A flash of light notified a message coming from the small spaceship hovering outside of the Wei Han Federal Laboratories.
From: single-pilot corvette ARGO, serial number W-SR-213.
Crew: Space Ranger S-145 (Solar Federation)
Message: Asking permission to dock. Responding call for aid coming from this station.
A drop of sweat ran through Doctor Herrera’s brow, even though he had been the one to call the Solar Federation. Matters of law enforcement had never been of interest to him. He had always enjoyed his protected status and peaceful comfort as a perfectly obsequious model student in one of the many Federal Science Academies, and never had to suffer the sight of someone like a Space Ranger. Information about them was scarce, and the impression they left so strong that no one could tell if the stories about them were truth of legend. With an unusually high-pitched tone, he ordered the secretary to grant permission, cleaning his sweaty hands with a white handkerchief.
He forced his stone-like legs to get to the hangar, against the better judgement of his heart urging him to hide in his room until the whole matter had been settled. He arrived just in time to see the landed spacecraft hatching, and an armored man walking out, tall, bulky and imposing.
The Ranger identified Herrera in a moment. He held a small tablet in his hand.
“Greetings, Ranger” said the Director, clearing his throat. “I am so relieved that someone is available to help us. The situation is terrible.”
The Ranger gave a slight nod. He still had his helmet, giving not a single hint of the face inside.
“I have a Tier 1 permission” he muttered through the speakers in his gear, handing the tablet to the nervous Director.
“Oh, sure. The code.”
Pulling out a similar device, Herrera let it scan the barcode glowing on the screen. Both beeped and gave out a message: Permission granted.
“All right, your access is confirmed. Would you follow me to my office, erm, please?”
The Ranger raised his hand. “It seemed an emergency. If you want you can brief me right here so I can live just after.”
“Excuse me, erm, sir” he whispered. “Doctor Robinson’s research was a secret operation explicitly requested by the Federation. It is… a matter of state, so to speak.”
“I understand, that was not clear on the message. Lead the way.”
None of them uttered a word as they strode across the cold and aseptic white corridors of the research station. Once inside the Director’s office, Herrera pointed at a chair on one side of the desk and sat on another, facing the screen of his own computer.
“What happened, exactly? The message was cryptic and the Federation forbid me access to any information.”
“As I said, Doctor Robison was working in great secret, and there are precise instructions not to mention his research via remote communication, in any way. Selected inspectors come here regularly to check the status of this research in person.”
The Ranger nodded again. This only made things harder.
“I am so thankful you came so soon; time is running short already. I do not know precisely when and how it happened, but it was during sleep time. The station’s main computer and the security system got hijacked, and the staff could do nothing but working to restore it – they were stuck in the control room, with a malfunctioning system! Eventually, they managed to repair it, but when Doctor Robinson’s assistants went to work again during work time, they found nor him nor anything related to the research.”
“Go it” sighed the Ranger. “Anything else? May he have escaped with the research?”
“Why would he ever do that? Erm, no, Ranger, sir. He has been kidnapped. We found this in his work device.”
Herrera searched for something in his computer and turned the screen. The Ranger saw a symbol he only knew from his colleagues’ reports and documents, stored in the Federation’s archive: a white alien skull, with long fangs clenched on a colorful snake-like creature, its coils all twirled around it. The sign of the Krazyt pirates.
“I have heard of them, but never such a clean work. They are used to raiding stations.”
“I cannot believe we have been fooled like this” whined Herrera.
“Did you call as soon as you discovered all of this?”
“Yes, sir. Immediately.”
“Maybe I can track them and bring back your Robinson and his research.”
“You alone against a band of outlaws!?”
“It is what we do.”
Director Herrera was about to protest, but then surrendered to the Ranger’s practical confidence.
“Very well. Please, Ranger, it is vital that you succeed.”
The Space Ranger nodded a last time. “You must understand that I do not know what the Federation will decide about this incident after the mission has been accomplished. You all got yourself in an ugly predicament.”
Herrera stared blankly at the table, as clean and anonymous as everything else in that station.
