to track them, then broke formation, each arching towards a predetermined landing site. They glowed orange as they hit the atmosphere, air resistance turning their hulls into bright beacons as they trailed fire.

Shuttle eight banked towards its landing site, the jungle canopy raced below its wings, a green blur as the craft circled trying to shed speed as it descended. The pilot craned his neck to look back into the troop bay, his charges, half a dozen human marines and three towering Borealans, checked their gear and loaded XMRs, modular rifles that could be customized to suit the physiology of any humanoid species. The three gigantic aliens glared around the bay, their piercing amber eyes intense and alert. They were descended from a feline species, and they shared a few similar features, most notably their large, round ears protruding from the tops of their heads amongst a mane of orange hair, a flat nose and a long, furry tail. They wore minimal body armor, their hairless skin naturally camouflaged with tiger stripe pigmentation that was most prominent on their limbs and faded towards their torsos. They were perfectly suited to guerrilla warfare, and that was why high command had assigned them to this mission. The humans wore full-faced helmets and camouflaged body armor with green netting disguising their rifle barrels.

The pilot examined the readout on the dark visor that obscured his face, and noted that their air speed and hull temperature were now at an acceptable level to attempt a landing. His computers scanned the dense jungle and identified the heat signature of the control station they had been ordered to capture that was driving one of the massive weapons platforms orbiting above them. He steered the ship towards it, they would land a small distance away and attempt to infiltrate, intelligence had reported that the small buildings were not heavily defended.

The landing craft buckled, the pilot glanced to the left and the wing was gone, fuel leaked from the jagged tear, igniting in a trail of fire. A second AA shell fired from the jungle below exploded, tearing out the belly of the craft, wind rushed past his ears and the smell of smoke and blood flooded his senses, the canopy rushed towards him like a green fist, and then his world went dark.

He awoke with a gasp, he tried to breathe, but his lungs wouldn't suck air, he coughed and gagged, then vomited water, his cleared lungs heaved as he sat up, dazed. Where was he? He was sitting waist-deep in shallow water, his fingers sifted through mud and weeds as he looked up, trying to take in his surroundings. Gnarled, twisted trees covered in moss and vines, the sky obscured by a canopy, shafts of sunlight penetrating the leaves. He checked himself, he seemed to be unhurt, he pulled off his helmet, its visor was shattered, he ran his fingers over his face, cuts, but nothing life threatening. He stood up shakily, his boots sinking in the silt. He scanned the area, he was in a clearing, dense forest encircled him, he was standing on the shore of a shallow lake. The shuttle had plowed through the trees, snapping them like toothpicks, leaving a trail of destruction that must be miles long, it had cratered and eventually come to a stop in the deeper water, it protruded from the surface, its still smoking engines angled into the air.

He must have been thrown from the cockpit, it was a miracle he was still alive, never mind unhurt.

Shit, the crew.

He waded deeper, marching through the lake, snapping aquatic plants as he went. Fortunately the area where the shuttle was sitting was not so deep that he had to swim, and the bay door was jammed open. He hooked his hands over the lip and pulled himself up, straining with the effort. The troop bay was partially submerged, the forward section and cockpit were under muddy water, he could see the helmets of two human marines under the surface, still strapped to their seats. If they hadn't died in the impact, they would have drowned by now. Most of the occupants were dismembered, their bodies torn apart by jagged metal and shrapnel, but one Borealan was intact, her leg was twisted badly and she seemed to be unconscious, but her chest rose and fell, and he could hear shallow breathing.

He climbed down into the bay gingerly, finding footholds between the seats, he reached the alien and unfastened her seat belt, her limp body leaned sideways but she did not fall out of her chair. He pulled at her arm but she was far too heavy for him to lift. He shook her, but there was no response, he slapped her face, nothing. He slapped again, harder, and she sputtered to life, her eyes wide and frightened. She grasped her twisted leg, a low growl of pain escaping her lips.

"What...what happened?" She gasped, looking around the bay in confusion. She spoke with an odd accent, it almost sounded Russian.

"We were shot down, my name is McGregor, I'm...I was, the pilot."

