The rabox was hungry. Gillian dodged another swipe and cut through the trees, the creature’s breath on her neck, droplets of saliva on her skin, the lingering brush of its gray, prickly fur on her thigh.
She felt the primal rush of imminent death, intensified by the red-colored forest. Latmos was a stomach lurching scarlet — the leaves, trunks, branches, scraggy grass, even the flowers. All of it was red, like a great god had split his wrists and sprayed blood across the forsaken planet, as if the ground was bleeding from the veins of all the dead who had ever lived, and ever would.
Behind her, the rabox panted and grunted, its ice pick claws raking the red trucks as it rushed through the foliage. She wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. She wouldn’t be eaten alive by a giant, rabid rat. Without breaking pace, she scanned the forest.
“Pol!” she cried, lungs bursting. “Where are you?!”
She didn’t see him, and he didn’t answer. She’d lost sight of Pol a few hundred yards from the shuttle. She should have circled back, but there had been two raboxes waiting when she’d kicked open the cockpit door, and she lost her head. Pol had run in the opposite direction, the second rabox chasing him with frightening speed, teeth bared.
He might be dead. No. That couldn’t be. She would not think such things. She could’ve shot the raboxes if only she hadn’t dropped her gun in the shuttle. That was very dumb.
Yet, the shuttle had been a nightmare of its own kind. She remembered the tone of Pol’s voice. Urgent. Frightened.
“Snap out of it and help me!” he had cried as he tugged on the door. It was jammed. The ship had broken apart as it plummeted through Latmos’ atmosphere, and the spherical cockpit had grazed the sky like a meteor.
Though there were no windows, she judged that the heat shield was failing. The cockpit was an oven. Sweat poured down her face, her body slick inside the suit. The G-force wedged her body into her seat back, which the engineers had molded to fit her form, a safety precaution for rough landings.
She forgot the rest of it, or more likely blacked out. The next thing she remembered was a bone lurching jolt when the cockpit struck the ground.
The silence and cold-pressed blackness had been so rich that she could feel it curling around her limbs, reaching into her eyes and mouth, into her nose. Her head woozy, the darkness slipped like a phantom into her pores, traveled through her bloodstream, curdled her lungs. She coughed.
The cockpit was filling up with smoke.
“Gillian, fucking help me!” Pol had screamed, his voice rattling in her head.
The ground team had trained her well. Her body was on autopilot, already knowing what to do without her needing to tell it. Her hands felt in the darkness for her holster, and she undid her harness. She pointed the gun at the direction of Pol’s voice.
“Move out of the way,” she said.
“I can’t see what you’re doing.” He coughed. “It’s pitch black.”
“Move!” She heard him stumble, then trip. She pressed the trigger. The gun jerked, followed by a flash of light and a deafening explosion.
A rim of daylight traced the outline of the circular door. Air! She slipped forward in her seat, the gun clattering to the floor, and kicked the hatch fully open.
Still running, Gillian glanced over her shoulder. The rabox was losing ground, but it hadn’t given up yet. It crashed behind her, its claws slashing at the red brush, teeth chittering, tail swishing.
She pressed deeper into the red forest, further into the unknown. Away from the shuttle, and from Pol, into the strange planet called Latmos.