“That smell… It is vizi!” he growled as he drew up a flap of material around the neck of his armor and pulled it over his mouth and nose.
She wrinkled her nose as the sickening smell drifted over to her. Terri couldn’t blame him. She didn’t have a strong sense of smell and it was nauseating even to her. A few among the men nearest to them leaned on the wall as they smoked sticky sap from the Orange-Bloom. The flower had appeared about fifty years ago and the sap not only caused a euphoric high but was extremely addictive. The way the smokers were leaning against the wall, smiling in the far distance, she had no doubt that their eyes were glazed over with the effects of the sap.
“Those humans are behaving abnormally, and not only because they do not seem to notice the abominable smell. Their bodily chemicals appear imbalanced,” Veral observed.
She chuckled. “They’re ‘higher than a kite,’ as my grandmother was fond of saying.” She frowned. “I don’t know what a kite is. Maybe some kind of bird? Either way, it’s a drug to make them feel good.”
“It is foolish to intentionally induce impairment to one’s functions,” Veral stated, although a hint of humor edged his tone as they continued to watch for their opening.
“Let me guess,” she said, her attention trained on the pair of men laughing and slipping an item between each other in front of the door, “there are no drugs on Argurumal.”
Now the male beside her snorted derisively. “Do not be absurd. There are drugs on nearly every planet in intergalactic space. Some planets are cultivated exclusively for the addictive drugs they produce. The Argurma are no less susceptible to their influence, but most of the warrior and trader classes have cybernetic augments that make such impulses less likely since we have a more logical core processing unit. Even still among the general population, due to cybernetics, only cases of severe emotional imbalance will drive a cybernetically enhanced Argurma to seek such an escape.”
Veral slipped forward to the right, shifting his angle of vision. She squinted through the darkness searching for him but became disoriented when a raucous sound rose from the center of the camp. It was loud enough that it made Terri jump, her heart pounding in her chest.
After several minutes, Veral scooted back to her side, his face inches from hers as he spoke. “Most of the males are pulling away from the building. I suspect it has something to do with the infernal noise among those gathering in the center of the compound.” He tilted his head, appearing to listen. “They are angry about their losses from their latest hunt, but more so since so many females escaped them.”
Terri frowned and strained to hear. To her frustration, she didn’t hear anything like that but knew that Veral’s hearing was likely far superior to her own even before it had been enhanced.
“All right, let’s go,” she whispered as she patted her bag. “Once we get the females out, I have a nasty surprise for the assholes.”
A bony brow arched at her, and she grinned savagely as she opened her pack. A few days ago, during one of their salvages, she had found an entire box of explosive materials labeled “TNT.” Veral hadn’t been interested in it since it wasn’t worth credits for him to collect, but Terri had been fascinated. It hadn’t been difficult to work out how it was used, although Veral had glared at her when she’d set one off a bit too close to their salvaging area. Now his lips quirked, and glowing eyes narrowed with unmistakable satisfaction. Her alien sure did like his destruction and violence, but unlike the Reapers, he was tempered by mercy and logic about how and when he used it.
At Veral’s signal, she dropped back, her body tensing with anticipation.
Terri wiped her sweaty palms on the legs of her armor, the oddly absorbent material drawing in the moisture. She was nervous, but she knew what to do—though she almost wished they brought Krono with them rather than leaving him to guard the women. She would have felt better having him nearby. She suspected Veral would have too since he’d protested leaving the dorashnal behind. She’d insisted on leaving protection, however. It had been the right decision, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t regret it on some level.
Veral turned and gave her a questioning look, no doubt sensing her anxiety. She smiled at him and gave him a thumbs-up. His eyes focused on the gesture for a long minute before he nodded and slunk away
She was fine.
Terri had to hang back while he approached the shack. Veral had insisted on it, claiming that it would be more expedient and efficient for him to deal with killing the Reapers. Her task was to keep the women calm and escort them out of the compound.
Terri had no argument with that. She wasn’t trained to fight and had little instinct for killing anything. She didn’t even own a single weapon after losing her baseball bat while fleeing from the Reapers. That didn’t stop her from admiring the way he silently crept up behind one of the nearest men. With a quick twist of Veral’s arm, he broke the Reaper’s neck before the man could make a sound.
Veral continued to move like a wraith around them, picking them off one by one. The Reapers, deep in their own fog of drug-induced bliss, weren’t aware of what hit them. It was, in Terri’s opinion, far more merciful than they deserved, but the goal was silence rather than mercy so she had no real complaint.
As Veral took care of the last one, Terri opened the door slowly so that the hinges only squeaked minimally, and stepped inside. Immediately, she gagged at the overwhelming odor of piss, shit, the sour musk of unwashed bodies, and the unmistakable odor of sex. Her eyes widened in horror. There had to have been fifty women crammed into the small space. They were huddled together, filthy, and several had open sores and wounds that had been left untreated.
As her eyes scanned the crowd, she recognized a handful pressed into one corner as those who had been captured during the caravan raid. They held small children close to them. One cried over a little girl whose skin was tinged blue, her glassy eyes staring sightlessly. Her tiny body must have been brutalized and returned to her mother.
Terri felt her throat close in grief and wanted to shut her eyes against the horrors of the prison.
One of the caravan women cried out upon seeing her, and the sound was soon echoed as they pushed through the other women to get to her. The other women turned their heads, tears of relief streaming from their eyes as they too surged toward her. Terri waved her hands frantically to silence them, and the noise dropped so quickly that she blinked in surprise until she felt a familiar presence behind her.
Turning her head, she saw Veral standing just behind her. Every woman went silent. Unlike those women who Terri and Veral had saved, all the women collectively gravitated toward the alien. Terri gaped at them before feeling a surprising wave of irritation as they began to press in around him with sounds of gratitude, more than one woman whispering, begging them to take her with him. Terri bit back a snarl and shook her head in an effort to clear it.
These women were traumatized. She had no reason to be jealous.
Clearing her throat to get their attention, she stepped forward and spoke in a low, urgent voice. “Don’t be afraid. We’re getting you out of here. Everyone needs to quietly follow me out of the building and stick together. Does anyone need help?”
A woman toward the back hesitantly held up her hand. The women parted before her, several of the women from the caravan looking on anxiously, many of them with tears in their eyes. Terri approached, and her eyes misted over as she saw the woman seated on a stool, half of her leg missing above the knee. A blood-soaked tourniquet was wrapped around the stump. The woman managed a weak smile despite her obvious pain.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be able to walk out of here. They cut it off when I tried to escape,” she whispered. Her face was pale and drawn but she met Terri’s eyes steadily, her lips set firmly against the pain. Her expression struck a familiar chord with Terri as the woman bit out, “I took one of the bastards out though. Gutted him like a fish with his own knife.”
Terri leaned forward, trying to determine the best way to move the woman. “I don’t suppose you’re related to Josie?”