Book: He Was Not Prepared



He Was Not Prepared




He Was Not Prepared Birth Of Heavy Metal™ Book 1


Michael Todd Michael Anderle

He Was Not Prepared




He Was Not Prepared (this book) is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.

Copyright © 2018 Michael Todd, and Michael Anderle

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing

A Michael Anderle Production

LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, December 2018



Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Epilogue

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Connect with Michael Todd

Books by Michael Todd

Books written as Michael Anderle


The He Was Not Prepared Team


JIT Readers

Kelly O’Donnell

Crystal Wren

John Ashmore

Peter Manis

Mary Morris

James Caplan

Daniel Weigert

Nicole Emens

Micky Cocker

Editor

SkyHunter Editing Team


Dedication


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

to Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

to Live the Life We Are

Called.


Chapter One

This fucking internship was killing him.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like popcorn. It was movie food, something to chew on. Everyone got the munchies now and then, and popcorn met the need. It was low in calories and could be made to last until the munchies ended.

The problem was that it was the only thing close to nourishment in the goddamn house aside from a few ramen packets. It was embarrassing.

Still, it was better than nothing at all. The apartment was provided by the company, which meant it was free. Unfortunately, the downside was that it was miles away from anything. The nearest shopping mall was a ten-minute drive away. While he did drive a company car, they didn’t compensate him for the gas, so that had to be frugally managed. At this point, he couldn’t afford the drive to buy food.

Being a genius was a pain sometimes as it meant his brain never turned off. Even the mindless eating meant hours of mental debate and anxiety about his financial situation and whether or not it was easier to make do with whatever he had. But he would stop at the store tomorrow and get… Well, his heart and stomach said steak, but again, his wallet said something along the lines of mac and cheese.

Of course, Salinger Jacobs, who’d obtained his BS by the time he was eighteen and then a masters in bioengineering, could simply get with the program. He could bow down and kiss the ass of some Ph.D. out there, be a grad assistant, and run errands. Maybe someday, they might accept his already-written dissertation and give him a Ph.D. of his own. But who had the time for that bullshit? He was more or less content to pay his dues as an intern in one of the most prestigious bio labs on the East Coast. Someday soon, someone would see past the mess of his work area and finally decide to give him a chance.

In the meantime, he’d have to accept endless ramen noodles was all he could afford and his continue his irrelevant complaints.

At least the place had a forty-inch flat screen TV to distract him from the mediocre feast. It wasn’t anything to write home about, but it did keep him occupied.

The TV ran a news report about an experiment gone rogue. He had seen a couple of papers published on it. What was believed to be an alien vessel had been located at the borders of the solar system about five years before, the cute blonde reporter said as a 3D rendition of the event displayed onscreen.

Sal remembered it clearly. It was hard to forget since it seemed that nothing else had been discussed for the next six months or so. He understood the fuss. The discovery of alien life was considered the breakthrough of human history, even if humans weren’t actually responsible for it themselves.

Either way, the vessel had orbited Jupiter for three and a half days, launched something at the Earth, and simply disappeared. Predictably, massive upheaval resulted. Many of the world leaders ranted about how this was a declaration of war from an alien species, and people ran around like it was the end of the world. NASA intervened and told everyone to get their collective shit together. They then worked with the various space agencies to launch an interception shuttle.

The alien object entered Earth’s gravity about a week later and was intercepted and brought down after scientists ascertained that it had taken some damage in a collision with a meteor or space debris.

If this was the aliens’ way of declaring war, he’d thought at the time, it was a pathetically weak statement.

Either way, tests had been run on it while it was still in space to ensure it was safe to return with it. Thereafter, it had been sent to isolated labs for further study. He remembered that, too, since he had been probed by the State Department for a minor position on the project. He had almost finished his masters at the time. Nothing came of that, but Sal had still kept an ear out for any news of the project.

Heh. Probed. He chuckled at the irony of his word choice.

It had been firmly established that it had been engineered and wasn’t naturally occurring. Full details were kept under wraps, although it was leaked that it contained a biological marvel that could solve a host of environmental problems on Earth.

During the election campaign about two years before, there was a massive push from various agencies to release what they tested in controlled experiments into the real world. As always, this demand was powered by politicians who used environmental problems as their election platform.

It had been worded as a request, but one with teeth.

Still, the buzz in the scientific community had been palpable. The ground-breaking work could potentially save the world. Political motivations aside, there was every indication that this was one of the greatest advancements ever recorded in bioengineering.

Or so he’d heard. Sal still only followed the affair from a distance.

But now, it seemed that everything had gone to shit.

They’d moved the program to a section of the Sahara that was completely devoid of life. For the first six months, apparently, everything seemed to go well. Against all odds, the ground regained nutrients and life returned to one of the most desolate regions of the world, the reporter said. Hope blossomed, and no doubt all those involved had torn rotator cuffs from patting each other’s backs.

There were some side effects, however. The insects in the region reacted exponentially to sudden spurts of growth in their area. The reporter seemed shocked by this, even though she was reputedly an expert in the field. Sal made a face and chewed another fistful of popcorn.

Locust numbers had grown to ridiculous proportions and swarmed and acted aggressively. Arriving from the sub-Saharan regions, this insect army chewed their way through most of the flora in their area and moved north into the testing zone. By now, the alien material spread of its own accord and filled the land with fresh plant growth, which attracted the locusts to that particular spot.

At this point, the swarm mysteriously disappeared.

Sal rolled his eyes when the report broke off into the voices of various news reporters talking about the incident against a background of dramatic violin music. It reminded him of a low-budget B-level action flick.

A knock sounded at the door, and he scowled. He didn’t get many visitors. Surprisingly, not many people wanted to hang out with him.

“I’ve already fixed the clogging issue, Mr. Addison,” he called, assuming his visitor was the building’s super. “I left you a note about it two days ago.”

No answer followed, merely more knocking.

“Fucking— Go away!”

Whoever it was clearly didn’t get the message. They knocked again.

Sal shrugged, grabbed the remote, and turned the volume up. He was too comfortable to get up. More banging, louder this time.

“You’re making this worse for yourself, pal,” he called toward the door and pushed the volume up further. He could hear the thumping but didn’t care. He’d send an official complaint in the morning. Today, he simply couldn’t be bothered.

The story continued at the louder volume. The scientists had worked feverishly to keep the swarm away from their project and now assumed their effort had been successful. For about a second, the scientific community breathed a sigh of relief.

The first signs actually seemed positive. The growth of the project intensified and spread over a wider area at a greater pace and exceeded their expectations. That was when things turned ugly. The first sign was finding flora that was…alien. The plants were collected quickly and studied. The DNA was similar to that of regular plants, but it was entirely unfamiliar.

Cameras cut to images that caught movement, screams, and blood.

Fauna appeared—animals that were as alien as the new plants and extremely hostile.

More B-movie-type music and news clippings followed with the usual flurry of tweets. A few comments from the scientists on site were no help.

The eventual conversation turned current. They now tried to isolate the spread. What had been a carefully controlled growth area inside the Sahara had become a wild jungle of new and inexplicable dangers. They had begun work on a wall at the southern border of the desert to keep it contained. The theory was that the alien goo had a growth reaction when interacting with new forms of life. The critical priority was to keep it away from the African savannahs. The dangers were unknown but frighteningly real, and they increased daily.

Sal sighed and rolled his eyes. This was definitely B-flick material. Maybe the producers would hire him as an outside expert while they let their big burly star drive cars, shoot guns, and spit one-liners.

It had to be a better job than what he had now.

He Was Not Prepared

Agent Jackson sighed and tugged at his suit as Andrews hammered at the door again. The sound of the TV had increased each time they knocked, but they had to persist. It wasn’t like they could leave a message for the guy inside to call at his earliest convenience. They had a job to do, and they couldn’t walk away from it.

“Fucking asshole,” Andrews growled when the volume increased again.

“Can you believe this guy?” Jackson asked and shook his head. “Who the hell doesn’t answer their door?”

“He thinks we’re the super,” his colleague replied with a scowl.

“Do you think we should announce ourselves?”

“Yeah, because State Department agents are the best known in the country,” Andrews drawled sarcastically.

“Shut up,” Jackson growled.

“What’s up your ass?”

“My kid has a piano recital tonight. Her mother will let me have dinner with her afterward if I can get there in time. I don’t think I’ll make it.”

Andrews frowned. “Shit, man, I’m sorry. How are proceedings going?”

“How do you think? Divorces are hard, man. She took time off her job. Do you think O’Reilly will give me a few weeks off?”

The other man raised an eyebrow. “I guess not.”

“You know what?” Jackson said. “I’m done. Fuck this guy.” He stepped toward the door.

“We can’t break in,” Andrews reminded his partner.

The agent pressed his ear to the door. “You hear that? I think our man is destroying evidence.”

“That’ll never hold up.”

Jackson took a few steps back from the door and shrugged. “Who cares? They’re shipping this kid out anyway.” That said, he moved in and hammered the heel of his boot beside the lock. It offered no resistance. The door swung open and ripped the hinges off.

Their target jumped from his seat, spilling popcorn everywhere. The man wasn’t very tall, with dark, Hispanic features and black hair a few inches too long. He was dressed in sweatpants and an old tank top, and his dark eyes looked mostly shocked but a little bit amused.

“What the fuck—”

The agents held their badges out. “I’m Agent Jackson, and this is my partner Agent Andrews. We’re with the State Department.”

“Kudos,” the kid said. “Want to explain why you busted my door open?”

They exchanged a glance. Most people’s first question was, “The State Department has agents?”

Andrews stepped in once they had recovered their composure. “I don’t see any damage. Do you see any damage, Agent Jackson?”

His partner looked at the door. “That door was like that when we got here.”

The young man rolled his eyes.

Andrews ignored him and continued, “Anyway, we’re here to inform you that your contract with Caltech Laboratories has been bought out by the State Department. You’ve been specifically requested as part of a joint operation outside the country.”

“What? The State Department can’t buy out contracts.”

The agent turned to look at Jackson. “Really? That’s an interesting point. Isn’t that an interesting point, Agent Jackson?”

“Very interesting point, Agent Andrews. You should probably take that up with the legal department while you’re on the plane to Sudan.”

“The…what?”

“I’d suggest packing a bag with the essentials, Mr. Jacobs. Maybe some clothes, although I’d avoid the winter jackets,” Andrews said. “You have five minutes.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he protested.

“You can take that up with the legal department on the plane too,” Jackson said. “But we leave in five minutes. I suggest you pack.”

Andrews looked at his watch to drive the point home.

Jacobs growled and walked to his room. Fifteen seconds past the five-minute mark, he emerged dressed in a pair of jeans, jogging shoes, and a Caltech T-shirt and carried a backpack.

“Shit,” he said. “I’d really hoped you assholes would be gone by now.”

“That’s hurtful,” Andrews said and took him by the shoulder. “Are you ready to go?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“You’re an American Citizen, Mr. Jacobs,” Jackson replied and took his other shoulder. “You always have a choice.”


Chapter Two

A black SUV waited for them in the street and this late at night, the roads were deserted. Sal lived in a complex in a residential area outside Pasadena, California, where nightlife lacked the staying power of the city.

The agents pushed Sal into the back seat of the vehicle. Andrews sat beside him while Jackson took the driver’s seat. The SUV hummed to life, and they sped away.

“So,” Sal said after five minutes of complete silence, “when you guys said Sudan, you meant Sudan, Texas, right?”

“There’s a city called Sudan in Texas?” Andrews asked.

“Crap.” Sal leaned back in his seat. “So will you tell me why I’m shipped off to the middle of goddamn Africa?”

“No,” Jackson growled. “Now, keep your trap shut for the rest of the ride.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Sal leaned forward in his seat. “Does my talking inconvenience you? I mean, it’s not like I’ve ripped you from your home in the middle of the night. I’ll try to keep it down during this ride taking me, against my will, to an airplane that will fly me halfway across the fucking planet.”

Andrew’s arm thumped across his chest and shoved him back against the leather upholstery. “That’d be appreciated, Mr. Jacobs,” the agent said, his tone low and civil.

Sal gritted his teeth. “I was being sarcastic.”

“We don’t care, Mr. Jacobs.”

He growled softly and folded his arms. “Don’t I get a phone call or something?”

“You’re not under arrest, Mr. Jacobs,” Jackson replied from the driver’s seat.

“Who would you call, anyway?” Andrews asked.

“My lawyer.”

The agent narrowed his eyes. “You don’t have a lawyer.”

“A lawyer, then,” Sal exclaimed in exasperation. “There’s no way that any of this is legal.”

“Well, it’s too bad that the doctorate you want isn’t in law,” Jackson said. “Because then you’d know that everything we’ve done is perfectly, one-hundred-percent legal.”

“Breaking down my door?”

“Exigent circumstances,” Andrews answered smoothly. “And your transport to the airfield is required due to time constraints as stipulated in the fine print of your contract.”

“What fine print? It was an internship.” Sal raised his voice again.

“Yeah,” Jackson said as he eased off the highway. “You’ll definitely need to talk to the legal department.”

Sal shook his head and tried to calm down. “The least I’d require from my kidnappers is dinner and a movie or something.”

That didn’t draw a reaction from the two agents, and Sal finally decided to sit back and stare out the tinted windows. They stopped at an army base, the crossbar lifted after the guard checked the agents’ IDs, and they drove in. Despite the hour, the base was busy. They headed directly to an airfield where he saw an enormous Hercules airplane on the tarmac. The beast’s massive engines had already warmed up, and the back ramp was down.

A waiting officer hurried to open his door. Sal didn’t know enough about the military to tell what rank he held, but it was probably not that high considering that he’d waited out there for them.

“Dr. Jacobs, I’m so pleased you could make it,” the man yelled over the whine of the engines.

“I’m not a doctor yet,” he responded, more out of instinct than anything.

“Right,” the man said. He’d clearly not heard the protest. “The plane’s all packed and ready, waiting for you, sir.”

Sal stepped out of the SUV and stared blankly at the massive plane. Behind him, he could hear the door shut, and the SUV pulled away. The engine revved, and tires squealed as if they were in a hurry.

He gripped his backpack tighter and approached the plane as one might a dragon on top of a pile of gold. He stepped in cautiously and looked around, grateful that the engines seemed slightly muted inside.

The soldier yelled into a radio, “Dr. Jacobs is on board. You are clear to take off.”

Sal couldn’t hear the crackled response, but the door pulled up immediately. Thankfully, the deafening noise quieted a little.

A woman in uniform approached. She was about his height, and her form filled out her fatigues well. A beret covered most of her short brown hair. She had an all-business look in her brown eyes as she offered her hand. Sal took it, and she shook it firmly.

“Dr. Jacobs,” she began in a conversational tone, “I’m Sergeant Madigan Kennedy. Glad to have you aboard.”

Sal pulled his hand away and surreptitiously rubbed the feeling back into his fingers. “Oh, yeah, happy to be here. I had no advance notice and was dragged out of my apartment in the middle of the night. A couple of Men in Black agents kicked my door in, but yeah, I’m happy as a fucking clam to be here.”

Kennedy looked a little nonplussed at his statement. When the plane began to taxi, she apparently decided to simply ignore it. “We should probably strap in for the take-off.” She pointed to a couple of seats with three-point harnesses. It wasn’t much of a distraction, but since Sal was stuck there, he decided to save his complaints for when they were in the air.

The massive engines shook the whole plane, and he felt a tug in his stomach and his ears popped. He assumed the plane’s only windows would be in the cockpit since the Hercules had a strictly utilitarian design. Passengers were more of an afterthought.

The plane still shuddered when the seatbelt sign flickered off, but it had eased a little. Kennedy tugged her harness off and stood. She stretched with a long, drawn-out yawn. He remained seated, his expression unamused.

“Anyway, back on topic,” Kennedy turned to him. “I’d assumed that all members of these missions were briefed beforehand, Doctor.”

Sal raised an eyebrow. “Missions? What missions?”

Kennedy sighed and rubbed her temples. “Goddammit, these people get lazier and lazier by the minute. Look, I’m sorry your handlers didn’t brief you. I’ll bring you up to speed as best I can while we’re in the air.”

“Please do.”

She drew a small tablet from her pocket, toyed with the screen, and handed it to him. The first image was a documented picture of a small, flowering plant inside a containment unit. “They are called Magnoliophyta Extraterrestrius.”

He chuckled. “Alien flowering plant? They didn’t strain their brains on that one, did they? ”

“Be that as it may…” He could hear the boredom in her voice, “most simply call them Pitas. Either way, these flowers have resulted from the goop’s rapid spread.”

“Goop?” Sal asked. “What goop?”

“Wow, they really didn’t tell you anything, did they?” Kennedy replied, annoyed.

He raised his hands. “Did you not hear my kidnapping story?”

“I thought you were exaggerating.”

He chuckled. “I wasn’t.”

“Ugh, fine.” She snatched the pad from his hands and tapped on the screen a few times. Finally, she found another page and handed it back.

“What, did you guys run out of brochures?” he asked.

“This is the specialized information packet that should have been sent to you after you signed your NDA,” she said. When she looked at his amused face, she rolled her eyes. “You are fucking kidding me.”

“I was watching a news report about…this literally a half an hour ago.”

“Fine.” She shrugged. “We’ll get you an NDA when you land. For the moment, let’s get this briefing done. What you see on the screen is what was found in an alien projectile that intelligence suggests was launched at the Earth.”

He saw what literally looked like a sticky goo that glowed a bright, effervescent blue.

“That is what we think was the missile payload,” Kennedy continued. “It contained about three metric tons of the stuff.”

“Didn’t they come up with an uncreative name for this too?” he asked as he watched a video of a handful of preliminary tests run by scientists in hazmat suits.

“I’m sure they did, but I’ll be damned if I remember what it was. It’s probably in the brochure somewhere. Anyway, it was spread over a control area in the Sahara Desert some two years ago and—”

“Went out of control when it encountered an unforeseen biomass,” he finished for her, and she looked annoyed.

“Do you want the brief or don’t you?”

Sal raised his hands in surrender and swallowed his response.

“Thank you.” He wondered how long her day had been. “Anyway, as the goop advanced at an unforeseen rate, attempts were made to control it. They met with middling success.” She played another video on the tablet of a few men in fire retardant suits with flamethrowers. The trees—which immediately struck him as unlike anything on Earth—seemed to pull back from the fire. The first line burned but the second line of trees didn’t burn at all. The fire flickered and died in seconds. Five seconds before the video ended, the flamethrowers tried to run as something burst from the undergrowth and charged them.

“What the hell was that?” he asked.

“The goop seems to influence fauna as well. DNA has been collected from these animals, but nothing has been discovered beyond what we already know.”

Sal shrugged. “Okay, so you guys are building a wall to contain the growth. I understand that. But don’t you need architects for that?”

Kennedy nodded. “The main mission at the base that we’re headed to is to complete a containment wall around the growing jungle, which the locals call Kudzu. You have a different mission.” She flicked to the Pita flower. “While there are many new and interesting parts of the Kudzu to explore and study, these flowers are a priority. They apparently share significant DNA with the goop, which led many of the scientists to realize that the goop is a living entity. A fluid or fungi or something, but they’re not really sure what. Anyway, these flowers are heavily influenced by it and the sap has potent rejuvenation qualities.”

At that moment, the penny dropped. Sal chuckled and nodded. “Let me guess. This sap is insanely expensive, and companies all around the world want the very first scientifically-backed youth potion and are willing to pay top dollar for it.”

She shrugged. “That’s none of my business. Mine is to get biology doctors like you in and out of the Kudzu with these flowers. Aside from the obvious dangers inside the jungle from the flora and fauna, there is also a booming business in surrounding countries for the animals and plants found there. Our military presence has already had skirmishes with bounty hunters and the like. It’s not sufficient to demand heavier protection, and the conditions don’t allow for heavy vehicles anyway. However, we need scientists inside, and those scientists need protection. That’s my job.”

Sal nodded as he flipped through the various creatures that had been collected and studied. Real panic flared when he realized he would walk into the Kad-whatever and face them himself.

Kennedy seemed to read his thoughts. “Are you okay?”

He nodded again but didn’t look at her. In a cartoon, he’d have a green face and bulging cheeks. Nausea built in the pit of his stomach as Sal wasn’t the type for physical altercations. His quick wit had defused the bullies during his short stint in high school. Since no one in college wanted to harass the teenager doing his BA, he’d avoided conflict there as well. The most violence he’d ever experienced was in gaming voice chats on the internet.

Even the thought of this so-called mission made him physically ill. He would be forced into a very dangerous place with a good chance that he’d walk out minus some limbs…or not walk out at all.

He managed to gulp through the nausea and Kennedy thankfully remained silent while he recovered his composure.

“Wow,” she said, her voice a little less harsh than before. “They really dropped you into this without any damned information, didn’t they?”

Sal nodded again. He leaned back and gripped the harness tightly enough that his knuckles whitened. “The MIB dumbasses that picked me up said something about the fine print in my contract.”

“Did you read it?”

He scowled. “Of course I did. I checked it and double-checked it. There was a clause that allowed for my contract to be bought out by a third party, but who wants to buy up an intern’s contract?”

“Wait.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re an intern? Since when do PhDs intern for anything?”

He shrugged. “I’m still working on my doctoral thesis.”

“Holy shit,” she said. “How old are you anyway?”

“Twenty-two,” he answered in a monotone and fixed his gaze on the wall opposite him. “On a scale of one to ten, how fucked would you say I am?”

She shook her head and sat down next to him. “Do you have a will?”

His scowl returned. “That’s not funny.”

She leaned back and closed her eyes. “It wasn’t meant to be.”




Chapter Three

Sal had very little sleep during the flight. The high-decibel drone of the Hercules’ four engines sounded like the world’s worst case of snoring, or maybe tinnitus. Every time he closed his eyes, monsters attacked him in an impenetrable alien jungle that did not belong on Earth or evil bounty hunters fired at him. What the hell was he up against?

Then again, the Sahara was as alien to him as another planet. Besides that, what could a simple intern who, not half a day before, had complained about having only popcorn to eat, do against stuff like that? They could put a gun in his hands, but that didn’t mean he could shoot it. What good would he be to anyone if he couldn’t defend himself in a situation where it was every man for himself? Or herself… He was sure Kennedy could handle herself, but would she be able to protect him too? Or would she leave him behind if the situation were too hot to handle?

Short snatches of sleep were interspersed with stark, terrifying dreams. He rushed through the jungle in what resembled a video game and struggled to reload his weapon before a panther-like monster chomped on his neck.

Sal woke repeatedly in a cold sweat and had never felt worse. He lost track of the hours and the number of times he’d bolted from his seat in a panic, only to be dragged back by the harness. Kennedy had fallen asleep almost instantly in her seat beside him. Her head lolled to the side he could barely hear her soft snore over the drone of the plane.

Overall, it was a seemingly endless and exhausting flight. Relief temporarily overcame his trepidation when the seatbelt sign illuminated and his ears popped to indicate that they had begun their descent. It occurred to him that they must have done an airborne refuel somewhere along the way, and most likely switched pilots as the flight was too long to only have one onboard. The plane hit the tarmac with a hard bump and his body jerked to the side. Kennedy slept through most of the landing and only woke once the craft jostled to a stop. She snorted and opened her eyes.

“Wha—oh, are we here already?” she asked and stifled a yawn as she stretched.

Sal wondered how she could sleep at a time like this but remembered she’d done this dozens of times. She was probably used to it.

They unstrapped and headed to the door as it lowered.

The sight that greeted him was enough to make him forget all his problems for a few seconds. The airfield was in the middle of the desert and sand swept onto the tarmac with gusting wind. He could see at least part of the base. A handful of buildings looked like they’d been hastily thrown together. The tallest was a radio tower with a satellite dish.

Shadowy sand dunes loomed in the distance, and towering over them to the right, he could see the wall under construction. It looked massive and even from miles away, it was impressive. How had they managed to erect so much in such a short time?

To the left, the dunes faded into a massive black-green smudgy clump. He couldn’t see details but knew it was the jungle. The heavily shadowed area suggested the particular dense and compact look no other biomass could replicate.

A jungle in the middle of the Sahara. How crazy was that?

At a nudge in his ribs, he turned to see Kennedy beside him, soaking in the sight. “Quite a view, huh?” she asked.

She smiled and her short hair made her look tomboyish. She looked like she could handle herself, but it wasn’t an unattractive feature, he realized.

Look at you. About to die and all you can think about is a cute girl. Typical.

He looked away before his stare became weird and focused on the view as they exited the plane. With each step, reality crystallized within him. This wasn’t a dream he would wake from at any moment. This was reality and not the most pleasant, either.

For one thing, he’d expected heat but had forgotten that deserts grew cold at night. The powerful winds that whipped across the runway made it worse as they cut through his clothes and sent goosebumps across his skin and shivers up his spine.

A young man waited for them beside a number of forklifts which stood ready to unload the cargo.

“Sergeant.” The man saluted Kennedy crisply. She snapped one in return. He offered Sal his hand. “Dr. Jacobs, I presume?”

“I’m not a doctor,” Sal said automatically.

“Er…right.” The soldier obviously had no idea what to do with that information. “I’m PFC Abel Hawkins. Mr. Jacobs, we’ve been informed of your unique situation—”

“Do you mean kidnapped and sent to another continent against my will?” he said caustically, and Kennedy rolled her eyes.

“Er, yes, that situation,” Hawkins said awkwardly. “Anyway. The sergeant has given us the particulars, and we have all the paperwork ready for you. It’s in the field office. If you’d follow me?”

He led them to an open Jeep which idled nearby, obviously waiting for them. Sal was annoyed. The transport would provide no protection against the wind and the chilly temperature.

By the time they arrived at the field office, he was shivering and looked even more disheveled than he had before. It was one of the larger buildings on the base. Only a few men and women in uniform were present, obviously security. Hawkins led them to an office that clearly wasn’t his, turned the lights on, and gathered a stack of documents on the table. He motioned for the newcomer to take a seat.

“Let’s see.” He selected some of the papers and laid them out in front of Sal. “This is your acquired contract, with all the necessary addendums. That already has your signature, so it’s simply for your own peace of mind—”

“Yeah, I’ll have an abundance of that here,” Sal growled. “Peace of mind.”

The man chuckled nervously as he glanced at the other documents. “Here’s the Non-Disclosure Agreement. We do need your signature on that. Basically, it states that anything you acquire or study here cannot be divulged without the consent of the companies involved in the study and resource acquisition of the area known as the Kudzu.”

Sal narrowed his eyes. “Why on Earth would I sign that?”

Hawkins looked at him like he’d spoken in an alien language. “Why wouldn’t you sign it?”

“I was taken out of my home against my will and flown halfway across the world,” he explained with increasing frustration. “Literally.”

“Really?” Hawkins looked shocked. “I thought you had overdramatized your situation.”

“Why would I do that?” he asked and somehow resisted the urge to tear at his hair in frustration.

Hawkins shrugged.

“So again,” Sal muttered when neither of his companions made a response, “why would I sign that? If I refuse, won’t you simply send me home?”

“Nobody’s going home,” Kennedy interjected, obviously annoyed with the exchange. “Look, Jacobs, if you don’t sign it, you’ll be stuck on this base, which is the only piece of civilization in a hundred miles. You won’t have access to any of the Staging Area’s vehicles to go anywhere, and certainly not a plane to get you home. In essence, you’ll be kept in a containment facility until you sign it.”

“So you’ll keep me prisoner unless I promise not to tell anyone about what I see in this…Kad-whatever?”

“Kudzu,” she repeated patiently. “This is Africa, Dr. Jacobs, and the normal laws don’t apply here. You were brought to the cutting edge of the field that you chose to study. Isn’t that worth your discretion?”

“And risking my life for?” Sal reminded her.

She shrugged. “Well, yeah, obviously. Eggs, omelet, that sort of deal. Now sign the damn NDA so we can both get some chow and find you a place to sleep for the night.”

Sal looked at the document. She had a point. He’d chosen biology not only because it was the most challenging field he could think of to stretch his admittedly impressive intellect, but also because he was genuinely interested. There had been offers of courses in medicine, law, and even theoretical physics when he’d graduated high school five years early. He’d turned them all down because he’d wanted exactly what they offered him now. The revised contract included a stipulation regarding his remuneration based on what he found. The numbers, he saw, were vastly superior to anything he could have hoped for at Caltech, even if his dissertation had been approved.

The only drawback was that to get paid, he’d have to put his life on the line. For science, he reminded himself acidly.

Couldn’t he do that? He’d have professional protection, after all. It was why Kennedy and others like her were there. They didn’t expect him to be hands-on with the dangerous stuff. It was merely an unfortunate side-effect of a job that he would normally consider the best chance of his life. It could still be precisely that.

Sal sighed and shook his head. “You guys still shouldn’t have kidnapped me. At least give a guy two weeks’ notice and a chance to look at all the information first.”

Hawkins coughed. “There was something of a time constraint.”

“Whatever.” Sal snatched the pen and wrote his name in messy cursive over the dotted line. There was no fine print, so that was one consolation. They couldn’t spring any more bullshit on him.

“Sweet Jesus, finally,” Kennedy said with a long, drawn-out sigh. “Hawkins, thanks for handling this on such short notice. I need real sleep. Could you show Dr. Jacobs around the facility, find him some food, and settle him in his quarters?”

“Of course, Sergeant.” Kennedy returned his sharp salute and marched quickly out the door.

A moment of awkward silence followed. Sal wondered if PFC Hawkins wasn’t simply a desk jockey who had also been roped in against his will. While he felt for the man, he was in the military and probably expected to be shipped to exotic places at a moment’s notice. Besides, he doubted that desk jockeys would see much action in the Kudzu considering their job description.

“So,” Sal said, “I believe there was some mention of food? I could really eat right about now.”

Hawkins galvanized at the opportunity of something to do. “Of course.”

They exited the office once Hawkins had tidied up and turned the lights off. Sal seemed to have acclimatized to the cold—or perhaps it had warmed a little—when they found the Jeep again.

He realized that most of the base—or Staging Area, as Hawkins had called it—had been hidden behind one of the massive sand dunes. It was actually the size of a large town, and even in the dead of night, he could see more traffic than he had expected on a military base in the middle of a desert. Lights blazed, and vehicles traveled the streets.

While there was a military presence, it wasn’t necessarily a military base. Several people wore lab coats. Sal wasn’t the only night owl in his field, apparently, as some seemed like they had just woken up.

Hawkins stopped in front of a building. Even from the outside, Sal could smell the mouthwatering aroma of steak, and all his protests quieted as he was led into a massive mess hall. It was still open despite the hour. A buffet line provided a wide selection of food, and again, even though it was late, the place was fairly busy—more lab coats than fatigues, Sal noticed as he took his place in line.

Given that his last meal had been merely half a bowl of popcorn hours before, he could easily say the salad, baked potato, and steak was the best meal he’d ever had. His appetite had vanished on the plane, but at that moment, he thought he could manage an elephant.

Sal went back for seconds before he finally felt replete. The staff hadn’t given him any shit for getting another serving, so they were obviously used to hungry patrons. With soldiers who spent time in a dangerous place, voracious appetites were most likely commonplace.

Hawkins drove him to what looked like a residential area with small apartments laid out horizontally instead of vertically. They came to a stop at the end.

“Here’s the keycard.” The PFC handed it over. “You turn it in when you go out into the field and get it back if—when—you get back.”

“Nice save,” Sal said sarcastically. With little sleep on the flight and a full stomach, his eyelids began to droop.

Hawkins nodded. “The residence information will be sent to you tomorrow. You will go into the field, though, so you might have to read them when you get back.”

Sal shook his head in disbelief. “Is that why there was a time constraint?”

Hawkins nodded. “That’s correct. I need to head out. Make yourself comfortable, and someone will pick you up at 0500 in the morning. Rest well.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he growled. Sure, the kid tried to be accommodating. Besides that, the ‘kid’ was probably a couple of years Sal’s senior, but who was counting?

Sal opened the door and stumbled into his new place of residence, unable to stifle a massive yawn. He didn’t bother to explore and simply tumbled into the vaguely bed-shaped thing in the shadows and dropped off.


Chapter Four

The fog of sleep lifted slowly, and he registered a pounding at the door. His alarm hadn’t gone off, and he always set his alarm. It couldn’t be time to go to work yet.

The pounding gained urgency. Sal sat with a growl and scrunched his eyes shut as he stumbled in the general direction of the noise. “I already took care of the fucking clog, Mr. Addison,” he yelled. “Check your goddamn door once in a while.”

The cold floor shocked his eyes open, and he stopped in astonishment. His apartment was carpeted. And he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out, get drunk, and wake up in someone else’s home.

Gradually, the events of the previous night seeped into his consciousness. This was much worse than a bad night out. Of course, he hadn’t done anything. Technically, it had been done to him, but his past life must have been terrible if this was his karma.

The hammering at the door resumed.

“Dammit,” Sal muttered and scowled at the same clothes he’d had on the night before. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and resumed his stumble toward the door as he tried to get his bearings. Did this place have windows, or was it dark outside?

When he opened the door, he realized that yes, it was dark. The sky showed faint streaks of red, which meant the sun had risen. Since he couldn’t see it and the air still felt chilly, it was pretty darn early.

His eyes fell on the poor bastard who had been sent to wake him.

“Morning, Hawkins,” he said and rubbed his eyes again. “I thought they would send someone to pick me up.”

To his credit, Hawkins looked fairly bright and chipper despite the hour. Heaven forbid he was one of those terrible morning people. Sal had thought they were only myths.

“They did. They sent me,” Hawkins said. Dammit, he sounded cheerful too. “Did you sleep well?”

Sal gave him a mean look. “I hope that’s a rhetorical question,” he retorted acidly as the two headed toward the Jeep.

“Not a morning person, I take it?” Hawkins asked and chuckled. Sal didn’t answer and merely gave him another mean look as they moved across the street.

It was odd how during the drive, the air temperature seemed to change and how apparent the shift was. The sun rose fast, and the cool air quickly gave way to what he assumed would be a blistering day.

He stepped out of the Jeep; a man stood there to greet him. He was taller than Sal by a full head with broad shoulders and a heavy build. Sal wondered if he’d ever played contact sport that involved him steamrolling lesser men for the entertainment of the crowds.

“Dr. Jacobs?” the man asked and extended his hand.

Dammit. “That’s me,” he said, tired of the effort to correct people. If they wanted to call him Doctor, why not let them? It was easier, and it was a nice stroke to the ego, too.

“I’m Sergeant Matt Davis, the team leader for this expedition.” He grabbed Sal’s hand and shook it heartily, leaving him feeling like he needed a cast. “It’s nice to have you aboard.”

For some reason, his need to complain had mysteriously vanished. Davis didn’t seem like he would be overly sympathetic to his case. “Nice to…be here?” Hawkins gave him a sharp look and Sal shrugged.

He held out his key. “I don’t suppose you could hand this in at the desk for me, could you?”

The PFC nodded. “Of course.”

“Good,” Davis said. If he noticed their little exchange, he made no comment. “Our previous expert was wounded in the last stint in the Zoo, so we needed someone to take his place for this run. I wasn’t sure that they would find someone in time, but goddamn if the geek squad pushing the papers didn’t come through.”

Sal nodded. “So your last man in the field…how did he get injured?”