“I do” he sighed.
With a deep research in the Solar Federation Intel System, the Space Ranger was able to collect enough signals of the Krazyts’ passage and track an approximated route leading to them. They were know for leaving terror and destruction in their passage, for attacking any possible target they could find in their way, and for always seeking confrontation with the law. The traces they left were perfectly coincident with their habits, unlike the way they had operated Robinson’s kidnapping. The Ranger chose that the best course of action was to keep the attention high.
The Argo sprinted along the route until the pirate fleet became visible to the radars, and then to the human eye, the design of its ships so distinctive with its jagged points and heavy wings of a strange bronze-hued metal they used, and the red, gray, and black paint decorating them. The Ranger set stealth mode and approached them, looking out for the Captain’s vessel.
Small, agile, and technologically superior, the spacecraft managed to get undetected under the pirate fleet, thanks to its advanced tools and the lack of them aboard pirate vessels. It took little effort to identify the admiral ship, whose command position was signaled by red stain above the Krazyt skull sign.
The Argo attached like a parasite to the lower side of its hull. The Ranger got out activating a similar device installed in his boots, which allowed him to walk upon the bronze-like surface even though with great effort. Internal insulation prevented any kind of sound from announcing his coming to the crew inside.
Eventually, the Ranger found a small hatch used for maintenance operations. No sooner had he lifted it that a puff of air came out of the tunnel leading inside the ship. A trapdoor at the end brought him into a scarcely lit corridor.
He deactivated his boots’ attaching device and started exploring what seemed to be a storage area.
The pirates kept no monitoring system, as it was usual for their kind: no outlaw crew in the entire space would have accepted one, but no captain wanted to bother about it either. The Ranger crawled through heaped boxes, finding no one but a single guard sleeping on the job, his fanged mouth open and dribbling, his short but sturdy body abandoned on a metal chair.
Creeping behind the Krazyt he locked the alien’s mouth in the hold of his arm. Before he could wake up and understand what was happening, a handgun was poking at his ear.
“Do not struggle, Krazyt. Want to live? Then tell me where the prisoner is. Don’t feign ignorance of the common tongue.”
With a pirate’s typical cowardice in front of a proper soldier, the Krazyt started to shake and babble with agitation, his voice muffled by the armored arm blocking his maw.
“Is the human scientist in another ship?”
“No, no. He no prisoner.”
“So he’s here, and walks free.”
The pirate nodded, heavily sweating with a gelatinous a.nd disgusting substance as he got increasingly anxious.
“Tell me where he is, and make sure to speak softly if you don’t want to taste a bullet. ”
The pirate hissed. “The command deck. He’s there.”
“I can understand if you’re lying, you know?” said the Ranger, pressing the handgun further on the Krazyt’s head.
“I swear, I swear! I’m telling the truth.”
Nothing in his body language said otherwise, even after attempting to get him. That was all the Ranger could obtain from him.
A strong hit on the top of his head, and the pirate collapsed to the ground with a thud.
The Ranger gave a last look to his informer’s narrow nostrils and scaly skin, pondering a way to get to the command deck, surely packed with henchmen and guards of any sorts. If Robinson was there, and not as a prisoner, something else was at work. And not a good thing.
He peeked outside, checking for further company, but those lower corridors were deserted. Storage and cells were rarely surveilled by more than one or two men, while the others toiled on more specific task proper of space travel.
The Ranger proceeded forward, looking for a way up, passing as silent as he could be under the pale lights of small lamps set on each side of the corridor. At last he found a ladder which brought him near a dormitory. Its metal doors were closed. The sound sensor gave no sign of activity inside.
A small ripple of sound on the wall of silence before him originated not far from his position, and soon became increasingly wider: someone was walking along the corridor, coming in the Ranger’s direction. He could hear no step at the start, but soon the sound of boots reached his ears. Behind him the way went on for far too many steps before he could get into a decent hiding place: all he could do was hiding inside the dormitory. Still quiet, he pushed the door open and slid inside before the Krazyt could notice.