"Help me out."

He supported her arm as she climbed out of her seat, she growled in pain as she accidentally put weight on her injured leg, it looked bad, a compound fracture maybe, she might have a concussion too. Together they struggled out of the wreckage, the drop into the water was a lot shorter for the eight foot Borealan, with McGregor supporting her under the arm they waded to the shore together, he lowered her into a sitting position, then turned back.

"I think they're all dead, but I have to make sure."

He returned to the crashed shuttle, checking the bodies that remained, there were no other survivors, he retrieved what undamaged equipment he could carry and made his way back to where the Borealan was sitting, examining her leg with a worried expression.

"Do you have a medkit?" She hissed through clenched teeth.

He sifted through the gear and found one, passing it to her. She took it in her large, orange hand and opened it, examining the contents.

"What's your name?" McGregor asked her, she ignored him as she injected a painkiller into her arm, her breathing became more regular and she seemed to relax a little.

"How far off target are we?" She asked, craning her neck to examine her surroundings.

"We were 50 miles out when we went down, we must have skidded for a few miles at least, I don't know in which direction."

"Find me a stick so I can make a splint."


He wandered away from the shore and towards the jungle, the twisted creepers and gnarled trunks of the giant trees made it an almost impenetrable wall, it was gloomy inside, every so often a shaft of sunlight penetrated the leaves but the illumination was poor. A twinge of fear crept into his belly, there must be bugs in the jungle, they had fired on the landing craft from below the canopy, there would surely be a patrol heading their way to investigate the crash site, the fiery trail they had left would be visible for miles. They had to get out of the clearing and into the jungle as soon as possible.

He reached down and dug through the undergrowth looking for a sturdy stick, but could not find one, all of the broken wood was wet and rubbery on the muddy ground, nothing suitable for supporting a broken limb. He had an idea, he returned to the crashed ship as the Borealan tracked him, curious, he waded through the water, hefting himself into the troop bay again and recovered the XMRs of the dead aliens. They were huge, long barreled rifles, he unscrewed the barrel from one of the modular weapons and handed the metal tube to the Borealan.

"This will serve you better than a stick."

She nodded and took the barrel, sizing it up against her jointed leg, her foot was twisted at an unnatural angle and the flesh around the break was purple and bruised, a sure sign of internal damage.

"Give me your boot."

"What?" Asked McGregor, confused by her request.

"Your boot, give it to me."

He hopped on one foot as he removed his leather boot, then passed it to her, planting his sock in the mud, it was already soaked through from the lake.

She took it in her clawed hand, then placed it between her teeth, she gripped her foot firmly, then in one strong motion, twisted it straight, there was a crunch of bone that made McGregor feel light headed, her eyes flared in agony and she bit down hard on the boot, yowling like a cat with its tail trapped in a door. He looked on, his face pale, as she strapped the metal barrel to her leg with tight bandages, creating a makeshift splint. She lay back on the sand, controlling her breathing, trying to work through the pain.

"You good?" McGregor asked hesitantly.

"I'll be ok, we need to move, soon, gather up what gear you can carry."

He nodded and packed what he had been able to recover from the wreck into a rucksack, emergency rations, self-filling canteens that absorbed moisture from the atmosphere, ammunition and two medkits. He retrieved his boot, then slung his XMR over his shoulder and helped the Borealan up, she holstered her own rifle on her back, then used the third as a rudimentary crutch, resting the stock under her arm with her hand on the grip, the muzzle break on the end of the barrel was wide enough to prevent the weapon from sinking too deep into the mud.

Together they hobbled to the edge of the jungle, pushing through the dense foliage. The going would be hard for the alien, she struggled over roots and bushes, wincing occasionally as her broken leg caught on something. McGregor did his best to help her along, but she was so large and heavy, he couldn't support her weight or carry her the way he would a fellow human.

As they made slow progress, her ears swiveled behind them, and she froze, her eyes wide.

"Get down!" She hissed under her breath, and McGregor dropped into the foliage, prone on the muddy ground.

"What is it?" He whispered.

"Quiet, bugs."