“Oh, we ran into a bounty hunter group,” Davis said nonchalantly. “They were well armed, and Kareem took a round to the stomach. He’s alive and he’ll make a full recovery, but our contracts specified one more trip into the Zoo this month to fill our quota, so we needed another expert. They brought you.”

Sal narrowed his eyes. “I’m sorry, ‘the Zoo?’”

“Oh, that’s what we call it around here,” Davis told him with a nod. “Because apparently, two syllables are one too many for these meatheads.”

Sal stared at the man. He called other people meatheads? Then he remembered that the guys selected for Special Forces were usually perfect physical specimens as well as stone-cold geniuses, so maybe he was one of those. He certainly qualified as the former.

“Okay, everyone, listen up!” Davis called.

A group had gathered to one side. Most were decked out in battle suits, ready for action, while others were in the process of suiting up. They all paused when they heard the sergeant’s booming voice.

“This is Doctor Salinger Jacobs.” He pointed at Sal. “He’s the expert running with Team Two this round.”

One of the members of the team came over to Sal and directed him to his suit. They’d apparently known his size beforehand, so it fit comfortably. It was more a hazmat suit than body armor, he realized. His hands were free to manipulate plants and animals or whatever it was that they would track, but it fell well short in terms of protection.

He pulled the helmet on, and the heads-up display activated. He’d never had a HUD before. It tracked his eyes like a computer tracked a mouse, and a welcome appeared on the display. It came with a fully functional operating system, and when he focused on the menu, it opened a browser connected to the Staging Area’s server.

“It must be crazy to watch porn on this thing,” Sal said. It would definitely take some getting used to but had to be better than lugging an actual computer around.

“No can do, I’m afraid,” one of the men beside him said in what sounded like an Irish accent. “The HUDs can only connect to the SA’s server, and all content on it is tightly regulated.”

Sal nodded. “I…really wish I hadn’t said that aloud.”

The man grinned. “No worries, mate. Almost every single man on this base has had the same first thought. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Sal chuckled and offered his hand now encased in a red glove. “Salinger Jacobs.”

“Corwin Lynch.” He shook with his gloved right hand. In his left was a mechanical grasp for a weapon which most likely had significant stopping power.

“Okay, people, listen up,” Davis said, drawing everyone’s attention. “This is how it’ll go. We all have GPS trackers in our suits, so getting lost shouldn’t be an issue. Don’t stray from your team and don’t go anywhere alone. This is not a fucking Amazon vacation, so keep your wits about you at all times. If you stray and get caught in a bounty hunter trap, be assured that your squad leader will rip your arm off and beat you to death with it.”

The team chuckled, and Sal joined in nervously.

“The teams are as follows. I will lead Squad One. Banner, Richards, and Rodriguez will be my gunners, and Dr. Monroe will be our specialist. Sergeant Madigan Kennedy will lead Squad Two. Lynch, Cortez, and Addams will be her gunners, and Dr. Jacobs will be their specialist. Any questions?”

There weren’t any. Sal looked around and identified Dr. Monroe easily since her suit was the same as his. She was short, though he couldn’t tell much else. He responded when she caught him looking at her, smiled, and waved.

Sal turned his attention to Davis.

“We have three objectives on this run.” The man held up three fingers. “One, our specialists will collect specimens. Your HUD will notify you if we run into any new flora or fauna out in the Zoo. If you find something new, wrap it and contain it for the analysts in the labs. Specialists, your suits should be equipped with a field-testing unit. Run anything you can quickly, but don’t make your squad stay anywhere for too long. They’re there to protect you, not give their lives for you. Got it?”

Sal suddenly realized that most of this speech was for his benefit since the team members had most likely been there for a while and already knew the rules.

He nodded. “Got it.”

“Good. Second objective.” An image appeared on Sal’s HUD—and everyone else’s, he hoped. “The Pita flowers are the money bags that run this whole facility, so we have standing orders to collect any and all we find. I don’t need to remind you folks of the standing eighteen-grand bounty on a set of those bad boys. If you find them, pick up the flower as delicately as you can. These are not your mom’s pussy. You bruise the petals, the price takes a hit.”

Sal studied the flower more closely. “I have a question.”

“Go ahead, Jacobs.” Davis nodded. There was no mockery or annoyance in the man’s voice. While his questions might not have relevance in life or death situations, it was still nice to feel they were valid.

“Why don’t we collect the whole Pitas?” he asked and realized that everyone’s eyes were on him. “I mean, that’s got to be easier than having to go into the…Zoo to harvest them.”

Davis looked over to Kennedy. “You want to take this one, Sergeant?”

Kennedy nodded. “Pulling the plants out of the ground is dangerous. Not due to the plants themselves, but the action agitates the wildlife in the surrounding area to the point of aggression. It also seems to work like a beacon to wildlife in an unknown radius. All teams that tried have been swarmed. Only a couple of teams have made it back alive—none without heavy losses, and none with the plant.”

Davis looked back to Sal. “Does that answer your question, Doc?”

Sal nodded. “Understood. Just the flowers, not the plants.”

Davis pulled his helmet on. “If we have no other questions, let’s get this show on the road, folks.” The teams moved into action and loaded supplies into a pair of tracked vehicles that looked like they could climb Mount Everest if they needed to.

Sal jogged to keep up with Kennedy. “So,” he said, “Davis said we have three objectives, but he only specified two during the brief. Is there anything else I should know about before we head out into the Zoo? Great name, by the way.”

She paused and looked at him. “In every mission, there is one thing above all others that you have to do. Nothing—no pretty flowers, no cute beasties—trumps this objective.”

He tilted his head. This really sounded like it should have come from Davis and been addressed to the entire team instead of only him.

The sergeant chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “You have to stay alive, Jacobs. No flower or payday is worth getting turned into alien dog food.”

Sal snorted a short laugh, and she gave him an odd look as she donned her helmet.

“Why are you laughing?” she asked, a hint of annoyance in her voice.

“I thought you were joking,” he said. “But you weren’t, obviously.”

“The Zoo is a dangerous place, Jacobs. We act all gung-ho about it, but in the end, nobody wants to die out there. Keep yourself alive, keep your team alive, and find some alien bugs and plants to study. Those are your objectives. And you prioritize them in that order, understood?”

Jacobs nodded, but the nausea he’d felt on the plane returned to haunt him. “Understood.”


Chapter Five

Sal settled into the vehicle. It wasn’t built like a Jeep and looked like it had been specially adapted for the kind of traveling they would do. Davis had said that heavy vehicles wouldn’t work in the Zoo proper. He assumed it was because the forest itself was too dense to allow vehicles to traverse it. Or maybe it had to do with why they couldn’t take whole Pita plants. If the animals inside reacted so poorly to the removal of small plants, how would they react to whole trees being bulldozed?

Which brought Sal’s mind to the defenses. It was a track vehicle with no glass windows and was directed by a selection of sensors and cameras whose information was transmitted to screens. He assumed that the detection devices would be heavily shielded as well. If they weren’t and were damaged in an attack, the drivers would effectively be blind. Redundancies were no doubt in place, but he had the feeling the vehicles were designed for passenger protection more than anything else. He assumed that should everything go wrong and they lost sensors while under attack, they could simply lock down, send out a distress signal, and be perfectly safe from attackers until help arrived.

He looked at the sides which indicated that the vehicles had apparently spent significant time in the Zoo. Sal saw that scratch marks from massive claws had barely damaged the dark green paint. The only attacks that seemed to have done any damage at all resembled chemical burns, and they left no indentation in the steel plate.

That was worrisome, though. He really hoped it was the bounty hunters who carried vials of acid, not the animals.

He ran his fingers over the faded paint that identified this vehicle as a Hammerhead. He could see why it was named that. The squat, diamond shape which made it effective against mines resembled a hammerhead shark.

Although, if that was the name of the type of vehicle or simply this one, he really couldn’t tell.

“Let’s mount up,” he heard Davis call from the other vehicle. The group of ten each found their seats, five to each Hammerhead, with Kennedy behind the driving controls for the one Sal boarded. He was in her squad, but he did notice that members were seated by personal choice rather than in their teams.

The other scientist, Monroe, was in the Hammerhead with him. He smiled and nodded again as the Hammerhead came alive with a roar of the diesel engine. After a quick system check, the screens came up and provided Kennedy a decent one-eighty-degree view of what lay ahead. She waited for Davis to draw ahead and accelerated after him.

Once they were on the move in what was a surprisingly comfortable ride, Monroe moved from her seat to the one beside Sal.

“Chloe Monroe,” she said and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Sal Jacobs.” At least she wouldn’t crush his knuckles.

“This is your first time, huh?” she asked with a smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll be gentle.”

“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Sal said honestly. “Although I do appreciate the sentiment. How long have you been here?”

“Oh.” She paused and frowned in thought. “It must be over a year and a half now. I wasn’t with the first guys on the ground, but I was here before…you know, the incident.”

He chuckled. “Funny how much damage locusts can do, huh?”

She nodded and chuckled as well. “You know, we got word that the swarm was headed our way about a week after I arrived. I felt like I had accidentally triggered some sort of ancient mummy curse.”

Sal gestured to the jungle, which grew bigger in Kennedy’s screen. “Well, have you maybe considered a career as a professor? I hear the guys at Harvard could really use a locust plague.”

She grinned. “I think I’ll stick to alien goop, myself. I like to stay on the cutting edge.”

“Where did you submit your dissertation?”

“Yale, actually, in molecular biology. So you’ll understand when I absolutely agree with you when it comes to giving those assholes in Harvard all kinds of ancient mummy curses.”

Sal grinned and leaned back. He didn’t actually know much about the whole rivalry between the two Ivy League colleges. All he knew was that both had offered him a scholarship in their biology courses and he’d declined since both required that he work very closely with one of their tenured professors. He now began to regret that decision. No way would either of the colleges release him to the government for this bullshit assignment.

“You look a little young to be a doctor.” Chloe leaned in closer so she could see through his mask. “Where did you do your dissertation?”

He’d known that this question would come. While the soldiers seemed to assume anyone not wearing fatigues was a doctor, he doubted he could pull it off with someone who had actually gone the distance.

“I’m still only a doctoral candidate, actually,” Sal said and smiled awkwardly. “I’m doing my dissertation in bioengineering.”

Her pale blond eyebrows rose in surprise. “Wow. I didn’t know they included a trip into the Zoo in doctorate programs.”

Sal chuckled. “I’m reasonably sure I’m the first. Honestly, I’m still not sure why I was called in. I was essentially uprooted from my life in California to be…alien beast bait.”

She made a face. “Come on, you have a good team. You’ll come out of this alive and well-compensated for your efforts as long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

“Don’t do anything stupid.” Sal nodded. He glanced at the giant jungle on the screens. “I’ll keep that in mind. Something stupid like trying to bring a whole Pita plant back, you mean?”



She laughed. “Oh, yeah. I saw the cam footage the few survivors sent back. I can guarantee that it’s a bad idea. I’ve seen hostile critters before, make no mistake. They become more and more hostile the closer you get to the Zoo’s ‘ground zero.’ That’s where most of their habitats and nests are, so it’s easier to intrude on their territory—and believe me, they are territorial.” She had a funny way of talking, Sal realized. She managed to talk quickly while still enunciating each word, like an old-school nineties rapper. “But if you back away from their territory quickly, they leave you alone. Some of them attack unprovoked, I guess, but it’s mostly the runts that are desperate for food. It’s amazing how quickly an ecosystem has developed inside the Zoo.”

Sal nodded. “But we were talking about the Pita plants?”

“Right.” She shook her head. Maybe she was the type whose thoughts ran away with her the longer she talked. “Well, the plants have a very high concentration of a condensed form of the goop. We’re not sure if they actually produce more of it or simply take in what’s in the ground and alter it somehow. Anyway, the plant has evolved a defense mechanism. Whenever it’s plucked from the ground, it releases a potent pheromone into the air that agitates the rest of the animals.”

Sal leaned back. “And by agitates, you mean sends them all into a murderous rage.”

Monroe laughed. “Yes, exactly. We’re not sure what range the pheromone has or if it has a different effect on different animals. Conducting tests isn’t exactly easy when a mistake means getting swarmed by all manner of unpleasantness.”

“So when you were crowned queen of understatement,” Sal said and let his sarcasm show, “was there a ceremony, or was it simply a letter in the mail?”

“The whole ceremony—honor guard, bunch of reporters, a really big thing. I’m surprised you missed it.”

Well, she was a good sport too, he thought with a small smile.

Lynch, who sat on Sal’s other side, leaned in and nudged him in the shoulder with his elbow. "Well, don’t tell him all the bad shite only. Tell him the good bits too!”

The topic change seemed to kill Monroe’s mood, and she shook her head and leaned back in her seat.

“That’s fine,” Lynch growled and rolled his eyes. “I’ll do it meself. Well, everyone knows there are lots of companies that will pay through their arses to get their hands on the flower petals from the Pita darling, but you can bet that they’re not happy to fight over the small bits that come from the flowers folk like us bring in. It’s piecemeal shite and they want the whole damn feast, you know?”

Sal nodded. “But getting the plant out means having to hack your way through half of the fauna in the Zoo.”

“Right, which makes it dangerous.” Lynch nodded. “But let’s say that these companies are more than willing to front a hefty amount of dough for anyone who shows enough entrepreneurial spirit to get a full plant out of there intact. Like…give up the life of crime and retire kind of dough.”

Sal quirked an eyebrow. “Are there any specifics, or do these companies merely cite how many Lambos you can buy?”

“There’s no standing bounty like there is with the flowers,” Kennedy interjected from the front as she guided the Hammerhead down a massive dune. “The various interested corporations have a bidding war over what they’d be willing to offer to anyone who comes out with an intact Pita plant. The current bid is at four point five million dollars. In cash. And it’ll only go higher the longer it takes for it to happen. If someone actually does it, though, they’ll start a bidding war that will send that price into the stratosphere.”

Sal whistled. “They really want an intact Pita plant.”

“Oh. yes,” Lynch growled. “There have been a few legit attempts from the Staging Area, but after the teams all came up empty and dropped like flies, they eventually suggested that we take only the flowers, not the plants. But the local bounty hunters have made some very ambitious attempts. One team out of South Africa actually tried to airlift the thing out with a bloody helicopter. The plan was for them to run in, find a plant, and activate a GPS ping to bring the helo to pick it up.”

“Let me guess,” Sal said, and Lynch nodded.

“They went in. They pinged. The helo went in. None were heard from again.”

“And we’d hear about it if someone actually got it out.”

Lynch chuckled. “I dare say we’d be out of a job. With the money invested into the juice from those babies, much more would be thrown at growing the plants artificially or maybe even making the juice without the need for a middleman. Since they’d be able to sell the get-young spunk without the additional cost of people risking their lives, they’d be able to undercut every one of their competitors.”

Again, Sal was surprised. He would never in a million years have thought someone like Lynch would know about the intricacies of market economics. In retrospect, though, a man in his position would have to, since it was how he made his living.

“Wait.” Sal shook his head. “You talked with the bounty hunters? I thought these guys were unsanctioned? Like looters or deep-sea salvagers?”

“Sure, on paper,” Chloe said. “In reality, the Zoo occupies too vast an area to properly patrol. Besides, the Staging Area is in place to keep the Zoo in, not keep people out. If criminals want to rush in for a quick buck and get themselves killed, they’re more than welcome to. Off the record, of course.”

“And much like the blood diamond trade,” Lynch said with a lopsided grin, “the companies don’t much care who delivers, so long as they are delivered.”

Sal lapsed into silence to process all he had heard. This was a lifestyle for these people—not firmly established since they had only done it for about a year and a half, maybe less. But even so, if you’d put your life on the line for some company’s bottom line and a bounty, he could only guess that people might grow cynical. People like Lynch could get used to it and approach it as simply another job. Maybe those like Chloe wouldn’t see it that way. Sure, the money didn’t hurt, but it seemed she was in it for the knowledge gained by working on what was essentially an alien planet. Even Kennedy seemed as gung-ho about it as Lynch, but from her conversation with him before they took off, Sal felt that she wasn’t used to it. Living this kind of life affected her.

“So,” he said after the silence had dragged on for longer than was comfortable. “I suppose it’s too late to turn my papers in and head on home?”

The group in the Hammerhead chuckled—all except Kennedy, who kept her gaze firmly on the screens. After a few seconds, Sal chuckled too. They seemed to think that he was joking so perhaps he should go along with the farce. Maybe, if he played along for a while, he might end up believing it.


Chapter Six

Silence reigned in the Hammerhead as they drew closer to the Zoo. At a distance, it looked like most jungles with thick, overgrown, heavy trees with vines and bushes creating an undergrowth. Picture perfect, almost. But the closer they got, the more divergences he saw.

For one thing, Sal realized that the landscape of interminable dunes ended and gave way to what looked like grass growth. He assumed this was the work of the glowing goop they’d found in the alien missile or pod. The color wasn’t the usual green of grass, though. It looked brighter and more intense—maybe an effect of a more efficient process of photosynthesis? Sal made a mental note to look into that later. Bioengineering was his thing, after all, and if they could recreate that in other plants like soy and corn, not only would it increase production, but it would speed up photosynthesis and reduce CO2 in the atmosphere and thus increase oxygen production.

For the first time, he felt excited about this endeavor. Sure, there was still the dread of the jungle of death, but there was certainly a lot to learn from this Zoo.

The grass grew thicker and higher the closer they got to the jungle, and bushes and even smaller tree saplings made an appearance. Kennedy and Davis did their best to avoid trampling anything, but eventually, the plants were too thick for the Hammerheads to proceed any farther. They found a small clearing and brought the massive vehicles to a halt.

Both squads dismounted, and Sal finally saw the people in action. They gathered supplies while both Kennedy and Davis barked orders and double checked to make sure they had everything. From what he could see, they’d taken every kind of emergency into account.

Collecting and analyzing was his job. Getting everyone out alive was theirs.

Sal touched the long grass. It was a brighter and more vibrant green than he’d ever seen before. If this was the effect of the goop, he had to wonder what the intention behind it was. It might be some sort of biological warfare, he supposed, but for the most part, it was an environmentalist’s wet dream. He plucked a leaf from a nearby bush and tucked it away for later study. He was sure that the scientists in the Staging Area already had this, but with everyone so focused on the Pita flowers, the other riches might be left by the wayside.

“Okay, squads,” Davis called once all the supplies were ready. “Your HUDs have the locations of the Hammerheads permanently logged, so if you need to bug out fast, you know where to go. They have an emergency beacon too, so if you can’t make it to the vehicles, we’ll know where to find you and get you out.”

Sal again felt like he was the reason for the detailed reminders. Or maybe Davis was the kind of leader who had particular rituals before heading into a hostile zone.

“The boys back in the labs have developed a new kind of smoke bomb that should mask your scent as well as hide you if you’re attacked. They are in the experimental phase, and they want full reports on how they work in the field, so try to keep track. Again, they are experimental. They must not be depended on and should only be used as a last-case scenario. Emergencies only. The goop interferes with short-range comms, so stay within shouting range of your squad at all times. Stick together and get out alive. If any of you dies during this mission, I’ll hunt you cunts down in the afterlife to kick your asses for making me look bad, understood?”

All nine team members made some sort of gesture to indicate that they understood. Davis seemed like the kind of man who could deliver on a ridiculous threat like that.

“Squad One, on me,” Davis called, and he marched to Kennedy, gripped her hand, and shook it. “Good luck, Sergeant Kennedy.”

“You too, Sergeant Davis,” she responded and looked him firmly in the eye. Sal wondered at their relationship. Was it only of mutual respect, or was it something more? Big brother and little sister? Romantic? He wasn’t entirely sure why he cared. Maybe it was something to keep his mind busy so that he didn’t have to look at the Zoo.

Monroe nudged him in the shoulder. “Don’t die out there, ya hear?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said with a nervous chuckle. He glanced at the Zoo and forced back a gulp. This wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Well, maybe like a walk through Jurassic Park.

The terrifying part was he wasn’t sure how literal that might be.

“Squad Two, on me,” Kennedy called, and Sal responded quickly and moved closer to her. She looked at Squad One, watched them head into the dense jungle, and chose another vector. Sal could see her mark a path on her map, and when she had finished, she sent it to everyone else’s HUD. “That’s the path we’ll take. We’ll update it if we run into any obstacles on the way, but none of the previous missions have any marked. If you get lost and are out of comm range, follow the map. You’ll find us eventually.”

Sal nodded. He’d never been much of a woodsman. Sure, his dad had tried to interest him in hiking and fishing and camping during the summers, but he’d never thought he would ever need those skills in his life. He didn’t want to be outdoors. He wanted to be inside, reading books or running experiments in a controlled environment inside a lab.

Well, way to prove me wrong, old man. He had passed away before Sal had finished his BA. His mother was still around, though. A tough old bird, Anna Maria Jacobs always made sure her three kids came home for the holidays when the time could be spared.

Holy shit. Had these motherfuckers even informed his family about what had happened? Sal’s eyes widened. Sure, he wasn’t that close to them, but they might want to know that he was in an alien jungle with a strong chance of becoming sustenance for a hungrier species.

He could feel a panic attack stir as Kennedy led them into the Zoo. Sal looked around and noticed a bush with a leaf the same intense green as the grass but which had eight points. Few plants had leaves with eight points. He opened the database in his HUD and studied it. A moment passed before it pinged and showed him that the plant had been noted. This was a sapling, apparently. No timeline was given, but trees could reach up to fifteen feet in height with knotted and curling trunks and sometimes, even grew like a vine around larger trees.

See? You’re calmer already. Use that big fucking brain for something other than how many ways this mission can go sideways. Stay focused, stay on target, and do what you came here to do. The rest of these motherfuckers all survived multiple trips into the Zoo. Even the scientist you replaced is still alive, although recovering from a non-lethal wound. People walk in and out of this place all the time.

Sal felt calmer. He’d had panic attacks often as a kid. While smarter than everybody around him, it had always come at a price. His brain worked far quicker, and he reached natural conclusions more easily. He tended to overthink, and that made him freeze up on occasion. There were side effects of being a genius. There always were. But he wouldn’t have traded his brain for an athletic build in high school. Hell, his brain was the reason he’d gotten out of it so quickly.

Then again, it would be nice to have both, right?

“Jacobs!” Kennedy snapped as the squad reached deeper cover and slowed considerably. “Pick up your damned pace. We don’t want to get caught in the outskirts when night comes. They come out to do their hunting, and they’re mostly nocturnal.”

Sal nodded and hurried to bring up the rear of the five-man squad. Lynch grinned and patted him on the back, while Cortez and Addams simply gave him an odd look. Sure, it was his first time, but didn’t that mean that he should move the fastest since he was so much more pants-shittingly scared?

“So, where are we supposed to find these Pita flower plants?” Sal asked Lynch once they’d pushed deeper into the jungle.

“Well, they don’t grow on the outskirts for some reason.” He hefted a heavy rifle in the mechanical arm of his suit. “The brains back at the Staging Area seem to think that it has something to do with how much of the goop is underground. It only grows where there’s a lot of it, and there’s much more of that closer to ground zero or the very center of the Zoo. Folk assume that there should be a heavy concentration in that area, but nobody’s been there since the locusts came and fucked the whole experiment up.

“Any teams that try to get there don’t come back, and any aircraft that try to come in low enough to drop boots on the ground are never heard from again either. Eventually, the brass tired of losing good troops and gave up on it. They let folk like us make hikes deeper and deeper into the Zoo until we get there eventually. Although I’d avoid the place, personally. Sure, they pay well, but they don’t care if we die in there. They simply want the pretty flowers.”

Sal nodded. The man droned on, the kind who assumed people wanted to hear what he had to say. But in all fairness, Sal could use the distraction. As the foliage thickened around him and they lost sight of the Hammerheads, it was hard not to think that the vehicles might be the last sight of civilization he would ever have.

Cortez took the lead as Kennedy fell back and moved closer to Sal.

He saw a message notification on his HUD and realized that she’d opened a private line between his suit and hers. He wondered how it would work since he assumed the suits couldn’t be soundproofed.

He looked at the message, selected it, and the channel opened.

“How are you holding up, Jacobs?” she asked, and he heard her voice through what he assumed were speakers inside his helmet. Apparently, the suits—or the helmets, at least—were indeed soundproof. Well, it made sense. There were a lot of tactical applications to that. It would allow members on a closed channel to communicate between themselves in a hostile environment when silence was of the utmost necessity.

He nodded. “It’s…pretty damn amazing,” he said, avoiding the topic of his mental state. He wasn’t lying. The deeper they got into the Zoo, the more fascinated he was with the novelty of the flora. There were times in his field where anything new or challenging seemed impossible to find. In the Zoo, though, everything was either something familiar that had transformed into something amazing, or something entirely new. It was what people like him lived for.

“That doesn’t answer the question, Doc,” she retorted.

Sal rolled his eyes. “Look, how do you think I’m holding up? You know my story and how I got here. I’m sick and tired of explaining it to everyone. I’m here, and I won’t get out until we get some flowers. I’ve come to terms with that.”

Kennedy nodded. “I’m not sure why it happened that way. I don’t agree with it, but while we’re here in the Zoo, you’re on my squad, Jacobs. That means getting you out of here alive is my number one priority. Once we get back, we can talk about whether you want to go home or if you want to and make money here. That’ll be your decision. But as of right now, in this jungle, I need your mind to be on the here and now. Can you do that for me?”

Sal sighed. Hadn’t he dreamed about an opportunity like this his entire life? Sure, why not? At the end of it, he might even be able to get someone to approve his dissertation and the piece of paper that actually made him a doctor. There had to be something there that would help him accomplish that goal.

But that wasn’t in the now. She needed him to keep his mind on the various dangers and opportunities right there. Not in the future. Not back home. Not in some lab. To stay alive, his mind needed to be in the Kudzu.

He finally nodded. “Yeah, I’m here. You can count on me, Kennedy.”

She chuckled. “Hey, let’s not move too fast, okay? I don’t trust you to get the job done until I know you can get the job done. But for now, it’s enough to know that you’ll give it your best effort.”

“You sound like my gym teacher.”

She made a face and studied him with a grin. “You don’t look like you’ve seen the inside of too many gyms.”

Fair enough, though it stung to hear it. “You’d be surprised. I take care of the temple that is my body.”

Kennedy laughed openly. “Okay, hold your horses there, Apollo. Let’s see you last the rest of the day, okay, rookie?”

“Will do, sir,” Sal said and gave a mock salute.

“That’s Sergeant,” Kennedy said good-naturedly. “Unlike a bunch of lazy fucks sitting in air-conditioned offices, I actually work for a living.”


Chapter Seven

Sal had always felt that something held him back. Something that he never really thought about but which was still a part of his whole personality. He didn’t particularly condone it, but he’d never considered it a real flaw.

He was lazy.

Not in the traditional sense, but many things in life required effort. Most of the time, he simply avoided them. He could kiss ass with the best of them, but he couldn’t be bothered. Sure, he could be a personal assistant to the brightest minds in the field. He could be the best grad assistant who ever lived.

But he simply couldn’t be bothered.

And for the first time in his life, Sal felt like he had messed up.

As he looked around during his first walk through the Zoo, he realized that half-assing his way through life had been a colossal mistake. What he saw was people who were not only giants and geniuses in their respective fields but also diligent in their work. In short, they could be bothered to make a difference in the world, even if it meant having to dig in and do some dirty work.

Sure, it had all backfired spectacularly, but that really wasn’t their fault. For all their genius, nobody could have predicted that the elements would have conspired against them so thoroughly.

Even so, Sal wondered if he couldn’t have helped. If he had buckled down and done his work with due diligence instead of simply relying on his brains, he could have perhaps prevented this by his involvement in the project.

Well, that was a little arrogant, he realized. Even he wasn’t powerful enough to keep a swarm of locusts from descending on the goop’s ground zero and fucking everything sideways.

Still, he couldn’t help but see the potential. There were hundreds of new varieties of plants. As they moved in deeper, he caught glimpses of the animals too. They seemed afraid of the squad and fled or hid out of sight before Sal’s HUD could properly lock onto them.

Well, who wouldn’t be afraid of a bunch of two-legged beasts in half-metal, half-rubber suits?

Sal’s HUD captured the abnormal plants, all with the same vibrancy. The reds were redder, the browns were darker, and all looked exceptionally healthy. Almost too healthy like mammals that had been injected with steroids. It looked natural but almost too natural. This goop stuff must be some sort of plant steroid.

Except it wasn’t, he reasoned. It consumed things and spat them out changed and altered. Some of the growth looked like they had once been regular earth plants which had gone through some severe alterations. Others didn’t look like they were from Earth at all. They could have been at some point, but they were too heavily altered to recognize.

Scientific names ranging from the regular Greco-Latin to absurd attempts to shoehorn some scientist’s name in flickered across the HUD of his helmet as he made mental notes on each one. It wasn’t easy to do since he also had to keep up with the hectic pace Kennedy set for the squad. He still managed to capture a few new pictures, though.

When they paused for a quick breather and a drink of water after moving for three straight hours, Kennedy came to talk to him.

“All good, Jacobs?” she asked and kept the comms open this time.

“All good, Sergeant,” Sal responded and pulled the visor of his helmet up to breathe in the fresh air. “I noticed the average sizes of the plants that we’ve come across. The last data collection was from a week ago, but already, they are up by about eleven percent. I know we have to account for changes in location and alterations caused by the goop, but this is already off the scale observed by the scientists in the controlled tests.”

She shrugged. “Is that important?”

“I mean…” He pulled his visor down to look at the data again “It’s worth noting, at least. I’ll keep track of it during the rest of our trip, but if the plants grow this much faster, it might mean that the goop will expand faster too.”

Kennedy narrowed her eyes. “So what are you saying?”

“The wall under construction is supposed to keep the goop from acquiring any more significant biomasses for conversion,” Sal responded and lifted his visor again to wipe a bead of sweat from his forehead. “But it might not seal the Zoo off in time.”

“That is a pretty significant problem, yeah.”

“Agreed,” Sal responded. “We’ll need more data to be certain, but—”

“Keep an eye out anyway,” Kennedy finished for him and drank a little water. She offered her canteen to him, but Sal shook his head as he’d already pulled his visor down to look for more specimens.

Turning over a new leaf would be a bitch, but he had enough to keep him occupied for the transition period.

“Ya know,” Lynch said as he studied the tree Sal was busy measuring, “I’m sure that the goop is causing all this. It makes all the plants bigger and badder. It’s doing the same to the animals, but the bigger ones stick close to ground zero.”

Sal stopped and looked at him, a little perplexed. “Why would they do that? If they were larger, they would require more food. That would require them to move around a lot more, right?”

“Yer guess is as good as mine, mate.” Lynch shrugged and tapped lightly at the tree with the steel arm of his suit. “Though it makes sense that if more of the creatures are nearer to ground zero, the predators will stick to the center. That means the herbivores and prey will have to come and go.”

“With the larger predators holding closer—” Sal flipped quickly through the database for the various predator animals. “We have no frame of reference for any of this. If it is based on some sort of alien life form, it could mean that the growth is simply a sign of the goop, whatever it is, adapting to our climate. There’s no reason to believe that it originated on a planet with carbon-based life-forms. This could only be the start. Once it has more biomass to appropriate, we could see another burst of growth that we might not be able to recover from.”

“And yet it has flowers that give us youth juice,” Lynch said almost as a protest. “How does that add up?”

“It’s not relevant,” Sal replied with a scowl. “The oil acquired by squeezing the Pita flowers is a heavily condensed version of the goop that has gone through significant chemical alterations. The resulting get-well juice could simply be a result of it adapting to our planet.”

“If it’s an accident, how come all the animals go berserk when we try to pluck the Pitas?”

“A defense mechanism stored in its DNA?” Sal shrugged. “I’d say that it’s probably a result of the plant’s evolution. There are plants around the world that release pheromones when they’re attacked by ants to attract bugs and animals that eat the ants. It could be stored somewhere in the DNA, and the goop merely draws that part out.”

Lynch chuckled. “I guess we’ll have to call those aliens on their mobiles and ask them about it.”

“We might want to ask them what was up with launching a missile at us in the first place. But yeah, that’s one of the questions we’ll want to ask.” Sal grinned.

“All right, boys,” Kennedy called. She lowered her visor and lifted her rifle. “Enough shooting the breeze. We need to move.”

“Ya know,” Lynch said loudly enough for Kennedy to hear him, “I have me a goop launcher that gets all sorts of big when the time comes.” He made a gesture toward his groin, and Sal rolled his eyes. “Might be that them aliens based all this stuff on me all along.”

The sergeant, on the other hand, grinned and took the man’s comment as something of a challenge. “I have got to say, Lynch, if your goop-launcher fires blue stuff, you might want to see a doctor about it. It could mean it’s all kinds of broken. Then again, with the new drug-resistant form of VD you got, I wouldn’t be surprised if you shot blue swimmers.”

Cortez and Addams both joined Sal in a laugh at Lynch’s expense. The man looked angry, but he didn’t have a worthy retort, so he snarled something about Kennedy keeping her trap shut. She responded by raising her suit’s metal arm with only one finger extended.

“Let’s move it, ladies,” the sergeant growled. “I won’t ask you again.”

The group grumbled but obeyed their squad leader. Sal noted that one of the trees had moss growing on it that wasn’t on the records. He retrieved a piece and put it in a sealed bag for later study before he jogged after the others.

He caught up with Kennedy, who checked her map to make sure that they were on schedule.

“Hey,” he called to catch her attention.

She nodded. “What’s up, Jacobs? Find a new kind of squirrel that you want us to shoot for you to look at?”

Sal shook his head. “That’s not even remotely funny. No, I simply wondered… I mean, you’re pretty badass. I looked at the records, and you’ve been on almost two dozen missions like this over the past ten months. That’s pretty impressive by anybody’s standards.”

“Do you have a point, Jacobs?” she asked. “Or do you think I need a pick-me-up? An ego stroke, if you will.”

“My point,” Sal continued, “is that you don’t have to take shit like that from Lynch. I don’t know the guy well. Or you, for that matter. But if you’re his superior, why do you let him talk to you like that?”

She shrugged. “They know that when it matters, we all have each other’s backs. Shooting the breeze isn’t serious, and since we’ve all been on many missions, it’s okay to give each other a hard time now and then. It keeps morale in check, and it’s really not worth it to haul out my twelve inches to embarrass the boys in a dick-measuring contest, if you know what I’m saying.”

Sal narrowed his eyes and his gaze trailed down to the area she’d mentioned. “In this day and age, I really can’t be sure if you’re speaking metaphorically or not. Are you—”

“None of your business, Jacobs,” she responded easily and patted him on the shoulder with her unarmored hand.

“Heads up,” Addams called and indicated movement in the bushes to their left with his hand. Kennedy moved into action, raised her weapon, and aimed it at the movement. Cortez and Lynch immediately stopped whatever they bickered about and mirrored her. Sal, for his part, had no idea what to do, so he remained behind the quartet of space-marine types. If there were any trouble, he’d be more than happy to let them handle it.

“Motion sensors say it’s not that big,” Cortex growled through the comms.

“It could still be one of those snake things with acid in their fangs,” Kennedy barked. “Stay frosty.”