The pirate, too, entered the room, but as he muttered something about someone running away from his work upstairs, a heavy punch crushed his face, breaking the long fangs and bleeding his reptile nose. The Krazyt slowly slid down the wall, losing consciousness.
In his pockets, the Ranger found what he needed most in the moment: a small tablet, easy to hold in a single hand. He looked through his functions and files until he found the plant of the ship, with approximate but useful information on its structure and functioning.
“I owe you one.”
Out of the dormitory, the Ranger turned to his left, always checking the sound sensor and the plant of the ship. Taking care at avoiding the main corridors, he reached the passage to the upper level: another ladder.
On that level, the rooms hosted the main functions of the ship: weapons, engine, and so on. According to the map, the command deck was on the opposite side of where the Ranger stood.
As he went on, it became harder to pass through unnoticed. One or two Krazyt would often get in his direction, and there were few places to hide. Often the Ranger had to enter adjacent rooms and took cover from those patrolling the corridors among the ones operating their tasks inside the room. Many times he had to knock a guy down, but eventually he got to the stern and located the ladder leading to the command deck.
He began climbing, but before he could reach the end he heard the sound of blasters charging behind his back.
“We’re not as dumb as you think. Climb down here, asshole.”
A group of Krazyt stood under the Ranger, all pointing their guns at him except one. He thought about jumping down and fight, but the blaster were near enough to hit him in any case. The armor would have protected him, but so many strikes at once would have damaged it heavily, putting him at a disadvantage.
The unarmed pirate look at the armor, recognizing the Solar Federation logo and the symbol of the Space Rangers. His wicked satisfaction depicted a distorted smile on his reptile face.
“A Ranger, eh?”
His voice was rough and dry. “I don’t know what the Fed could want from us.”
The entire group rejoiced in vulgar laughter, both sight and sounds almost provoking the Ranger’s pride. Before he could reply, the head of another Krazyt appeared from the open trapdoor above the ladder.
“Hanging around and joking instead of doing your job. Better for you to have a good reason.”
He noticed the Ranger just a moment later.
“We have one. Tell the Captain we have an important guest. And from the Fed, no least.”
The pirate on the upper level snorted and walked away. Heavy steps announced his return about a minute later, when he ordered them to come up.
“Bring him, but take his toys away first.”
The chief of his captors put his scaly hands on the Ranger’s armor, pushing buttons and pulling hooks, removing piece after piece. The man inside the armor was as fearsome as his armor, bulky, stern and frost-eyed, and even though they were many against one, the pirates were doing great effort to hide their trembling awe behind a tough arrogance.
“You want to get up there, don’t you? Move.”
It was in such arrange that the Ranger got to the command deck, defenseless and unarmed, guns pointed at his back, their tips pushing him forward. The room was not that big, half a dozen of Krazyt were stationed in front of old computers, monitoring the status of the ship with rudimental tools. The Captain awaited there with few guards, taller and broader than most of his men, his scarred face standing out as to mark his rank. Beside him, a middle-aged black man, still wearing the uniform of the Wei Han Federal Laboratories, eyed the Ranger with the look of a fox.
The Captain had an even wilder smile than that of his henchmen. He chuckled at Dr. Robinson.
“The Fed has already come for you, Doctor.”
“That’s why you had to escort me” replied the scientist. “We and your boss expected it.”
“You’ve got guts, Robinson, to betray the Federation” said the Ranger.
Robinson kept his clever smirk. “Some of us do sometimes.”
“Don’t think you can escape the Federation this easily. It won’t let you sell its secret so easily.”
“But I’ve already succeeded, Ranger. You’ve been captured. Before the Federation can react we will be out of reach already.”
The Captain was clearly enjoying the scene, his back leaning against the wall, but interrupted the exchange by addressing the Ranger.
“I think the boss will love to see you. But first, how did you come here? We didn’t detect any ship.”
“Sure you will find his one attached to this vessel somewhere. The Rangers have many trinkets” said Robinson.
The Captain’s eyes glinted with interest.
“Do you know how they work?”
