First Encounter

Xhoshe choked, coughing on the smoke she’d already breathed, as the emergency capsule door opened. She staggered out blindly trying to escape the heat of the burning circuits and collapsed, grateful for the stable floor below her. The malfunction had been unexpected but to lose navigation halfway…she knew she should have been dead. Fighting with sparking controls to steer an uncontrollable ship, the bandages she had wrapped round her hands were still singed and smoking. Still, any landing you could walk away from was better than one you could not, she thought, and whatever power source the Capsule had accessed had been enough to make a rough landing maybe, but better than no landing at all. She looked up, expecting a space craft, high-tech systems and a crew she would have to mollify after draining their power core. Instead there were brick walls, a wooden table, and…and…she scrambled to her feet in shock.

Cull. She froze, staring at it, the word the only thing in her mind. These things she knew too well. She must have returned to the wrong world, the wrong reality. After all the years she spent fighting them, pushing the darkness back, they were going to be the death of her after all. Even a single one on a planet would quickly result in the destruction of all other life on its surface. One on one, she was dead.

It was too late to run. The primary weapon was trained straight on her. She froze instinctively, then took a slow breath, trying to calm herself. It had not moved. There were damaged sections on the side, and a hole burned through the outer shell. Perhaps it was non-functional, just an environmental support system or a shed casing, but that didn’t mean there were not more around. The creature that had shed it for a start. She looked around the room cautiously, trying not to breath as the smoke from the capsule began to fill the air. The room was a wreck, the remains of a laboratory around her, and beams collapsed across the entrance. The iron fire door to her left looked clear. She started backing away. Abruptly, the creature’s sensor ring rotated, a blinking blue light focused on her. The tube-like weapon arm angled and telescoped.

The Cull moved and she closed her eyes, expecting to die. Instead it glided passed her. There was a hissing sound, and she looked round in surprise. From a secondary manipulator, foam was spraying over the remains of the Capsule, extinguishing the fire.

It was not watching her. She took two steps back and ran.

The creature hissed in obvious warning.

“No.” She pulled frantically at the bolts, four thick heavy pieces of iron that held the door closed. “You haven’t shot me yet. You want me alive. You won’t shoot me.” If the Cull wanted her alive, death would be a mercy.

There was a single sharp click. The room flared white and her world turned into pain. She did not know if she screamed, trying to draw air into lungs that felt like breathing fire, every inch of her a raw, open, bleeding, hurt. Pain flared through her legs as the traumatised nerves jumped and twitched, scraping as something at through them. Dimly she realised she was being pulled backwards across the floor. She forced her eyes closed, focusing on discipline, pushing the pain away to somewhere she could handle.

Slowly her vision cleared, willpower slowing her heart rates to normal, breath coming in painful sobs that she let continue. If she could convince the creature she was still unconscious she had a chance. She turned her head a fraction. The Cull was motionless by the door, visible through the legs of the science bench she was lying behind. Its back was to her. She tried to stand but her legs barely responded. She reached an arm out to grasp the bench, and abruptly a second sensor lit, tracking her movements. The first sensor was just visible, its blue light reflecting from the door, and the primary weapon had not moved, covering the entrance. The Cull she remembered had been fixed, barely mobile, single weapon emplacements units. If this was more agile, she would never have a chance to get out.

She could hear booted feet in the corridor, the sound of someone marching outside. The Cull’s second sensor turned back to the doorway.

She pulled breath into her aching lungs, ready to shout for help, and stopped. Judging by the technical state of the lab this was a primitive world. She would only attract a bystander, an innocent, and the Cull would gun them down the second they stepped through the door. Could she have a death on her conscience, purely for a slim chance to escape? She let the breath out slowly. There would be better opportunities.

The footsteps stopped. She prayed they would not come in, that they would try the door and find it locked. Instead there was the familiar click and hiss of a radio. The speech that followed was in no language she knew at all. She glanced wistfully at her escape capsule, obviously more damaged than she had known if the translator was broken.

The conversation ended. The boots moved closer, the steady clank of metal on wood somehow inhuman. The faint creak of floorboards spoke of something heavy, an inhuman weight. Aliens perhaps? She ducked down behind the bench, trying not to breath, to make the best of the scant cover. The footsteps came to the door and moved on, fading into the creaks and shudders of the old building. It wasn’t until the Cull moved away from the door that she risked standing. Then the door exploded.

What came through, ducked almost double, was huge. There were two, their bearlike bulk snapping the doorframe wider as they entered, and she ducked from the shrapnel. Armoured in grey and blotched black – space camoflage, she recognised – the first fired an energy weapon before it was even in the room.


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