The closer they came, the more movement there was until it emerged slowly from the cover of the foliage and into the light. Rifles raised and safeties were lifted.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Sal called and slipped in front of them before they could shoot. The creature was small. From the frailty of its six legs, he guessed it was only a couple of days old. It looked—apart from the six legs, of course—like a gazelle. There were other differences too. The fur was a greenish blue that almost disappeared into the background of the jungle with light spots of white on its back. There were no antlers, but he could see a pair of small fangs jutting from under its upper lip.

“It’s got fangs,” Lynch muttered and tried to find a shot around Sal.

“There are gazelle with fangs in the world too,” Sal snapped. “Don’t fucking shoot.”

“Stand down, Lynch,” Kennedy finally ordered. “Let the specialist do his thing.”

“Bloody bullshit,” the man growled, but he followed her orders. Sal had to restrain a sigh of relief as he turned to the small creature.

He moved closer, and it stood its ground and looked curiously at him. The six legs didn’t seem out of place. In fact, it appeared that the whole body had been developed to accommodate them. The hind and front legs were sturdy and powerful, and the middle two were smaller to maintain the creature’s balance as it ran. He looked through the database and found no sign of any creature even remotely similar to this one.

He could put it down and bring it back for study, but once he’d looked into the big, inquisitive eyes, he simply didn’t have it in him. It barely came up to his knee and didn’t seem to back away from him at all when he approached.

Sal crouched, and the little animal took a few tentative steps forward. He pulled some pale red, almost pink moss from one of the jutting roots and extended it as an offering. It leaned forward, sniffed, and a bright blue tongue flickered out to collect the moss and munch it quickly.

“You’re a sack of adorable, aren’t you?” Sal said with a grin.

“As adorable as it may be,” Kennedy growled behind him, “I don’t think you should pet it. In fact, I think we should be long gone before this baby’s parents arrive. It might be small, but they might not be, and they won’t be happy about us hanging around their kid. Stranger danger and all that.”

Sal nodded. He agreed, but sadly. “See you later, little…guy? Gal? That technicolor rainbow in between?”

The creature tilted its head in confusion.

“Never mind.” He chuckled, stood, and walked away with a sad goodbye wave to his new friend.

“You were lucky,” Addams said once they were on their way again. “Not everyone’s first encounter with the animals around here is so peaceful.”


Chapter Eight

It had been a long day. Their march was interrupted only by a couple of breaks for rest, with one of them a quick stop for lunch before forging ahead. Aside from a handful of odd-looking birds, they ran into no more wildlife for the rest of their march. That wasn’t so uncommon, Kennedy told him. Most of the predators only hunted at night, and the herbivores could hear them from a mile away and were very careful to stay clear.

“That’ll change once we get closer to ground zero,” Lynch told him. “That’s where all the fun begins.”

Sal wondered if the man’s concept of fun might not be a little warped. His, on the other hand, was a quiet night indoors, playing a game or reading a book. Sure, he was a geek, but at least none of his books tried to kill him.

That might make an interesting novel idea in its own right, he thought. It sounded like the kind of stuff only Stephen King could pull off, though.

The sun started to set, and the shadows of the trees grew long before Kennedy paused their march.

“This is as good a place as any to set up camp,” Kennedy said and looked around.

Sal did the same, though he had no idea what constituted a good place. Was it high ground? Visibility? Ease of access? He would never admit to even moderate knowledge about this stuff. He could imagine Kennedy in the Boy Scouts and earning every single one of the badges.

Her earlier comment still perplexed him, but he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with her. She was right. It was none of his business.

“So how do we set up camp?” he asked. “Collect firewood? Build tents? Go hunting for food?”

Kennedy gave him an odd look. “Look, if you want to risk cutting one of these trees down for firewood, be my guest, so long as it’s as far away from me as you can get. Most of the creatures that hunt around here are nocturnal, and their main sense is hearing. No, we have heaters that should keep the cold out. We set up perimeter sensors and a rudimentary shelter. It shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes.”

“Besides,” Cortez said as he dropped his pack, “None of the animals out here are cleared for human consumption anyway.”

Sal nodded. “What about the plants?”

“What about the plants?” the man asked. He drew various heater plates out.

“Are any of them cleared for human consumption?”

He shrugged. “There are a couple, but we bring our own rations from the Staging Area. It’s better that way. We don’t have to rely on each other’s hunter-gatherer instincts and end up drooling on the floor when we find something that ends up safe but is still a hallucinogen.”

Sal grinned and glanced at the others. Everyone seemed to have something to do. Lynch and Addams positioned the perimeter sensors, Cortez the heating plates, and Kennedy appeared to have started on the shelters.

“Is there anything I can do?” he asked, feeling a little useless.

Cortez looked oddly at him. “You’re the squad specialist, dude. Poke at shit. Conduct experiments. Try not to get into fights with an alcoholic British dude who claims to work for His Majesty’s Secret Service. Take samples.”

Sal made a face. “Really? You don’t want my help?”

The man shrugged and set the plates up on stands. “Well, it’s not so much that we don’t want your help. It’s more about never having had a specialist help with setting up. Go do your thing, Doc. We’ll be finished here in a short while.”

Sal nodded. “That’s fair enough. Okay, I’ll collect my samples. And if I do find that British guy…I expect him to die,” he called out in what he assumed was a Swedish accent and ducked when Cortez threw a rock at him.

He examined a couple of the vines that grew around the trees. He wasn’t sure if the pheromone release was exclusive to the Pita plant. While he wasn’t really in the mood to find out, he pulled one of the younger tendrils off and studied it closely. The leaves and flower were very similar to the kind found on Asian wisterias, and from the way it encircled the tree tightly enough to leave indentations in the bark, it would, in a few years’ time, constrict further until the tree died.

Or it could be tomorrow, for all he knew. The vine was only a quarter of the way up the trunk. He couldn’t tell if the squeeze had already started to affect the tree, or if it ever would. He noted that both the tree and the vine were already in the database, so he made a mental note to check on the vine’s progress in the morning. He didn’t expect anything exciting, but in fairness, Kennedy had picked the most boring place to camp. There was literally nothing in the area that hadn’t already been documented.

Well, in this case, he supposed that boring was probably exactly what they wanted. Boring was safe, after all, but if he had to trek through an alien jungle, the least they could do was find something interesting for him to discover.

As the sun sank lower and shadows turned to proper darkness, the group gathered in their little camp with rations handed out for each to prepare as they pleased. It was mostly rice and beef stew with boiled carrots which didn’t need much in the way of preparation. Add a little water and simmer over the heaters for a few minutes, and the meal was ready.

Lynch still complained about it, though.

“I really wish the eggheads back in the Staging Area could find a way to send proper steaks out here.” He poked at the food with a plastic fork. “Maybe a couple of beers too. I’d kill for a beer at this point.”

“Drinking isn’t allowed while in the field,” Cortez growled and fixed his comrade with a sharp look. “But yeah. Things will get damn stressful. I wish we had something to unwind with.”

Sal ignored the fact that Cortez had probably said that to get him on edge.

“I was an intern at a university lab,” he said, his mouth still half-full. “I lived on ramen noodles and tears. I can tell you all honestly that this stuff is a massive improvement.”

“Wait,” Addams interjected. “Since when do doctors intern anything? Isn’t that why they do the doctoring? So they don’t have to intern?”

Sal could see Kennedy roll her eyes and she grumbled, “Not this shit again.”

“For the last time,” Sal said and tried to keep his voice even. “I’m a doctoral candidate. That means I’m working on my dissertation. And believe me, I have no idea why I’m here either, but I’m done complaining about it.”

“Yep,” Kennedy grinned. “And I’m sure that’s all the complaints we’ll hear from you for the rest of this trip.”

Sal shrugged. “I can only promise to try.”

The sergeant grinned, and the others chuckled.

Despite his complaints, Lynch was the first to finish his meal and lean back against his suit. “I still wish we had a pint of something frothy to wash all this down with.” He scowled at his water canteen.

“If you like, I could probably ferment some of these fruits,” Sal said as he wiped his plate clean with gusto. “If you’re willing to wait some thirty-six hours or so, I could provide something alcoholic to drink. I can’t promise it won’t be chock full of whatever that goop is, or even if it’ll be any good.”

“If we stay out here too long, you might have a test subject desperate enough to try,” Lynch said with a cackle of laughter. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

“Let me know.”

With the meal complete and everything packed for recycling, the group withdrew into their respective corners. The only light available now was from the various heaters. Sal moved to where Kennedy was seated on the ground with her legs crossed. She looked at a very robust sat phone.

“I didn’t know we could get reception out here,” he said as he sat beside her.

“We don’t,” she said distractedly. “The signal is weak, but it’s enough to get a location on Squad One.” She showed him a collection of red dots on a 3D map. “It looks like they’ve stopped for the night too.”

“Shocking,” Sal said, and Kennedy smirked.

“What’s up, Jacobs?”

He shrugged. “I wanted to talk, is all. I don’t think I have much in common with the other guys.” He nodded to the trio who were deep in conversation regarding which of their preferred sports was better. Addams liked football, Lynch was a rugby fan, and Cortez currently expounded on the virtues of basketball.

“And you think you and I have more in common?” Kennedy asked.

Sal tilted his head. “Well, not exactly that, though it does seem that we’re both the odd…um, people out. I’m not sure if you do that intentionally to stay aloof since you’re the squad leader, or if it’s something else. Either way, I thought I’d try to figure it out.”

She smirked, clicked the sat phone off, and tucked it into her pocket. “Okay, I’ll bite, Jacobs. What do you want to talk about?”

He shook his head. “Would you believe me if I said that I didn’t actually have anything to talk about?”

She laughed. “I’d say you have something on your mind, but you don’t have the balls to actually come out and say it. To which I say cut the crap and speak your mind, Doc.”

“I’m not a—”

“I know you’re not a doctor,” Kennedy growled. “But it’s easier than saying your real name. Who can be bothered with two syllables when one will do?”

Sal smirked and remembered Davis saying something similar but with a very different point of view. Her statement made him wonder if the man had been talking about Kennedy.

“What?” she asked when she saw his smirk.

He shook his head. “Nothing. I remembered something Davis said when we first started out.”

Kennedy chuckled, and Sal realized that she knew exactly what he was talking about. She turned to him. “Don’t you have some sciencing to do? Testing plants and animals, discovering the secrets of the universe or something?”

Sal nodded. “Probably. But while I decided to turn my life around and stop being a lazy waste of space all the time, it’s a work in progress. I’ll get around to it eventually, but I won’t let the beauty of what I do keep me from enjoying my life if that makes any sense.”

Kennedy looked thoughtful, then nodded. “I guess I get it. Is that why you’re still not a doctor?”

“You know that I’m eleven years younger than the average age when people are granted their PhDs, right?” Sal asked.

“Well, yeah,” she said. “But you’re a bright kid. I saw your files. You finished high school before most kids reach it, you finished your BA before you reached California’s legal age of consent, and you held a masters before you could drink—which tells me you could have gotten your Ph.D. by now if you had really wanted to. So why hold back? Why go through the trouble of explaining how you’re not a doctor to everyone?”

Sal shrugged. “It’s complicated. The short of it is that I’m not great with people. To get a BA and a masters, it’s basically go to lectures, take the test, write the thesis, and pass. Which I did with flying colors. When it comes time for a Ph.D., there’s no test and nothing procedurally generated. It’s largely influenced by your personal connections. The fast track for most is to become a grad assistant to some great mind in the field while writing their dissertation. You can avoid that, but even then, there’s a whole process in which you must convince the various minds in the field that what you write about is relevant enough for them to give you the fancy piece of paper, and I’m not… I’m not great at that.”

Kennedy nodded. “I can understand that, I suppose. You’re smart to the point where you don’t have the patience to tolerate the people who might question what you’re talking about.”

“That’s…” Sal nodded. “It’s almost insultingly simplifying it, but basically, yeah. So instead of having to deal with the people, I come up with a topic and try to understand how to get through the whole process without accidentally insulting one of the geniuses of our time. It’s a work in progress, but I’m sure I can handle it. You know, eventually.”

Kennedy smirked. “I’m sure you’ll get there one day, Doc. And who knows, maybe insulting one of these great minds will be the way to get them to respect you.”

Sal chuckled, but it was cut short when they heard a soft ping from their suits. Kennedy picked up her helmet and looked at the HUD.

“The perimeter alarm’s been tripped,” she barked, and the friendly façade dropped. She was squad leader now, and the men could hear it in her voice as they ended their bickering and snatched their weapons.


Chapter Nine

The group waited with weapons drawn and again, Sal felt useless. He hadn’t had any combat training, but he would still have felt better with some kind of weapon on hand. They could even leave the safety on and let him hold it like a safety blanket. A placebo gun. Anything.

None was offered, and Sal didn’t want to ask them to give him a weapon to make him feel better, so all he could do was run to where he’d left his helmet, put it on, and hope for the best. It would take too long for him to drag the full suit on, so he could only hope that whatever was out there only went for the head.

When the squad moved toward where the motion sensors had tripped, Sal stayed in the camp.

“What are you doing?” Kennedy hissed at him.

“I’m letting the gunners do what gunners do,” he replied with a nod. “I will stay right here and do some experiments or something.”

“We can’t leave you here alone,” she snapped. “Besides, we’ll need you out there to identify whatever it is. That’s your job.”

“Damn it,” Sal growled. He stepped up behind the four, gripped the side of his helmet, and turned the HUD on. It ran a scan of what was in front of them.

Night had fallen fully by then, and the overgrowth blocked any light from the moon or stars. Even once his eyes had adapted to the darkness, Sal couldn’t see much more than the shapes of the people in front of him. If he focused intently, he could faintly make out the shapes of the trees and the plants barely illuminated by the muted glow that managed to filter through the foliage.

“Fucking hell, it’s cold,” Lynch said in a rasped whisper, and Sal heard a shiver in his voice. “You hear jungle, and you think tropics all year round, not bloody Halloween weather. Bloody hell.”

“The jungle is a foreign object,” Sal tried to explain. “The fact that trees grow thick and fast in the area only slightly increases the moisture, which means that despite what you see, we’re still very much in a desert environment.”

“Shut the fuck up, Jacobs,” Cortez hissed and gripped his weapon tighter. “It’s really not the time for a biology lesson.”

“That’s geology, actually,” Sal corrected.

“Both of you, zip it,” Kennedy growled. “I can hear something.”

Sal froze and allowed the gunners to gain a few steps on him. They moved silently enough, but even so, he couldn’t make anything out. Jungles weren’t quiet places, even alien ones. The silence contained the sound of wind through the trees and of insects and nocturnal birds that drowned out what could be a stealthy predator poised to strike them down.

A message appeared on Sal’s HUD, asking him if he wanted to turn on the external lights. None of the others had, so he declined. It then asked if he wanted to turn on the helmet’s motion sensor capabilities, and he responded with a very enthusiastic nonverbal yes. The image on the screen flickered and quickly altered into something that resembled night vision but with motion accentuated in bright greens.

Most of what he saw was initially flooded with green since the trees and the vines were in a state of constant motion due to the strong wind from the open desert. Eventually, the operating system filtered out the plants and focused on anything that didn’t move in time with the trees. He wondered if that was a dangerous feature since more than a few predators used the tops of trees for cover, but for now, his eyes focused on what the screen captured.

The first thing that came into focus was the flicker of a pair of antennae—gentle movement that could have been an exceptionally tall blade of grass or a bluster of dust. But it was still there when Sal blinked and refocused. As they moved closer, a shape developed as the night vision kicked in and the sensitivity of the receptors was adjusted by the system. It was infuriating that this took so long, but Sal assumed that the suits and the HUD assigned to them were all experimental as well.

The shape was unusual. Like the little gazelle they’d seen before, it had six legs, and it was about the size of a basset hound. That was where the similarities ended. The antennae led to what could distinctively be described as an insect’s head. Five massive, bulbous eye sockets focused on the group approaching it, but like the gazelle, it hadn’t moved away. Instead, it seemed curious.

“Stop,” Sal whispered, and the rest of them complied. “It’s right in front of us.”

“I can’t see shit,” Addams growled.

“Turn on the night vision in your helmets,” Sal replied. Both Addams and Cortez had left their helmets behind in their rush, but Lynch and Kennedy immediately turned theirs on. Sal could tell because of their reaction.

“What the fuck…” Kennedy breathed aloud.

“What the hell is that thing?” Lynch eased in a little closer.

“I may be wrong,” Sal said and immediately realized he was the calmest of his squad. Addams and Cortez were both blind and had to rely on their comrades who had brought their helmets. Kennedy and Lynch stared at what they could only assume was the beginning of a xenomorph-based apocalypse. Lynch raised his weapon at the thing.

“No, don’t shoot,” Sal said. “I’m definitely not wrong. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a locust.”

“It’s the size of a three-month-old lamb,” Lynch growled and kept his weapon raised.

“Well, it’s a very big locust, but it’s still a locust.” Sal rolled his eyes. “All the body markers are there. I can’t tell about the markings or anything—”

“I can help with that.” Kennedy flicked on the flashlight connected to her helmet. A beam of light cut into the darkness like a hot knife through butter to reveal the creature. Sal could see both Cortez and Addams react in the same way that the other two had and lift their weapons to aim at what could only be described as a monster. Sal growled his irritation.

“Don’t fucking shoot.” He pushed Cortez’s barrel down and away from the locust, which didn’t seem perturbed by the light in the slightest. He wondered idly if that meant the creature was completely nocturnal and did not rely on vision to move around—which meant that, like most of the creatures in this jungle, it had undergone alterations besides the increase in size.

“Why not?” Kennedy asked. She seemed willing to hear Sal out, but unlike the six-legged gazelle that they’d run into before, this thing looked genuinely terrifying. She wanted to listen to her specialist, but she also had a duty to protect her squad. If it there was even a remote chance it would attack them, she definitely wanted to be the one to kill this new and improved nightmare.

“Well,” Sal said, “I assume from all your reactions that you haven’t encountered one of these things yet?”

“Of course not,” she answered and remained poised to fire.

“But it is, for all intents and purposes, a locust, and locusts aren’t carnivores.”

“It could still attack us for intruding on its territory,” Addams said.

“Locusts aren’t territorial. They’re solitary herbivores,” Sal said as he peered more closely at the creature. So far, it merely seemed inquisitive. “It’s also cold-blooded, which means it was attracted by the warmth from our heating lamps. Give it a few minutes to realize that it isn’t welcome here, and it’ll find some hole to sleep in until the sun comes up.”

Kennedy nodded and lowered her weapon. Cortez and Addams followed suit, but Lynch shook his head.

“Nah, fuck it,” he exclaimed and squeezed the trigger.

Even with the sergeant’s light, the double flash of the two shots blinded Sal for a few moments. He was close enough for his ears to ring as he ducked down and thought for a second that Lynch had actually fired at him. By the time his eyes and ears returned to normal, the locust lay on the ground with two large, smoking holes in its exoskeleton.

“What’s the matter with you?” Sal roared at the man, who merely shrugged and chuckled.

“I wouldn’t have been able to sleep if I knew that some big ugly bug hung around our camp.”

“So, it’s better to kill a species that we haven’t encountered before than it is for you to lose sleep?” Sal growled. He felt genuine anger at this, and he didn’t know why. Maybe it was a symptom of him turning over that new leaf of his. It made him care more about his job and what he studied. Something hot burned in the back of his stomach, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to contain it.

Lynch grinned unrepentantly. “Apparently so.”

Sal was about to yell at the man, but he was cut off when Kennedy raised a hand.

“Shut up, the both of you,” she commanded, “and listen.”

They did as they were told, and he immediately noticed a difference. Where the jungle had previously been alive with a variety of sounds to the point of drowning everything else out, he could now hear absolutely nothing beyond the sigh of the wind in the trees. Somehow, even that seemed faded and softer.

Sal stared at the dead creature. Admittedly, his skin crawled at the sight of a massive insect with mandibles, antennae, and spikes on its feet that meant it could probably climb the Empire State Building. He had a certain phobia when it came to insects and arachnids. But even so, years of studying life and creatures had made it an impulse he could push away at the metaphorical push of a button. The horror at seeing a helpless creature gunned down couldn’t be shoved aside as easily.

“Shit,” Kennedy said. “Well, Jacobs, go to the critter and collect whatever you need to collect. Gather some samples or whatever. The rest of you, we should probably pack up camp and move to another site since there will be all manner of fun headed our way thanks to Lynch opening fire on what was probably a harmless if gigantic bug.”

“Nice going, Lynch,” Cortez growled and patted the man on the helmet as the three of them headed back to the camp. Kennedy stayed behind to watch over Sal as he collected his samples.

“You okay, Jacobs?” she asked when she noticed that he hadn’t moved from his spot for another thirty seconds.

“Yeah,” he said, a little louder than necessary since his ears were still ringing. “Yeah, no, I’m fine. Really. I’m simply not used to the senseless murder of defenseless animals yet. But I assume I’ll be well and truly…you know, used to it by the time this field trip comes to an end. So…yeah. That’s cool. I’ll do a quick dissection of the previously undocumented and new species that we just killed—”

“I get it,” Kennedy said and rolled her eyes. “I get it. We killed a defenseless little bug. Your heart is broken. You think we’re a bunch of heartless killing machines. Believe me, by the end of this trip, you’ll feel exactly the same. Now get to work. You can have your attack of conscience later once we’re not in a position to get eaten by animals that aren’t defenseless.”

Sal nodded. She had a point, but it didn’t make him any happier about it. He pulled a scalpel and pincers from his pouch and moved to the dead bug. He knelt beside it, and the first thing he noticed was that the critter’s blood was the same color blue as the goop he’d seen in the video. Not only that, but it also glowed in the dark.

“That’s actually pretty cool,” he muttered and used a syringe to collect a sample of the blood.

“What’s that?” Kennedy asked.

“Nothing,” he replied and stored the blood. Like most insects, this one had a skeleton that worked as its armor as well, and the exoskeleton was thinner than what most insects would have by comparison. It looked as if it was denser, too, and heavier than it first appeared. He cut a sample and put it in a bag that was quickly vacuum-sealed.

“I’m switching the light off, Jacobs,” Kennedy said suddenly.

“What?” he asked, but she didn’t answer. The light disappeared and forced him to revert his helmet to night vision. He frowned and focused on something alarming. It could be nothing or simply an extra-large gust of wind. Deserts the size of the Sahara had sandstorms all the time, right?

The problem was if that wasn’t a sandstorm, why did it seem like there was something really large headed their way?

“Collect what you can and let’s move,” Kennedy instructed, clearly antsy, and this time, Sal didn’t question her. He took a couple more samples from the body and sealed them, stood quickly, and adjusted his helmet. He still felt bad for the critter that had simply come because it was curious about the heat, but he would have to mourn it later. That meant he would have to be around to mourn it later.

That seemed like an acceptable compromise. Sal arranged his samples inside the pouch he’d brought. He’d have to examine them later, but for now, they had to leave.

Kennedy kept her gun trained on the jungle as she and Sal headed toward the campsite. They could hear steps following from farther away now, and Sal felt more and more like something watched them. He couldn’t shake it, and he could tell that Kennedy felt the same. She looked focused, rather than nervous, but he sensed tension from her. He didn’t blame her. Being unable to see whatever it was that might attack them was as unnerving as hell.

He patted her shoulder once they reached the campsite to signal her without distracting her from what approached. His own motion sensors went crazy. It could be something really huge or a swarm of somethings, but he still couldn’t tell what it was. It wasn’t that far from the campsite either.

Kennedy jogged, with Sal right behind her, to see what progress the other three had made. It had gone quickly. The shelters were down, and the heat plates were almost finished. Wisely, they had left the sensor ring for last since they didn’t want anything to sneak up on them while they worked.

“What’s the situation?” Lynch asked, and the others listened in.

“We have something incoming,” Kennedy answered tersely and pitched in to help.

“Something?” Cortez asked.

“Something.” Sal nodded. “It could be many smaller somethings or one very big something, but it’s too dark to tell. I still suggest that we get the fuck out of Dodge.”

Kennedy nodded agreement. Sal was surprised by the reaction and the rest of the squad were too, but now wasn’t the time to address it. They needed to hurry.

Since they had to pack quickly, they had no time to put everything in its proper place. While all the packs were full, Sal found himself carrying some of the spikes with the motion detectors pinned to them. He didn’t complain.

A tense silence hung between them as they pushed through the jungle again. Everyone was fully armed and armored, and the gunners held their weapons at the ready. The feeling of being watched had spread to the rest of the squad, and no one felt inclined to break the silence. Sal knew that everyone thought back to where they’d left the locust corpse. He knew they might not think about it as he did but it was no secret that they all thought about what might be coming. They didn’t want to get into a fight with the Zoo fauna when they could barely make out the trees around them.

“Here’s fine,” Kennedy declared once they’d walked a few hundred yards. They were still uncomfortably close to their old campsite but didn’t want to deviate too far from their original course in the middle of the night and stumble onto something infinitely worse.

Working quickly, they set out the motion sensors first and, with less urgency, erected the shelters again. They avoided the heating lamps. There wasn’t much need for them as it was already late. Everyone was tired and grumpy and wanted a good night’s sleep before their hike in the morning.

As they set their new camp up, the sense of urgency faded and the conversation resumed.

Cortez was the first to speak. “You had to shoot it, Lynch. You couldn’t let a big fucking insect simply walk away.”

“Well,” Lynch said, “I had to draw first blood. Let the Zoo know who’s boss.”

“Yeah,” Sal growled. “All insects across the world will tremble in terror at the name of Lynch, the man who shoots locusts because they give him the night frights.”

“Hey,” Lynch said, “are you telling me that your nightmares haven’t been populated by the occasional spider, Jacobs?”

“It was a fucking grasshopper,” Sal snapped. “You shot something that literally eats grass.”

“I don’t know,” Addams growled. “I’d be pretty pissed if someone ate all my grass.”

Cortez chuckled, and the situation defused, but Sal could still feel his blood boil. Why did he feel this way? It couldn’t only be about the locust. It wasn’t even about him turning over that new leaf of his. He felt genuinely angry—fighting mad, actually. He wanted to punch Lynch’s smug face. Sal realized that there was no way that this would end well for him, but the impulse was there.

Maybe, he reasoned, it was because he had been filled with a sense of wonder at the opportunity to walk in this new forest with all these new plants and animals. Perhaps it had raised an inkling of hope that since this place was alien, there was bound to be a change in the way people acted.

What he was mad at Lynch about was that he’d quashed the sense of wonder—or shot it, rather.

There was also the small matter of having to move their campsite, but that was less important.

By the time they’d all retired for the night, Sal didn’t feel much like sleeping. Instead, he used the time to run some tests on the blood and armor samples that had been collected. He started with a pH balance test for the blood, quickly followed by a chemical test that would ascertain if it contained any of the goop. It didn’t take much time but being able to run them without the company of the gunners allowed him to relax. There was something familiar and comforting in doing simple lab work, he realized. Sal had never thought that he’d miss it.

The chemical test would take ten hours to deliver any conclusive results, so he moved on to the armor that he’d collected from the beastie. He’d taken the time to collect a piece that hadn’t been shot so he wouldn’t have to account for the damage caused by the bullet. It was from the creature’s thorax, where the armor was supposedly the thickest in most of the species.

Sal chuckled. This was the first of this particular breed that they had encountered, and they behaved like they thought there was a host of specimens to collect from. For all they knew, they might have killed the only one of its kind.

Yeah, Lynch could go down in history as the man who erased an entire species from existence. The goop could come up with more of them, though, right? Wasn’t that how it operated?

He clipped a piece of the armor off and applied the same chemical test to it since it was the first test that the guidebook suggested field specialists run. He also ran an endurance test and placed another clipping into a test vial with a small amount of sulfuric acid.

That done, he sealed the rest of his specimens and lay on his sleeping mat. He didn’t have the material needed to run more thorough tests, so he’d have to wait until they returned to the Staging Area.

Sleep was probably a good idea, but as he lay down, he heard soft snoring from one of the tents. Beyond that, he thought he heard what he imagined was the sound of massive jaws tearing into the corpse of a giant locust. Thoughts about this ravenous creature still nursing a serious case of the munchies and able to follow their trail and descend on them kept him awake for a little while longer. Eventually, Sal felt the tug of sleep, and he closed his eyes.


Chapter Ten

It felt like he’d barely closed his eyes when he heard movement outside his tent. He scrambled out of bed and looked around in a cold sweat. His first thought was that the creature had somehow found them and was seconds away from devouring the whole group.

When he managed to focus, he saw a faint light through the thin material of his shelter. Sal cursed softly when he felt the ache from the day before. He hadn’t been very active before, he realized.

Holy shit, he realized. That was now his previous life. He looked at the walls of his shelter. It was a tiny little thing, barely high enough for him to sit upright.

“Fuck my life,” he mumbled and dragged himself clear of the shelter. He’d left his toiletries in his little apartment at the staging area along with the rest of his luggage. Their water supply was probably rationed to the point where showers were not allowed and shaving even less so.

He wouldn’t have a good day and slowly came to terms with that. At some point, he might even make peace with it. He scratched at the bristle on his cheeks and scowled at his surroundings.

Kennedy and Cortez were already up and about. A couple of the heating lamps were out, and he could smell the refreshing aroma of coffee. Sal hadn’t always liked coffee, but as someone who preferred to stay up all night rather than wake early in the morning, he had learned to endure it and, to some extent, even enjoy it.

“Morning, sunshine,” Kennedy greeted him, and Cortez offered a grunt as he held his hands over the heating lamp. Lynch and Addams were still sleeping, apparently.

“Morning,” he responded grumpily and included them in his scowl. “What time do we leave?”

Kennedy checked her watch. “About thirty minutes. We don’t want to leave too early in the morning and risk running into the desperate stragglers.”

Sal nodded. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see what’s left of the locust thing and if I can grab a few more samples.”

She nodded. “Coffee first. Samples later.”

The coffee was strong, and since sugar was an unnecessary addition, Sal simply took a few minutes to quietly sip the thick, strong, bitter bean-juice of life. Not only did it bring him back from the dead, he’d reasoned once to a colleague, but it also kept him from killing people.

Considering that the colleague had been a fellow master’s student almost six years older than him, the man had agreed enthusiastically.

Once the coffee pot was empty, Sal stood. “I’m going back to the old campsite. You guys can either wait for me here or send someone with me.” He wrestled with his suit, still unfamiliar with the process.

Kennedy sighed. “Cortez, can you go with him? I need to at least try to contact Davis before we move.”

Cortez nodded. “Sure thing, boss.” He pulled his suit on too, and since he had a lot more experience than Sal did, he was finished a few seconds before the specialist. The soldier grinned, winked, and took point as he attached his rifle to the steel arm of his suit.

“So,” Sal asked once they were on their way, “how long have you taken part in these operations?”

Cortez shrugged. “About five, six months. Why?”

Sal shook his head. “I wondered about Kennedy. She’s been here the longest of the squad?”

Cortez nodded. “There’s a lot of turnover in our business, but she’s the one who’s stuck it out the longest. She’s run these ops for about nine months. The only one who’s been here longer is Davis. He was actually one of the first boots on the ground. They originally called in a group of special forces. The rest of his teams died or were injured in the line, and the pieces have switched out until he got us. I’d give us a couple of weeks before we see some new faces again.”

Sal pointed at his own face. “You already do.”

Cortez smirked. “You’re a specialist, so you don’t count. We get a new one every couple of weeks.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” he said.

“I don’t mean it like that,” Cortez said. “Specialist casualties are some of the lowest in the business since you guys aren’t supposed to fight. By the time the business end of a fight gets to you, the rest of us will already be down.”

“Still comforting,” Sal retorted and picked his way through the jungle. “I mean, the last guy, the one before me—”

“He got stupid and ran into a firefight to get his samples out. He panicked.” Cortez shook his head. “I haven’t seen how cool your head is in a fight, but I can always hope that we got one of the good ones.”

“What happens to the ones who don’t lose their head—or get their heads chewed off?” Sal asked.

“Oh, they get shipped out.” Cortez shrugged. “They have more flexible contracts than us gunners, so when they have the opportunity, they get the hell out of Dodge or they are transferred to the egghead squad.” Sal gave him an odd look. “You know…the ones working in the labs in the staging area.”

Sal nodded. “What kind of money do those guys make?”

Cortez shrugged. “It depends on their contracts. Some work for the military, like you, and live off bounties, like us. The rest are sent in as consultants from some third-party company or whatever. Those guys are paid ‘live on your own island’ dough, man.”

They reached the site of their old camp, and aside from some displaced moss patterns, Sal couldn’t even tell that they’d been there at all.

He looked around and turned to Cortez, who grinned.

“Okay,” Sal growled. “Cortez Irwin, do you remember where it was that Lynch gunned the big insect down?”

“Cortez Irwin.” He grinned. “I like that. This way. My first name’s Jorge, though,” he said, pronouncing the ‘J’ and ‘G’ with an ‘H.’

“Jorge?” Sal raised an eyebrow. “Jorge Cortez? First generation American?”

Cortez nodded. “My folks were asylum seekers from El Salvador. They got citizenship in the nineties. I joined the army for the GI Bill, but I didn’t really want to walk away. Then I got assigned to this hellhole. Well, I complain, but I make more money here, plus my special forces’ salary. I’ll go home with a tidy little sum waiting for me in my bank account.”

“What happens if the worst happens?” Sal asked, only realizing how uncomfortably blunt that question had been a few seconds after he’d blurted it out. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. Well, I…”

Cortez chuckled. “Don’t worry. It’s something that crosses everyone’s mind eventually, and it crossed my mind a long time before I ever got to the Zoo. I have a will that leaves all my earnings to my family. I don’t have a wife, but I’m sure my mom will know what to do with the cash.”

Sal nodded. “If I make it out of here alive this time, please remind me to make a will before I go back in.”

Cortez chuckled. “You got it, bro. On another topic, how does a fellow Latino end up with a name like Salinger Jacobs?”

“My mom is from Mexico and moved over legally. She met my dad when she was already in Cali. He played music in bars to pay for his business degree and was a huge fan of J. D. Salinger from Catcher in the Rye. Madre got in a middle name before my dad slapped me with his last name and they got married. My full name is Salinger Alfonso Jacobs.”

“Holy shit.” Cortez laughed. “What would you have done if you weren’t a genius biologist?”

“Porn actor,” Sal said without a pause, and Cortez laughed again and came to a stop.

“Back on track.” He looked around. “I’d say that this is where Lynch took that bug out. I’d bet on it.”

“Then where is it?” Sal asked. It had been dark, so he hadn’t made out any landmarks. All the trees, despite their uniqueness, looked annoyingly the same. He scowled. “There should be at least some blood stains. Viscera, even if some other critter ate it. Nothing’s that thorough.”

“Nothing we know about, anyways,” Cortez responded. “But this is it. Twenty paces southwest from our original campsite. I’m sure of it.”

Sal scowled. Why hadn’t he thought about counting the paces from the camp? Or made a note of the direction? Well, he’d been in a pants-soaking kind of terror, so there was that. He’d get used to it and start to mark stuff like this out in his head.

“Well, I hope you got enough samples the first time around,” Cortez finally said after they searched the area in case he’d misjudged the direction. Even if he had, there still was nothing left of the beastie. “Because it doesn’t look like you’ll get any others. Not unless we run into more of them and Lynch gets all trigger happy again.”

Sal turned. “How long has Lynch done this? Does he seem a bit—”

“Like he enjoys this a little too much?” Cortez finished for him. “Yeah, I worked with him before he came here. He’s not actually military anymore. He was in the SAS before he was kicked out for dishonorable behavior unbefitting a member of her Majesty’s special forces or something like that. Yeah, no, he’s one of those third-party consultants that I mentioned.”