“No, but I can study them if you let me near the ship. And also, I would like to look at his armor.”
“Very good. You, boys, lock him in the cell.”
The pirates pushed the Ranger away from the commander’s deck and back to the lower one, and locked him in a small room near the hatch he had entered through. As primitive as the rest of the ship was, the cell had the size of a storage closet, with a simple door of steel-like metal.
The simplest technology. The easiest to bypass.
“Sleep tight, Ranger. It’s the only thing you can do in there” cried one of the Krazyt. A vulgar laughter echoed across the corridor as they went back to their work.
The Ranger paid them no attention, being already busy making up a new plan to save the day and accomplish the mission. He had not seen anything yet that could contain the research, nor any document of sorts, as Robinson seemed to carry nothing with him. Still, he had to keep his treasure close somewhere.
He rested, waiting for the crew’s sleep cycle to begin and the pirates to go into their dormitories, leaving a small number to monitor the ship.
Metallic doors had never been a real problem to a Space Ranger. The Krazyt had taken his armor, yet the suit he wore under it provided useful emergency tools inside pouches hidden on the fabric.
A black stripe running through his left calf hid a lockpick. The Ranger pulled it out and started working on the door. Patience and skills did the job, and a low clack announced him his new-found freedom.
With the arrogance of all stupid people, the Krazyt thought it unnecessary to watch over their prisoner, and probably had done it against the better judgement of the Captain. Their neglect was about to ruin them.
Putting the lockpick back to its place, the Ranger exchanged it with a narrow blade hidden in his arm and started running nimble and silent. Being without armor left him completely vulnerable blasters but gave him the advantage of stealth.
His first objective was retrieving his armor, which must have been wherever Robinson kept his personal objects. He had an high chance to find the research in the same place. But first, he needed a fire weapon. A small dagger like the one he was wielding was not enough to take over an entire pirate vessel.
The Ranger traversed the lower deck carefully but swiftly. In his mind, he worked to remember as much as possible of the map he had taken from the Krazyt some hours before. His feet fell upon the floor making but the slightest rustle.
He got in front of the storage room again, and heard someone walking inside. A faint click echoed in the moment he pushed the handle of the door.
“Who’s there?” shouted the Krazyt inside. “No midnight snacks.”
The Ranger heard the sound of a handgun loading as the pirate approached the door. In the moment it opened, he sprang to the Krazyt and blocked his hands. Before the guard could react, a punch struck his neck.
The Krazyt fell to the ground gasping, leaving the gun in the Ranger’s hand.
“Keep quiet” he said. “Else I’ll shoot.”
The Krazyt was still grasping his aching neck. The Ranger walked next to him, pointing the gun at his chest.
“Where is Robinson’s cabin? Speak softly.”
“Near the Captain’s. Third level, just below the command deck.”
Using a technique he had learnt in his special training, the Ranger struck the Krazyt where his nerves were more exposed. The pirate bulged his eyes and lost his senses.
The first objective had been accomplished, now it was time for the second. The Ranger got to the third deck effortlessly, and finding the Captain’s cabin revealed an even easier task, given all the ornaments. Near it there was a smaller cabin on the right. From a narrow window above its door came a warm light.
The Ranger pulled out his lockpick and performed his trick again. Robinson did not hear the door opening, as its clacking was covered by the frantic clatter of a computer keyboard.
While the Ranger entered, Dr. Robinson kept typing unaware. When something cold and metallic pushed his nape, he almost jumped on his seat.
“Freeze!” hissed the Ranger. “Don’t dare alerting the crew.”
Robinson sighed. “These idiots pay well, but can’t manage to grant safety.”
“You should have realized it before selling them federal secrets. Where’s the research?”
“Look at your right.”
The Ranger pivoted around him, so not to lose his sight on him. Robinson was analyzing his armor, the notes on his laptop the first data he had acquired.
But most importantly, he saw a suitcase placed upon a drawer.
“Everything I’ve stolen is inside” said the scientist.