He listened intently, then heard it too, chittering and buzzing, an insectoid conversation happening in the clearing. He pulled up his XMR, aiming down the magnified scope. The Borealan placed her hand on the barrel, pushing it down and shaking her head, but he tapped the scope, and gestured to his eyes. She let him raise it, and he zoomed in on the bugs, glimpsing them through the leaves and vines a short distance back the way they had come.

Betelgeusians, so named because they hailed from the Betelgeuse star system, were about six feet tall, bipedal insects with six limbs, their bodies were covered in colorful pastel exoskeletons in shades of blue, red and green like lobsters or crabs, or maybe it was armor, he could never tell. They wore elaborate helmets, mimicking the horns of beetles, and their visors (or were they compound eyes?) glowed bright green. They were standing in the clearing, examining the downed landing craft, there were maybe four or five of them in view, all armed with various pistols and knives. As he watched a sixth emerged from the troop bay, it dropped down into the water and waded over to its companions, gesturing and clicking.

If they were lucky, the bugs would assume everyone had been killed in the crash.

One of the Betelgeusians gestured to the ground, and crouched to examine the mud, they must have found tracks leading into the jungle, and sure enough the aliens unholstered weapons and made their way cautiously towards the brush.

Now the Borealan raised her rifle too, resting it on a root.

"Follow my lead." She whispered.

He trained his sight over the chest of the lead Betelgeusian as they approached the edge of the jungle, they were notorious for surviving headshots because of their brain stem that extended into their torso, the best way to ensure a kill shot was to aim for the solar plexus.

He waited with baited breath as the bugs drew closer, following the trail of broken plants and muddy footprints the pair had left in their wake. They scanned the trees, alert, energy pistols raised as they tracked the survivors, surely they should fire on them now? They bugs were almost on top of them.

He heard the Borealan exhale, then she squeezed her trigger, the massive kick from her long rifle slammed her shoulder as the dampening springs on the rail gun rocked back, a tungsten slug accelerated by an array of electromagnets in the barrel shot through the air, hitting the lead bug in the chest at an incredible velocity. His chitinous carapace exploded, the exit wound spraying the other aliens with viscous, green goo. McGregor opened up on them, his semi-auto marksman XMR landing accurate shots on two others, they fell to the ground, limp. The Borealan fired a second time, another bug went down in a spray of gore and shrapnel, the two who remained fired wildly into the jungle in a blind panic, attempting to lay down covering fire in order to retreat, but they were hit too, they went down screeching in some frequency barely audible to humans. McGregor shouldered his rifle and moved up, ensuring the bugs were dead, he put a shot into the chest of one that was still twitching, but the rest lay still, the massive exit wounds caused by the Borealan's XMR leaking fluid and smoking.

They would be missed when they failed to report in, the rest of the Betelgeusian forces would know that there were survivors from the crash, they had to get as far away from here as possible.

"These are dead, but more will come."

McGregor holstered his weapon and helped his alien companion up, they struggled through the undergrowth, away from the crash site in a random direction.

"So, are you ever going to tell me your name?" He panted, the strain of trying to support her leaving him out of breath.

"It's Zhari, I was Alpha of my team, but they..."

McGregor had completed the integration training that all UNN personnel were required to go through in order to be deployed with mixed units, and knew the basics of Borealan social structure, they were pack animals, highly social and regimented, there was always an Alpha who led the pack and commanded unquestioning loyalty, making the species well suited for military life, but they were headstrong and tended to clash with their C.Os.

"You couldn't do anything for them, that AA fire hit us from below, intelligence dropped the fucking ball, these jungles are swarming with cockroaches."

Zhari didn't reply, her reflective feline eyes scanned the gloom between the trees, alert for any approaching enemy, or maybe some dangerous local fauna? Who knew what might be lurking in these unexplored territories, the jungles covered the entire planet. They hadn't been warned of any aggressive animals, but they hadn't been warned about the goddamn anti-air fire either. He wondered idly how many of the other landing craft had been shot down on approach, was the whole operation scrubbed? What should they do now? The silence of the jungle was getting to him, he decided to make idle conversation as they walked.

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