Sal sighed. “Look, I know I’m new at this, and I still haven’t experienced the actual ugly parts of this job. Maybe I don’t have the full picture and maybe I overreacted last night, and I don’t want you guys to think I’m one of those people—”

Cortez cut him off. “Look, bro… Yeah, you’re green, but nobody will judge you for how you acted last night. Well, maybe Lynch will, but I don’t give a shit what that guy thinks. You care about stuff. That’s not a bad thing. Maybe your perspective will change after a couple of days in the Zoo, but for now, reacting to seeing something like that isn’t a bad thing. It’s life, man.”

Sal nodded. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Now, I do think that we should get back to camp before Kennedy has a freak-out and guns down the foliage to look for us.”

He took a moment at the original campsite on their way back to collect another shot of the vine growth he’d noticed the day before. There was no apparent difference, but most changes would be invisible to the naked eye anyway. He wouldn’t think about it until he could have a proper look and make a real comparison between the first and the second shot.

As they headed back, they could see the camp was almost packed up with the shelters already down. Addams collected the perimeter sensors, and Lynch looked hungover. A light sheen of sweat coated his face as he ate something that looked like beef jerky.

“You okay, Lynch?” Sal asked.

“Why the fuck do you care?” the man snapped irritably.

“You look a little under the weather, is all,” Sal said and backed off quickly, but Lynch pushed to his feet and tucked his helmet under his arm.

“No, you asked. I feel like shit, egghead, since you have to know.” He sounded more annoyed as he moved closer to Sal, who instinctively backed away. “How are you feeling?”

“Uncomfortable,” Sal said, but before the man could get any closer, Cortez stepped between the two of them and faced Lynch.

“Hey, chill the fuck out,” Jorge growled. Lynch tried to push past, but the other man stood his ground firmly.

“I’m sorry, did I offend your sensibilities, Cortez?” Lynch asked. “I’m not allowed to have a bad day? We all had a rough night, what with having to move camp because little bitch over there has a bleeding heart for all the precious creatures in the Zoo.”

“He’s not the reason we had to move camp, Lynch, and you know that,” Cortez countered sharply and intercepted another attempt to move past him. “You and your itchy trigger finger is the reason why none of us got a full night’s sleep last night, so of all people, you don’t get to complain about it.”

“I’ll complain about whatever God damn thing I please.” Lynch looked angry and ready to throw punches before Kennedy stepped in.

“All of you shut the fuck up,” she snarled, gripped both men by the shoulders, and dragged them apart a few seconds before the violence started. When Lynch attempted to push past her, she stopped him by using the steel arm of her suit to shove him back a few steps. “Don’t you think we have enough problems? We have enough things trying to kill us without adding each other to the mix.”

Sal stood there, his eyes wide, and his fingers gripped the scalpel inside his collection satchel. It probably wouldn’t do much against Lynch’s armor, but at this point, it was better to be safe than to be sorry. He gritted his teeth and his body tensed as he watched the exchange, almost able to taste the testosterone in the air. Addams had collected the sensors and looked on with an amused expression.

Finally, both Cortez and Lynch cooled off, and the latter pushed Kennedy’s arm away from his chest.

“Look,” he growled, “I’m here for money, same as everyone else.” He pointed at Sal, who tried his best not to blanch. “But if that specialist has a heart-throb for each critter we run across, he might stop us from shooting the ones that’ll kill us in a heartbeat. You know that. And should that time come, it won’t be his fault or mine. It’ll be yours.” He pointed at Kennedy now, and she sneered at him.

Lynch yanked his helmet on and tapped it with his metal fingers. “Food for thought, egghead. Just because you love you some nature don’t mean that nature loves you back.”

Sal shook his head, picked up the pack with his ongoing experiments, and slung it over his back. He activated the HUD. Kennedy shrugged. She still looking disgusted but seemed willing to move past it.

“Let’s get moving, ladies,” she commanded, grabbed her pack, and connected it to her suit before strapping her rifle to the metal arm. “We have a lot of ground to make up.”

The group nodded, and they moved deeper into the Zoo.

Fifteen minutes in, Kennedy fell back from the vanguard to talk with Sal. “When you got to the dead critter, what did you find? Did you see anything left behind?”

Sal shook his head. “Not even the bloodstains from Lynch’s shot.”

She nodded. “Yeah. That’s happened before when we kill the critters. We turn our backs, and when we look again there’s nothing left. No blood, no bones, and no organs. Not even the bullets we used to kill them. Every specialist we’ve had with us has had theories about what happens, but nothing conclusive. Do you think you could keep your eyes open? I’m not sure you’ll actually find anything, but if you do, make sure to report it.”

Sal tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “I think I can do that.”

She winked. “I appreciate it. It’s not really important, at least not compared to the three objectives of our mission, but it’s still something of an unanswered question that nags at me. Keep it on the QT. Thanks, Jacobs.”

“Will do, Sarge,” Sal said with a confused expression as he looked quickly through the database. There was no mention of what happened to the bodies after they were killed, and certainly, nothing about them disappearing. He made a mental note to ask someone about that when they got back.

If they got back.


Chapter Eleven

Sal knelt beside a creeping vine that spread over the jungle floor rather than climbing up the trees. In fact, it seemed determined to avoid any and all trees. A quick tug indicated that each of the pearl-white flower stems was rooted into the ground like it was an individual plant, even though they all were connected by an intricate vine system.

Sal was thorough and collected samples of the flowers, the stems, and the leaves for later analysis. They’d encountered a few of these that were either flora that branched off from a known species already documented or an entirely new kind altogether. It was fascinating work.

Unfortunately, the rest of the squad didn’t think so.

The sun hung directly above them and beamed nearly equatorial heat even through the leaves. It made each member miserable, especially through the suits. Sal could feel the sweat trickle down his back and between his shoulder blades to make his entire body itch.

But this location, above all others, was the one in which they needed to keep an eye open, Kennedy told him. They inched toward the center of the Zoo close to ground zero, and this was where the more dangerous animals were found.

“Wouldn’t the most dangerous animals live near the center?” he had asked as they continued their almost non-stop hike. “I mean, that’s where the critters at the top of the food chain would live, right?”

“Right,” Kennedy had answered. “Those guys are dangerous enough, but they aren’t too aggressive. They have as much food as they need and unless we come near their offspring or step too close to their nests or dens than they’d prefer, they’ll leave us alone. But the beasties living in the outskirts are a lot more desperate for food. They prowl around during the daytime, even though they might be nocturnal since they don’t have as much to choose from as the larger, more dominant species.”

He supposed that made sense. Hyenas were, to an extent, almost more dangerous than lions out in the savannas since they lived off the scraps left for them by the larger, more dominant predators.

Even so, he’d rather run into a pack of hungry hyenas than a pride of hungry lions. The former was easier to chase off. The latter were patient and more than willing to wait them out. They would allow their prey to relax and pounce at the first sign of weakness.

But he understood the point. There were certain rules regarding hunting in the wild, and the more desperate the animal was for sustenance, the less likely they were to abide by those rules.

Humans liked to think of themselves as above all that, but strip away the layers of civilization, and one would find all the same characteristics made up to look like morality and acceptable behavior.

It didn’t take a genius to see what was simply common sense.

Sal examined the plants and ran a few quick visual tests on the specimens he collected—pliability, liquid content, et cetera—and made sure not to spill a single drop before he vacuum-sealed them and added them to their specimens.

“Come on, Jacobs,” Addams said impatiently. “We don’t want to stick around any place for too long.”

He’d noticed that his squad grew more and more antsy. This was their second day in the Zoo, and he assumed that they were anxious to find the Pita flowers to get paid. While Davis had said that collecting specimens was also a priority, he began to see that it rated low on the list.

Sal nodded. “We haven’t been here for longer than five minutes. I’m simply collecting data so that we have less to do later.”

“You mean you have less to do later,” Lynch growled, and an uncomfortable silence ensued as Sal sealed his specimens in his bag and stood. He straightened his suit without looking at the other man. They still blamed Lynch for the troubles they’d faced the night before, and everyone was a little on edge around him after his display of anger in the morning.

“Yeah,” Sal agreed quietly, “so that I have less to do later. Sorry, I’ll try to keep my stops to a minimum for the rest of the trip.”

Lynch shook his head. He’d apparently expected to have another chance to teach Sal a lesson in manners, but the scientist had handled people like Lynch his whole life—bullies who excelled at manipulating events to make it seem like they had simply defended themselves. They were the most dangerous, the ones who knew that they were terrible people and didn’t care. Sal had learned sometime in the third grade that the only way to beat them was not to play their game. Avoid them, pull away, and never give them the opportunity to come at him. He’d come dangerously close that morning, but he wouldn’t do it again.

Kennedy smirked and checked her rifle. “Well, if we keep jawing around here, we might as well let the specialist work in peace, right, boys?” Addams and Cortez chuckled, but Lynch didn’t look amused. He shouldered his pack and moved forward, grumbling all the way.

The sergeant let Cortez take the vanguard as she dropped back to talk to Sal. “If you have any more trouble with Lynch, you let me know, okay?” she said after establishing a private line between them. “I don’t want there to be any trouble in my squad.”

Sal nodded. “Agreed. But I can handle Lynch.”

“No,” she responded implacably, “there’ll be no handling. If there are any more squabbles, I will sit the two of you down tonight for a nice long chat about the comradery shared by people with a common enemy in the field. Do we have an understanding here?”

Sal nodded. “Understood, Sarge.”

“Good.”

“So, Sarge,” he said before she could disconnect, “I can’t help but notice that we have a limited supply of water. A couple of canteens should last us another day, but after that, I don’t think we’ll have enough to go any deeper without having to think about it.”

“Don’t worry about it, rookie,” she said with a chuckle. “Well, worry a little. Our suits are equipped with a water recycling system. All your sweat and piss is processed, cleaned, and filtered. It’s still a worst-case scenario, but running only with the suits, folk have lasted at least a week. Maybe more, depending.”

“So, when you say worry about it a little…” Sal asked.

“Well, the filtering system is good, but I’m afraid that nothing mobile and small enough to fit into these suits will ever be that good for as long as we are alive.”

“Oh,” Sal pulled a horrified face. “That’s mildly disgusting.”

She laughed. “You should see what the guys who end up out here for longer than a week have to do. When it comes to staying alive, disgust is very relative.”

“I really don’t think I should see,” Sal said and shook his head. He could imagine, though. Even though there were certain standards that he thought he could hold himself to, he had never been in a position where he was literally dying of hunger or thirst. Sure, he’d complained about the crappy cheap food back in Cali, but he’d never actually had nothing to eat at all.

For people who were out of regular options, creativity was generally rewarded with survival, like it had been for those rugby players stuck in the Andes in that movie. He’d seen that it was based on a true story, but he’d never thought it was likely to happen in a civilized world.

He narrowed his eyes. “Wait…wait. All these trees and plants and even animals need water to live. I don’t care what this goop is, it can’t make living things able to live without it. So, unless they take from a source that we can’t like tree sap, we should probably be able to find a water source.”

“You really don’t want to drink recycled water, do you?” she asked with a grin.

“I really, really don’t,” Sal agreed, “but that’s not the point. Finding sources of water would be a good idea since it would reduce the carrying load of all future missions into the Zoo. They won’t need to carry sufficient water for days.”

Kennedy looked thoughtful. “That’s a good point. We’ll look into it later, but for now, we’ve fallen behind. Let’s pick up the pace.”

Sal nodded, but he studied the trees. The larger ones would have roots deep enough to reach reservoirs of water situated underground, and the vines would leech water from those trees. But none had started as massive trees with deep-reaching roots and, considering that it probably wouldn’t rain regularly for at least another decade, there had to be some source of sustenance for the smaller, weaker, and younger plants out there.

She had been right. He really didn’t want to have to put the recycling system of his suit to use.

They moved deeper and deeper into the Zoo. The sun had already dipped into the west when Sal looked up into the trees. A collection of monkeys sat there and chattered loudly. They were already in the database, and their numbers increased the deeper the team got. They looked similar to most simians, with prehensile tails but longer and more agile ears than Sal had seen on monkeys before. Spotted brown fur blended easily into the foliage, and bright yellow eyes watched the humans curiously.

He liked them. They looked intelligent and seemed curious enough to watch the squad march through the jungle and smart enough to give them a wide berth.

But it wasn’t the monkeys themselves that interested him. What intrigued him the most was the fact that a handful of them carried thick leaves through the branches, and from what he could see, they used the leaves to carry water.

“Sarge,” he called.

Kennedy paused and looked back. “We don’t have time for another trip into the wonderful world of scientific discovery, Jacobs. We have to get to safe ground before night falls.”

“I understand that, but if you could spare me a moment.” He pointed at the simians. They seemed interested in the humans’ curiosity too and took long, slow sips from their leaf vessels.

“Huh,” Cortez said as he used the zoom feature in his HUD to look closer. “That looks like fresh, clear water to me, boss. So, unless these guys learned how to recycle their piss…”

“There’s a source of fresh water in the vicinity,” Kennedy finished for him. “Is there any way we can establish where they got it? I don’t want to have to spend hours scouring this area.”

Sal nodded. “There are a few ways. We can follow the monkeys since they’ll have established their territory around the water source. Or we can follow the foliage and find where it is the densest.”

Addams didn’t say anything but pointed at the jungle flora that surrounded them.

“Right,” Sal agreed. “Follow the monkeys, then,” He assumed that if Lynch had been in a better mood, he would have made some joking innuendo about his monkey. The man was suspiciously silent and kept his weapon at the ready as they moved deeper into the area where they assumed the simians had made their home.

Soon, Sal could hear the soft bubbling sound that could only indicate moving water. He followed it with help from his helmet to direct him through the thick overgrowth until he reached an indentation. Water surged from within. It looked clear enough to make him wonder if it was water at all, but as he fell to his knees beside the little pool and dipped his fingers in, he grinned.

“I think I found it over here, guys,” he said and splashed in the clear liquid like a little kid. The water came from an underground spring, clearly, and its flow had already formed the beginning of a little river. He wondered how many of these had popped up in the Zoo.

He pulled his helmet off, slipped his hands into the water, and splashed it on his face. It was cool and clear and made him sputter and grin as he leaned down to scoop some into his hands to drink. The taste was exactly as water should taste. Sal gulped it down greedily and smacked his lips a few times before he felt the temptation to dip his head in.

The impulse was cut short when he heard a low, throaty rumble that sounded close to a growl. Sal froze, almost too afraid to look up. He definitely hadn’t imagined it. It sounded again, along with the soft swish of leaves pushed to the side as something moved closer.

He looked up, and his eyes widened as he saw the beast before him. At the shoulder it probably stood only as high as his stomach, but it was long, with a stocky, powerful build. Light filtering through the boughs above them illuminated its jet-black fur and lean muscles. It moved as a panther would, but through his fear, Sal noticed a definite difference. Of its four eyes, only two were trained on him. The other two, one on each side of its head, scanned the perimeter. The same number of small diamond-shaped ears flickered around like a bat using echolocation, and he was sure a ridge of spines arched over its back.

It parted its lips again to expose longer than normal teeth that dribbled a milky liquid. If that wasn’t poison—like a snake’s—he would eat his own suit.

“Guys?” Sal whispered. His voice suddenly refused to work. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from the creature in front of him which was, he was sure, a unique species. Under any other circumstances, he would have been more than happy to study it in a natural habitat. Now, however, it seemed to have him on the menu, and he was open to violent solutions.

He realized that he’d left his helmet on the ground beside him. Supremely conscious of the need to not to make any sudden moves, he picked it up. The creature seemed to assess him as if to decide whether he was a real threat or would make an easy meal. The black eyes sent chills racing down his spine. Sal pushed his rising panic down, pulled the helmet over his head, and latched it slowly into place.

The HUD activated immediately. The creature had been seen before and was already documented, it told him.

He keyed the comm to the open squad channel. “Hey, guys, I’m not sure if any of you can hear this, but if you can, please make your way to my location.” He tried to keep his voice steady as he continued his stare-down with the magnificently terrifying beast. “Because I think I could really use some help right now.”

It was like it could hear him call for help. The growl suddenly became a roar as the panther-like creature leapt the pool in a single bound. The jaws snapped at Sal, who had the good sense to dive out of the way. He hit the ground and rolled to his left. His adrenaline rampant, he scrambled for purchase on the slippery earth around him and found his feet. Moss and roots made it difficult to keep his balance, but he managed. His life depended on it.

The creature spat a wad of the milky liquid at him. It spattered against the reinforced glass of his visor. When he made no response to this attack, it roared again and slunk low to prowl toward him. Sal backed away and held his hands in front of him. He wasn’t sure what he could do if the thing came at him again except try to dodge.

“Oh, come on,” Sal exclaimed as the creature prepared to pounce again, and he readied himself to jump out of the way. Powerful hind legs launched it forward and the beast arced perfectly towards him as Sal flung himself to the left. His shoulder hit the ground, and he heard the ear-splitting noise of gunfire. Three shots echoed, and when he scrambled to his feet again, the creature lay motionless with a trio of smoking holes in its abdomen. It had been dead before it even hit the ground.

“See?” Lynch asked with a grin and gripped his massive rifle with both hands. “I told ya you’d need me to kill one of these beasties for you sooner or later.”

Sal nodded, but his gaze tracked across the pool again. Lynch stood on the same side as him but hadn’t seen the flicker of movement from the opposite side—more black fur, more spines jutting from the back, and four more eyes reflecting the little light that filtered through.

“What? No thank you?” Lynch asked and hefted his gun. “Did I offend your sensibilities by saving your life or something?”

“Behind you!” Sal called. It was the only thing he could think to yell as the second panther leapt into the air.

He was too late. Lynch managed a half turn before the creature landed heavily on him. Despite the stabilization units in the combat armor, he still hit the ground hard. The beast had knocked the massive rifle from his metal-covered hand which he now used to desperately keep the creature’s snapping jaws away from the more sensitive parts of his suit.

It spat the same poison at Lynch’s eyes, which were thankfully still covered by his mask, but it wouldn’t take the creature long to overpower the man. Massive claws on its fore and hind paws dug into the suit, which began to rip.

Sal seemed incapable of rational thought, and all he saw was the need to tear the monster off a fellow human. It didn’t matter that it was Lynch, one of the most despicable people that he’d ever had the displeasure of knowing. His adrenaline surged and galvanized him into action. He snatched the scalpel from his pouch and sprinted forward.

With a low tackle, he crashed into the panther shoulder-first and shoved it clear of Lynch. He and the beast rolled a few times before they both managed to stop their momentum. Sal had rolled a little farther, but he regained his feet quickly and immediately lunged toward the panther, which tried to stand, still uncertain of this new threat.

The scalpel wasn’t particularly long but it was as sharp as all hell, and it dug deep into the creature’s neck before it could retaliate. He yanked it out again and stabbed it into the other side of the neck. He told himself that he needed to find the carotid arteries, but he’d actually simply thrust at whatever he could reach first. The creature roared in pain and rage when he managed a third slash.

It was larger than the one Lynch had killed, and it jerked to avoid the sharp weapon that inflicted such pain. The twist knocked Sal to the ground, and he scrambled instinctively to put a little distance between them. The dark-blue blood spurted from the final wound, and it crashed heavily into one of the nearby trees and drew panicked shrieks from the monkeys that had watched the battle below.

The panther stumbled and shook its head. Blood dripped freely from its wounds. Sal scrambled to his feet, ready for another attack, but it sank to its stomach with a low, rumbling sound. All four eyes closed as its blood soaked into the moss-covered ground.

“Shit.” Sal drew a ragged breath and brushed the blood from his gloves as he hurried to Lynch, who tried to stand.

“Well,” the man said, “that wasn’t half bad, Jacobs.” He struggled to carry the full weight of the suit when the malfunctioning electronics failed to help.

Sal barked a laugh as he moved to inspect the suit. “Are you all right?”

“A bit bruised, but I’m okay.”.

“No swelling or burning sensations where it tore through your suit?”

“Who are ya, my proctologist?” Lynch poked at the metal hand of his suit, which had bent out of shape by the now dead panther-beast.

“It spat what looked like poison, like a cobra?”

Lynch examined where the claws had dug into his suit. “I don’t think so. It did spit at my face, though. Don’t spitting cobras only use the poison to blind you?”

Sal shrugged. “Would you bet your life on that?”

“Good point.”

Sal used a syringe to collect the poison on his visor before he wiped the rest off with a quick swipe of gauze. He put both in sealed containers and ran a quick check of Lynch’s armor.

The rest of their squad arrived a few seconds later.

“What the hell happened?” Kennedy asked. She nudged the beast Sal had killed with the barrel of her gun.

“We ran into some trouble,” Lynch said with a grin. “Me and the specialist took care of it. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Sal nodded and carefully sealed the scalpel he’d used in another bag.

“You helped to kill these creatures?” Cortez asked. He squatted beside the second one.

“Helped?” Lynch asked incredulously now that Sal had checked that he hadn’t suffered any wounds. “The man saved my life by killing that bugger with a scalpel. Of course, I saved his life first, so we’re even.”

Sal smirked. “Yeah, well, they were trying to kill us. It seemed rude not to return the favor.”

Kennedy chuckled. “Well, nice work on not dying. And nice work on finding us some water too.”

“We might want to move on quickly, though,” Sal said as he knelt beside the panther he’d killed to collect more samples of tissue, blood, and the poison from the fangs. “There’s no telling what kind of trouble the sound of the gunshots might bring our way. Besides, something will probably come to make sure there’s nothing left of these bodies.”

Kennedy nodded. “Good point. Let’s refill our water. You collect whatever you need. We’ll move out in five minutes. Cortez, help Lynch strip out of his armor. You’ll have to walk in your civvies until we can get that suit fixed.”

“I need a fresh breeze in my nethers anyway.” Lynch grinned.

Sal stroked the panther’s fur idly and a little sadly. There was nothing like a little killing to improve Lynch’s mood again.


Chapter Twelve

It hadn’t been difficult to find a suitable camp. They’d agreed to be as close to the water source as they could without compromising their safety. By the time they’d set up, the sun had disappeared and been replaced by a bright red display they could barely make out between the heavy cover of leaves.

The mood that evening was considerably better than it had been in the morning. Lynch repeated a few dramatic renditions of what had happened while he, Addams, and Cortez restored his armor to working condition. Kennedy prepped their rations and Sal used the time to prepare the tests for his new specimens and check the results of those he’d left to stew the night before. He’d decided to start on the dead locust’s armor.

In truth, he didn’t expect to find anything more than brown juice swishing around in the petri dish. There wasn’t much organic matter in the world that could survive that long in a container full of sulfuric acid. Its primary purpose was to test the resilience of metals used for body armor. He felt a little guilty that he’d wasted even that small amount of a specimen that could have been used for something more productive.

He retrieved the dish and stared at it for a few seconds. Well, it wasn’t full of ugly brown liquid, that was for sure. Sal scowled. The piece of armor had changed color slightly from blue to greenish-blue, but it was still there and in one piece.

“Huh,” he muttered and pried the container open, careful to use rubber gloves as he lifted the piece of armor to eye level. When he’d dropped it into the dish the first time, it had smoked and sizzled like it would be organic mush in no time, so he knew that he had, in fact, put it in the container with the acid. But that still didn’t answer the question of where the acid had gone.

Sal put it back in the dish, pulled his helmet on, and accessed the microscope function to look closer. He had a frame of reference since he still had other pieces of the armor that he’d pried from the dead locust, and he compared them side by side.

It was impossible to tell the differences at the molecular level, so he decided to run another experiment. He filled a dripper with the same acid that he’d put the piece into the night before and dribbled it over the untested armor. It sizzled and hissed and gave off an angry, foul-smelling smoke. He quickly quelled the reaction and tried the same test on the armor that had been soaked all night.

There was no reaction at all. The armor absorbed the first drop, then the second, and finally the third like it simply soaked in.

Sal put the two pieces together and tried the microscopic view again, hoping closer for a deeper comparison of the cells though it wouldn’t be anywhere near sufficient with his limited equipment. Annoyingly, aside from the change in color, they appeared identical.

Oh, hello. What is that?

He looked closer. The pieces seemed to connect of their own free will. It was as if when they were put in close proximity, they worked together to fix whatever damage had been done. And something more interesting happened. The color the acid-tested armor had taken on spread to the part that hadn’t been soaked.

After a few minutes, they fused together. Sal picked up the now single piece and tested the resistance. It was like he hadn’t broken it, and both portions were the odd greenish-blue color.

“Huh,” he said again and sealed them in the petri dish. He needed more instruments and more in-depth tests to work out what the fuck was going on. For the moment, all he could do was note what he’d seen. The HUD recorded it all, and he archived the footage before moving on to the blood testing.

The chemical test had been a success, and the solution inside the vial successfully separated the various elements of the creature’s blood into neat little rows. Biology was rarely so neat, but sometimes, it was. This was one of those times.

He noticed that there was a sliver of dark blue at the bottom of the vial, and more importantly, that it glowed softly. It lacked the same intensity of the goop in the footage that he’d seen. Maybe it wasn’t as concentrated.

Sal lifted the vial to look more closely at it, but when he tried to focus in with the microscope, all he could see was static. He couldn’t focus the HUD on it, no matter how hard he tried. He could focus from a little farther away, but he still couldn’t make out any more detail.

“Huh,” he said for the third time. Deep in thought, he reached into the packet of gear that he’d brought and after digging for a few seconds, he found the Geiger counter. When he held it up to the diluted goop, nothing registered, not even a tick above normal. He hadn’t expected anything different, though. The first thing the scientists would do when looking at goop from outer space would be to see if it was radioactive.

He did have another idea, though. He activated the spectrum analyzer in his HUD. Basically, instead of trying to pick up any latent radiation from the goop itself, he wanted to see what the light it gave off was by testing it for rays that were invisible to the naked eye.

When he moved in closer for a scan, his look of doubt faded into something a little more positive. He grinned, switched to a couple of other functions in his HUD, and stood before he ran out of his shelter.

“Hey, Jacobs,” Kennedy said when she saw him approach. “Your food’s near the heating lamps. I kept it for you, but it might be burnt or it might have gone cold at this point.”

Sal ignored the rumbling of his stomach that reminded him that he was, as a matter of fact, quite hungry. “I’ll get to it later. There’s something I want to show you.”

Kennedy narrowed her eyes and looked skeptical. “Are you sure this can’t wait until morning?”

“I’m sure that you’ll want to see this.” He nodded emphatically. “After Lynch killed that locust, I took specimens for testing. I set them up to run throughout the day and only saw the results now. When I tested the critter’s armor, it seemed to react badly to acid, but after a whole day in the stuff, it simply…soaked it up and changed color in doing so.”

Kennedy narrowed her eyes. “That’s odd.”

“I thought that too, so I decided to compare it to some of the exoskeletons I’d saved to take back to the lab. This is where it gets weird, because when I tried to compare them under a microscope—”

“Wait.” Kennedy narrowed her eyes. “Where do you keep a microscope? I don’t think that was a part of the approved gear for this mission.”

“Oh, it’s a part of my HUD’s operating system,” Sal said cheerfully.

“My HUD doesn’t have a microscope.”

“Well, why would you want one, anyway? It won’t help you shoot any better. Maybe they tailor the HUDs for scientists differently than they do for gunners.” He shook his head. “Anyway, my point was, when I put the two pieces together, they joined together on their own. Not only did the two pieces fuse together, but the piece that hadn’t been in the acid changed color to match the one that had. In a few minutes, both of them soaked up acid.”

Kennedy nodded thoughtfully. “So you think that the eggheads back at the Staging Area might be able to find a way to make this into some sort of self-repairing armor for the rest of us to use?”

Sal sighed. Of course, that was the first place her mind went. “Well, yeah, I guess that too, but you haven’t thought about the ramifications of an animal with this sort of self-repairing function fused into their DNA. Don’t you think that maybe an animal with that kind of ability might be able to recover from simple gunshot wounds? And maybe, instead of disappearing a few minutes after being killed, it might be able to get up and walk away instead?”

The full realization dawned on Kennedy a few seconds later, and her eyes widened. “Oh, shit. You might want to bring that up with the lab guys back at the Staging Area.”

“Exactly.” Sal nodded, then shook his head again. “But…no, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about either.”

She rolled her eyes. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I collected a blood sample too,” Sal said, “and I put it in a solution that separates all the elements in the blood according to mass. At the bottom, I found what looked like a diluted form of the goop that started this whole mess. When I tried to scan it, none of the scanners worked. I even put it through a Geiger counter.”

“Don’t you think that’s the first thing that they did when that thing got to Earth?” Kennedy asked.

“Well, yeah, of course,” Sal said, talking faster so she didn’t have the opportunity to interrupt him again. “Anyway, I got different results when I put the light that it gave off through a spectrum analyzer—basically, determining the different rays this thing gives off. Lo and behold, the goop gives off very slight radio signals.” Sal grinned, but the sergeant looked at him like he’d performed a very unimpressive magic trick.

“This couldn’t wait until morning?” she asked, sounding annoyed. “Because it sounds like it could have waited until morning.”

“Shut up,” Sal snapped, “and give me your phone.”

She drew it from her pocket. Sal snatched it, barely noticing her annoyed expression. “See, you people complain that radio signals don’t work in the Zoo, but you never asked why. Neither did I, to be honest. I simply took it as writ that the alien goop would play havoc with all kinds of electronics anyway. But once I asked the question of why, I realized that since this forest is literally soaked in the goop, everything around gives off radio signals, which is why you get so much interference over such small distances.”

“So, you found a way to fix our comms? I mean, that is useful, but—”

“No,” Sal snapped. “I mean, yes, kind of, but that’s not the point. Still, shut up.” He toyed with the phone and added a few readings from his HUD to the device. “What are the plants with the highest concentration of the goop?” He didn’t pause long enough for her to answer. “The Pita plants. Especially the flowering ones. So, if you rerun the scanning from your phone to pick up the stronger signals of the radio waves that the goop gives off, you’ll be able to…” He finished and handed the phone back to her. The screen showed a topographical map of the area but with a few changes. Three different red lights now pinged a few miles from their current location.

“Be able to track the Pita plants down from a distance.” Kennedy finished his sentence for him. Sal, glad that she had finally gotten the point he’d tried to share, nodded and grinned.

“That’s some fine work, Jacobs,” she said with a nod. “I mean, we’ll still have to test and see if your theory works. There might be shit out there that has a higher concentration of the goop in them than the Pita plants, but it’s worth a shot.” She nodded. “We’ll head there in the morning to see if you’re right.”

Sal grinned. “There’s only one way to be sure. Of course, if it’s a giant monster that kills us all, you won’t be able to yell at me for being wrong, anyway.”

“If it’s some other useless plant or bug that doesn’t kill us, rest assured that I’ll yell at you plenty.” Kennedy grinned, and he wasn’t entirely sure if she was kidding. “Either way, you should probably get some sleep. We’ll get an early start tomorrow. I need you bright eyed and bushy tailed.”

Sal nodded. “Will do, Sarge.”

“Sleep well, Jacobs,” she said as he turned his back.

“You too, Kennedy,” he replied without looking around.


Chapter Thirteen

An early start meant much earlier than Sal expected. The rest of them woke up before he did, and Kennedy had spared him the trouble of explaining the mechanics of his idea—and probably insulting a couple of them at the same time. She’d given them a condensed version of what had happened. He assumed she’d skipped the part about the animals resurrecting. There was no need to have them more irked by the place than they already were.

When he stepped out of his shelter, Addams greeted him with an enthusiastic pat on the shoulder. “Let’s hope your hunch pays off, Doc.” He grinned. “If it does, we’ll all walk away from this place rich men…and woman.” He winked at Kennedy, who smirked and rolled her eyes.

They detoured from the path toward the blinking red lights on Kennedy’s map to stop at the water again. No one evidenced surprise at the fact that there was no sign of the beasts that they’d killed the afternoon before. Sal and Kennedy exchanged a nervous glance, but he still didn’t think he should mention his theory. Sal kept a wary eye out for panthers with snake venom and a vengeful attitude while he refilled his canteens.

Lynch’s suit was working again, and while his metal arm needed some grease, they were good to march again. This time, they didn’t simply walk blindly toward Ground Zero. They at least had a heading.

The mood had definitely improved from the day before. Sal was undecided about the priority to collect the plants rather than study everything the goop did to the desert. Davis had said that the Pita’s flowers funded this whole operation, so perhaps it was something of a necessary evil.

Then again, he did feel that forcing him to be there was evil too. A lesser evil to keep a larger evil in place didn’t sound right to him. But if he received some cash at the end, it wasn’t so bad. Working at the lab had been comfortable but not challenging, and it didn’t pay well at all.

He struggled with the logic or morality of the situation, so he decided to simply focus on getting out alive and hopefully paid enough that he didn’t have to live in squalor when he returned to California.

He might even splurge and get hotdogs for a change.

It was good that he could laugh at his own misfortunes, Sal thought to himself. He had to. Depression was the only other option.

They pushed through the flora with Cortez leading and Lynch bringing up the rear. Despite the good mood induced by the thought that they might hit pay dirt today, they remained on high alert. They had officially moved into the danger areas in the Zoo, where some of the more dangerous animals had set up their nests and dens. They would be more aggressive, especially if the team came too close to the creatures’ young.

Kennedy had laid it all out for them the day before. After the encounter with the panther-like creatures, they walked warily to avoid attack. Lynch seemed more comfortable than the rest. He honestly looked like he would enjoy a scuffle or two before they reached the Pita plants.

Sal simply hoped that the plants were there to justify the slight change in their trajectory.

The route through rough terrain and thicker undergrowth slowed them more than it would have otherwise, and the four and a half miles they needed to travel took longer than anticipated. For the first few hours, they literally climbed through the densely matted flora. By the time they were about two hours in, the sergeant finally retrieved the map to try to find a less difficult route. There weren’t many since the tree growth overcame any attempts at road building into the Zoo within hours. After a few turns and twists deeper into the jungle, they were finally close.

“We’re approaching the marker,” Lynch said, and they slowed their pace. “I can’t help but notice a distinct lack of pretty blue flowers that glow in the dark.”

Sal lifted the visor on his helmet and brushed a few droplets of sweat away. “Like you said, we’re close but not there. The Pita plants grow in bunches. You won’t find them spread around the area.”

Kennedy nodded, but he could tell she too had second thoughts about taking the data at face value. It had been an experiment, and perhaps the sensor needed to be tweaked. It was still a good idea and definitely something they could exploit, but it was possible that the sensors in the sat phone were simply too weak to accurately detect low-spectrum radio waves.

Sal paused and studied their surroundings. He couldn’t shake an odd feeling that nagged at him. He wasn’t sure what it was—like something was watching him? It felt as if they were being followed or something. He glanced quickly behind him with little result. There was no sign of even the monkeys they’d seen the day before. It could be that they weren’t that active in the area. Or something in this area scared them off.

Or they simply preferred an area where water was easily accessible.

He turned and peered into the foliage to find a source of the unsettling sensation in his stomach.

“Would you stop that?” Lynch growled as he struggled to adjust the squeak from his suit’s metal arm. “You make me feel like something’s following us.”

Sal shrugged. “I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something out there.”