Robinson got up and pulled a narrow electronic card: a digital key. He inserted it into an entrance on the suitcase. A beep notified that it could be opened.
“You don’t actually know what I was working on, mh?”
“Open the suitcase, Robinson.”
The scientist grunted. “Typical.”
He lifted the upper lid with extreme are. Black cloth covered the inside; pouches contained printed documents and an external hard drive. But the big thing was kept in the lower lid: in two different glass containers, their feeble form immersed in a dense liquid, there were two fetuses. Way bigger than a human one, their shape was like that of a small arrow, soft and malleable, coiled several times.
Robinson noticed the Ranger’s confused look. “They’re Xantos.”
The soldier’s brow furrowed with sudden realization. “The Federation wanted to study Xantos?”
Robinson nodded. “It did. You know, the people of Mars love freedom and martial prowess. The Federal Army can’t manage to break them, and the Space Rangers refuse to take part in this war. They’re still loyal to their original purpose: order and safety in the space routes. So, they needed something else. Maybe a bioweapon?”
He chuckled, enjoying the shock in the Ranger’s eyes.
“These are two clones, and here’s the purpose of the research. Xantos are too hard to hunt, right? They’re apex predators; catching one is extremely expensive in both monetary and human terms. Ask your friends at the Federation how many units and how much money they lost in order to bring a specimen to the Laboratories. If you can clone and breed them, though…”
Robinson left the Ranger to draw his conclusions.
“They’re a male and a female” muttered the Ranger.
“Of course. But to tell you the truth they were meant to be artificially fertilized. Letting them be in a group is not safe. The papers contain all the details. The hard drive has a digital copy.”
Robinson patted the suitcase. “These guys will be able to slay entire space crews by themselves. They’re extremely resistant to most weapons, and have a killer instinct that is unmatched by all other forms of life. The less literate call them “space demons” for a reason.”
He smiled. “If you wonder why I’m telling it all: I just want to let you know who you’re working for.”
“Did you sell the research to the Krazyt? Or are they just an intermediary?”
“Ikhvyt is very ambitious” said Robinson, his wide smile shining of pure white. “He’s the most respected Krazyt corsair, almost like their warlord at this point. All the Krazyt pirates are uniting under his banner, as well as scoundrels of other races. Can I close the case now?”
The Ranger nodded, and Robinson sealed the case.
“Now give me that key.”
Robinson replied. “Of course. I was actually the first to enter in contact with him and he was really interested. He started to assemble a group of scientist as I planned my escape with this band.”
He made a gesture as to point at the whole ship while giving the Ranger the electronic key.
“My guess is that he wants to finance his future endeavors by selling Xantos to the best bidder.”
“And you will share the profits with him.”
“That, and I will finally be free. Not confined anymore by the walls of my own workplace, I won’t exchange my former prison for a golden cage that has the sole purpose of keeping me quiet and under the Federation’s eye.”
Suddenly, a Krazyt’s voice echoed outside the cabin.
“Human! You’ve left the door open.”
Robinson was of quick thinking. In that fraction of second in which the Ranger averted his gaze from him to look at the cabin’s entrance, the scientist pushed the Ranger’s shoulders and darted out of the room.
“Ranger’s here! Shoot him!”
“Sound the alarm! I’ll try to get him!”
The Ranger pulled a short piece of furniture away from the wall and crouched behind it. The suitcase was still there, but it was not time to worry about that. Two pirates had entered the cabin, blasters ready to shoot.
With the speed of a well-trained soldier, he sprang out of his cover and shot at one of the Krazyt.
“Down!” cried the other, but his comrade was not fast enough. The Krazyt fell to the ground lifeless.
Cursing, the second pirate fired back. His blaster burned and splintered the border of the Ranger’s cover while he dived back behind it.
Filled with rage, the Krazyt jumped upon the furniture ready to shoot down at the Ranger, but was met by a high kick hitting his chin. The Ranger exploited the moment and fired again, finishing his opponent.
Doubt crossed his mind as he eyed this armor, its pieces carefully laid upon Robinson’s working table. He wore gauntlets and helmet before taking the suitcase and one pirate’s blaster and running out of the room, where some of the reinforcements had already arrived. The Captain was with them.
