“Like the southern Wilds,” Rice said with a grin. “Stay close to me, boys.” Ben and Jun nodded, wide eyed, at the overgrown leafy foliage. She led them through a gap in giant ferns that opened onto a citrus tree orchard. No blooms flowered the trees though, and they moved on.
They paused infrequently at the sounds of rustling foliage, always caused by animals: rabbits and squirrels, rodents, even some goats. But as they walked, a creeping sensation grew in Ben’s instinct. “Rice,” he said, finally.
“What?” She paused while pushing aside a bush.
“I think something is following us,” he said.
Jun went still again, feeling the frequencies. “I think he’s right,” he said. “Though my range is pretty short.”
“The governor has animals in here,” Rice said. “Maybe there are predators.”
“The animals are food for him and his people. Why would they promote their predation?” Ben asked.
“No idea,” said Rice.
“Why haven’t we seen any guards?” Ben asked, feeling the sensation gather coldly in his stomach.
“Dude, maybe they only patrol the outside?” Jun suggested.
“I’m getting a really bad feeling, guys,” Ben said.
“Just stay calm,” said Rice, though she took her gun out of its holster. “Could your instincts be reacting to a strange environment?”
Ben chewed his lip. “Possibly,” he said.
“Okay,” Rice said. “We need some point of reference instead of wandering around in here blindly.” She turned to Jun. “Where should we be looking?”
“Dude, I don’t know,” he said. “I only know that flowers like warm environments.”
Rice frowned at him. “Really?”
Jun shrugged. “Sorry.”
Rice muttered something about poorly planned operations and turned her glare on Ben. She knocked on a nearby tree trunk with her knuckles. “Shimmy up and see if you can see any flowers,” she said.
He stared at her. “What? Shimmy up? I’ve never climbed a tree in my life.”
“Oh my gods,” Rice said, covering her face with her hands. With a frustrated growl, she stood, holstered her gun, and began climbing the tree. Ben and Jun stared at her until she disappeared into the thick canopy above their heads.
Ben turned to Jun. “You can’t feel that?”
“That vibration in the frequencies,” Ben said.
Jun blinked and went very still for a moment. “Maybe,” he said, “what—”
A shape leaped from the bushes behind Jun and smashed into his back. It sent him flying forward and smashed his head into the tree trunk. Startled, Ben reeled back, tripped over a root and fell on his ass.
He froze. Stared up at the creature standing over Jun’s prone body. It had no eyes. A vertical mouth split its face with jagged teeth. Pale, nearly translucent white skin stretched over dark bone spurs on its skull. Ribs and hips jutted strangely, giving its naked body a broken appearance.
After the flurry of moment that had been its initial attack, time seemed to stop. The creature stared at Ben, and he stared at it. He didn’t breathe. He didn’t blink. Watched the saliva drip from a fang. Long claws tipped with black nails, webbing stretched between the bones, gripped Jun’s body. Adrenalin spiked through Ben’s brain blurring the line between deadened and somatic state. He smelled the meat on its breath. He felt fear tingle through his hands.
Jun stirred, moaning, and the spell broke. The creature hissed and looked down at the prone man. It threw back its head, readying for a bite.
Ben shouted and moved. No thought. A metal spike materialized in his hand. He slammed his shoulder and the spike into the creature. They tumbled from Jun. Ben buzzed shards of metal at it. It screeched. Sunk its teeth into his arm. Grabbed him with its claws. Scored his chest.
He cried out in pain. The tungsten and his brain fractured, exploded into a million fragments. Zipped into the creature’s mouth and into its wound, down into its lungs and veins. Ben screamed as the creature shredded its claws over him. He gasped as crystals grew in the red places of its body. Tungsten shards popped the cells, tiny alveoli burst, first one and then one hundred, veins and arteries shredded. Red filled Ben’s vision as a tungsten crystal grew out of the creature’s chest and mouth.
He shoved the creature off of him and staggered to his feet, blood streaming from his nose. Three more creatures materialized from the bushes. He shuffled back. Felt slow. Tungsten felt slow. Heavy. He cut the jugular of one, carotid of another. The third creature smashed into him, throwing them both to the ground.
Sluggish tungsten buried into the skin of its neck. Too slow. It widened its fangs, aimed for his face.
Ben felt the gunshot before he heard it. Before he saw the blood. The creature fell on him, head cocked at an unlivable angle, its weight heavier than the tungsten. Ben gasped, and stared past it at Rice.
She pulled it off him, and he scrambled away from the body and struggled to his feet. “Jun okay?” Rice asked.
“Don’t know,” Ben said.
“Help me with him,” said Rice. Ben and Rice pulled Jun up, leveraging the smaller man into a fireman’s carry over Ben’s shoulders. “You got him? You okay?”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “For the moment, yeah.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Rice.
“No arguments here,” said Ben. His voice trembled and he did not look at the bodies of the slain creatures.