“There are all sorts of things out there,” Lynch said and looked around. “But I know what you’re talking about. Something doesn’t feel right, and I don’t like it.”

Sal shook his head. “It’s probably nothing.”

Lynch nodded. “Probably. On the off chance, though…” He finished his sentence by raising his weapon to hold it closer, and they kept on moving.

“I see something, guys,” Cortez announced over the open comm line.

“Something bad?” Sal asked before Kennedy could answer.

“Nope,” he replied cheerfully. “Definitely not bad. I think you guys should get over here now.”

Sal and Lynch shared a look and picked up the pace. Cortez had scouted ahead with Addams, and the three moved to the locations marked on the HUDs. It was a tough climb through a veritable forest of vines dripping from overhanging branches, but after a few minutes they caught up.

Cortez grinned and nodded his head toward what appeared to be a clearing. Trees seemed to distance themselves from the area, and a little more sunshine peeked through the leaves of the few branches.

Their prize clustered in this space and Sal studied them as his heart thudded a little. They had found the Pita with their diamond-shaped leaves and bright blue flowers with five petals each and a trio of yellow stalks in the center.

“I’ve seen some beautiful things in my life,” Addams said quietly. “The birth of my son. My ex-wife in a wedding dress. Divorce papers. A waterfall or something. But if those don’t beat all.”

Sal nodded. The blue flowers seemed to glow despite the direct sunlight. It was odd that the other flora seemed to lose intensity around these clusters, though. He wondered if their high content of whatever it was that made them so pricey was the reason why none of the other plants seemed to grow around them. The only exception was the moss covering the ground.

“Okay, boys,” Kennedy said. “You know the drill. Collect the flowers and seal them up. Don’t bruise the petals and don’t try to take the plants. If I see any of you try to get greedy, I will shoot that man where he stands, you got it?”

The four of them nodded, and Sal stepped close to Kennedy. “So how close were they to the map coordinates?”

She checked the sat phone. “Less than twenty yards. That’s pretty good.”

He nodded. “It could have been luck, though. I’d like to run another test to compare the data and make sure that this wasn’t a fluke.”

“Well,” she said, “considering that we get paid by the set, I don’t see any harm in trying your new method to find more.”

Sal grinned, and she narrowed her eyes.

“You’re more excited about getting this right than about getting paid for the flowers, aren’t you?” she asked.

He looked away. “Would you judge me if I said yes?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically. “I do judge you.”

“Well, too bad.” He grinned again and moved to join the others who had set up their equipment.

The flowers had no fragrance, but they probably released pheromones whether they were being plucked from the ground or not. The studies confirmed that. There had been no pheromone effects on non-Zoo animals, so the inference was fairly clear. Animals that had been affected by the Zoo were the only ones influenced.

No, he mused as he retrieved containers he’d carried in his pack. The locusts that had caused all this hadn’t simply been affected by the goop. They’d been consumed by it. That was what the studies suggested. The satellite images showed that the massive swarm simply disappeared, and the disastrous spurt in growth began a few hours later.

So had the goop created these animals? He’d always assumed the plants had already been involved in the process of spreading this over the Sahara Desert. What if they weren’t? What if these actually were plants, trees, and animals from an alien planet? How cool was that?

He felt an elbow tap his ribs and looked up, annoyed. Cortez stood beside him. He’d left the flowers and now held his weapon up instead.

Sal turned and saw why.

They were no longer the only humans in the clearing. About two dozen others had appeared. Some wore mismatched armor that seemed concocted from pieces of different models. One simply had the metal arm of an older suit. Others were dressed in faded army fatigues. All of them were armed, though.

Kennedy stepped forward, her rifle at the ready. “Can we help you, gentlemen?”

One stranger stood out from the group because his armor was state-of-the-art—better than what Kennedy’s squad used. The rifle he carried was too. The whole ensemble seemed off the shelf from a mechanized armor and weaponry store.

Either way, he was clearly the leader. The rest seemed to wait for his move since they all seemed as surprised as the squad was to see other humans in the area.

He stepped closer and aimed his rifle at Kennedy. “We’d appreciate it if you would hand over the flowers you’ve collected and leave. This is our territory, and we don’t appreciate intruders.” His accent sounded vaguely German. No, closer to Dutch? Sal remembered that Afrikaans, one of the official languages spoken in South Africa, was a derivative of Dutch, so perhaps that was where he was from.

“Well, we’re sorry to intrude on your territory,” Kennedy said and kept her tone civil. “But I’ll need some legal evidence that we are intruders. Proof of residence—a gas bill, phone line, something like that.”

Sal looked over at her. She’d spoken that whole sentence with so little expression that he wondered if she was actually serious.

The tin man clearly thought so, and he raised his gun. As he moved closer, Sal saw tell-tale signs of drug abuse—bright red eyes and something of a deranged look about him. The specialist assumed cocaine, or maybe crack.

“Here’s my fucking legal evidence,” he roared.

Kennedy stood her ground and looked almost bored. “Look, you’re outgunned here. Take my advice. Walk away and live to not fight another day.”

Any other time, Sal wouldn’t have had second thoughts about walking away. The chances of them escaping this fight alive were almost nil. These guys were bullies, pure and simple, and the only way to deal with them was to move and not be tangled in their threats.

But today, he felt different. He’d put a lot of work in to find the Pita flowers, and he wanted some reward for that work, damn it. Even so, he knew his little scalpel was of little use. Guns made things difficult for those who didn’t have one.

Thankfully—or unfortunately—Kennedy didn’t seem inclined to back down. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you boys are all a part of an illegal salvage operation. I’ll have to ask you all to leave the Kudzu immediately pending criminal charges in an international court.”

The sergeant had picked the fight, but her speech had been a distraction that allowed Lynch, Cortez, and Addams to find some cover. Sal followed their example and inched away from the conflict. He felt bad about leaving her, but what could he do? She obviously wouldn’t leave, and he knew he couldn’t drag her. Her armor alone weighed over a hundred pounds.

The leader smirked and shook his head before he turned to his entourage. “Boys, do me a favor and ice this bitch.”

Kennedy moved before they could act on the order and raised her weapon. Instead of firing at the leader, she snapped the rifle to the right and pulled the trigger. Two of the cretins dropped, each with a gaping chest wound, and Kennedy dove for cover behind the Pita bushes. A smart move, Sal acknowledged as he ducked behind a large tree. The opposition were looters first, and he doubted that they’d shoot at their prize.

The clearing erupted in a hail of gunfire as the bounty hunters attempted to shoot Kennedy without destroying the plants. When the squad returned fire, the attackers paused the mayhem and tried to find cover themselves.

Thus far, no one had shot at Sal, but he doubted that would last. Unless, of course, they wanted to take a specialist prisoner. No, he’d definitely prefer death over being locked up and only brought out when it was time to scamper through the Zoo.

Either way, he could see the squad training had paid off. A few more of the looters dropped from lethal wounds before they could hide behind anything that might stop a bullet. Kennedy scrambled across the ground and ducked under a few scattered shots, but most of the enemy fire was now concentrated on the three on the other side of the clearing.

She came to a halt when she ducked behind the tree beside Sal’s.

“You’re still here?” she asked calmly as she checked her weapon. “I’d have put good money on you running away the moment the lead flew.”

Sal nodded. “I won’t lie—” He paused when Kennedy broke from cover and fired a few shots before ducking back. “The thought crossed my mind. Then again, I think I have a better chance to survive this gunfight than on my own out in the Zoo, so…” He nodded and closed his eyes when Kennedy launched a barrage of shots again.

“I always knew you were a bright penny,” the sergeant responded with a grin.

“Yeah, the smart guy, that’s me.” Sal attempted to keep his tone as light and comedic as Kennedy had and failed miserably. “Do you know I actually graduated from high school early?”

She laughed. “Shut up. I need to concentrate.”

More shooting ensued. Sal flinched instinctively at the gunshots, and he found it was easier to keep his eyes shut. His hands rested on his pouch, and he burrowed within for the comforting grip of his scalpel. His fingers touched the flowers he’d collected instead and his eyes snapped open. His bright mind immediately formed a plan—perhaps not a particularly good one, but it was a plan.

He ducked low and held the flowers gently in his hands as he crawled away from his cover.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Kennedy growled. “You get back right now or I’ll shoot you myself.”

Sal had the sudden and insane impulse to dare her to shoot him anyway, but he shoved it away. “I have an idea,” he told her. “I need to get around them for it to work.”

“You won’t get around anyone,” she snapped. “Get back into cover right now, or—”

“You’ll shoot me?” Sal asked and made sure his head remained hidden.

“Yes, now get back—” Her tirade stopped suddenly, and Sal’s head jerked up. Kennedy had fallen away from the tree and now gripped her leg while she cursed softly.


Chapter Fourteen

“Shit,” Sal muttered and shuffled to where she’d fallen. With so many slugs exchanged he couldn’t tell where this particular shot had come from.

“Get back into cover, you idiot,” Kennedy hissed through clenched teeth. “You’ll get us both killed.”

Sal ignored her and dragged her off the ground with a groan. Either she was all muscle or the armor weighed more than he thought it did. With extreme effort and more curses from Kennedy, he manhandled her to the tree she’d hidden behind. Thankfully, no more shots were aimed their way. Whether the looters thought that she was dead or the squad demanded their attention, Sal didn’t care.

“I need to get back into the fight, Jacobs,” she declared once she was situated. “The boys will keep the looters occupied for a while, but ammo will become a problem. I need you to patch me up.”

Sal looked at her bleeding leg and forced his gag reflex back.

“What?” she groaned. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little blood.”

“Okay, I won’t,” Sal said, “but I still don’t know the first thing about emergency care. Why didn’t you guys bring a medic along with four gunners and a specialist?”

“We did.” She nodded toward the group. “Addams is a medic. Could you be a lamb and call him over?”

Sal scowled and shook his head. “I…I don’t know.”

“I assume you had a first aid class?” Kennedy said.

“Yeah, ten years ago,” he snapped in reply. “Do you want me to apply CPR?”

“Shut up.”

“Can you keep yourself from dying for now?”

She yanked a strip of gauze from a pouch at her waist and pressed it quickly to her wound. “I think so. What will you do? Bring Addams over?”

Sal shook his head. “No, something a good deal dumber than that.” He drew her sidearm from the holster. It was a large pistol and looked a lot like the Desert Eagle, a personal favorite of his in the retro shooter games he’d played. The thing was heavy and bulky, and he could only assume that it kicked like a…horse? No, a mule. That was the right term.

“What are you doing?” Kennedy asked, too late to stop him from taking the weapon.

“I already told you, something stupid.” Sal nodded and patted her on the helmet. “Stay alive, you.”

“Jacobs—” she said warningly, but he had already crawled away with the gun gripped tightly in his right hand. As awkward as it was, he managed to protect the pouch with the flowers as he shuffled forward.

There was little chance that the petals wouldn’t be bruised even if they weren’t all dead, but he still wanted to honestly say he’d made every possible effort to keep them intact. He slunk past the trees that he’d hidden behind to circle around their attackers. His plan was vague at best, but his confidence was fueled by the fact that if something wasn’t done, the best-case scenario was that they would all die.

Sal didn’t even want to consider all the worst-case scenarios.

He came to a sudden halt when he reached what looked like a series of boulders that blocked his path. He’d either have to climb over and risk the looters’ attention—and get vigorously perforated in the attempt—or he’d have to circle around. His tentative plan would be delayed, possibly to the point where it didn’t work.

After a moment’s hesitation, he went with the second option. He remained as close to the ground as possible and tried to imitate the crawl he’d seen in military movies.

When he ran directly into a smaller shrub beside the boulders, his first instinct was to brush it aside before he looked at the leaves in irritation. Aside from the fact that they were literally inches away from his face, the leaves themselves were distracting enough to catch his attention. They had the same slightly rounded diamond-shape as the Pita plants. The size was about right, and at the top, he noticed what looked like the bud. It was clearly a young plant. He couldn’t tell how young since its growth process hadn’t been observed, but none of the flowers had bloomed yet.

Sal looked around quickly. He had little time to think and couldn’t imagine that plucking the plant out to draw a horde of creatures on them would be a good thing. But he couldn’t make the situation any worse, could he?

Another fusillade of shots erupted, and he flinched again as he made a spot decision. He grabbed a plant containment unit out of his packet. It was solid with an efficient system to sustain plant life over a limited transfer time. He opened the top and placed it close to the plant. Hopefully, if he put it into the containment unit quickly enough, he might avoid stirring every critter within a five-mile radius into a killing frenzy. Sal sifted the soil around the base of the plant and gripped firmly. With a strong tug, he pulled it out of the ground.

The air suddenly filled full of a pungent smell, and he panicked. He shoved it quickly into the containment unit and sealed it shut. The unit adjusted the plant, and it settled its roots into the soft sponge-like base. It would have light and water on a regular basis, recycling both for a short while. It wasn’t a long-term situation, but since the smell had quickly disappeared, he assumed the unit had prevented the pheromones from spreading too far.

Sal swept a nervous glance around the clearing. He’d almost expected to see creatures descend in a wave to shred him to pieces. Thankfully, he saw and heard nothing. In the videos collected by the few survivors, the animals had definitely screamed and gone berserk.

So far, so good. Sal nodded to shore his courage up again, tucked the unit into his pouch, and moved on.

He still hadn’t decided what to do. The exchange of gunfire had lost some of its intensity over the past few minutes. Either that or he had simply adjusted to it.

The second option sounded more badass, but it would be better. He could hear the slight difference between the guns used by his squad and the clatter from the lower-quality weapons that the looters used. His team sounded like they were conserving ammo, which meant he had little time.

He hadn’t had much to start with, he reminded himself, but he continued and managed to move a little faster now. The sounds of the fight shifted. It sounded like the looters pressed forward and his squad fell back. He couldn’t tell if any of his people were down, aside from Kennedy of course, but to be of any help, he had to ignore the distraction.

What were these guys there for? Money. If he threatened that payday, he might draw their attention for a second and hopefully give Lynch, Cortez, and Addams a window of opportunity.

And what if he were gunned down in the crossfire? Or maybe his gunners wouldn’t react quickly enough and he’d be gunned down before they could do anything about it.

Sal had never gambled much, and he really hoped that he hadn’t made a mistake.

Finally, he thought he’d moved behind the looters. He couldn’t see much and could only hope he hadn’t somehow managed to get between them and his squad. Since he didn’t hear any gunfire behind him, it was the safest gamble he would make for the rest of the day.

Sal pushed to his feet and glanced at the scene. The looters hadn’t noticed him yet. They were huddled behind cover with their attention on the men and woman on the other side of the clearing. They might not even notice if he simply walked away from this whole thing.

He couldn’t help it. The impulse was there—walk away. It wasn’t like he’d be missed. He was completely out of his depth in situations like this, and he’d known the members of his team for less than seventy-two hours. What did he really think that he could do anyway?

Sal clutched the weapon in his hands. That damned new leaf that he had turned over had become as dangerous as hell. So far, he hadn’t given much to society. His admittedly considerable brains had been dedicated to his own survival and comfort. He hadn’t been much of a contribution to the gene pool either. He’d lived a quiet life with good parents and few tragedies. Now, there he was, fighting for his life on the other side of the planet, immersed in looters and alien life forms and the experience of his life.

It was time to step up, shape up, or die. He had to grow a pair of cojones and be the man he’d always imagined himself being. Death was a very likely outcome, but why not be killed doing something ballsy for once?

It made sense that the first ballsy thing he could remember doing in his life would probably be the last. He chuckled and rolled his neck to ease the tension. Oddly calm, he held the packets with the Pita flowers above his head and aimed the pistol at them.

“Hey!” he called but received no response from the looters who were still alive.

Sal scowled. “Hey! Stop shooting, motherfuckers.”

He realized it might be better to simply shoot them from his advantageous position. As he considered this, someone noticed him and shouted something. A few of the others looked at him and narrowed their eyes.

Good, they were confused. A specialist who stood in the open and held a gun to a packet of flowers was bound to confuse anybody.

Sal quickly remembered to put the packets closer to his body. He planned to use them to keep himself alive, so they should provide at least a little cover.

Thankfully, the shooting ceased, and the rest of the bounty hunters turned to look at him. A few guns now aimed at him, and he realized that he needed to talk quickly.

“You boys do know what these are, right? These flowers are worth eighteen grand a set. That’s a nice payday, huh?” He pitched his voice so everyone could hear him. Including, hopefully, the rest of his squad.

Please be listening, boys.

“Eighteen grand?” a man repeated. “No, they’re only worth two thousand, American.”

Sal shook his head. “I’m paid eighteen grand for each set, so maybe you should talk to your boss over there about him cheating you out of a bigger payday. I mean, look at his armor and weapons. You guys weren’t even a little suspicious that he got so much richer doing this than you?”

The leader stepped in quickly amidst grumbling from his men. “Why shouldn’t we simply shoot you where you stand? We can take the flowers off your dead corpse.”

“Well…” Sal swallowed with difficulty. His mouth had very suddenly dried up. “Yeah, you could. But the guys in the Staging Area told me that turning these babies in with bruised petals means a cut in pay. I can only imagine it’s more severe if they come with bullet holes. Hey,” he continued with a grin, unable to resist the jibe, “they might actually be worth two thousand then.”

More complaints followed, and Sal could tell that the leader had begun to lose support. He wondered how this hadn’t been obvious to them before. He assumed they’d operated under something like the pirate law, where the leader took the best. But if they were under the erroneous assumption that they received equal pay and now found out they didn’t—well, that had to be a hit to morale.

He only hoped that the reason Cortez, Addams, and Lynch took so long to shoot these guys down was that they needed to get into a better position. Some of their opponents had even stepped out of cover.

Really unprofessional of them.

Sal gripped the pistol tighter and pressed the barrel to the flowers. Sweat soaked into his gloves.

“Well,” the leader said, “you forgot the clump of the plants over there. Sure, our gains take a hit, but once we kill you, what’ll stop us from picking these plants clean and finding another clump to collect on?”

Sal nodded. He really hadn’t thought this through at all.

“Good point,” he said.

“Boys…” The man turned to his men. “Ice this bi—”

The inside of his helmet suddenly erupted in blood in the middle of what Sal assumed was his catchphrase. It was cool to know that looter captains had catchphrases. What a fun time to be alive.

The leader dropped to his knees, and when he twisted, a massive hole gaped in the back of the helmet. The rest of the enemy froze in shock, and Lynch, Cortez, and Addams picked them off one by one. With their leader down and their will to fight gutted, they ran. They were clearly not professional soldiers.

A few rounds came too close for comfort and Sal hit the dirt quickly. He covered his head with his hands, still holding the weapon and flower petals. Hs courage was spent, and it was all he could do to protect his head and close his eyes. The shooting continued as his squad mates picked the survivors off one by one.

It felt like an eternity but was probably only a few minutes before the shots ceased altogether. Even then, he didn’t have the guts to stand again until he heard the three gunners talk in the clearing.

“Hey, Doc, are you still out there?” Addams called. “Are you still alive?”

“Yep.” Sal pushed slowly off the ground and poked his head above the light brush cover. “Still alive. Still kicking. Well, still alive, anyway.”

Addams chuckled and moved closer. Sal struggled to still the trembling in his extremities.

“Are you okay, rookie?” the gunner asked. “That was a crazy thing you did back there.”

Sal nodded. “It was a stupid thing I did back there. I didn’t think it through at all. I mean, I could have fired at them instead or caused some other kind of distraction. I don’t know what I was thinking—” Addams stopped his rambling with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Crazy and stupid, but you saved our bacon, man.” He patted the side of Sal’s helmet. “Maybe think your plans through next time, but you did good.” He looked around, concerned now. “Where’s Kennedy? I thought she’d back you up if this plan of yours went south.”

Kennedy?

“Kennedy?” Sal echoed, and his eyes widened. “Oh, shit. Kennedy was shot in the leg and needs some medical attention. She said you’d know what to do.”

Addams nodded. “Show me where she is.”

“I’m over here, assholes!” she called irritably

“Right,” Sal said. “She’s over there.”

They jogged to where he had left her. He still felt bad about it, but what should he have done? Sit and hold her hand while her squad was decimated? He knew he’d made the right choice—the better choice, anyway—and she did too. He also knew that she would give him a hard time about it.

When they reached her, she looked pale. She’d removed her helmet and still pressed the gauze to her thigh. The blood had completely soaked through and seeped into her gloves.

Sal didn’t need a doctor to know her wound was serious. He knelt beside her but left enough room for Addams to examine her leg. The soldier peeled the armor away and studied the gunshot, his head tilted with concentration. Wordlessly, he drew another long strip of gauze from his own kit. He removed the first, blood-saturated piece and inspected the wound hastily before he pressed the fresh dressing to it.

“Jacobs,” he said. “I need you to keep pressure there for me.”

Sal nodded. He’d joked about knowing nothing about first aid, even though it was completely true, but he still wanted to do whatever he could to help. His courage to stand up against armed thugs had gone, but it had apparently drained him of his usual aversion to blood. He maintained the pressure, even when he felt the warm blood soak through.

Kennedy growled softly in pain but Addams persisted. He shone a flashlight into her eyes to see the pupil reaction and checked the pulse on her neck.

“Well, it’s your classic good news, bad news, situation,” he said finally in a tone doctors used when discussing a potentially desperate situation. “It looks like the bullet missed the artery in your thigh.”

“How do you know?” Kennedy asked. “There’s a lot of blood.”

Addams nodded. “That’s because the thigh muscles have the highest blood turnover of any muscle in the body. If it had so much as nicked the artery, you would have been unconscious by now.”

“Is the bullet still in there?” she asked.

Addams nodded. “No. I can see the exit wound.”

“I will need to close the wound for now, though.” Addams retrieved a needle and thread from his pouch. He lifted the gauze Sal had pressed into the wound and used another to wipe the blood. Thankfully, it seemed that the bleeding had slowed. The gunner wiped a sponge that smelled like alcohol over the wound a few times, making sure there wasn’t any foreign matter in the wound. He handed the dirty sponge to Sal.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Hold it,” Addams said, his voice surprisingly cool as he stitched the wound. Sal closed his eyes and looked away.

It took less time than he’d thought before the medic spoke again.

“Jacobs, I need you to reach into this pouch here for a pair of scissors.”

Sal nodded and forced his eyes open. Telling himself to be calm, he followed the instructions.

“Now cut here.” Addams indicated where the thread emerged from Kennedy’s skin. Sal did as he was told and resisted the gag reflex that had come back with a vengeance.

The gunner nodded and wiped the wound with antiseptic. “Thanks for your help,” he said, his voice even and calm.

“Give me my gun back before you hurt yourself,” Kennedy snapped. Sal’s eyebrows raised. He still held the weapon in his left hand with the flowers.

“I’m afraid I may have bruised these petals, Sarge,” Sal said in a voice that sounded oddly calm and removed.

“Don’t worry about it.” Kennedy snatched her weapon from Sal’s fingers. “We have a whole clump of these plants to harvest. We’ll have enough to go around.” She gave the gun a quick look and glanced away with a broad grin.

“What?” Sal asked as she tucked the pistol back into its holster.

“Well,” she said, “the next time you feel the urge to bluff to distract murderous looters with threats to shoot their payday, you might want to consider taking the safety off, dumbass.”

Addams chuckled and shook his head as he replaced his instruments.

“I—” Sal started, but paused and shook his head.

“You planned to say that’s what you meant to do, right?” Addams asked with a smirk.

“Yep,” Sal said with a nod. “And I realized that there’s no possible way to justify it.”

“Don’t sweat it, Jacobs.” Kennedy leaned against the tree with a small smile. “You did good work today. That was quick thinking back there.”

“I didn’t think it all the way through, though,” he said with a self-directed sneer.

The sergeant nodded. “Well, yeah. Of course.” She chuckled, but then winced as the gunner bandaged her thigh.


Chapter Fifteen

While Addams treated Kennedy, Sal decided he would collect the Pita flowers. Cortez and Lynch both seemed occupied with looting the bodies of the bounty hunters, so no one else had remembered the plants. He found that a little odd, but with the threat taken care of, perhaps they felt they had no need to hurry and could take their time.

Sal didn’t agree. The thought of the Zoo carrion creatures reminded him that they couldn’t be confident that they would be left alone for long. Besides, what they’d collected from the Pita so far had probably already taken a price dive due to bruising, and they wouldn’t be happy if they had to hunt down more plants.

Even if his experiment enabled them to locate them more efficiently, they still had to test it to make sure that this wasn’t a fluke. That was what scientists did when testing something new. No matter how clever or smart they were, or how much they knew the design was correct, they still had to test multiple times, and sometimes, even hand them over to other specialists.

The scientific method was a pain, sometimes.

Did he have to reveal the information once they got back, he wondered? Or could he keep it as his own little secret to make all the members of his squad rich without having to metaphorically dumpster-dive for the precious little flowers?

He had something else that could do that, but he wasn’t sure if he should share it yet.

Sal only collected one set of the flowers before Addams squatted beside him. He hadn’t come to help since he merely watched him work.

“She needs medical attention,” Addams said softly so that the others couldn’t hear. “It’s not a desperate situation yet, but it could be critical if it gets infected.”

Sal nodded and clipped a flower carefully from the stalk. “Will all of us have to head on back? I mean, if she can’t go herself—”

“Then someone has to take her.” Addams completed the sentence for him. “And that would only leave a couple of gunners for one specialist. It’s not ideal. Kennedy told me to take it up with the rest of the squad before we make a decision.”

Sal sighed. It was weird considering how angry he had been that they had yanked him from his crappy life, but there he was, living on the edge. He’d never have believed he’d look at a massive paycheck or deal with life or death situations. It wouldn’t be something he’d choose to do, and if it hadn’t been forced on him, he probably would have turned the job down. But in a way, Kennedy had become the face of the change he saw in himself. He didn’t want her to leave.

“Yeah, we should take it up with the squad,” Sal said softly and focused his gaze ahead. Something had moved in the bushes in front of him, he was sure of it. “Not now, though, I think we need to move. The smell of blood and the noise will have attracted the attention of the local wildlife.”

Addams scanned the undergrowth quickly. “Are you sure? I think we would have heard something by now.”

“Carrion tend to avoid the predators that did the actual killing,” Sal said softly and sealed the flowers he’d collected. His head jerked as he caught movement out the corner of his eye. Something had definitely stirred.

“Are you sure you’re not a little jumpy, Jacobs?” Addams asked and narrowed his eyes. “That’s a common side effect of the adrenaline in your system after a firefight.”

“I…am not sure,” Sal said after a pause. He leaned in to collect more flowers. He expected animal attacks for another reason, of course. While he’d sealed the plant quickly enough, some of the pheromones had still released. He wasn’t sure how long it would take for the animals to react. He’d believed it would be instant, but the longer it took, the more he thought something bigger was coming for them. All he could do was wait, and that was exhausting. Maybe it had frayed his nerves.

“Hey,” Cortez said from behind him, “how’s Kennedy doing?”

“She’s banged up,” Addams said and stood. “But she’ll live. We may need to get her proper medical attention before too long, though.”

“What do you mean, ‘proper medical attention?’” Lynch asked. Sal focused on his work.

“I mean,” Addams responded and kept his voice low, “that we may have to cut our visit short.”

“Well, that’s not happening,” Lynch growled. “We found a fucking gold mine out here, and you want us to drop it because Kennedy needs kisses to make her boo-boos go away? Nah, send her back, maybe with someone as an escort, and we keep moving. It’s not like they’ll attack someone leaving the Zoo, now is it?”

Sal finally looked up. The three gunners had moved closer for a quieter conversation.

“She still needs help to reach the Staging Area,” Addams said. “And you know how dangerous this job is. Two gunners to one specialist may not be enough.”

“Besides,” Cortez cut in, “how do we decide who goes back and who stays? We’ll split the profits between the folk who stay. She’ll get comp for getting wounded in the line of duty, but the person who escorts her won’t get the same.”

“Send her back by herself,” Lynch suggested. “She’s a big girl. She can do it without us to hold her hand.”

“That won’t happen,” Addams hissed. “She was shot in the leg and can barely walk on her own. Someone has to help her out.”

“Not mah problem,” Lynch said with a shrug. “She got herself wounded, so she gets herself out. Besides, if that means fewer people to split the pot with, I’m all for it. I’m in this business for the money, not the happy brownie points.”

“As you are so very fond of reminding us, Lynch,” Cortez growled.

Sal glanced at the undergrowth when he caught movement again. This time, it didn’t disappear the moment he turned to look at it. A pair of eyes lurked in the darkness of the jungle, and he narrowed his eyes to bring the head into focus.

“Uh, guys?” he said softly, afraid to turn away from the creature that now moved closer.

“She’s our squad leader,” Addams hissed. “We can’t let her die out here on her own.”

“Who will tell?” Lynch said with a shrug. “I won’t, so long as I get paid the right amount.”

“And what if you’re right about her,” Cortez cut in, “and she makes it to the transports on her own? And then she tells folk what we did to her? Don’t you think there’ll be serious repercussions for leaving our squad leader out here to die?”

Lynch looked pensive for a moment. “Maybe we could—”

“No,” Addams growled and pointed his finger at Lynch. “Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. That will not happen.”

“Guys!” Sal said a little more loudly. The creature took form. He couldn’t tell if camouflage was involved, but it became clearer with each step closer. It wasn’t massive, like the panthers they’d faced the day before, but in his eyes, it looked a lot like a hyena. The spots suggested that, though the pelt was black, and he noted a similar skull and jaw structure. He also remembered a biology professor discussing the animals. They were unique in the animal kingdom.

The females were the dominant sex, which wasn’t that common. They were hunters first and scavengers second, since they were more than capable of felling their own food in packs. A long time ago, people thought that they were hermaphroditic because of the way their genitals were shaped.

Their bite force had measured close to a thousand newtons, and they could chase prey for several miles at up to sixty kilometers per hour. They tended to hunt in packs. The Zoo version was half again as large as the hyenas that he’d studied. Who knew what the hell this one was capable of?

Sal saw that he had finally caught the attention of his bickering squad mates. They evidently also saw the new arrival as Cortez and Lynch both lifted their rifles to aim at it. Addams had left his with Kennedy.

“What the fuck is that?” Lynch asked.

Sal checked the database. It scanned the creature quickly but produced no results.

“I have no idea,” he said and backed slowly from the Pita bushes. “It has the general bone structure of a spotted hyena, also known as the laughing hyena, although it’s a lot bigger than the regular ones.”

“Everything’s bigger in this fucking place,” Cortez hissed.

“Why do they call it the laughing hyena?” Lynch asked.

The creature seemed to understand the question and responded with a series of loud yelps that echoed clearly into the jungle. Sal suddenly realized that he was the closest to the creature and was unarmed. He really wished he’d kept Kennedy’s gun.

A similar yelping sound issued from deeper in the forest in response to the first. Sal tried to count how many individuals there might be in the pack, but they quieted again by the time he’d reached ten. That was already too many.

“That’s why,” Sal whispered and continued his retreat until he reached his companions. “Don’t you think we should bring Kennedy to join us right now?”

Addams nodded and broke from the group. A few seconds later, he appeared and half-dragged, half-carried the sergeant. She had her arm over his shoulder and limped awkwardly. Sal assumed that the suits should have something to help her walk if one of her legs was damaged. If they didn’t, it sounded like a serious design flaw that needed to be addressed. He would bring it up with whoever was in charge of upgrading the suits when they got back. Instead, it seemed like Kennedy had entirely cut off the section that had covered her leg to lessen the dead weight.

When they got back. It was important to maintain that line of thinking.

Kennedy joined their group, and Cortez, Lynch, and Addams—now with his weapon—quickly formed a defensive perimeter around her and Sal. He helped Kennedy stay on her feet, even though he struggled under the weight of her suit.

“What’s the situation, Jacobs?” she asked. The creature had still not stepped fully into the clearing.

“It looks like a spotted hyena,” Sal replied quietly. “They are basically incredibly smart creatures and eat pretty much anything. They hunt as well as scavenge, have a powerful bite and—”

“That’s regular hyenas,” Kennedy said. “What do we know about the creatures here now?”

Sal shrugged. “Not a lot. They’re not in the database. It looks like we’ll have much to add when we get back. One thing we do know is that there are quite a few of them still hidden in the jungle.”

“How many?” she asked.

“Lots,” Cortez answered for Sal.

As the squad retreated cautiously, the beast that had revealed itself vanished into the trees again. Five stepped out in its place but closer to the bounty hunters’ bodies. They approached the corpses on four legs rather than six, unlike the predatory animals they’d encountered thus far. The hind legs were short but looked powerful, while the forelimbs were tipped with what looked like very sharp claws. They kept the squad in view while they nosed the bodies, and a couple clawed and bit the armor suits away and tore into the flesh.

“That’s…nasty,” Cortez exclaimed in a strangled tone.

As soon as the first few began to feed, the rest gained enough boldness to venture out. A handful focused on the bodies while the rest, roughly about two dozen, turned their attention to the squad.

“Please tell me that you grabbed some ammo from the dead guys,” Kennedy said as the group continued their slow retreat.

“Not a lot of what they carried was compatible,” Lynch explained. “They all had weapons from Eastern Russia and cheap shit like that.”

“I suggest we keep moving,” Sal said softly. The pack hadn’t circled them yet, but those approaching sidled into a crescent.

“Why aren’t we shooting yet?” Lynch asked as they exited the clearing with the hyenas close behind.

“We’re in the middle of the God damn Zoo, Lynch, that’s why.” Cortez seemed as if he might lose his nerve. “If we shoot, who knows what else will turn up to investigate the commotion?”

A hyena closed and nipped at them. Lynch pulled his rifle trigger twice, punched two holes into the creature, and it dropped. A couple lurched forward, and Cortez shot them.

“We need to move,” Addams growled. He supported Kennedy’s other side with one hand while he fired at the creatures with the other. The pack had grown noticeably bolder.


Chapter Sixteen

The squad assumed a new formation as the hyena-like creatures circled. They needed to adjust as the animals now attacked from different directions.

The creatures hunted like a pack. A couple would rush forward at a time and retreat to be replaced by others. The constant harassment pushed the humans and allowed no opportunity for them to choose their own route. The squad realized almost as one that they were effectively herded slowly deeper and deeper into the forest.

Other creatures were drawn in by the noise and seemed to act with the same pack tactics as the hyenas.

A giant locust leapt from the bushes toward Sal, and he ducked. Addams stumbled with the sudden jerk. He and Sal half-carried Kennedy, and even she pitched in. Her face white with pain, she used the arm slung over Addams’ shoulder to shoot at the creatures.

The animal numbers had increased, Sal realized. He could hear them thrash through the jungle around them. Some seemed a little timid at first, but their fervor mounted as more and more gathered.

“They’re not so harmless now, eh?” Lynch asked and grinned at Sal as he crunched the locust’s head under his boot.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he responded brusquely. He tightened his hold on the sergeant and tried to move a little faster. Was this a delayed response to the plant he’d removed? The pheromones would understandably linger in the air for a while. They might not be quite as intense with an immature plant or if it’d had more time to release them for a longer duration. Still, the intensity and the number of animals that seemed to work together to attack the squad seemed like it could be a latent reaction, even to a lighter dose.

Whatever the reason, their chances didn’t look good.