“Kill this fucker!”
Both them and the Ranger raised their weapons at the same time, blasters against gauntlet. A white glow shone in his palm, its light growing fast until only the helmet prevented him from squinting his eyes.
The impact made the whole ship tremble. When the white light went out, the walls were torn apart and the floor was blackened and broken. Nothing was left of the Krazyt.
The entire ship was now on alert. Sirens blasted all around, almost covering the cries of the crew and the sound of people running. The Ranger ran beyond the Captain’s cabin; he had to make his way to the hangar and fly away as soon as possible. He may be not able to bring Robinson to Gaia, but at least his plans would be thwarted. This could buy time, or maybe, left without his exchange token, he would have lost his usefulness to the Krazyt’s eyes.
A small band of pirates jump from a sideways passage and stood on his way. They started blasting, but the Ranger jumped down, sliding across the pavement in their direction. A blaster shot put one down, and a wide low kick brought the other two to the ground: they fell, hitting their necks on the hard floor.
He kept descending. Red intermittent lights and pale white lamps flashed above him, the maddened whistle of the alarm attacked his ears on every side. Occasionally, some Krazyt would be in his way, but often they would run away on their own, or, too slow and still sleepy, they would be neutralized easily.
As he entered the hangar, he kept his breath. Krazyt corpses were all around him, and Dr. Robinson, a blaster in his hand, approached the launching pad, running toward the Argo.
The prospect of getting his ship stolen awakened a wild instinct in the Ranger. Stumbling on the bodies left by Robinson, he went after him, stopping from time to time to fire at him. The shots always missed by inches, yet hindered the scientist’s way to the spacecraft.
The Argo had been left open. When Dr. Robinson made his first steps on the ramp leading inside, the Ranger had already got near him.
“Hands up and blaster on the ground. Quick!”
Robinson complied, moving carefully, just in time for the pirates to get inside the hangar. Just as the Ranger had kicked the man’s gun away, a rain of blaster shots fell all around him, some shots hitting the Argo.
The Ranger pushed Robinson inside the ship, just in time to hear “Emergency mode. Ship under attack!” coming from the control panel.
“Here S-145! Initiate launch!” cried the Ranger, as he closed Robinson inside a small cell.
The Argo swayed as another charge of blasters crashed against the hull.
When the Ranger got to the cockpit, the Argo was ready to depart. He took control of the ship’s weaponry, aiming at the nearest group of Krazyt shooting him.
“Set route to Wei Han Federal Laboratories!”
He pulled the trigger. The blaster cannon wreaked havoc among them, as the impact burned them and shattered the floor. Many ran away as soon as they had seen the gun pointing at them, and rushed madly, caring not for enemy or friend, pushing and slamming against everyone who was in their way.
Setting course. Please wait…
The chaos gave him the chance to get out unpursued. The Ranger turned the cannon towards the closed shutter.
He fired as many times as he could before the weapon overheated. The pirate vessel trembled another time while as chunk after chunk of its hull were destroyed, until an overwhelming gust of air pulled the Argo out of it, dragging along living bodies and corpses, and boxes and tools, into the open space.
“Set maximum speed” said the Ranger. The Argo darted through the Krazyt fleet and far beyond before everyone could realize what had happened.
The Ranger let a sigh of relief. He was so tired that he fell asleep almost instantly.
The Ranger was woken up by the ship’s message. Destination reached.
The Laboratories stood in front of him, silent, most of its lights turned off. The Ranger typed a quick message for the station’s hangar.
Space Ranger S-145, single-pilot corvette ARGO. Operating under federal authority.
Space Ranger S-145. Please open the hangar and allow docking.
Still nothing came from the station.
S-145. Carrying important materials for this station. Let me in or I will force landing.
Nothing happened. It was almost like the Laboratories were deserted.
S-145. Forcing landing.
