Dusk is falling fast now; it's a good thing they didn't go any further out than they did. Already it's getting tricky to pick out details, and colors are starting to fade to the blue-gray of oncoming night. There's a quiet, high-pitched chirping whirr coming from all directions; it sounds almost mechanical, but Adrian thinks it's an insect noise. It doesn't do anything for his nerves, either way.
Maybe five minutes from the site and ten minutes from real dark, Simon snaps, "Cover!"
Adrian dives off the trail they've been clearing, rolling in the underbrush and dropping his heat knife so he can raise his rifle. An alien lands right in the middle of the space they've just vacated, solid limbs flexing to take the impact, tentacles whipping above its body. Adrian squeezes off a quick blast as he gets to his feet, and the alien makes a terrible howling noise. "How many?" Adrian calls.
"Three, at least!" Simon yells back. "Augh, you fuck!"
That sounds bad. The one Adrian shot isn't down yet, turning, grasping at him, and he shoots it again—a more solid hit this time, something that must hit vital spots. The thing stops in its tracks, shuddering and thrashing as its legs go out from under it.
Another one lands on his back and Adrian staggers. A tentacle wraps around his throat, squeezing hard, and he can hear the thing's harsh breathing over the roaring in his ears as he sees spots. He lets go of his gun and grabs the tentacle around his throat instead. He yanks it away from his throat, gets a more solid grip, and pulls, ducking his head so he can drag the thing over him and flip it. It tries to cling to him at first, but as the muscles in his shoulders come alive its grip falters, and then it's crashing to the forest floor in front of him. Tentacles thrash; behind him somewhere Simon's rifle barks.
Adrian takes one step closer and brings a boot heel down hard into the center of the thing's body. Something crunches and caves in, and all the flailing limbs lock up. Adrian takes the opportunity to sling his gun back around and pump a solid blast into the body.
The guardian snorted, and then he was turning again, walking away again, and if Koster were ever going to find something brilliant to say, now would be the time.
Anything he might have stammered out was lost in an instant as the guardian slipped between a stand of birch saplings and the stout trunk of an ancient oak, one sleeve falling back as he reached up for a low, twisting limb.
It was too far to see anything clearly, but from where Koster sat astride his now-dancing horse, it looked like the guardian's reaching arm simply unraveled, a tangle of ropes or vines thrown out to catch in the lower branches of the canopy. Swinging up into the trees, the guardian's form melted further, and in the space of one startled blink, he disappeared into the sway of bare twigs and new leaves, dry tangles of ivy.
Swallowing against a mouth gone dry, Koster stared after the vanished shape, his memories of every other guardian of every forest he'd ever paid his respects to coming back in a rush. Despite their powerful bulk, they were as nimble as otters and deft as foxes at disappearing, dancers graceful enough to stop one's breath. He'd been startled more than once by how lightly they carried themselves, but he'd never seen any of them move like that. Not even the Kemilak guardian, and that one hadn't resembled anything human at all.
Time passed swiftly in the mines. Darkness filled the tunnels, broken only by the faint light thrown off by his team's lantern. It offered them just enough light to work by and little more. The passage of time was marked only by the whistles of the work bells. They echoed faintly through the tunnels, barely audible this deep, but he always recognized them. His entire life seemed to be defined by whistles.
The rumbling started seconds after the midday whistle. At first he thought it was just his stomach, but then it grew louder.
One of his fellow miners, Tomas, looked up toward the ceiling as loose stones clattered to the floor. First just one or two, and then more, falling like rain around them.
Someone shouted. The men dropped their pickaxes.
A falling stone knocked the lantern over. It flared once, brightly, before going out, enough to illuminate the cracks crawling up the tunnel walls.
Screams echoed through the mine. More and more voices rose to join the chorus, but not Eli's. He was too afraid to scream.
Darkness engulfed them. He knew, logically, that he should move. He should be running, like the others, toward the surface, toward air and safety, but his feet wouldn't move. His head hurt. There was a buzzing in his head, like a thousand bees. It drowned out the sound of the earth trembling around them.
The tunnels were crumbling. Every miner dreaded the day it would happen to them, but Eli had been fortunate enough that it'd never happened in the five years he'd been working the mines. Until now. Men would die.
Eli was going to die in the mines, just like his father had, and then his family would be left alone with no one to look out for them. His mother wouldn't take it well. There was a good chance the shock would kill her.
He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't die.
For all we called them lizards and they called us monkeys, they weren't really that different from us. There was some weird explanation about panspermia within the Local Bubble that was part of that biology class I slept through. I pretty much did not care about the details. But whatever was behind it, they were still carbon-based, warm-blooded life forms who inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide, even if they were all ridiculously tall and had weird joints and no hair on their skin that ranged from green to gray instead of pink to brown. So I wasn't expecting some twelve-eyed science fiction monster, or anything, but I also hadn't expected him to be pretty.
"Something wrong?" he asked, with a smile that said he knew exactly why I was surprised. He was probably used to being stared at by people who weren't used to seeing a lizard who fit human standards of pretty well enough to ping them, people who were suddenly reconsidering their lack of xeno tendencies. Even his fangs, small and curved down to a perfect point over his lower lip, looked more like prosthetics from a high-budget teenage vampire flick than the huge, crooked ones you saw on the biggest eight-foot terrors of lizards.
"No, nothing," I said with all the fake generosity I could muster. "Having The Man steal my ship and fuck up my delivery job, which you don't even have to pay me for, is my very favorite thing. I love everything about living in a police state. It's awesome."
"Good, I like it when we're all on the same page." Smaller than those of his uglier brethren or not, his smile was full of very shiny knives. "The police state loves you back, citizen."
I leaned forward and rested my forehead on the console, because I really needed a second to consider how my life had come to this. While I was lamenting every choice I had ever made that could have remotely led to me being at the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time and getting legally hijacked by a ridiculously hot, alien cop who had enough of a sense of humor to mock my situation right along with me, said hot alien cop was overriding my system.