Sal used the time to capture the creatures’ movements with his HUD. Existing footage wouldn’t show animals reacting like this every day, and if they hadn’t wanted to kill them all, he would have found them fascinating. There were creatures that he hadn’t seen before. Some were already in the database, although they were bigger. It seemed that the closer they got to ground zero, the bigger and stronger the animals had become.

More worrying, though, was their behavior. It wasn’t natural for Earth animals to work together to eliminate a threat. If this was the effect of the pheromones, it was very different than the original theory that it sent the animals into a crazed attack.

This was a coordinated assault across multiple species, from herbivorous locusts to the massive, six-legged panthers they’d seen the day before. Even the monkeys were aggressive. These smaller creatures weren’t as brave as their larger counterparts, but they threw projectiles at them from the trees. It was distracting more than damaging, Sal admitted, but none of this was behavior that the creatures had learned from the animals on Earth.

It seemed the Pita plants were something the goop wanted to be protected, and this was how it accomplished that. They needed to submit these plants to in-depth study to get to the bottom of this, but it would have to be deep study and controlled testing in a lab, not simply field testing. They should possibly even expose regular animals to similar pheromones to see if the reaction was limited to only animals that were products of the goop.

This promising line of study had dissertation material written all over it, but his priority right now was fighting for their lives in the Zoo.

Sal almost regretted taking that plant now but not enough that he would give it up. Well, not yet, anyway.

He kept his head down and concentrated on Kennedy and wherever it was that they were going. They had no clear direction at this point and had to simply allow the animals to herd them into what hopefully wasn’t a trap.

Addams carried most of the weight and kept his gun handy to fire at any of the creatures that tried to cut them off.

“Get your head out of your ass, Jacobs,” the gunner snarled. “Either work harder or find a weapon and fight.”

Sal realized that he should have snagged one of the bounty hunters’ weapons. He hadn’t thought of it. His experience with violence was to deliver particularly scathing and cutting verbal remarks to people who gave him lip about anything.

He wondered if this was the time to point out that Addams was trained special forces and he was merely a doctoral graduate. Why should he carry any weight at all? But scathing remarks could come later. For now, it was time to do what he could to help keep them alive.

“Give me a weapon and I’ll help out,” he growled. His muscles burned from the exertion.

“Take my pistol again, Jacobs,” Kennedy hissed and tried to push them forward as much as possible, even with her wounded leg. Sal could see that the hasty stitches must have worked loose as red appeared on the white bandage. He had little choice but to forge on and do this. It was time to get his head out of his ass. Where was Kennedy’s sidearm?

Her leg on the near side was the wounded one. Sal fought back a moment of panic when he wondered if the holster with her sidearm might have been tossed aside with the ruined piece of armor. Thankfully, he saw the large holster on her good leg. Movement caught his eye, and he glanced at one of the massive panthers with the bristles on its back.

He reached desperately for the weapon since it appeared that none of the others had seen the creature charging directly at him. He ran his hand up her leg in a search for the belt. They moved forward, right into the panther’s path, and all he could see was the massive, poison-filled fangs a few scant feet from his throat. Suddenly, a couple of gunshots set his ears ringing again, and this time he couldn’t resist the urge to flinch.

“That’s not my gun, Jacobs,” Kennedy said warningly. Sal raised an eyebrow and looked at his hand. It rested between her thighs and pressed at the junction where she’d cut the damaged armor off.

Addams grinned. “Getting a little desperate for some action before you die there, Jacobs?”

Kennedy slapped the man across the back of his helmet. “It’s really not the time, Addams.”

“Shut up,” was all Sal could think to say. He shook his head and finally located the weapon. This time, he made sure to thumb the safety off before he secured it in a firm grip and looked around. A couple of shots from behind indicated that Lynch and Cortez had no trouble finding targets.

Addams was distracted as two hyenas lurched from the brush to bite at the tendons at the back of his legs. Their teeth stuck on the armor, and they were quickly disposed of. Sal desperately wanted at least a blood sample from them, but…yeah, like Kennedy said, not the time.

He raised the pistol as a couple of the grasshoppers jumped at him. His memories of the time when he would have considered them too harmless to shoot were gone. The massive gun kicked hard against his hand and sent his first and second shots high. The third punched through the creature’s head plate, and it fell and spewed blue blood.

Sal fought back the bile and rushed forward for a few steps with his gun raised. A hyena leapt in front of him and bounded for his neck, and he pulled the trigger. This time, he tagged it with the first shot. The slug entered high in the shoulder, and the creature stumbled back into the thick underbrush.

Another beast hurtled forward, and he pulled the trigger once more. The bullet struck home but didn’t slow the massive panther down, so he squeezed it again and again. The final one wasn’t necessary since the creature was already on the ground, but better safe than sorry.

“Don’t waste ammo, Jacobs,” Kennedy snapped and the gun clicked as if on cue, the magazine empty.

“Sorry. How do you reload?”

“There’s a button on the side,” Addams said. “That drops the empty mag. There’s another one beside Kennedy’s holster.”

“Try to find it the first time, Jacobs,” Kennedy said with a grin. “No more poorly veiled grope attempts, eh?”

“I thought you said it wasn’t the time,” Addams protested and looked visibly annoyed.

“Not the time for you, maybe,” Kennedy responded as Sal retrieved a new magazine from her thigh armor. “I’ve been wounded so I get some leeway. Got it?”

Addams nodded and refocused his attention on moving them forward.

Sal froze at a loud hiss, and the smell of foul smoke filled the air. He turned instinctively. Smoke billowed from Lynch’s chest plate. A creature resembling a massive Komodo dragon with pale blue scales lay a few yards away. It was already dead, but the effects of what it had spat at Lynch continued.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” the man growled and yanked the simmering piece of armor off. The suit had thankfully been designed to be easily removed during combat to facilitate repair as the wearer would certainly have been seared by the acid. As Lynch tossed the ruined plate aside, Sal could see that it had almost been completely burned through.

He’d heard of a beetle that could produce acid as a defense mechanism, but that was the only example in nature he was aware of, and it was nowhere near strong enough to eat through solid steel.

Unfortunately, it would be impossible to test the acid, but that was probably as well. He couldn’t be sure he’d get it into a plastic syringe without the acid melting through the casing.

“Fucking bloody goddamn hell,” Lynch cursed with a regretful glance at his ruined chest plate. “There’s no fucking way to repair that now.”

“We have to keep moving,” Sal grumbled. His motion sensor detected that the animals were still very much present. They circled the squad, and he could hear growls and hisses in the undergrowth. For some reason, they suddenly no longer attacked. That didn’t seem in tune with other reports of the animals’ reactions to the removal of whole Pita plants. Those indicated that the creatures continued the aggression until the culprits had returned the plant or died.

Maybe he was simply paranoid. Perhaps this was the creatures’ reaction when humans were shot in their territory? It was odd behavior, but he couldn’t say it was out of the ordinary in the Zoo with the little experience he had.

“They’re backing away,” Addams noted as he accessed his own motion sensors.

“What?” Kennedy asked. Sal thought that perhaps damage in her suit’s circuitry prevented her from accessing the HUD controls.

“The motion sensors tell me that they’re moving away,” Cortez said and quickly checked the ammo count on his rifle before he turned to Sal, Kennedy, and Addams. “It’s like they’ve lost interest or something.”

“That could mean we’ve moved out of their territory,” Lynch stated roughly.

“Or we moved into the territory of something all these critters would rather not mess with,” Sal interjected.

“That’s…not helpful, Jacobs,” Addams said.

“Anyway,” Kennedy interjected, “the sun will set soon. I don’t want to see what happens to the animals we killed when night falls. We should find somewhere to camp.”

Sal studied the jungle that surrounded them. It was impossible that the animals would cease their attack without outside influence. It might seem like a good thing, but if the outside influence did mean that the squad had wandered into the territory of a more powerful beast while they were tired, wounded, and low on ammo, it would be an out of the frying pan, into the fire situation. He didn’t believe that now was the time to pause and take a breather.

Then again, what if it had to do with the pheromones released by the plant he’d collected? What if the smoke released by the acid melting the armor plate had somehow counteracted the frenzy effect of the Pita plant? Was it possible? Well, they were in the middle of a jungle of plants genetically altered by alien goop. The rulebook had been out the window for a while now.

Addams finally looked at Kennedy’s wound. “You tore the stitches,” he accused and squatted to inspect the bandage. “The wound seems okay for now. I’ll need to stitch it up again, though.”

“Not yet,” Kennedy growled. “We need to find a defensible position, which means out of here.”

The three gunners agreed and checked their weapons. Sal took advantage of the pause and jogged to the dead lizard. He grabbed a syringe from his pouch and drew a good blood sample. A quick flick from his scalpel sliced a small section from the creature’s blue scales. It wouldn’t be a good idea to sample the acid without protective equipment, but he could study the creature’s DNA when they returned to the Staging Area.

He smiled at the fact that it no longer felt like a jinx to think that.

“Come on, Jacobs!” Addams called.


Chapter Seventeen

They continued for another half an hour and forged deeper into the jungle. Sal and Addams helped Kennedy limp through the tough terrain as Cortez and Lynch kept watch in case the animals followed. Sal couldn’t be sure if it were because they were close to the center or if it was a result of the fight, but the Zoo definitely seemed louder now than it had been over the past couple of days. Between predators’ roars, cries from smaller animals, and screeches from birds, he couldn’t be sure which made the most noise.

The oddest part was that they saw nothing, not even the smaller simians that had been so curious and followed the squad for hours.

No one spoke, though they stopped a couple of times when Lynch or Cortez thought they saw something move in the bushes. These breaks unnerved the group, and they picked up their pace until the light faded. They could no longer see the sun with the dense tree cover, but the gathering twilight was a clear sign to set up camp.

Kennedy was the first to call it. Her face was pale and she looked like she could barely move, but her voice hadn’t lost its commanding authority.

“Okay, boys, let’s work this out,” she instructed as Sal and Addams set her down. “Cortez and Lynch, set up the perimeter. Addams and Jacobs, get heaters and shelters up.”

“I think we need to look at your leg first, Sarge,” the gunner said.

The sergeant rolled her eyes. “Fine. The rest of you, get to work.”

Sal nodded and grunted when Lynch pushed the shelter packs into his chest. If the truth be told, he wasn’t the best choice for the job as he’d only watched them assembled once or twice. He acknowledged the laziness of that now, but he’d convinced himself that he would only be in the way of people who actually knew what to do. No doubt the rest of the squad felt that way too.

Even so, they were down a member and he needed to step the fuck up. He did have a fairly good grasp of what he should do, so he started with the heater lamps first. These were positioned around the camp to provide the most warmth and light their camp circle without reflecting into the jungle to reveal their position to random hungry scavengers.

As the sun disappeared in full, Sal heard Addams call him.

“Hey, Jacobs,” he said from where he crouched to treat Kennedy’s leg wound. “Would you swing one of those lamps to give us some light over here?”

Sal nodded. “Will do.” He dragged a lamp on its stand to the two of them. Addams had stripped his armor and now knelt to run water over the open wound. The bleeding had stopped, but it seemed likely that even a small movement would set it off again.

He held the lamp closer to give Addams more light as the medic tried to remove the torn stitches.

“They have new machines in first aid units these days,” the man said. “There’s no need for stitches anymore. They are like plastic clamps that pop out when the wound has closed and healed enough. I can see why the army didn’t equip us with them as they’re expensive, but they make doing this seem like a couple of cave people banging on rocks.” He indicated the needle and thread on standby for when the wound was clean enough to close again. The man was a damn good medic and might even have a shot at a medical degree or possibly a doctorate of his own. Maybe that was why he was there, to pay for medical school.

“Sure,” Kennedy growled and kept her gaze focused away from where Addams picked lightly at her wounded leg. “We could probably get one of those for ourselves once we get back. Maybe pitch in a bit of our own cash to equip ourselves with a machine.”

Addams looked up. “Will they allow squads to equip themselves?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. But if they bring in the likes of Lynch as third-party consultants on military operations like this, I don’t see why we shouldn’t have better equipment.”

The gunner nodded. “At least they gave us a halfway decent specialist this time. One who tries to put in the hard work.” He winked at Sal, who smiled.

“What can I say?” Sal grumbled, a little self-conscious. “I’m not a doctor yet, so I have to pull my weight some other way, right?”

“Your weight and somebody else’s too,” Kennedy corrected. “I’m on a lot of painkillers right now, so I’m not really sure, but I don’t think I’ve thanked you for all your help to get me out of that mess alive, Jacobs. To get us all out alive.”

He struggled to receive compliments so only nodded and then shook his head. It seemed particularly dumb. Maybe he tried to say “thanks but not necessary” without actually using the words.

“Hey, I did some heavy carrying myself, you know,” Addams cut in and eased another ruined stitch from the wound. “Plus, you know, all this? Don’t I deserve some thanks too?”

Kennedy laughed. “Well, I expect you to go above and beyond by now, Addams.” She placed a light hand on his shoulder and squeezed in a non-verbal show of thanks. “It’s the geeky types that I never expect to be any good in the field, so I have to keep my expectations low.”

Sal smiled and looked away. The touch seemed a little like personal affection, which was more than he’d seen her show anybody else in the squad. A part of him wished that he could trade places with the gunner for a moment, and he realized he had a crush on Kennedy. Did it have something to do with a woman in power, maybe? No. Kennedy certainly had power, but she didn’t fit the stereotype and acted better than other women Sal had worked for before. She wasn’t overbearing yet gave orders and expected them to be obeyed. She was a professional.

Weird. He would have thought that nothing in that place that would make him like it, but Kennedy came close. She seemed to like Addams though, and why not? The guy was badass and as intelligent as hell on top of that. Someone who could handle himself and others in a tough spot. Sal merely tried while Addams succeeded.

He couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. It was difficult not to.

Lynch and Cortez finished placing the motion sensors and joined them in the camp. Both looked to be in a bad mood—like they’d had a discussion without consensus. Sal knew instinctively what the topic under discussion had been.

“So,” Kennedy called and gestured for them to join her, Sal, and Addams. “We should do an ammo and supply count before anything else.”

“You mean the rookie didn’t set up the shelters?” Lynch asked, and Cortez rolled his eyes.

“Addams needed light to treat Kennedy,” Sal said and fought to keep a defensive tone out of his voice.

Cortez was the first to check his ammo. “I have three more mags for my rifle, plus a couple for my sidearm. I don’t think we lost any supplies during the fight, though. Actually, we gained more from the bounty hunters. Food, water, batteries, and the like.”

“Two mags for me, for both mah weapons,” Lynch responded. His pinched face still looked like he’d bitten into a lemon.

“Four mags on my end, plus the two for the sidearm,” Addams said as he restitched the wound on Kennedy’s leg. “I’ll give you a full count on my medical supplies when I’m finished.”

Sal looked up in the small silence. “Huh?” he asked and realized what he had to share. “Oh, my samples are all safe. I still have three sets of flowers from the Pita plant, but two were bruised during the fight with the bounty hunters. What kind of price hit do they take if they’re damaged?”

“They lose two-thirds of their value,” Kennedy answered. “We get something, but it’s still a bad hit to our bottom line.”

Sal nodded. “But you still have the sensors on your satellite phone, right? We don’t have to hunt around for new plants.”

“That brings us to the next topic of discussion,” Lynch said forcefully.

“Not again, Lynch,” Cortez mumbled under his breath.

“We were almost turned into goop animal shite by carrying your wounded arse across the damned Zoo,” Lynch said and kept his voice low. “Kennedy, you know I have the maddest respect for ya, but when it comes time to count the cost, it doesn’t make sense—financially, or logically.”

“What do you suggest?” Addams flashed him a warning glance. “What, you want her to walk all the way back to the vehicles on her own? With a gaping wound in her leg?”

“Hey,” Lynch said as he raised his hands, “if you volunteer to help her yourself, I won’t stop you. But don’t expect me to pad your expense accounts for leaving the job half done, sonny.”

“I could always go,” Sal suggested.

Lynch shook his head. “The specialist needs to stay with the gunners at all times. You’ll get yourself killed otherwise.”

Sal shrugged. “So when it comes to me, you’re suddenly concerned for the well-being of others?”

“You’re my paycheck, lad, or at least an easier way of getting more of it,” Lynch said unapologetically. “You can bet your skinny arse I’m willing to keep you alive and hale.”

“So, if I’d been the one shot—”

“I’d carry you myself if it came down to it,” Lynch said with a wink.

“It’s all a moot point anyway,” Kennedy said coldly. Her pale face seemed suddenly flushed with her controlled anger. “Because I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stick it out until the mission’s finished, Lynch.”

“Sorry, lass, but that is not your decision anymore,” Lynch snarled back. “It’s the decision of the blokes who will have to carry you across one of the most dangerous areas in the world. It was a stroke of bad luck to get wounded on a mission like this, and I feel for ya, I really do, but the rest of us have to think about our own bottom lines here.”

“I am thinking about my own bottom line,” Sal said, quietly but firmly, “and about getting out of here alive. More than any of you, I think. But I won’t leave Kennedy behind.”

Lynch scowled at him. “Look, little one, I’ll carry you even if you’re not wounded.”

“Will you carry me too?” Addams asked and stood now that he had closed Kennedy’s wound. “Because I won’t leave my patient on her own in the Zoo to get torn to pieces.”

“I won’t leave the sarge behind either,” Cortez cut in before Lynch could make a witty response. “It’s all of us together, or not at all.”

“It looks like you’re outvoted, Lynch,” Kennedy said decisively. She pushed gently to her feet and straightened to her full height. “So, unless you plan to strike out on your own, I think you’d better get used to having me around. For this mission only, though. I won’t be stuck in the Zoo with you as a gunner in the future, and after I tell the squad leaders at the Staging Area, I don’t think they’ll want you with them either.”

Her armor was shredded, but she still struck a more impressive figure than Lynch ever could.

The man stared her down for a few seconds and finally backed away as he shook his head. “You’re all a bunch of crazy fucks, you know that? You’ll all die out here, and it’ll be your fault. Not mine. Yours.”

“I can live with that,” Sal said softly and removed his helmet.

The closer they got to ground zero, the less the desert influence could be felt. The jungle heat was almost oppressive, to the point where they didn’t need the heating lamps. Sal wasn’t sure if this was something to be expected this deep into the Zoo, but the rest of the squad seemed too distracted by more pressing concerns to really give a shit.

“Okay,” Kennedy said, “we need to put a watch system in place in case any of the critters get curious about what we taste like. It’s…eight hours until sunrise so we can alternate for two hours each, okay?”

The rest of the squad nodded and grumbled assent.

“I can take the first watch,” Sal said.

Kennedy smirked. “Thanks, Jacobs. Do you want to be armed for it?”

Sal shook his head. “I’m sure it’s better if I simply yell for the people with actual weapons knowledge should something go wrong.”

The sergeant laughed. She placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I appreciate it.”

He nodded and fought the urge to grin.

“The rest of you,” Kennedy snapped, “get some rest. It was a long day, and it’ll probably be as long tomorrow.”


Chapter Eighteen

Sal created an improvised chair from the unused pieces of his shelter. He doubted he would be able to sleep anyway. Even if he did, the shelters had no ambiance control, so with the kind of heat they would endure, it would be cooler to sleep in the open than inside a shelter.

One of the plusses about the Zoo, he thought, was that mosquitoes hadn’t heard about it yet. Either that or the goop had absorbed those that had migrated there and would soon transform them into horrifying mutant monsters that could suck a human dry in seconds.

He shuddered. That wasn’t something he wanted to think about. They had giant locusts, panthers with six legs, and lizards that spat metal-melting acid. The last thing the Zoo needed was giant mosquitoes. He was born and raised in Florida, and he’d had more than enough experience with the damned blood-suckers. If there was one thing this fucking jungle could do for him, it was to keep them out.

With his suit off, he felt more comfortable. The heating lamps were turned to their minimum setting, and the squad had retired to bed. They seemed to have had the same idea as he had and slept out under the stars.

Well, under the leaves anyways, Sal amended. There was no sign of the sky there, merely leaves in abundance.

Sal sighed, leaned back in his seat, and focused on his ongoing experiments. One of the more interesting things he’d learned about the flowers that they’d collected was that they glowed softly in the dark. It wasn’t much, not enough to light up a place, but it did show a high concentration of the goop, and that was interesting. They already knew that what made them so very expensive was the fact that they were crammed full of an altered form of the goop.

Sal could safely assume that not all the substance from the original supply had been used in this experiment. There would be some more stored away in an Area Fifty-One-esque place—probably, God forbid, somewhere on the continental USA—in case a need arose. He considered what Lynch had said about synthesizing the goop and wondered why they hadn’t found a way to clone it. Any scientist would have pursued that at the very beginning, he realized. Obviously, the goop was so far advanced that no one had been able to replicate it, or they would have by now. He reminded himself that it was, after all, of alien origin. That in itself probably put it light-years ahead of what humanity could even imagine.

Even then, Sal thought the concept that these flowers were infused with an altered form of the goop needed to be explored. He remembered the way that the damaged locust armor had coalesced, and the new piece had taken on the advanced abilities of the other. He wondered if the eggheads in charge of the whole experiment had thought to try this out. Maybe they didn’t even know that it had this kind of reaction?

Sal inspected the bruised flower petals. He could see that a little of the juice from the flower petals had seeped out. The liquid glowed as well and was probably what the corporations paid so much for.

All they had to do to start making more money more efficiently was to have a genius like him on the case.

Sal grinned and glanced at the camp to make sure the rest of his squad were sleeping. Satisfied, he rummaged in his pouch for the containment unit with the plant he’d uprooted.

It seemed fine. The leaves were still green although the buds hadn’t opened yet. They would come; he was certain of that. The plant appeared durable, especially considering that it sent a pheromone alarm into the air every time it was plucked from the ground.

Sal gathered a handful of soil from the ground. It was thick and dark, almost black. He opened a small compartment on the bottom of the container, dribbled the soil inside, and closed it again. The plant remained sealed, but he guessed it might grow better in its own soil instead of the generic stuff that came with the container. That might be good enough for test plants back at the lab, but considering how much this one was worth, he really wanted to make sure it was in a hospitable environment.

He replaced it carefully and withdrew one of the sealed units with the flowers again. He tilted his head and studied it. The bounty on these things was about five or six thousand now, so it wasn’t exactly worthless, but he wondered what problem would arise if he unsealed one to examine the petals in more detail. He felt bad for Kennedy. While she had pain medication, one or other plant around there might have antibiotic properties that could help as Addams’ supply of these would be limited.

A quick look through the database didn’t reveal much. The scientists at the Staging Area seemed less inclined to investigate the medicinal properties of the other plants as they already had the cure to aging. It was a shame really because the Zoo had to be a pharmaceutical company’s wet dream waiting to happen. The goop was infused in almost all plants and animals.

Still, feeding Kennedy some random plant or mushroom had all the makings of the world’s worst idea. He turned his attention back to the medicinal properties of the plants the eggheads back at the Staging Area had studied.

He quickly and quietly unsealed one of the packets with the petals. He used a pair of tweezers to take one of them gently and placed it in a petri dish before resealing the others. It wasn’t a complete set anymore, but it made no sense to waste what they’d already collected.

If the squad were angry, he would remind them that he was the one responsible for finding the petals in the first place. If they had a problem with it, they could find more using the same device they’d used to find the first batch. In fact, he was sure they could go back to the first batch now that the animals and bounty hunters were no longer around.

Sal pulled his helmet on, activated the HUD, and set it to the microscope. He zoomed in on the bruised petal and tried to look deeper into what made these things so damn special.

The first thing he noted was how the petal seemed to repair itself, but not to the extent that it would return to its original condition. The process had also slowed, much like it would if it was no longer attached to the plant that had made it in the first place.

Sal scowled. The plant seemed to repair itself with the goop that oozed from it, but since most was out already, it had little to work with. That realization brought the absolutely weirdest idea he’d ever had.

He rooted in his pack until he found the petri dish with what was left of the giant locust’s armor that hadn’t been dipped in or affected by acid. He broke it quickly into smaller pieces and put it into the dish with the petal. Using the tweezer, he squeezed a little of the goop on to the armor.

Sal peered through the microscope to see what happened. The goop had little effect at first until it soaked into the armor and he saw it repair itself faster than it had before. He drew back and confirmed that the process was actually visible now as the pieces adhered. The effect was that the armor repaired quite effectively, although not as well as it had before. It was as if the concentration of even this tiny smear of goop from a bruised flower petal could work better than a much larger quantity in the animal itself.

It could easily be engineered into a rejuvenation potion. Rub it over your skin and see forty years’ worth of wrinkles disappear. Drink some and see the effects of your alcoholism disappear. It wouldn’t even take that much work. He guessed that most of the effort came from diluting it to have more to sell.

He wondered what work he’d have to put into it to actively heal leg wounds.

He dug into his pack again, mumbling something about killing corporations when he got back and found a saline solution. With a furtive glance at his sleeping companions, he tipped the rest of the ruined petals into a pewter bowl and crushed them. They had very little goop left in them and provided a disappointingly small amount of liquid to pour into the petri dish. He mixed the thick goo with a few droplets of the saline solution and drew it out with a syringe. Sal packed everything up quickly, careful to hide the plant beneath what he hoped was boring stuff that the likes of Lynch wouldn’t bother to dig into. He stood, brushed the dirt from his pants, and sat once more. Another fifteen minutes to watch for flesh-eating monsters remained in his shift, so he had to exercise a little patience.

Time seemed to slow as Sal waited for someone to relieve him from duty. Finally, Cortez roused and pushed to his feet. He stretched and yawned before he shook his head as if to clear it and grabbed his rifle. With a low murmur of displeasure, he scratched at the rough beard that prickled on his cheek before he stumbled across the camp.

“What’s the helmet for? Have any monsters come yet?” Cortez asked and punctuated the sentence with some curse words in Spanish.

“Oh, yeah, there was this one,” Sal said, “but it said it had a taste for some Irish meat, so I pointed him Lynch’s way and got back to looking out for the real monsters.”

Cortez chuckled. “You’re an asshole.”

Sal nodded and stood. “Yep, that’s me.”

“Well, get some sleep, Jacobs, and I’ll see you in the morning.” Cortez dropped into the seat.

“Do you mind if I use your sleeping bag?” The man nodded and waved him away. There would be a two-hour chair dance between each change of the guard, Sal supposed. Cortez would take the bed of the person who relieved him, and so on.

It didn’t matter since he wouldn’t go to bed yet anyway. Sal lifted his pack and moved toward the others. He walked to where Kennedy slept and tried to move as quietly as possible over the rough ground until he reached her. After drawing a long, slow breath and releasing it quietly, he sat beside her and tapped lightly on her shoulder. When she growled in her sleep and tried to turn over, he tapped again.

“Kennedy,” Sal growled softly, “wake the fuck up. I have something to show you.”

“I swear to God, Jacobs,” she mumbled and opened one eye to glare angrily at him. “If this isn’t a life or death emergency, it will soon be your life or death emergency.”

“It’s not…well, it’s an emergency, but not life or death,” he finally conceded.

The sergeant grumbled and pushed herself into an almost upright position. “What’s the emergency then?”

“I think I found a way to treat your wound a lot quicker,” he said and held up the syringe with the slightly glowing liquid.

Kennedy narrowed her eyes. “You think? You won’t inject me with that, will you? Why are you wearing your helmet?”

“All answers will come in time,” Sal said and lifted her blanket to reveal her bandaged leg. “And I won’t inject you with it. Not yet, anyway. I need to see what reaction it has on your torn skin.”

“So, if it’s actually poisonous—”

“It’ll be reversible,” he said and dabbed some of the liquid carefully onto a gauze pad. “You don’t mind losing your leg, right?”

“I’m not in the mood, Jacobs,” she growled, and he nodded. Maybe he should keep his brilliant sense of humor to himself. He spread the liquid over the gauze before he lifted the bandage and applied the liquid gently to the wound in a slow, circular motion. He hadn’t seen any reports that the goop might have adverse effects, and with the corporations paying what they did for it, he was reasonably certain it wouldn’t do any harm, even if it didn’t help.

“How do you feel?” Sal asked.

Kennedy frowned. “Nothing’s really changed. Oh…wait, it feels like you put some of that aloe vera shit on it…and now it stings a little.”

“Like…acid stinging?” Sal asked and zoomed the microscope into where he’d applied the serum.

“No, more like the kind of sting from an old spider bite, I guess,” Kennedy said, a little discomforted.

“That…that doesn’t really help unless I know the type of spider you were bitten by.”

Kennedy rolled her eyes. “You know, hairy, has eight legs.”

“All spiders have eight legs, Kennedy,” Sal reminded her and inspected her wound.

“I’m sure there are spiders out there that were involved in some sort of accident and only have seven legs. Or six.”

Sal shook his head. “What? Why are you talking about this?”

She chuckled. “You think you’re the only one who gets to be sarcastic in the middle of the night?”

He sighed and shook his head. “I’ll assume that you mean a spider bite that’s healing?”

“Yeah, what did you think I meant?” she asked. Sal ignored her and looked closer. The goop interacted with the cells it was on. From what he could see, it reacted with the wounded tissue and seeped under the skin to heal the light bruising. From there, it moved to the open edges and began to seal them together.

“What’s happening?” Kennedy asked.

“It’s healing your wound,” Sal answered.

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Sal looked at her and tried to keep his voice pitched low. “It’s healing the bruised and lesioned tissue. I mean, I’m not a doctor. You might want to get Addams to look at it—”

“Well, yeah, but what is it?” Kennedy asked.

“It’s a solution I put together.”

“With what?” she asked, looking at the wound in confusion.

“Um… Well, I used the bruised petals from the Pita plant.”

“Wait,” Kennedy growled. “You mean you wiped a bunch of alien goop all over my wound without telling me what it was?”

Sal nodded. “Yep, that sounds about right.”

For a moment, he thought she would be mad, but she looked impressed instead. “Huh, that’s pretty cool,” she said with an approving nod. “You think I’ll be able to walk by tomorrow?”

Sal shrugged. “There’s not much more left. And to make more, I’d have to ruin the good ones we’ve collected, and I’m pretty sure the guys will have something to say about that.”

“Fuck them,” Kennedy said but immediately regretted it and shook her head. “Okay, how many petals did you use for the stuff you put on me?”

“One whole set.”

“Yeesh.” She made a face and leaned back.

“I mean,” Sal said, anxious to ease her expression of horror, “I can make some more with the other ruined set. It’s not like we’ll miss the six grand, right?”

She nodded. “Especially after the taxes.”

“The what now?”

“You’ll learn,” Kennedy said with a small, rueful smile. “Anyway, yeah, you can whip some more up, right?”

Sal nodded. “Yeah. If I inject it deeper into the wound, it might heal the torn muscles enough that you can move around under your own power. Probably not with the full armor, though.”

She nodded. “It’s not like I have a full suit of armor left anyway.”

Sal nodded. “I’ll get right on it.”


Chapter Nineteen

Addams looked up from inspecting Kennedy’s wound. He looked impressed. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s still a gunshot, and it’s still fairly serious, but it looks like it’s been healing for two or three weeks.”

“Do you think I can walk on it?” she asked as she pulled the bandage over the wound.

“Well, that’s up to you, I guess,” Addams said and replaced his equipment in his pouch. “If it’s not too painful, I’d say yes, but try not to run or put too much weight on it. And maybe without your armor?”

“That was what I suggested,” Sal agreed.

“Which brings me to my next question,” Addams said. He had been on the final watch, so he was understandably irritable. “Do you want to tell me why the fuck your leg looks like it’s been healing for a few weeks when I can say on good authority that it’s only been one night?” He paused and accessed his HUD. “Yep. My calendar says it’s only been one night. So…what gives, Sarge?”

“It’s a little serum Jacobs worked up,” Kennedy said.

“I used what I could press from a couple of the ruined flower sets and added saline solution,” Sal explained. “I tested it first on the surrounding lesions and wounds. There was some limited success, so I decided to try it in the muscle as well.”

Addams nodded. “Lynch won’t be happy about that.”

“He wanted to leave me out here to die on my own,” Kennedy retorted and scowled. “Fuck him and the horse he rode in on.”

“Be that as it may,” Addams said, “he’s still a member of this squad, and he has a say, technically, in how the samples we acquire are used.”

“Look,” Sal interjected, “we wouldn’t get much from those flowers anyway. It was a valuable test, and now we know that these flowers can be used for some emergency first aid.”

Addams nodded. “We still need to bring it up with Cortez and Lynch.”

“Bring what up with us?” Cortez asked as he and Lynch returned from refilling the canteens at another water source they had found.

“Well, there’s no time like the present,” Addams said.

Sal sighed as Lynch and Cortez stared at him. “Look, I was bored last night—”

“Well, this is off to a great start,” Lynch muttered and put the canteens he’d refilled on the ground.

“Shut it, Lynch,” Kennedy commanded. She still had a bone to pick with the man.

The specialist continued once there was silence again. “I ran a few tests on the flowers that we had collected—the ones that were bruised. I made them into a serum that went a long way to heal the gunshot in Kennedy’s thigh.”

“How long a way?” Cortez asked.

Kennedy stood, walked in a circle, and sat once again.

“Huh,” Cortez grunted. “I’ve never seen people recover from wounds that quickly. And I’ve seen a lot of people get shot.”

“Who the fuck cares?” Lynch interjected. “You didn’t bring it up with the squad before you used our paycheck to heal the princess’ boo-boos. Ya shouldn’t ha’e done that, rookie.” Lynch pointed accusingly at Sal, who jutted his chin out in defiance.

“He’s got a point,” Addams said. “So, since Jacobs didn’t bring it up with the squad last night, we’ll hold a vote. Who thinks Jacobs did the right thing when he used the ruined petals to make Kennedy mobile again?”

Addams raised his hand, and Kennedy did too. After a few moments of thought, Cortez raised his hand as well.

“If it keeps us mobile and we don’t have to carry Kennedy,” he explained, “I think it was a good call. Provided that he only used the ruined ones, not the one still viable for the full price.”

Sal withdrew the sealed packet of flower petals. They were all still a pristine blue.

“So, we’re agreed?” Kennedy looked pointedly at Lynch, who scowled and shook his head.

“Keep that money packet safe, rookie,” he finally conceded.

“Excellent,” Kennedy said. “On to the next order of business. If Jacobs’ little addition to my sat phone can be believed, there is another collection of Pita plants about ten klicks north of here. That’s deeper into the Zoo than any of the other expeditions have been. At least, from what has been reported by those that actually got back. We can collect what’s there and head back to regroup with the other squad. Thoughts?”

Nobody had anything to add and a few seconds of awkward silence hung over the group as Lynch folded his arms across his chest.

“Excellent,” Kennedy said. “Let’s pack the camp up and move in ten minutes.”

The group agreed and moved quickly. Addams joined Cortez to collect the motion sensors outside and left the others to pack the heating lamps. Lynch was unusually quiet as he went about his work. Sal could understand, of course. He felt jilted by the squad. Sure, he’d been an asshole, but Sal could think of a lot of times where he’d been an asshole too. He’d never been as openly excluded as Lynch had, but he understood the feeling.

Empathy, if not sympathy. Still, he was afraid Lynch would try something stupid to prove he was better than the others—something stupid that would get them all killed. Sal couldn’t imagine the man would actually kill a squad member, but what did he know about it? He honestly thought it beyond the comradery soldiers shared to leave someone behind, and Lynch had proven him wrong there.