The Ranger lowered his ship to the same height of the hangar’s shutter. As it had done before, the blaster cannon fired against it, melting the hard steel until a hole was left which the Argo could pass through. Air started to pour out of the station; the security system inside activated at once, and the internal door leading inside the facility automatically shut to prevent further air losses.
The Argo entered the Laboratories and docked. No one was inside the hangar; complete silence loomed over it.
An emergency power armor was kept inside the Argo. Worried by this turn of events, the Ranger wore it piece to piece, and took a blaster rifle.
He walked through the hangar as fast as he the anti-gravity boots allowed. Beside the internal shutter sealing the area there was a security door. He turned the wheel at its center, so opening the door, and jumped in.
His feet slipped on something slimy and wet: a pool of red gore.
Gasping, the Ranger turned left and right. The corridor he was in was dimly lit by white lights projecting a scant and eerie glow. More blood had been splashed on the floor and the walls, leading further inside the station.
Turning on the lights on his helmet, he started following the red trail which had revealed to him. At its end, inside a dark room, four narrow fissures glared bright up in the ceiling.
A gut-wrenching screech pierced the silence, and the alien beast jumped on the Ranger. Though scarcely lit, he saw its body rotating on itself except for its center, where a circular maw showed lines and lines of sharp teeth. Around it, the eyes were surrounded by scales like steel. It was a Xanto.
The Ranger dived to the right, crashing against a group of steel chairs. Around the beast a set of thin antennae straightened to prevent a ruinous fall on the pavement, and not even a charge of blaster managed to make it lose its balance. All the Ranger could do was run away.
He zigzagged in search of a way of escape. The Xanto kept darting like an arrow behind him, trying to get its fangs on his head or his arms. Eventually, the helmet lighted a door in front of her.
He threw a small grenade behind his back to distract the alien. A flash of light sparked in the darkness and it exploded, burning a circular area around the beast. Its scales were unscathed, but the trick worked: the creature shifted its attention for just enough time to allow the Ranger to pass through the door.
Another wrathful screech echoed across the station. Apparently, the Xanto could not follow him through.
There was no hope for survivors. More blood and corpses lay all around. All the Ranger could do was finding another way back to the ship before the Xanto got him.
Another screech came from the distance: the alien had not called defeat yet. The Ranger moved carefully and silent through more corridors, hoping to avoid another encounter.
Its prayers were not to be made true. The Xanto’s cries became nearer each time, as he walked the long way to the hangar, until, just before he got in front of its security door, the alien screeched some meters to his left.
He quickly threw another grenade at it. The explosion burst just under the Xanto, distracting it as the Ranger rotated the wheel and opened the door.
Inside the insulated hangar, hold to the floor by the anti-gravity boots, the Ranger thought he could allow himself a sigh of relief, but when he looked at the place, a new problem had risen.
The Ranger had payed for his hurry and distraction. Robinson had found a way to escape and was now stumbling with his hands and feet on the handles dotting the pavement, his breath protected by a small oxygen mask, carrying his suitcase to the nearest spaceship.
He had thought about everything, it seemed. Who knew what other trinket he carried with himself.
Cursing his naivety, the Ranger strode toward him. He still walked slowly due to the absence of gravity, but the boots allowed him much more speed than the scientist could afford. With a desperate look, Robinson pulled a small pistol from his suit and shoot at the Ranger. Being in great hardship, as he clang to the handles trying not to lose his suitcase, he missed all the shots. The bullets all hit the ground around the Ranger.
Robinson made greater effort to reach a ship before the Ranger got him. He had almost got near one, when a strong arm grabbed his leg and pulled him back.
“You go nowhere but back to Gaia to face a trial” said the Ranger. “All this is your idea, isn’t it?”
The scientist looked at his visor with hateful fear. He could not reply, and the Ranger was happy about it. He wanted to hear no more from him, nor see him again once he was in the hands of the Federation’s justice.
Robinson kept on resisting him even now that he was powerless. The Ranger grabbed the suitcase, and the other clang on it with all its strength, discharging his pistol at him. Those bullets could only but scratch the power armor.
