Days like this were a struggle. Not because Menace hated being with his clanmates. They were his brothers, his only family. It had always been them versus the universe, and he’d happily lay down his life to save any of them.
His life would be easier if he did hate them, or at least was indifferent to them. If he didn’t care, he could leave this place and go live somewhere else. It was a big planet. He’d find somewhere quiet and far enough away he’d never be tempted to see his brothers again.
They were his family, but some dark, primal part of him didn’t care about that. Every time he spent too long with the others, his dark side would rouse and pace the confines of the mental cell he’d sealed it inside.
One day, it would break free. On that day, he feared what would happen. Not to him, but to the only family he had—the fa’rel.
The problem was that he didn’t hate them, which was why he was with two of his brothers, helping Mayhem extend the roof of his home. Weaving grass and slender branches into the existing roof wasn’t physically demanding work, but what it lacked in backbreaking labor it made up for with mind-numbing tedium.
Still, it needed to be done, and it went faster when they worked together. This week, he and Strife were helping Mayhem. Next week, the three of them would be at Strife’s home, and the week after that, they’d all be coming to help him prepare his place for the rainy season.
They’d struggled their first year on this planet. In the beginning, they had nothing but the supplies they’d salvaged from the wreckage of their crashed ship. They’d huddled inside the ruined shell as the rain fell day after day. Being in such close quarters had nearly driven him to the breaking point more than once, and he’d spent most of his time outside. Flash floods, carnivorous wildlife, and the constant rain had been better than being stuck inside with his brothers.
Mayhem worked on the roof from above while Menace worked from below. They’d fallen into a comfortable silence that made it easier for him to stay focused on the job and not the proximity of the others. The longer he could work uninterrupted, the longer he could stay.
So of course, his brother had to do something stupid. Mayhem growled and tugged so hard at the thatching he was working on that part of it pulled loose and showering Menace with bits of vegetation.
“If you fuck that up, you can fix it yourself.” He glared up at his clanmate while brushing plant bits and dust out of his beard. A long blade of orange grass hung from one of his horns and he swiped at it absently.
“You grumble more than Strife when it rains. It’s fine,” Mayhem replied unapologetically.
His dark side wanted to grab his brother by the horns and drag him through the hole in the roof. Instead, he flashed his fangs and made a joke. “No need to be insulting. I don’t grumble anywhere near as much as he does.”
A moment later they were caught in a shower of freshly cut branches. Strife had obviously heard them.
“Asshole,” he hollered loudly enough his brother couldn’t fail to hear. Then he sighed and looked around at the mess. “Now we need to stop and clean up before we can start the next section.”
“You’re grumbling again,” Mayhem said.
He swallowed an angry retort and rolled his shoulders to disguise some of his tension. “One more comment from you and I’m going home. You can finish this yourself.”
He didn’t want to leave until the work was done, but it wouldn’t be the first time. His brothers understood. They all had the same problem, though he’d always been affected more than the others. He hid it as best he could, but they gave him space when he needed it. The need to dominate was part of their design, but the verexi had—by intention or by accident—ramped his up to dangerous levels.
He rarely thought about the scrawnies—their name for the race responsible for creating him and his brothers. Thinking about their captors only made him seethe and wish for a chance at payback. Not that the verexi were stupid enough to come down to the planet where they’d imprisoned his clan. Losing control of their creations was an embarrassment for them. From time to time, the verexi would hire mercenaries to try and exterminate the fa’rel. Each time that happened, the mercenaries died and his clan would add a few more weapons and other tools to their limited supplies. Hunting down the mercs was the best way to keep his dark side satiated.
As if in answer to his thoughts, a sharp series of beeps erupted. He’d never been here the other times, but he knew what that alarm meant. The verexi’s hired killers were back.
It was time to go hunting again.
He followed Mayhem to the small shelter that protected some of their most important assets—a cobbled-together mess of components that allowed them an illicit link to the verexi’s satellite network. It warned them when anything entered the planet’s atmosphere.
“What is it?” he asked Mayhem once the other male had a chance to look at the monitor. Strife joined him at the door and they both waited for confirmation of what was happening.
“We’re about to have company.”
Good. That would take the edge off his anger and give him a few days of relative peace. Long enough to make sure everyone’s homes were ready for the coming rainy season.
Mayhem and Strife knew more about computers and constructs than he did, but he’d seen enough to understand. A cluster of small ships fell away from a much larger one that continued on its original heading. The bigger ship would fly over his territory and should land on the far side of a range of hills while the smaller ships were descending rapidly toward fa’rel territory. In fact, one of those vessels should land in the area he’d claimed for himself.
Even better. He’d be hunting on familiar ground.
They watched the screen, trying to estimate where the ships would land. The system lost track of them as they neared the surface, but Menace knew where to start looking. Each of them had a ship coming down in their claimed territory. It was an odd strategy, one none of them had seen before. None of them understood what the enemy was up to. Not that it mattered. They were the enemy and they would die.
“When will they stop trying?” Menace asked, slapping his fist into his open palm.
Mayhem turned away from the monitor. “Let them come. This is our home and we’ll defend it.”
“To the death,” Strife added.
“To the death,” Menace repeated, meaning every word.
The three of them butted heads, their horns clacking as they touched. They bid each other good hunting and set out.