They finished quickly, and the group gathered around Kennedy, who was out of her armor. The massive rifle intended to be handled with the metal arm of her suit looked enormous in her hands.

“You got that, Sarge?” Cortez asked.

“Yep,” she responded.

Sal took most of the packs that Kennedy was supposed to carry in her suit, and she’d given him her pistol. They headed deeper into the Zoo, where the creatures were known to be more hostile. Now was the time to have as many armed people out there as they could.

He was still a little sore from their fight the previous day and wasn’t sure how long he could carry the extra weight. His suit was more of a hazmat design with extra perks and lacked the mobility upgrades of the combat suits. He could manage the weight itself, but stamina was the issue.

They moved cautiously through the dense jungle. The trees grew in greater numbers and closer together. That made it a little bit easier since fewer plants grew on the ground. The downside was that roots jutted dangerously, and in the limited light, it was difficult to see and avoid them.

Still, they made much better time than they had the day before. Ten klicks were covered fairly quickly, even though Sal struggled under the weight of his new responsibilities.

The squad proceeded toward the coordinates on Kennedy’s map. After what they’d been through the day before, it was difficult to believe that there wasn’t something out there that waited for the right moment to attack.

Did they have some sort of revenge plot ready? Were they merely waiting for the squad to lower their guard? Did the animals actually have a concept of revenge? Sal wasn’t sure anything would surprise him at this point. He wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if one of the panthers came up to him for a discussion about how humans invaded their forest and stole the plants that were somehow sacred to them. In his daydream, the animals could now understand the concept of religion and language.

Okay, yes, that would surprise him. Sal chuckled softly as he pulled his thoughts from the ridiculous and back to reality.

“What?” Kennedy asked.

“I wonder how deep these mutations go,” he said. “They seem to adapt to us being here. We have armor, so they get animals that spit armor-melting acid. We get flame-throwers, and they develop a flame-retardant something that makes them immune. They should realize by this point that one of the most effective ways to put the US military out of business is to simply develop speech and start talking. Can you imagine the uproar that would cause? The Staging Area and the wall-building crews would be out of here in a week, maybe less.”

Kennedy chuckled, too, and shouldered her rifle. “Well, yeah, you do have a point. But that’s not exactly how evolution works.”

“Nothing around here works by our rules. That’s what I’m saying,” Sal said. “Pushing the borders of what’s possible is exactly what biology isn’t supposed to be. It’s literally the most boring field of science there is. We merely watch grass grow. Are you really surprised that biologists are part-horrified and part-excited by all this?”

“Well, from my perspective, biology has been a pretty exciting field, all things considered. Lots of trying to kill me, lots of advances, and lots of money too.”

Sal nodded. “There have been substantial strides made in the field over the past few years. You wouldn’t know it, but about five years ago, the most exciting thing to ever happen to us was when some doctoral candidate went off into Borneo or someplace and found a new and interesting green frog that resembles one living in the Amazon but has a reddish spot on its back instead of a bluish spot.”

Kennedy chuckled. “Yeah, I can see how that would get a little tedious for a guy like you.”

“A guy like me?” Sal asked and tilted his head in query. “I don’t know if I’ve given you the wrong impression, but I don’t actually do this stuff much. This is mostly to pay for my career as an impressionist painter.”

“I know the feeling. I’m trying to get through stripper school.”

Sal chuckled. “You’ll need to give me the address to the school. I might go there to paint a few of my impressionist paintings.”

“I’m sure you’ll be a hit in the place,” Kennedy said. She stopped suddenly when he froze. “What? What’s the matter?”

Sal inclined his head to show her what he’d seen. The creature moved out from behind the tree and was visible mostly because it was blue against the dark brown and green background. Of the six legs, the two at the back were a lot longer than the four in front. Antennae jutted from the head, and it stared curiously at the squad.

“Maybe this time, don’t shoot it, Lynch?” Cortez said.

“Shut up,” Lynch growled. He shook his head and looked away.

“Come on,” Sal said softly. “I want to take a closer look.”

“Well, yeah, we have nothing but time over here,” Kennedy said and rolled her eyes. “It’s not like I have a gaping wound in my leg that needs tending.”

“Tending by me,” Sal said. He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Although I’m sure that Addams could probably mix the serum up for you. It’s only the flowers and a little saline. Anyway, what I mean is wait up; this’ll only take a couple minutes.”

The rest of the squad grumbled, but Kennedy looked like she needed a short break. Despite the positive effects of the flower serum, there was little they could do about the amount of blood she’d lost the day before. Sal wasn’t a doctor, but he could tell that she was sluggish and moved much slower than normal. He knew that Addams noticed it too. The gunner threw the specialist a relieved look and nodded.

Sal shrugged. He liked to think that he did it for Kennedy, but he actually did want a proper shot of the locust. If that helped Kennedy, then so much the better.

He grinned, set his packs down, and primed his HUD for the shot as he squatted beside it. When the creature mimicked his motions and moved closer. Sal decided to go with video instead of simply a single shot. Even in the shadows, he could tell it would be good footage.

This locust was bigger than the first one. They had run into a few that actually tried to attack them. While they could possibly have tried to get their attention, it felt like an attack. The first one had been about the size of a basset hound, but this one was closer to a small Labrador.

The antennae shifted toward him, and as it stepped closer, Sal touched them tentatively with the HUD still recording. They were a lot more firm and tighter than he’d expected, like a pair of guitar strings. They tapped his gloved hand in quick succession. Sal eased his hand closer and skimmed his fingers over the head, careful not to touch the multiple eyes that stared intently at him. It was cold and hard but mobile at the same time, like actual plate armor that could move by itself.

“Huh.” He grunted softly, and the antennae vibrated in response.

“Jacobs, are you finished?” Cortez snapped, and the locust scuttled backward. When it saw the others approach, it bounded away quickly. Sal imagined that it weighed a lot more than animals of similar size, but he felt no vibrations from the ground when it jumped and disappeared into the trees.

“Yeah,” he grumbled and looked at Cortez with annoyance as he snatched his pack up. It was the first interaction with anything in this forest that was at least as interested in them as they were in it. Almost everything had either looked cautiously, ignored them completely, or been openly hostile, so it felt like a special moment. He replayed the video and nodded. Few videos in the database covered human interaction with any of these new species that wasn’t violent, so he had to imagine that this would be a big hit.

He hoped it would be, anyway. Fighting for your life was one thing, but it would be interesting to see how these animals would coexist with humans.

“I saw you close and cuddly with the insect,” Addams teased with a small grin. “Are you thinking about adopting?”

Sal nodded and played along. “Oh, yeah. What do you call a giant blue locust anyway? Buttons?”

Addams shrugged. “Maybe Antzy? You know, like Andy?”

Sal narrowed his eyes. “But he’s not an ant. I thought something like…Luke Treewalker.”

Kennedy turned around. “What if it was a female locust?”

Sal shrugged. “Leia Treewalker.”


Chapter Twenty

“So, Jacobs,” Addams said, “when you were all cuddly with that locust, did you do anything to it? Imprint it or something?”

Sal looked up from his attempt to settle his load more comfortably. “What do you mean?”

“Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but didn’t your parents ever tell you not to pet strange animals?” Addams said with a grin.

“Well, no offense,” Sal replied and grunted softly, “but I think I’m in a place in my life where I can do stupid shit without having to listen to what my parents have to say. Make my own mistakes. Get…eaten or something.” They were about seven klicks into the hike, and Sal wasn’t sure he would get through this without a break of some kind. His thighs burned, and he was absolutely certain that his suit would have a smell that could only be described as the absolute funkiest.

Addams shrugged. “My folks never let me have a pet. Dad said he was allergic to dog hair, but I found out it was actually because my mom had a real animal phobia. Like all animals. Even ducklings gave her the creeps. Ever since, I’ve wanted a pet, but they don’t allow them in the barracks. So, once I have enough from this gig, I’ll go to a pet store and get like…fifteen dogs.”

Sal pulled a face of mock-horror. “I love dogs, but you should probably start with one to get the hang of it. You should also probably get some of those ‘pet training for dummies’ books.”

Addams laughed. “Yeah, I know. I doubt I’ll be any good at it anyway. I’ll end up giving him too many treats and he’ll die of liver failure or something.”

“You might want to start out with a female,” Sal said with a nod. “The males have a tendency to hump everything if they’re not properly trained.”

Addams nodded. “How do you know about this stuff?”

“I considered becoming a vet when I was in high school, so when I was twelve, I bought a bunch of books about animals. Most of them were about raising pets, so I soaked in a lot of knowledge. Besides, my parents let me have pets.”

“Well,” Addams said with a chuckle, “now I know who to call when my dog pisses all over the place.”

“I’ll give you my card. You know, when we’re out of all this,” Sal said and gestured vaguely at the Zoo. “I’ll probably need to get a card first, I guess.”

Addams laughed, but any retort he had planned was forestalled by Kennedy, who looked paler than usual.

“I don’t suppose…” she said, out of breath as she leaned on her knees. “I don’t suppose we could stop for a breather? And maybe some lunch? I’m fucking starving over here.”

Addams broke away to check on her. Sal couldn’t help a small twinge of jealousy before he remembered that whatever it was that his overactive imagination conjured about the two of them, Kennedy was Addams’ patient first.

He really hated the petty jealousy. It was idiotic. It also wasn’t the first time his mind had created this kind of shit to make his life miserable.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lynch snarked. “Is the tough going making the princess—”

“Shut it, Lynch,” Kennedy responded acidly. The squad decided to do as she’d instructed and took a break. Sal tried not to sigh too loudly when he eased the pack from his back. The conversation with Addams had helped to keep his mind off it, but now that he dropped the extra weight, his legs felt like lead. He also felt a lot lighter than before. The odd combination of sensations made him carry the pack up to where Kennedy ate a couple of supplements the medic had given her. Addams and Cortez sat together and chatted quietly while Lynch stood off by himself, apparently still angry at everything and everyone.

“He’s like a petulant child,” Kennedy grumbled when Sal came within earshot. He assumed that she meant Lynch.

“No, no,” he said quickly. He sat and retrieved some protein bars from the packs that he dropped next to her. “This squad only has room for one petulant child. I’m actually quite proud and jealous of my position as the sole PC here.”

Kennedy smirked. “You seem awfully chipper these days. You wouldn’t be used to the trials and tribulations of the Zoo, now would you?”

“Not used to, no,” Sal said. He bit into the bar and made a face. “No, I’m merely trying to keep your spirits up. I assume those supplement pills help to restore the nutrients you lost when you halfway bled to death.”

“Yeah.” Kennedy pulled a similar face to his as she looked at the pills. “They taste like death too. And thanks for trying to keep my spirits up.”

“You know it. I’m sure you’d better get some rest when we get back to the Staging Area. I’d recommend it now, but Lynch would probably initiate a mutiny and forget to invite everybody else.”

Kennedy chuckled. “He’s never been like this before. I’ve gone on three missions with him. They mostly went without a hitch, and while I always got a bad vibe from the guy, he was always a stellar teammate. He didn’t complain about much, and he was a good person to have on your side in a fight. It’s just…him trying to persuade my team to leave me behind—and behind my back, too—gets me a little, you know?”

“Yeah. So, when you were crowned queen of understatement, did my invitation get lost in the mail, or was I not invited? Because I’d be offended if I was the only one who didn’t get invited. I mean, did you want Sleeping Beauty? Do you want me to go Maleficent on your ass?”

Kennedy tilted her head. “Well, of all the things I’d want you to go on my ass, Jacobs, Maleficent is not one of them.”

Sal raised his eyebrows. “I…huh…” He nodded. “I’m not sure what to say to that.”

Kennedy grinned and winked. “They never are.”

Sal scowled, shook his head, and looked desperately for a change in subject. “So, how’s the gun working out for you?”

She looked at the big rifle with a thoughtful expression. “It’s a little difficult to work the trigger, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it when the animals attack and our lives depend on it.”

“You know,” Sal said, “if it puts too much pressure on your leg, I could hang onto it—possibly even take over, and you can have your pistol back.”

Kennedy looked amused. “If this is a way to try to get your hands on the goods again, I have to say, it’s one of the most convoluted, evil plans I’ve ever heard. I like it. We should give it a try.”

“Okay,” Sal said and raised a finger. “Firstly, I didn’t grope you. It was in the heat of the moment and—”

“You wanted to cop a feel before we all bit it?” the sergeant asked with an eyebrow raised.

“I just… You know that I would never do something like that on purpose, right?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yeah, I know you’re not the kind of guy who gropes women in the middle of a firefight.”

“Good.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ll stop giving you a hard time about it, though.”

“Understood,” Sal grumbled and rolled his eyes. “Anyway, the second part of that statement was that I really think you need to rest your leg as much as possible.”

Kennedy nodded. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Hand me my pistol.”

“Cool,” Sal said with a grin. She holstered the handgun and hefted the massive assault rifle into his hands. He grunted softly as she released the full weight of it to him.

“So, this is a Mark-Thirty-Five H&K Mechanized Assault Rifle,” Kennedy said. She hadn’t noticed his reaction. “They call it a MAR for short. Anyway, you can connect it wirelessly to your HUD, and that gives you a targeting reticle when it goes into combat mode.”

Sal nodded, touched the interface on the rifle lightly, and connected it to his HUD. A new option appeared that was marked as combat mode.

“Okay,” he said. “Simple enough.”

“The rifle is meant to be handled by the big metal hands on the suits,” Kennedy said and gestured to the suits the squad members wore. “You can still pull the trigger but need to pull hard. It takes about five pounds of pressure on the trigger. Anyway, keep tugging and you’ll get there eventually. Keep it tucked into your shoulder. It has an inside mechanism that reduces the recoil, but it still has a bit of a kick, so…you know, be ready for that.”

“Okay,” Sal said. “I think I’ve got the hang of it.”

Cortez moved over to them. “Do you feel you can move again, boss?”

Kennedy nodded and pushed to her feet. “I think we can get going.” She took a few moments to test her injured leg. Sal, for his part, found the added weight of the rifle to his original load made it considerably worse. He grunted as his thighs burned with a now familiar discomfort.

“Fucking hell,” he mumbled and pushed himself to keep up with the others as they picked up the pace. Kennedy, without any armor, was in the middle of a staggered diamond formation around her. Cortez took the lead with Addams at her right and Lynch at her left. Sal, toting his new MAR, brought up the rear.

He looked around as they moved forward. It was darker in this section of the forest, and for some reason, he felt unsettled—like the jungle itself watched them and disapproved of their intrusion. He held the rifle closer to him and tried to maintain the pace Cortez set. They were already closer to ground zero. He wasn’t sure how close, but it had to be less than fifty kilometers away.

The closer they got, the worse the feeling. He heard movement all around them. It made sense, he supposed—as the animal population grew denser, the more animals there would be to watch them.

Only a few minutes later, one of the creatures stepped into their path and they stopped. It was a smaller animal, one Sal couldn’t remember seeing it in the database. He had no time to snap a picture before it jumped back into hiding.

But soon, more creatures stepped forward to try to stop them. A handful even flashed teeth. One of the massive panthers bounded forward and spat poison at the squad. It wasn’t acid, thankfully, so the thick milky liquid merely dribbled down Cortez’s chest plate.

“Well, now I’m officially grossed out,” he said. He shook his head and wiped the stuff off.

“They’re bolder,” Addams said. “It’s like they want us to stop walking into their territory.”

“If they thought we were intruding on their territory,” Sal interjected, “or maybe if we threatened their young, they would be far more aggressive than this. Or they would be if they acted like animals should.”

“This doesn’t seem like a warning to stay out of their territory,” Addams said. “Not unless many different animals all call the same piece of land home.”

Sal nodded. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

Suddenly, one of the creatures bounded out from behind a tree. It resembled the hyenas but was smaller and had the same bristles on its back as the panthers did. The animal rushed from behind, missed Sal by a whisker, but charged at Lynch. Sal raised his rifle and, in a panic, pulled the trigger. He missed, but he still hit the ground between the creature and Lynch. It panicked and leapt into the undergrowth. The squad spun and prepped their weapons for a fight, but all they saw was the animal’s backside vanish into the jungle as Sal rubbed at his ear to recover his hearing.

“You good, rookie?” Lynch asked. “Or do you want to try a shot at me too?”

Sal shook his head. “Nope, I’m all good here. How are you?”

Kennedy rolled her eyes. “Let’s move and maybe pick up the pace before these critters think we’re a new, self-delivering meal.”

Sal nodded, and they resumed their journey. The feeling intensified now, and Sal could see that his companions felt it too. The sounds also increased so that it seemed they were surrounded by a large number of creatures that tried to work up the courage to attack as they had the day before.

He wondered if he would have the balls to pull a plant out of the ground today. It didn’t even have to be a Pita plant at this point. The smallest bush might be enough to snap the pent watchfulness of the animals around them and send them into a killing frenzy. Sal sighed, closed his eyes, and tried to keep it together.

You got this, Sal. Pull it together. It’s not like you’re completely defenseless anymore.

“Come on, Jacobs, pick up the pace,” Kennedy called, and he realized he’d fallen behind. “We’re almost there.”

“Hurray!” he muttered under his breath and hoped his sarcasm would dull the panic that rose within him.


Chapter Twenty-One

Sal jogged forward. As before, the trees seemed to withdraw from the Pita bushes to create a massive clearing. The squad had the first actual view of sunlight that they’d had all day.

“That has to be the biggest money bush I’ve ever seen,” Lynch said at the sight of the massive Pita plant. Sal took a quick look at the records, and there weren’t any this large on record.

“Holy shit,” Kennedy said and stepped forward ahead of the group. Sal was the last to enter the clearing. In the sunlight, he didn’t have to imagine the trouble that surrounded them at that moment. While still not visible, he knew the animals had begun to close in around them. They didn’t make the sounds animals usually made and while they were all different species, they seemed content to watch quietly.

It was more than a little unnerving, and Sal wondered if he wasn’t imagining it since none of the group seemed to notice anything odd. They all ogled the massive plant. Like Lynch said, it looked like the biggest payday the squad had ever seen.

He shook his head and joined them. At least the animals didn’t seem to mind when Cortez cut the flowers and sealed them into sets. Still, it seemed they waited for something else to happen, almost as if they stood guard. Sal wondered if they knew that there had been attempts to take plants out of the Zoo and were there to preempt it. But why hadn’t reports of this behavior reached the database? Was this new, or had the previous squads been too wrapped up in the thought of money they’d make if they got a plant out?

Both scenarios seemed equally possible, Sal realized as he ran his fingers over one of the flowers and peered into the shadows. He couldn’t see actual eyes, but he could still feel them watching him.

“What’s up your ass?” Cortez asked, and Sal jumped. He hadn’t realized the man was so close. “This is the score of a lifetime, and you look like you’re about to throw up.”

Sal indicated the moving shadows. “We’re not exactly alone here, you know.”

Cortez shook his head. “We haven’t been alone since we got to this Godforsaken place. You get used to it after a few trips. Come on, don’t let your nerves take over. You’re looking at a bigger payday than anybody here has ever seen on their first haul. It’s okay to feel a little happy about it.”

“This feels different,” he responded and shook his head. “Like they’re waiting for us to do something stupid.”

“Get your mind off it, okay?” Jorge shoved a fist into Sal’s shoulder. “There’s enough here for us to get paid and for you to whip up some more of that miracle stuff for the sarge.”

Sal tilted his head. “You know it’s only crushed flower juice with saline solution, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Cortez said with a shrug. “Who gives a shit? Whip some up while we collect the rest.”

Sal nodded. Cortez had a point. The guys had gathered what looked like at least five sets already, and the animals hadn’t attacked yet. If they waited for them to leave the clearing, it would be a good idea to have Kennedy up and running at full speed by then.

He sighed, dropped his packs, and groaned as he rubbed his sore shoulders before he set Kennedy’s rifle down. After easing his weary back, he retrieved the pestle and mortar and the rest of the equipment he needed, clipped off a couple of the flowers, and ground it to release the goop.

“Hey,” Lynch protested and turned to him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing here, rookie?”

Sal looked at him with wide eyes. “I’m…making more serum to treat Kennedy’s leg is what I’m doing. What are you up to, Lynch?”

“No, you wasted the ruined ones to get the princess nice and sharp and walking again, but if you think I’ll let you grind up good money here to make something she’ll get at a hospital, you’ve got another think coming, Jacobs.”

It was the first time Lynch had called him by his last name, Sal realized. So far, it had been “laddie” when the man was in a good mood and “rookie” when he was in a bad one. He wasn’t sure he approved of the change. It sounded like Lynch might have other changes in mind.

“Lynch, shut the fuck up,” Kennedy snapped and glared at him.

“Nah, I have the right to speak my mind for a change,” the man roared and looked like he was about to explode. Sal was very conscious of the fact that he still carried his rifle. “You’ve ignored me all this time, and I think it’s time I step up before you lot make a powder of our flowers to snort up. This is mah money too, ya crazy fucks, and I won’t stand around and watch you waste it.”

Sal glanced quickly at the jungle. If clipping the flowers hadn’t drawn a reaction from the animals, the yelling certainly had. They moved closer, and some even stepped into the light. Sal could feel the tension emanating from them, even though most of the eyes he could see were now fixed on Lynch.

“Guys—”

“Zip it, rookie,” Lynch snarled, “ʼfore I shoot your arse so many times you’ll eat lead for breakfast.”

“Woah, that’s graphic.” Sal took a step away from the irate man as he watched the animals grow more and more agitated. He finished the serum as Lynch now seemed occupied in an argument with the rest of the squad.

“What is it, Lynch?” Kennedy demanded. She looked more than a little annoyed. “Do you want me to pay you back the money you’re losing on this trip? Is that it? It’s all about the money for you?”

Lynch nodded. “That would be a start, yes, lass, but I think we both know it won’t happen. So why don’t you zip your whore mouth and not waste our money for your own personal beauty treatme—”

His sentence cut off as Kennedy slammed a fist into his jaw. The blow was powerful enough to send him to the ground. He tried to raise his gun and stand, but the sergeant, despite her injured leg, had already lunged to stand over him. She pinned the metal arm and rifle down with one foot and balanced there to hammer the other into the man’s side. Even with the armor, it knocked the breath out of Lynch’s lungs.

“Call me a whore again, bitch,” Kennedy warned and drew her gun. She held it to his forehead. “See what happens.”

“I think we need to chill the fuck out right now,” Sal shouted, which surprised the entire squad, even Lynch. They all looked at him, a little shocked. The sergeant looked annoyed at the interruption, while Cortez simply grinned. Sal wasn’t sure if it was at his outburst or because he actually wanted to see Kennedy and Lynch fight it out.

Sal spoke before anybody could ask him what his outburst was about. “Look around you, guys, and tell me that a little calm is a bad idea.”

They did, and Sal could see their instant frozen reaction. The animals had closed in on the clearing. A firm circle surrounded them, and a few had broken from the jungle shadows into the sunlight. Dozens of different species had gathered and all looked tense, but none of the predators bared their teeth or made threatening movements. They all seemed content to watch the humans fight it out.

Kennedy pulled away from Lynch and offered a hand to help him up. The man ignored her, stood, and cradled his bruised jaw. The animals seemed to lose interest and backed away. It was more than a little frightening how they all did it in sync with one another.

“I think we should get what we came here for and go,” Sal said, unable to hide a slight tremble in his voice. No one seemed to notice, but they did get back to work. Lynch, Kennedy, and Addams collected the flowers, while Cortez stood watch, his gaze flickering over the circle of retreating animals.

“I really don’t like this,” he said as Sal pulped the flower petals that he had collected.

“We’ll have to be quick then.” He poured the glowing goop from the pestle into a petri dish. There was more of it than what he’d taken from the ruined petals, and it seemed to glow brighter, now visible even in the sunlight.

It almost seemed sacrilegious to mix it with the saline but needs must. Sal made a face, but he dripped the required measurement into the dish and mixed it. It slowly became less of a thick, oily liquid and more like something that could be used for medicine that wasn’t sold in the back of a cannabis store.

When it was fully mixed, he filled the syringe. He packed his equipment away and hurried to Kennedy.

“Is it ready?” she asked as he approached.

Sal nodded. “And I don’t know about you, but I think sooner would be better when it comes to administering it.”

“I agree.” She sat on the ground and pulled her pant leg up to reveal the bandage. Addams stopped his work to watch. Lynch didn’t seem interested in anything but collecting as many of the flowers as possible.

Sal moved the bandage. The wound was still ugly. Bright yellow and purple bruising marked the area around the wound itself, which was jagged from when she’d torn the stitches. He ran his fingers quickly over the skin to identify any bumps that would indicate a clot around the wound.

“Hey now, hands to yourself, mister,” Kennedy said with a grin.

“I wasn’t—” Sal shook his head, although he felt his face go a bright red. “Shut up, I need to focus.”

“I’m just saying,” she said and quirked a brow.

“I hear you,” he grumbled as he pressed the needle into the wound, “loud and clear.” His voice took on a low, almost hypnotic quality as he spoke. It was a trick that his doctor had employed back when he was still a kid. It helped him to take his mind off the fact that a steel needle was being thrust into him. It had been for routine shots and he’d been six years old, but the concept was fairly sound.

Kennedy didn’t complain as he injected the stuff. It was still relatively thick, so he felt resistance to his finger pressed on the plunger. He stopped when he saw a blue glow inside the wound, wiped any excess quickly with his bare hand, and replaced the bandage.

Addams noticed her changed expression.

“What do you feel?” he asked.

She shook her head from side to side. “It stings like it did the last time but stronger and more distracting.”

Sal nodded. “The last batch was from the ruined flowers. I assume the petals lose potency when they are bruised. That’s why they lose their value to the clients that have a standing bounty on them, I guess.”

“So, there’s no telling what this stuff could do to her?” Addams asked. He still looked skeptical.

Sal replaced the syringe in his pack. “I’m not sure, but there could always be a different effect. I don’t think so, though. If it feels different, it’s probably a problem with how much of the goop there is. This dose contained slightly more.”

“There are problems with that too, you know,” Addams growled. “They must have covered this in whatever teenage school you went to. Different sizes in doses have different effects on the human body. You could make things worse.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Sal allowed his irritation to show through. “I gave her a half-dose this time, just in case. We’ll have to wait and see.”

“Wait and see?” Addams snapped, but Kennedy raised her hand to stop him.

“It’s okay, Addams,” she said. “I agreed to this, and I trust Jacobs to know what he’s doing.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Sal mumbled under his breath.

If she heard him, she didn’t react. “Besides, the sting is more intense this time, but it’s not to the point of distraction. I can still walk.” She demonstrated by standing up and took a few steps in a circle and spun in place. “See?”

Sal nodded, though it might be due to the treatment she’d received the night before.

Addams seemed capable of putting his fears behind him for the moment, at least. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I mean, if there were any ill-effects, we would have seen them already, right?”

Sal stood. “Right. Though we should probably still keep an eye out for…side…effects…” He was distracted as he moved to where he’d left his pack and his gun but picked the latter up slowly. The squad seemed equally intent. The animals moved into the clearing, but not with the same coordination that he’d seen before. They shifted closer, but now, their eyes were on Kennedy. It was odd, but they didn’t look tense—more like they were curious like the locust had been before.

“That’s…odd.” Cortez tightened his grip on his weapon.

“You can say that again,” Addams hissed.

“Fuck this shit,” Sal heard Lynch say. He turned to look at the man who yanked his helmet on. It didn’t quite cover the part of his jaw that was bruised and swollen. Aside from that, he had the look of a man about to do something very stupid.

“Lynch, don’t do it,” Sal said softly.

“Shove off, you annoying prick,” Lynch hissed. He snatched his gun and chambered a round. “None of you seem interested enough to look out for my interests or my well-being, so it’s down to me to do it on my own. Fuck you all. Have a nice life.”

“Lynch, stop,” Sal called and drew the attention of the squad away from the approaching animals. The creatures seemed to sense the tension again, but this time, they backed away and looked confused. Some even looked scared. Sal wasn’t sure how he could tell, but he could.

Lynch ignored him. The animals’ approach had unnerved him, and it seemed he’d reached the breaking point after a few days of what he saw as the squad’s disrespect for him and his decisions. He turned, strode to the Pita plants, and knelt beside one of the smaller ones.

“Lynch, don’t you fucking dare,” Kennedy shouted.

The man was beyond reason at that point, and he dragged the plant from the ground with a single tug.

Sal could feel the immediate difference in the air around him. The first change was the pungent smell that permeated the air in seconds. The tension snapped, and even the trees seemed to react to the removal of the plant. Sal felt his mouth go dry and his heartbeat quicken as he looked around. It could be a reaction to the pheromones in his own system. He remembered feeling a similar reaction in his body when he pulled his own plant, but this was much, much stronger. Something that felt like terror infused the air and made it difficult to breathe.

And yet through all that, Sal still couldn’t pin down what the pervasive odor smelled like. It was something like mint, but more tart and acrid. He’d spent years in labs and encountered odd sights, sounds, and smells from all sorts of origins, yet he couldn’t define a single scent although it smelt oddly familiar.

Lynch, for his part, didn’t notice or didn’t care and pushed the plant quickly into a containment unit. He looked manic like he would shoot anyone who tried to stop him. Once it was safely stowed, he grabbed all the sealed flowers they’d already collected and headed out of the clearing.

Sal wasn’t sure when the reaction began to take effect. The entire environment seemed in a state of shock thanks to the pheromones that filled the air like the world’s most terrifying alarm system. A pair of panthers launched from the jungle and charged at Lynch, but he raised his weapon and gunned them down.

“See you later, suckers,” he yelled over his shoulder. The arrogant comment was almost drowned by the growing sounds of anger and terror from the jungle. “I’ll tell the folks at the Staging Area that you all died bravely to get me out with my retirement plan.”

“Fucking cunt.” Sal raised his weapon. The previous videos made it clear that no mercy had been shown to other people until the plant was restored. These animals were whipped into a frenzy and would kill all the humans, no matter whether they had been involved in removing the plant or not.

“Shit.” Kennedy raised her pistol and shot a couple of the panthers that bounded into the attack. The animals no longer seemed curious or terrified. They were angry. Sal couldn’t tell how he knew, but he did, and he was terrified instead.

He raised his own weapon as the creatures converged on the center of the clearing toward the Pita plants and the humans that surrounded them.

“Kennedy,” Sal called over the din of the gunfire and the enraged animals. “This is a worst-case scenario! Time to use that smoke grenade Davis gave you.”

“Oh, right.” She’d completely forgotten about it. Since it was a recent addition to their inventory, Sal wondered if Kennedy hadn’t wanted to be the one to test it. But this was a worst-case scenario, and if ever there was a time to test new stuff that could save their lives, it was now.

She maintained fire with one hand as she dropped her pack to the ground and rummaged through the various items she’d had to peel off her ruined armor. Her magazine ran empty, and she looked through the pack with both hands. Sal moved to cover her. He might help a little, although his aim was random. He missed as many shots as he landed, but the successful ones had enough power to drop an elephant.

He narrowed his eyes at Kennedy as he reloaded with his last magazine. “Any time now, Kennedy.”

“I’m…shut it,” she shouted in response. He needed to conserve ammo. Unlike the other two members of what was left of their squad, he didn’t have a sidearm to fall back on once his rifle was empty.

The animals around them didn’t initiate a concerted attack. They moved in one by one and backed away when one or two went down as if reminded of the danger of attacking humans with guns. Once they got a whiff of the pheromones again, they immediately lost their minds and charged. Sal was sure it was an incredibly interesting phenomenon that should be studied later, but for now, it was all he could do to stand his ground while the sergeant took her sweet fucking time to find the damned smoke lifesaver.

“Got it!” She raised her hand, pulled the pin with her teeth, and tossed the grenade ahead of the squad.

It took a few seconds to work, but when it did, it filled the air with thick, gray smoke. It was dense enough to block out most of the light, and Sal realized quickly that if the animals could find them through the smoke, they were thoroughly fucked since they wouldn’t be able to see them in time to protect themselves.

Trusting untested technology. Sal felt humanity would be doomed to make that mistake until it finally made them extinct. Hopefully, they wouldn’t prove the point.

Kennedy grabbed him by the suit and dragged him toward the others. They had enough problems to deal with without accidentally shooting each other. Sal tried to see as much as he could through the smoke.

Suddenly, a massive shadow towered over them and blocked most of the light in the clearing.

He turned and gulped hard. Vibrations accompanied massive footsteps close enough to them that they’d be squashed if it drew nearer. Sal wondered why it hadn’t done so yet, and then he remembered that they had backed up into the Pita plants. It might want to avoid stomping on the plants while it took care of the pesky humans.

Enormous footstep followed enormous footstep. Whatever it was, it seemed to move into the jungle in the direction Lynch had taken, which made sense. But the sheer size of the thing terrified Sal. He couldn’t see it, but he could make a rough estimate based on how heavy it would have to be to shake the ground as it walked and how tall to block the sunlight.

The smoke hadn’t cleared, but he could see the shadow cast. It looked vaguely bipedal, which fitted the consecutive footsteps. Whatever it was, it had two feet. Massive jaws parted, and a smell like rotten meat and decay filled the air.

It was quickly followed by an earsplitting roar that made Sal’s head ache. His hearing hadn’t recovered from the loud gunshots, and now, he felt completely deaf. Nothing in the world could be that big, he reasoned in an effort to keep a firm grasp on reality. The physics wasn’t there. It wasn’t possible.

And yet, there it was.

Kennedy dragged him to the ground. The Pita plant pressed into his back as he fell on his ass and accidentally dropped the rifle. He wanted to tear his helmet off, even though it was the only thing keeping the thick, probably carcinogenic smoke from his lungs. He wanted to cover his ears and close his eyes, reject the reality, and pretend he would wake up anytime now. This would all go away, and the most life-threatening part of his day would be driving to work in the insane LA traffic.

It wasn’t realistic, he knew, but at this point, a dream was the more preferable option.

He gripped Kennedy’s hand. The shadow had gone, probably to hunt something else to terrify. Sal felt he should have already soiled himself at this point, but he hadn’t. Kudos to him. The smoke was thick enough that he couldn’t even see Kennedy, and she was less than an arm’s length away from him. His hearing was almost non-existent for the moment, so aside from the world’s most dangerous game of blind man’s bluff, there was no way to tell if she’d found the rest of the squad in time. They might be dead by now for all he knew. Hell, it might not even be Kennedy holding onto him.

“Hey, Jacobs!”

Sal snapped out of his panicked state when his comms came alive. Okay, so maybe his hearing wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it was. The massive monster’s roar had possibly simply impacted the speaker system in his helmet.

“Jacobs, snap out of it, or so help me God—” He heard Kennedy’s voice. His HUD told him that it was a private channel and kept their voices isolated from what could be thousands of blood-hungry animals still out there. He drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and ran his hand over his helmet.

“I’m good, I’m good,” Sal said quickly. “Holy…fuck. Shit. What the hell was that?”

“Hell if I know,” he heard Cortez say.

“Bigger than anything we’ve ever seen around here before,” Addams rasped.

“It was probably a trick of the light,” Kennedy said, her voice calm.

The minutes ticked by. They couldn’t think of anything else to say. What else was there to say? They’d been betrayed by one of their own squad and, against all odds, an untested grenade had actually worked in the nick of time.

