Lurking in the shadows beyond the edge of the fires, Veral searched the crowd dispassionately, his recorders once more engaged. He was recording for two reasons: to show his mate the glory of vanquishing of their enemies, and to preserve a record of the strange social phenomena exhibited before him. The riotous press of human males was an impressive sight. They practically climbed over each other in their frenzy, waving all manner of weapons from knives to crude spears to guns. A lone male close to the fire, who seemed to be encouraging the strange revelry, waved around Veral’s blaster.
Although he hated to leave without his favored weapon, he wouldn’t risk his mission for it. Terri was depending on him to wipe out this menace. It was not only logical to remove the blight from the city, but it would give him a great deal of satisfaction to do so. Veral never forgot and rarely forgave. As far as he was concerned, outside of the females, few were innocent. Everywhere he looked, he saw nothing but chaotic brutality. His gaze landed on a lone exception that drew his eye, the one point of stillness among the human frenzy.
A small cluster of human males—soft-faced, likely young and frightened—stood just off to the side, their bodies crowded together tightly as if attempting to draw strength from each other. Veral understood this behavior. He had seen its likeness on young males when they were led in for processing for the cybernetic implants upon reaching maturity.
These males were being forcibly conscripted into the unit.
He trilled quietly to himself, feeling the odd sensation of sympathy that flowed through him. He couldn’t zero in on its cause, recognizing only a flicker of an undefinable memory he couldn’t quite grasp. Before, he might have ignored such an impulse as a malfunction. But since bonding with his mate, he allowed himself to acknowledge the emotion and accept it. On a deep level, he understood the fear that quelled them. The choice between death and joining was a great motivator for increasing a unit’s ranks. He wondered what they would do if presented with an opportunity to be free.
Compelled by the emotions stirred within him, he decided to find out. Perhaps he was feeling moved to exhibit this compassion his mate had spoken of. The idea didn’t thrill him, but he felt like he was reclaiming a part of himself as he moved toward the youths.
Leaning into a crouch, Veral hugged the shadows as he closed the short distance that separated them. He slid behind one of the males lingering at the back and yanked him into the shadows, his hand clasped over the youth’s mouth. The male’s arms flailed, his body twisting as the stench of fear rose up from his pores. Veral tightened his arms around him, restricting his movement until the youth ceased moving, his breath coming out in soft, rapid pants.
Leaning forward, he whispered into the male’s ear. “Do not speak or make a sound. Just indicate with the movement of your head, human. Do you want to escape this place?”
The male stiffened and remained unresponsive. Veral wagered that the human was debating whether or not he was being deceived. The quality was both admirable and annoying.
“This is no deception. You are wasting my time. Yes or no,” he growled.
The male’s head jerked in a positive response.
“Very well. You shall have the opportunity to earn it. Do the others also wish to depart?”
Again, he nodded.
“Return then to your companions and tell any whom you think wish to depart to leave the campfire, but do not attract attention if you want to live. Anyone I see trying to alert the guards will be killed without hesitation or remorse. Once you’ve left the camp center, each of you will need to make your way toward the perimeter gate. You need to be far away from the fire. Understood?”
Again, the youth nodded. Satisfied that his instructions would be followed, Veral let go of him and pushed him back toward his companions, disappearing into the shadows once more. The male gaped at him but then rushed forward and whispered to his companions. Each of them shifted their gaze around as if searching for any sign of Veral, and he smiled grimly to himself. Though they eyed their surroundings warily, they proceeded with caution as one by one they edged away from the fire.
Once he judged their distance sufficient, Veral grinned fiercely. He wouldn’t need to get too close to the fire to get the job done; he would merely have to step far enough out in the light to get within throwing distance.
Sliding the bag of explosives off his shoulder, he gripped the bag in his left hand as he straightened to his full height and strode out among the humans. To his amusement, no one noticed his presence among them at first. They raved at all sides of him, their barely clad bodies writhing so monstrously that he smiled. He walked unseen among them like an incarnation of death until a human, larger and more heavily muscled than his companions, caught sight of him and froze. The alarm went up almost instantly, those nearest to him lurched forward in their zeal, but Veral dispatched them. Drawing his blade, he cut down those nearest to him, blood splattering over his armor as he rushed forward to the fire.
His systems locked on to his target.
The embedded circuitry in his joints fired, providing extra power as he spun the bag around and let it fly across the space. The lower gravity on the planet worked in his favor, sending the bag effortlessly toward its target. He spun around, his vibrissae whirling around him as he sprinted away from the fire. The humans tried to run, but they did not get far. He turned his head at the last minute to see the tote land in the largest fire. The fibers began to smoke immediately. Veral pressed his components to their maximum as he raced across the compound.
Moments later, the explosion rocked the compound. He saw the silhouettes of males up ahead of him freeze, highlighted as they were by the flash of light before he was momentarily blinded. Though he was thrown off his feet upon impact, he rolled and surged up again, running blind. He felt only the briefest impact of the soft, wet projectiles falling upon him in the aftermath, smelling of blood and flesh. He grimaced, knowing even without being able to see that human gore that had pelted him from the bodies caught close to the blast. Veral shook his head against the deafening ringing in his ears and the white light behind his eyes. As he ran, his senses returned. He was able to make out blurry shapes as his vision came into focus and sharpened.
At about that time, he was finally able to hear it. He heard the human screams of pain filling the air, some of them sounding less than human coming from warped chest cavities and twisted vocal cords.
His eyes searched through the dark before falling upon the shaky youths he’d sent out ahead, slowly and unsteadily beginning to rise to their feet. He noted that all were accounted for as they struggled forward again, noticeably spooked by the sound of the screams.
With his nanocybernetics flooding his system to repair the damage from the blast, Veral soon recovered. It took him little time to catch up with them. They stumbled as they ran, their faces pale from shock, though pinched with determination. The wails faded as they gained ground and as those caught in the fires fell. With a low growl, Veral pulled up by their side. They flinched at the sight of him, nearly falling, yet somehow keeping each other upright as they ran.
Veral’s eyes homed in on the male he’d spoken to. “Move! You will find safety this way. Do not drop back unless you desire to remain here.”
Though reeking of fear, all seven males ran faster at his threat, staying as close as they dared as he led them toward the compound gate. For their sake, he kept his pace slow enough to be reasonable for human ability but stopped short, fury flooding his veins at the sight that greeted him at the compound’s gates.
Terri groaned as she rose to her feet. Her ears were still ringing, but gradually she was able to hear the crying baby she’d offered to carry for a weary mom. Shushing the little boy as she bounced him, she watched the women assisting each other up from the ground. Everyone looked shell-shocked, their faces pale with dust and grit. They shook their heads and a few of them began to whimper. At the sound, the toddler in her arms began to wail, bringing his mother instantly to her side. Terri smiled in relief at the woman and handed the little one over as the other woman mouthed her thanks.
Coughing on the dust in the air, Terri inspected the women. “Is everyone okay? Becky?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Becky grumbled. “I think I had the safest spot of all the ladies. This son of a bitch barely moved during the explosion. How about everyone else?” she shouted back.
Affirmations floated forward as women brushed themselves off and blinked their eyes. A few of the small children cried, but for the most part everyone seemed to be unhurt.