Menace didn’t bother taking the stairs. He vaulted over the railing a split second faster than Strife, both of them bounding from limb to limb, letting gravity do most of the work.
His claws carved new gouges in thick branches as he descended, slowing him enough to let him land on his feet. He was already sprinting toward his territory when the distinct sizzle of a signal gun discharging sounded followed by an ear-piercing screech intended to catch the attention of anyone who’d missed the light show.
He didn’t bother slowing to look. He knew what had happened. Mayhem had sent up a bright green flare, letting the others know a hunt was underway. Since only three ships were nearby, the hunt would be short and simple, each of them dealing with the invaders in their territory. The rest of the clan would prepare their defenses and wait. They didn’t have communication equipment. When a flare went up, everyone returned home and got ready. If another clanmate arrived with news, they’d react. Otherwise, they would stay near home and prepare.
Menace raced through the forest, using the shortcuts he’d long since memorized to reach his territory as fast as possible. Their territory was set out in a rough circle, and each of them claimed a triangular section with the crash site at the center. Most of the others had built their homes a short run from the middle.
He hadn’t. His house was near the distant boundary of the land he’d claimed for himself, and as it happened, it was the opposite edge from where he’d estimated the ship would land. Going home to gear up would waste valuable time, so he chose a different route—one that would take him to the right area and straight to a cache of supplies he’d placed for this kind of scenario. He didn’t know if any of the others had done the same thing, but he assumed at least some of them had.
They’d spent too many years stashing food and hiding what few items they’d managed to create or steal from the scrawnies to stop now. They’d want to be prepared for anything. Just like him.
The cache was stored in a cave partway up a hill. It wasn’t large, but it was high enough to stay dry even in the rainy season, and he’d fashioned a door heavy enough to keep out any of the local fauna. He stayed there sometimes when he didn’t feel like facing the summer storms that drenched the forest and sent lightning dancing through the clouds overhead.
He only took a few minutes to gear up, tying greaves to his lower legs and securing wide bands of leather to his wrists. He fastened a short kilt of boiled leather straps around his waist and adjusted the fit so it didn’t rub the fur over his hips. He hated wearing the thing, but it offered too much protection to forgo it. Not that it would do much against blaster fire, but the mercenaries weren’t the only dangerous predators on this planet. Teeth and claws were a much more common threat, and he’d likely run more of them than the mercs.
He grinned at that thought. More than once, the local wildlife had reduced the enemy’s ranks before the fa’rel joined the hunt. Menace was fine with that. He was happy to share the kill with anyone or anything, so long as they didn’t get in his way.
He armed himself with a variety of weapons and then jogged further up the hill to a rocky outcrop that offered a good view of the valley they called home. The boundary of his land was marked by a slow-moving river they called the bend.
Bysshe had tried to argue for something more poetic, but the android’s suggestions were all shot down by the fa’rel. It was a river. It had many bends in it. The name was simple and obvious. Bysshe had muttered about their lack of imagination, which seemed odd coming from the only artificial lifeform in their clan. Bysshe was an honorary member of the fa’rel despite the fact he’d been created by humans. He never spoke about how he’d ended up under the control of the scrawnies, and none of them had pressed him about it. The past didn’t matter. Their future was uncertain. All that mattered was the moment and the memories of those they’d lost along the way.
As he scanned the river with one of the few sets of functional binoculars they possessed, he couldn’t help but think about one of his clanmates. Rage had been the oldest of them, and he’d done what he could to protect them from the worst of the scrawnies’ cruelty. He would have loved this planet with its open sky and stretches of forest so vast you could lose yourself for days. Rage had died in an escape attempt not long before the verexi finally gave up on their experiment and pretended to arrange for the surviving fa’rel to live the rest of their lives on an uninhabited planet. They’d even sent down supplies, though the containers were mostly full of useless gear like bathtubs instead of what was promised.
None of them had any idea why their captors had provided them with anything at all. It didn’t make sense. The verexi had promised them a new life, but their plan had always been to kill them. Bysshe had figured that out and warned them once they were on the ship that brought them here. The crash landing was the best they could manage once they had taken the ship’s AI offline.
Rage had missed his chance at freedom. He’d died trying to find a way for them all to escape. It wasn’t fair. Menace smacked his fist into his flat palm. Nothing in their lives had ever been fair, but losing Rage stung the most. One day they would take the fight to the scrawnies. Then, he’d dedicate every kill to the brothers he’d lost, starting with Rage.
When he spotted debris along the edge of the river, his thoughts of revenge shifted from the future to this moment. The enemy appeared to have crashed their ship into the water. A tiny ship. Hmm.
He increased the magnification until he could make it out clearly. Not a ship. An escape pod. At least that’s what he assumed based on the fact it had inflated some sort of flotation device to keep it from sinking. He’d initially expected a scout ship, but that wasn’t the case. This pod was a one-way delivery system, not really a ship at all.
His grin widened until his fangs showed. If the three small ships were all pods, the larger ship must have had serious issues big enough to make it crash. If they could get to the wreck before the mercs could destroy it, there would be plenty of supplies and weapons to scavenge.
Today was a good day after all.
He put away the binoculars, checked his weapons were secure, and set off toward the river. It was time to go hunting.
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