The Ranger punched Robinson in the gut. Even covered by the mask, he heard the man gasping painfully as he left the grasp on the suitcase and the pistol. Of those the Ranger took only the thing he needed.
“Now come with me” he said, when the angry screech of the Xanto echoed again.
They turned left and right as they heard the alien smashing the steel with its own body, the weird scales clanging like metal on metal against a shutter somewhere in the aeration conducts.
At last the shutter broke. Further air was sucked out of the station as the Xanto darted out and toward the two men, with nothing but lust for blood in its four glowing eyes.
“Get out of here!” cried the Ranger. He shot the beast with his rifle, aiming at the center of its mouth as it approached, but the teeth seemed as resistant as its scales.
Robinson dared not move, but the Xanto had a special gripe with the Ranger who had tried to fool him twice. It twisted its unearthly shape and it dived onto him.
The Ranger tried to step back, but he was too slow. The alien bit his shoulders, gnashing its teeth against the power armor. They were sharp as blades; with every crunch, the armor got greater damage than with a blaster shot, until the Xanto’s fangs were almost puncturing the Ranger’s shoulders.
Warning! Armor suffering heavy damage!
The Ranger grabbed the Xanto’s tail and pushed it away just before the alien sank its fangs on his flesh. It screeched when he shot a blaster charge toward its eyes, which did nothing but burst on its face, allowing him to put some distance. Robinson had left the suitcase and it was now hovering a few steps to the Ranger’s right. He took it as he stepped back, giving a quick glance at the Argo. The spacecraft awaited there, still and silent.
The scientist had at last found his strengths and was crawling to another ship just as before. The moment the Xanto eyed the Ranger grasping the suitcase, something awakened in its mind, and it started to look for Robinson.
The Ranger shoot at it another time, but once again a blaster rifle was nothing to him. The Xanto dived on Robinson and closed its maw on his head. He shook and trembled, trying to pull the beast away, his head entirely engulfed inside its mouth, as the Xanto moved frantically like a fish out of the water.
Eventually, the alien left him, and a pale, withered husk of a man started to hover a few inches above the hangar’s floor, like a ghost haunting a tomb in the middle of space.
Now, the alien turned to the Ranger again. It threw itself at him, faster than before, opening its horrifying jaw, making his steel-like fangs clack.
As a last resort, the Ranger faced the Xanto, waiting for its time to strike. The alien opened its maw to its full extent to attack him.
The Ranger shoved the suitcase in its mouth at the very last moment, and stepped back. The case managed to block the Xanto’s mouth, and the alien was now looking confusedly at him trying to free its maw.
The Xanto munched the case, breaking it with just a single bite. The security system activated instantly: the case exploded inside the alien. This was enough. Its steel-like scales fell off and jumped all around it, along with black chunks of weird alien flesh, very similar to that of a snail.
The mission was over. A total disaster, but at least the Xanto had been killed.
The Ranger walked tiredly to the Argo, and was inside set an automatic route to Gaia. Before going to rest again, he sent a report to the Federation.
S-145: Mission failed. Setting route to Gaia to make full report.
The Ranger looked at the Laboratories as the Argo left them to reach Gaia. He thought at the Federal plans Robinson had told him about, imagining the Federation using Xantos against communities of dissidents, or against the free people of Mars.
“Thank God this one failed.”
COMMENT: I wrote this story last year, with drafting occupying the whole month of January and revision occurring in the summer. I had initially thought of planning this anthology of short stories set in a sci-fi future mixing a bit of galactic politics that could feel related to current history (which is hinted here and there in the story), with my appreciation for atmospheres and situations you can find in Metroid games. I abandoned the idea, at least temporarily, since it doesn’t really resonate with me at the moment, and since the only story I managed to write in this setting didn’t get to that standard of quality I find acceptable for publishing (as it lacks at least a certain depth of theme to me), I chose to publish it here. Given that I haven’t posted on here for a while, too, it seemed appropriate.
Though I don’t see this story as optimal, I hope you enjoyed it a little bit, and thanks for reading if you got up to this point. Until next time!