A soft breeze seeped into the clearing and eased the smoke away. Inch by inch, Sal was able to see more and more. He saw Kennedy, then Cortez, and finally, Addams. There was no sign of Lynch, obviously. Sal wasn’t sure if he was terrified or relieved by that fact.

As more of the clearing came into view, Sal pushed himself to his feet.

They were alone. Even the bodies of the animals they’d shot were gone.

“Oh, God,” Kennedy whispered.


Chapter Twenty-Two

Sal gripped his gun as he looked at the ground. He supposed that it was possible for the creatures they’d shot to have recovered enough to drag themselves out of the clearing, but it no longer seemed like a viable theory. It was still in contention, of course, but when it came down to it, the thought that other creatures might drag their comrades away to either be eaten or heal in private seemed more and more likely.

He sat beside Kennedy, who rubbed distractedly at her leg. It still bothered her, but it no longer seemed like pain. She was mature enough to know where to draw the line between keeping a brave face and idiocy since it was an untried treatment that she had received.

Still, it couldn’t hurt to check.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Well, my squad imploded,” Kennedy answered. “One of the members decided to head out on his own and get himself killed by his desire to be the sole beneficiary of a millionaire bounty. I can’t help but feel it’s kind of my fault, you know? Like I might have pushed him too hard or expected too much from a corporate stooge like Lynch. It seemed like he snapped, and I wonder if I’m to blame.”

Sal nodded. “The man tried to turn the squad against you, tried to make us leave you behind to fend for yourself with a gaping leg wound, and when that failed, tried to mutiny against you. When that failed, he tried to withhold treatment for your leg, and when that failed, ran off like an idiot into a forest that wanted its damn plant back. But no, definitely, you’re the one to blame. You know, I think you should hunt him down and apologize sincerely for hurting his feelings. And his jaw.”

Kennedy laughed and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Thanks, I needed that. I can’t help but feel that since I’m squad leader, I’m the one to blame if something goes wrong.”

“Lynch was the one who left the reservation,” Sal said with a shrug. “All you did was try to get him back…on the reservation, I mean. Someone might say you were a bit harsh on him, but I can’t personally think of any way that you might have done it better. The guy wouldn’t respond to a soft touch.”

She nodded. “I agree.”

“On the other hand, I’ve never been that great with human interaction, so I can’t really say you should have done one thing or another, or that you could have said something to calm him down. I mean, the best my school could come up with was to sit me and any kid I got into an argument with down and try to make us talk it out with a mediator. But that never did any good. One time, I even got the mediator that they called in all emotional.”

“Really?” Kennedy asked and her head in silent query. “How did you manage that?”

Sal smirked. “I say mediator, but it turned out to be a senior I was in class with, and I had some pretty pointed things to say about her, even though the kid I was in mediation with was the same age but three years behind me.”

Kennedy rolled her eyes. “There’s no need to show off, you know. Not all of us finished high school at…whenever it was that you finished it.”

“I know,” Sal said. “I wasn’t showing off. Besides, I think it’s a lot more impressive to be a badass special forces type. You know, running and gunning, spreading democracy to the folks in faraway lands. Brains of a surgeon with the body and skills of an Olympian.”

The sergeant smiled and leaned back against the tree. “Yeah, well, I’m paid less than either, though that would change if I decided to retire and go into the private sector. There are plenty of folks out there more than willing to pay me a good amount to sit at a desk and not work for their competition.”

“That sounds boring,” Sal grumbled.

“It would be,” Kennedy said with a nod. “Which is why I’ve avoided retirement. They prefer people with connections in the military since most of the money that goes into the security companies is from government contracts. They want their numbers of ex-military employees up to make it look good, but they also want those employees to help bring in the big bucks from the government however they can.”

“A lot of ass-kissing. Like you’d have to go to cocktail parties and make speeches for one politician or make another’s ego and campaign funds grow three sizes in one night. I don’t think I’d be able to do that. Certainly not well, anyway. I’m smart, but I suck at keeping my sarcasm in check.”

Kennedy smirked and nodded. “I think you’re right. And I think I’d be the same. That’s why I took this gig, you know. I needed a way to make some serious money while still in the service, so I don’t have to bow and scrape for a decent wage once I get out.”

Sal shook his head. “Why don’t you stay in the military? Get some promotions, become the kind of person the guys have to bow and scrape to?”

“You have to be more political than I tend to be to get a job like that.” Kennedy scratched at her thigh again. “Otherwise, NCO is as high on the ladder as I’ll get. Military pensions are going down the shitter, so I want mine out beforehand.”

Sal nodded, but he didn’t have anything to add. For all his genius, he didn’t know much about the problems she talked about. Military pensions and politicizing military positions seemed a foreign concept to him. He didn’t want to seem stupid by presenting his opinions on something that he knew nothing about.

He might as well work on something he did know about. Well, know more about, anyway. He still floundered around like the rest of them when it came to the mysteries of the Zoo.

“Well, I’ll get back to work.” He pushed to his feet and patted Kennedy lightly on the shoulder. “I hope you feel better.”

Cortez and Addams crouched at the edge of the clearing beside a massive footprint that led in Lynch’s direction. Sal wasn’t sure if the man had been able to get away, but the jungle had definitely quieted and the feeling of tension was gone. The animals hadn’t returned to watch them, and he wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing. It could mean they were off hunting Lynch, or perhaps they’d simply lost interest in the humans.

Either way, Sal assumed it was advisable to complete their task before the animals returned. It was advisable to be well on the way back to the Jeeps before then. He knelt beside the plants at the center of the clearing and looked at the clear sky above him. The sun wasn’t visible from that vantage point, but the fact that the sky was still a pristine blue indicated that they were at least a few hours away from sunset. His HUD told him the same thing, so he set to work.

They’d collected most of the flowers already, but Lynch had taken everything. He needed to search deep within the bushes to find more flowers and worked with extra care not to damage the plants themselves. There was no telling whether the pheromones would be released if he did more than simply pick the easily accessible blooms, even though he didn’t actually remove the entire plant. While there was no information in the database for that scenario, there was also no sense in being reckless.

He found a smaller cluster of the flowers, clipped them cautiously, and slipped them into the bags. He worked slowly to collect the rest of the flowers from the plants until no more mature blooms remained. There weren’t that many, but he didn’t want to pick the young blossoms. He was fairly sure that they had little real value.

Sal sighed and moved from the plants to sit beside his personal experiment. A few of the flowers had been damaged in the fight. He’d picked those for himself and ran them through a couple of tests to isolate the healing factors. All he’d done thus far was to simply take the goop and dilute it. He wanted to identify the source, something that he could actually act on without fear of the side effects of untested medication.

Kennedy had said that she didn’t mind being a guinea pig to test the effects of the goop, but even so, he preferred to reduce the risk as much as possible. He wasn’t a qualified doctor so didn’t have the limitations of the medical oath, but he still believed it was his duty to ensure that Kennedy didn’t die from his experiment. Otherwise, how was he any different from Lynch?

He inspected the results. It wasn’t much, he supposed, but it was something. He’d mixed the juice pressed from the ruined petals with a light dehydrator. He didn’t want to alter the stuff chemically, only isolate the goop. With the plant’s water gone, it would be easier to identify the healing factor in what he gave Kennedy.

There it was. The goop was thicker now that the water had evaporated. A few other minerals were revealed in solid form, but it seemed the goop worked like the Pita plants did with the rest of the foliage in the jungle. It isolated itself. None of the minerals mixed with it. Sal peered at it through the microscope in his HUD which enabled him to see the mineral composition of the goop. It was only a droplet, but it told him that what he’d given Kennedy before had been heavily diluted even though it came directly from the plant.

This was the first time Sal had seen the actual goop itself. It glowed in the shadowed light but it was a clear radiance, and nothing else that might be responsible swirled in the liquid. The fluid itself gave off the luminescence.

Sal cleaned the dish to remove possible impurities and mixed the saline solution in slowly. The pure goop didn’t mix easily. The moment that he stopped stirring, it sank to the bottom of the dish.

Sal scowled and leaned back, unsure what to do with any of this information. He filled a clean syringe with the mixture and set it aside for later use. Cortez and Addams had abandoned their inspection of the massive creature’s tracks and had gone to talk to Kennedy. Sal still had not come to terms with what they had seen. In the current environment, it was theoretically impossible for any creature that size to survive in their world.

But there was something out there that seemed intent to prove all the laws of physics wrong. Sal knew that as a scientist, he should feel elated by this revelation and actively hunt this beastie down. His true feelings, however, ranged from run far away to kill it with fire.

“Lynch took most of the flowers,” Addams said. “There will be little payoff from this trip, but at this point, I’d say escaping with our lives would be an achievement.”

“I second that,” Cortez grunted. Sal realized that these men were as terrified of the massive creature as he was, but they were better at hiding it and finding viable solutions to their current predicament.

Kennedy sighed and shook her head. “How many of the flowers do we have?”

“Four sets,” Sal interjected. “Barely. Lynch took those that we’d picked, and the fighting ruined a few more. I used those for some testing. I hope nobody minds?”

Cortez shrugged, and Addams shook his head.

“Well, I don’t want to spend the night here,” the sergeant said after a long pause. “If there’s nothing more to collect, I say we head back to the Hammerheads. Collect your shit, and we’ll move in five.”

The other two men jumped into action, clearly eager to leave as soon as possible, but Sal moved closer to Kennedy and offered the solution to her.

“What’s this?” She asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“I isolated the goop from the ruined petals,” he explained. “It should be the most powerful dose I’ve seen so far. I’d like to have it to study when we get back, but if you need it…well, that’s why I’m giving it to you.”

Kennedy smiled and pushed to her feet. “I appreciate it, Jacobs. I’ll keep this baby safe.” She nodded and tucked the syringe into her pocket.


Chapter Twenty-Three

They were on the move again, and a feeling of relief washed over Sal when they left the damned clearing and put some distance between them and it. He couldn’t really deny the evidence of his own eyes, but he could banish it from the fear center of his brain and store it where it could be more useful—like in the analytical or the trash bin part, assuming people had a place in their brains where they could simply discard what they didn’t want. He’d forgotten too much information for that not to be a possibility.

About five steps in, Sal noticed that they headed in the same direction Lynch had taken. Apparently, the man had a decent sense of direction along with his wild selection of insanities. Or he’d had taken time to check with his HUD first? Sal checked his to be sure that they were on the right route. In this case, right was a little subjective considering that it was the same path that a good few dozen creatures whipped into a pheromone frenzy had used to chase after their probably recently deceased squadmate.

Sal knew that he should probably think happy thoughts about how Lynch had survived his encounter with half the damn jungle and not feel relieved that he was no longer with them. But he refused to feel bad about it. Lynch was an ass who had gotten his own dumb ass killed by making a dumbass decision. Sal hadn’t done much to stop him, but in the end, he doubted that even his best effort would amount to much against a former SAS operative in power armor.

It didn’t seem like anybody else in the squad felt too bad about the man either, so he refused to allow himself to carry that burden alone. He was supposed to be the spoiled asshole of this field trip from hell, after all.

He could tell it was close to sunset because of his HUD, but nothing had changed much. With the heavy leaf cover, it might as well be night already. It was dark enough that they needed to have their night vision on, and even then, their progress in traversing the massive roots was as slow as hell.

Night was closing in and they didn’t want to spend it out there, so they kept moving. Kennedy, without her armor and HUD, had to rely on her squad mates to determine the way through. Despite this, she made good progress and even moved faster than Sal, although he put that down to him carrying more weight. She kept pace with Cortez and Addams too, though, so he could only assume her leg felt better.

He wished he could say the same. His body ached from their previous hike, and the fight hadn’t helped. The only rest hadn’t been restful, considering that he’d spent most of it working to collect flowers and run experiments. He knew that he had to pull his weight to be a part of the squad, but he hoped it wouldn’t be this hard the next time out.

Sal smiled. Despite all the pain and agony, he couldn’t see himself returning to California when they reached the Staging Area. He no longer experienced the dread he’d felt before. That had been replaced by a sense of wonderment. He wasn’t quite enjoying himself, but he felt more at home out there than he had working for Caltech. In the Zoo, he actually made a difference as opposed to the busywork that had filled his days. If they didn’t give him a doctorate after what he had to say about the Zoo, he’d call Kennedy to help him kick the asses of those responsible.

Of course, he would no doubt feel differently the moment bullets flew again, but that was how things worked. Once all the adrenaline had faded from his system, the whole situation didn’t seem too bad when compared to the boring existence he’d had to tolerate before.

“Hold up,” Addams warned quietly and yanked Sal from his thoughts. He hadn’t realized that their team had come to a halt, and he dragged himself to a stop inches before he crashed into Kennedy’s back.

“What gives?” he asked and peeked over her shoulder. All the fears he’d felt back in the clearing surged forward. The jungle seemed too quiet, he realized. Had they stumbled on the massive monster feeding on Lynch’s corpse? Were they next on the menu?

“It looks like a body,” Cortez said as he moved closer.

They shuffled forward, careful to remain alert for approaching beasts. It was hard to make out anything in the deepening darkness. Finally, Sal realized it was a body still in shredded power armor. His grasp tightened on the rifle as he glanced around, half expecting to see hundreds of eyes.

Nothing moved, however. The motion detectors in his helmet didn’t identify any movement near them, so he followed the squad members cautiously. Only one person Sal knew had come this way in armor like that, and unless they’d accidentally crossed paths with the other squad, which he doubted…

It was Lynch, although that was difficult to confirm right away. Even in the murky blackness around them, Sal noticed the blood. Blue and black swirled in it, but most of it was red. He’d gone down fighting, but he’d gone down, and it had been an ugly end. Kennedy shook her head as she knelt beside the body.

“It looks like the critters didn’t bother to eat him.” She spoke softly. “They killed him and moved on like they weren’t interested.”

“What happened to the plant he took?” Cortez asked. Sal couldn’t help the feeling that there was at least a little avarice in the man’s question.

“I see broken plastic plus some of the container’s components, but no plant. It looks like they broke the plant out and took it.”

“What about the flowers Lynch took?” Sal asked as he moved closer to the body. Claw marks raked Lynch’s body where the animals had torn through the plate armor and into his body. But the killing blow, Sal assumed, was one that had shattered his helmet and crushed his skull. There was no sign that the animals had even tried feeding, almost as if they were sufficiently disgusted with him to let him rot.

A small shiver ran down his spine, and he tried to maintain his composure.

“The flowers…are here.” Kennedy lifted nine or so sealant bags. Most were torn and ruined, and the few that were still intact carried bruised flowers. She pocketed them quickly, studied Lynch’s body, and slid her hand beneath his shredded armor.

“What are you doing?” Sal asked.

The sergeant remained silent and let her actions speak for themselves. She fumbled a little and the man’s blood coated her hands, but she was undeterred. He felt a little sick by the time her hand finally withdrew holding a pair of tags connected by a sterling chain.

“His dog tags?” Addams asked. “Why?”

“Because he was a member of my squad,” she replied and tucked the bloody tags into her pocket. “He might have family out there who would rather know for sure that Lynch is dead.”

“I have a question,” Cortez interjected. “We saw the animals eat the dead bodies of the bounty hunters we killed. Why didn’t they try eating him? Why leave his body like this?”

“I’d say they left it here as a message or a warning to those who might try to take the plants,” Sal said quietly and tried to look anywhere but at Lynch. “Or I would if I thought that the animals were capable of that level of cognition. The more likely scenario is that the pheromones that riled them up might suppress the need to feed. But it’s simply a theory.”

Kennedy paused to find Lynch’s gun, which was still intact, and whatever ammo he had left. They set off again and pushed to cover as much distance as they could away from the clearing of death, which was what he called it now in his head.

They hadn’t gone far before they heard another earth-shattering roar. Sal froze at the sound. There wasn’t any mistaking it. It wasn’t something a man forgot—ever. Rather, it was the kind of sound he carried with him to the end of his days, and Sal assumed he’d do exactly that.

They waited, their nerves taut in the silence. Sal realized that something was different this time, but aside from it being a lot farther away, he couldn’t decide why it seemed dissimilar. He looked in the general direction, roughly east, and back at Kennedy, who shouldered Lynch’s rifle and checked her sat phone.

“That wasn’t far away,” she said quietly. “We could head over there without losing too much time. It’s only a slight detour from where we’re headed anyway.”

Sal knew that it came from the east and they were headed southeast. While it was only a little off course, it would take hours to get there and hours to get back on course. That wasn’t the real problem with what she had suggested, though. Cortez beat him to the first word.

“It’s almost sunset,” he protested. “And it’s difficult to navigate around here as is. I think we should find somewhere to set up camp, spend the night, and move on in daylight.”

Sal nodded in agreement. “I don’t think I have to mention how bad an evolutionary response it is to head toward the roar of the massive monster, right? I mean, it’s not like we’ll go to investigate something harmless. It’s something that could have and probably was involved in killing Lynch. I thought I’d throw it out there.”

Addams looked pensive. “I don’t know. I’d rather be out there hunting it than the other way around. With something that size, it’ll be difficult for it to sneak up on us if we’re on the move. It’ll be a lot easier if we’re hunkered down for the night. Besides, Lynch took all the motion sensors with him, and I didn’t see them around the body. It could be the animals tore them up. The point is, without those, any night we spend out here will be potentially lethal.”

Kennedy nodded and grinned. “Besides, we’re explorers in this little slice of heaven. We should live up to the name and do some exploring, dammit!”

Sal was sold on Addams’ point that they had no security for any camp they might set up. Cortez, though, grinned and seemed persuaded by their leader’s words.

“Let’s do it,” he said and chambered a round in his rifle. “If we run into that big son of a bitch, I think it’s only fitting that we mount its head on a wall.”

Sal shook his head at the comment, but since the whole squad was going, he wouldn’t be outvoted like Lynch had been. He gritted his teeth and eased his grip on his rifle.

“It looks like somebody’s feeling better,” Sal said once they were on their way to the new heading.

“What can I say?” Kennedy turned and grinned at him. “I think your treatment worked, Doc.”

“I don’t even have to say it, right?” Sal asked.

“I know you’re not an actual doctor, Jacobs, but damn, you ought to be.” She put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed before she strode off at a faster pace than he could keep up with.

He’d have to see if one of the side-effects of the goop was a sudden need to do brave and dangerous stuff. It became yet another item on his already mile-long list of things to look into when they got back. With a sigh, he picked up his pace again.


Chapter Twenty-Four

The massive monster’s roars faded to echoes, and silence crept into their little patch of jungle. The squad maintained a slow but steady pace and other sounds filtered through the quiet and gradually grew louder as they moved closer. While not quite as terrifying as the roar of a physics-defying monster, rage-filled cries and shrieks of animals whipped into a mad, killing fury came a close second.

Automatic gunfire cracked sporadically, and the squad tried to pick up their pace a little. They were much closer but encountered no movement in their vicinity. It seemed that the wildlife was too occupied with attacking whoever did the shooting to notice them.

They headed directly toward the battle. Despite the bounty hunters that entered the jungle, few dared to venture this deep. The chances of their other squad being the ones firing were insanely high.

Sal clicked the safety off on his rifle. He had only one spare magazine left, so he wasn’t sure what good he’d be if there was actual fighting to be done, but he felt this was the heroic kind of stupid—time to shape up or die stupid. The gene pool wouldn’t miss him, no matter how high his IQ was. He was in the deep end now, metaphorically speaking, and had to sink or swim.

He tried to psych himself into real confidence, but it didn’t work too well. The only option was to try to make sure he didn’t run when the going got tough. He hadn’t run yet, and he’d already been in three violent engagements with large numbers of animals. That fact alone encouraged him.

The gunfire stopped and the animal sounds continued, although they seemed to retreat. They’d done that a few times, he remembered from their little run through the forest. They withdrew and regrouped like an army in a battle of attrition. With the coordination these animals had, he wouldn’t be surprised in the least if they had a form of tactical supervision.

The team moved closer and could now hear the other squad shout. One voice carried more than the rest, and Kennedy opened a channel to connect with them.

“Squad one, this is Sergeant Kennedy, please respond,” she said through the comm in her sat phone.

The shouting ceased, and within a few seconds, he heard Davis’ voice. “Sergeant Kennedy, this is Sergeant Davis responding. We need assistance. Are you in the vicinity?”

Kennedy keyed her comm again. “We’re already headed your way. Heading northwest of your current position. Please advise.”

“Keep your heading and rendezvous with our coordinates, Squad Two,” Davis said. “It’s good to know you’re all alive and well.”

“Alive, anyway.” The group hurried forward and soon reached the others. Squad One still had its original five members, and Davis was the first to step forward. Blood spattered his armor which looked decidedly the worse for wear. He offered his hand to Kennedy, and she took it firmly.

“It looks like you’re a man short, Kennedy,” he commented.

“Lynch got stupid and tried to break away on his own,” Kennedy said briefly and honestly. “I have his tags to take back to the Staging Area.”

Davis nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that. We’ve had troubles of our own over here. A couple are wounded, but nothing serious.”

“Yeah,” Sal interjected, “about that. We heard some distressing sounds. We were a few klicks away, and that drew us here. Did you perhaps see something enormous? Possibly bipedal, four-toed, and with a roar loud enough to make any self-respecting person soil themselves?”

David chuckled. “As a matter of fact, yes. We were about to stop for the night when we felt the ground shake. We decided to investigate and encountered a massive critter. It was hard to make out the details in this light, but it came for us, and we fired at it. It took a lot of punishment and wounded some of us, but we took it down eventually. Unfortunately, killing it made the other animals react like we’d plucked one of the pita plants. They’ve come at us in waves ever since. You folks caught us in a lull.”

Sal nodded, unable to help a feeling of relief that he wouldn’t have to face one of those monsters. Of course, there was no telling if there were any more of them out there waiting to stomp everyone in their team into paste.

“We were heading back to the Jeeps when we came to investigate,” Kennedy added. “I suggest that we keep moving.”

David nodded. “We were headed back ourselves. We lucked out and found a pretty massive haul to take back.”

“Sergeant Davis,” Kennedy said, “I suggest that we join forces.”

“Um, excuse me?” Sal recognized the voice as that of Monroe, the specialist in the other squad. “I have to say that when we killed the big creature, it seemed to spray us with the pheromones the Pita plants release when they’re picked. I’d suggest you get your squad as far away from us as possible, Sergeant Kennedy.”

Davis looked from Monroe to Kennedy. “Your call, Sergeant.”

“That won’t happen,” Sal said and turned when he realized that she had said the same thing at the same time.

She smirked and said, “It looks like you have your answer, Davis. We’ll stay.”

“I appreciate that, Kennedy.”

She nodded, but before she could respond, one of the other members of Davis’ squad jogged over.

“They’re coming back, sir,” he said. Sal couldn’t put a name to the face for the life of him. Thankfully, the squad leader came to his rescue a moment later.

“Thanks, Rodriguez,” Davis acknowledged and turned to Kennedy. “If your offer for help is genuine, we’d really appreciate it, Sergeant.”

She nodded. “You heard him. Let’s move, boys.”

The team headed in the direction his HUD said the Jeeps were in but assumed a staggered formation of defensive positions as Sal’s motion sensors went crazy. The night vision helped him catch glimpses of animals moving closer. He aimed the rifle toward the jungle and hoped nobody jumped in front of him.

“Hey.” A hand grasped his shoulder. It was the doctor, Monroe.

“Hey,” he said with a small smile. “Are you still alive?”

“Not for lack of trying,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s a bad time to ask,” Sal said in a low, confidential voice, “but you didn’t happen to take some samples from the big guy you brought down, did you? We ran into it before, but I don’t think it saw us, and I didn’t get a good look either. I have some physics questions that need answering.”

“Sorry.” Her face twisted with regret. “There wasn’t time. The moment it hit the ground and Davis did a quick headcount, the other animals moved in.”

Sal nodded, disappointed.

“I did get a few good images, though,” Monroe said to cheer him up. “I can show them to you when we get back. Or maybe sooner, if we get out of this whole…life-threatening situation.”

He grinned.

“Hey, Jacobs,” Cortez snapped, “are you joining us or what? These critters are too close for comfort.”

Sal snapped out of the distraction of wanting evidence that the animal he’d seen and that they’d killed was, in fact, a naturally occurring creature.

“So, I wanted to ask you about that,” Monroe said once they were in formation and indicated the rifle. “If you’re a specialist, why do you carry that gun? Can you even shoot it?”

“Not very well.” Sal laughed to keep his spirits up. “But don’t tell the others. Keep it on the Q.T., but yeah, it started when Kennedy was shot in the leg and we were on the run from a bunch of animals attacking us. Then Lynch died, so it felt natural to pick up the slack, you know?”

“Kennedy was shot in the leg?” Monroe asked and turned to look at the sergeant. “She has no armor, but she looks fine otherwise. Also, who shot at her? It wasn’t an accidental shot, was it?”

Sal shook his head. “No, we ran into some hostile bounty hunters and ended up in a little gunfight with them. That was fun—ten out of ten. I’d do it again and recommend it to a friend too.”

Monroe laughed. “I’ll pass, but a few friends I’ve made in the Staging Area might take you up on that.”

The two squads created a loosely defensive perimeter. The two wounded members of Squad One limped in the middle and covered Kennedy and Monroe. Sal was also in the middle but closer to the outer defensive positions of the five remaining gunners. Rodriguez, one of the men in the back, opened fire.

“We need to move,” he called, and Davis, on point, was quick to respond.

“It looks like we’ll move through the night, people,” he shouted as he strode forward while watching for a frontal attack. Sal clenched his hands around his rifle and pushed aside the pained protest of his aching body as he jogged to keep pace with the others.


Chapter Twenty-Five

Sal couldn’t remember any time that he’d thought himself in a hellish place. His whole life, he’d half-assed his way to mediocre success and rode his natural, God-given talents to something comfortable, if not perfect. He’d never had the energy to go after something better. He had felt that to work to overcome the downsides of his lifestyle was worse than the issues themselves and so always accepted his lot behind a line of laziness he would never cross.

At no point had he ever felt his life was in danger. He had never felt the need to appeal to a higher power or wanted to close his eyes and click his metaphorical ruby slippers and beg for home.

Until now.

Surrounded by the darkness of the jungle, the rough terrain with trees clumped together made it difficult to see anything farther than fifteen meters in any direction. They were surrounded by the screams and cries of the enraged animals. Gunshots filled his world, interspersed with shouted orders from Kennedy and Davis and calls of danger from the rest of the team.

Sal had opened fire a couple of times since they began the slow jog toward the Jeeps. He could feel the pain in his legs and shoulders and in his core. His body needed a rest—to stop and lie down for a week. He needed to return to California and escape this madness.

But he couldn’t stop, no matter how much it hurt or how tired he felt. His chest pounded and his hyper-alert mind constantly searched for something that might attack them.

Was this what being responsible felt like? If so, he wasn’t surprised that he had avoided it for so long. It was a sucky feeling.

Even the strongest among them now began to lag, and Cortez appeared thoroughly winded. Addams seemed about to drop at any moment. The only exception was Kennedy. She had a look that suggested she could go on for days, and Sal wasn’t sure he could keep up with her.

Davis didn’t push hard like she did but wore an easy competence—like he would be the same man whether he jogged all night under threat of death by Zoo monster or languished in a hot tub back home with his wife and kids.

Sal shook his head and tried to stay focused on the fight happening. The squads’ constant motion forced the animals into a hunting response, which was good. Predators tended to avoid attack until they saw a weakness in their prey they could exploit. He wondered if Davis had that in mind when he pushed them to remain on the move, but it seemed to work.

For now, he reminded himself. They couldn’t maintain the pace for long, even though everyone dug deep and pushed themselves with grim determination. Sal wasn’t sure what rules governed the creatures while in this killing frenzy but didn’t want to stick around to find out.

A six-legged panther caught his eye. It launched forward, but Sal resisted the urge to shoot although he held his aim as he ran. It flashed its fangs at him and flexed its front paws—both rather than one—in a typically feline threatening gesture. That was the benefit of two extra legs.

Thankfully, it didn’t follow through. He had no desire to shoot these objectively beautiful creatures but knew he would have to if it charged. The situation demanded that he back his team up and keep them safe as best he could.

He told himself that he hadn’t fired because he was already low on ammo and wasn’t sure he’d hit anything at this distance and in this light. The targeting reticle in his HUD wasn’t that accurate, he realized. Either that or he merely sucked at gunnery.

You’ll get better as time goes on, Sal, don’t worry about it.

All he had to do was survive this round of hell. They should have a shooting range at the Staging Area where he could train. He’d read that excellence on the range didn’t mean much when what you shot at tried to kill you, but extra training couldn’t hurt.

The panther growled again and revealed its venom-laden fangs before it backed out of the limited range of his line of sight. It was terrifying to rely on technology to survive. He wasn’t trained for combat or the use of night vision and motion sensor devices, yet he had to adapt to survive. There was nowhere to run unless he wanted to end up like Lynch.

Sal gritted his teeth and pushed harder so he wouldn’t fall behind. His legs were numb now, and while he couldn’t feel them, they almost buckled at the knees when he landed a little too hard. He stumbled and tried to catch himself before he fell. Quickly, he glanced around to scan the area for any threat, conscious that a watching animal might sense his weakness. Nothing threatened him, and he moved on and struggled to remain alert even though he felt he could collapse at any moment. The fight in the clearing had drained him more than it should have, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep the pace up.

Sal heard someone shout a moment before everything went down the crapper.

He spun, unsure who had yelled. It wasn’t Kennedy, Cortez, or Addams, though. He knew their combat voices.

It could have been Banner who had caught a hint of movement in the trees.

“Look out!” the man called in time to catch Sal’s attention as a hyena leapt from higher ground onto one of the injured members of Squad One. The man screamed when claws dug into his back and sliced his armor easily. Its powerful jaws closed around his neck and with a sharp tug, snapped it. Sal wasn’t sure that the teeth had penetrated the thick armor, but the creature was strong enough to break the man’s neck anyway. Before anyone could react, it bounded off him and pounced on the man who had seen it first.

Sal abandoned his position on the right side and lurched toward it as the creature tackled Rodriguez. The squad was plunged into individual battles as the creatures had seen the hyena attack as an opening since the humans had stopped. They surged in a single aggressive wave, and while the team fought them off, Sal thudded his boot into the creature’s ribs as it struggled to break Rodriguez’ neck. Blood flowed from the man’s arms and chest, but he couldn’t see the severity of the wounds. Sal didn’t want to risk missing the hyena and shooting his own comrade. He could barely stomach firing at the animals and couldn’t deal with killing a human who was part of his team.

His first kick dislodged the creature, but it managed to lock its jaws around Rodriguez’ arm and hung on. Sal kicked it again, this time in the face, and it finally yelped and spun to attack him. He pulled the trigger on his rifle three times in quick succession. It dropped to the ground with a soft whimper and lay still.

Gunfire blazed as both Kennedy and Davis joined the back line to stem the wave of monsters. They were packed so closely together that Sal couldn’t make out individual creatures, but he knew they had moved closer. He dropped beside Rodriguez and looked at his wounds. Although he still couldn’t see shit, he wanted to be helpful.

“Get off me, dumbass,” the man protested and shook off the attempt to help him. “They need help at the back line. I’m fine. Help them.”

His wounds were deep judging by the blood visible even in the darkness, but Sal complied as his first aid was limited. All he could do was help the rest of the team and have Addams—or Squad One’s medic—take care of him.

Hopefully, their medic wasn’t the man the hyena had killed first. Sal jogged to the staggered line the team had formed to keep the monsters at bay. The section Cortez covered looked light. The man’s rifle was empty or jammed, and he’d let the massive gun drop to his side where it hung by the strap. He now used only his sidearm, and the animals closed in on that flank where they sensed weakness.

Sal stepped into the breach. As closely packed as they were, there wasn’t much room between the monsters, so even he could hardly miss. He pressed the heavy trigger as hard and as fast as he could and a line of creatures dropped. The others pulled back from the renewed defense.

“Thanks!” Sal didn’t answer his squadmate as he shoved his last spare mag of ammo into the man’s hand. He didn’t deny the extra help and quickly replaced his spent mag with the new one before he turned to help the team. The animals now pushed toward the middle. They seemed to have abandoned tactics and simply pressed forward in greater numbers as if to keep the pressure up until the squad ran out of ammunition. Was that concept even possible for the animals? There were too many questions about the Zoo that he needed answered, and damned if he would let them remain unanswered because he was dead.

Sal crouched beside their fallen comrade. It felt wrong to loot his own people but couldn’t be too picky. He took the rifles and three full mags the man had carried on his chest and looped both over his shoulder. It added to his load, but with the adrenaline in his system, something like a second wind filled him with energy that he didn’t know he had.

He’d never felt what runners called an endorphin high when he’d exercised. Without exception, he’d always felt tired, sore, and miserable. Was this what they had meant? It wasn’t a high—or didn’t feel like one—but a flow of low-key energy that would keep him plodding until his heart gave out.

Sal raised his rifle and fired a few shots into the mass of animals. It appeared that they felt their press had lost momentum and the time had come to retreat and regroup. More questions, he noted, but was thankful for the reprieve. He pushed the spare rifle into Davis’ hands since it looked like the man was empty.

“What’s the situation?” the squad leader demanded.

Sal answered before anybody else could. “We’ve got one fatality, and one man injured.”

Davis looked at the corpse of his squad mate.

“Who is it?” he asked.

Sal felt a little like he would be reincarnated as an ocean slug in his next life. “I…I’m not sure.”

The sergeant jogged over and looked at the body. He closed the man’s eyes and withdrew the dog tags from beneath his armor. “It’s Richards,” Davis said, his voice even. The silence that greeted the words was all that needed to be said.

The animals had retreated beyond his limited line of sight, and Sal saw some of the larger animals drag the bodies of their dead away. Well, that was one mystery solved, he mused, and tucked the mental image away for later study.

Addams moved to help the wounded man.

“You all right there, Rodriguez?” Cortez asked.

The soldier lifted a hand with a single finger raised. Cortez tried to laugh, but it sounded empty.

“There’s not much I can do here, man,” Addams muttered as he inspected the man’s wounds.

“Just go,” Rodriguez hissed through gritted teeth. “I can probably hold them back and buy you guys a few minutes.”

“That won’t happen,” Davis said, his booming deep voice heard by every member of the team. “No man is ever left behind. Not if I can help it.”


Chapter Twenty-Six

Kennedy nodded, and Sal steeled himself. He turned to see Monroe hold Richards’ sidearm with both hands, as uncomfortable with it as Sal had first felt.

“Set up a defensive perimeter,” Kennedy snapped. She rolled her neck and pushed a few errant strands of brown hair out of her face. “I want to see all lines of approach covered by at least one gun. That means you too, Jacobs. Monroe, help Addams tend to Rodriguez. The rest of you, get your rears in gear. I don’t want any more sneak attacks. Keep your heads on a swivel and stay frosty.”

Sal nodded. It was impossible to say why, but for some reason, he almost preferred the moments when they fought for their lives. During the lulls in combat, he had more time to think about how much trouble they were in and how heavy his legs felt. The adrenaline drained slowly from his system, and his hands shook as a vague sense of nausea churned in his stomach.

He patted Monroe on the shoulder in passing, and she squeezed his hand lightly in response. The interaction stirred a small surge of relief.

The jungle had suddenly gone suspiciously quiet. The monsters had broken their pursuit, but it didn’t feel like they had abandoned it. This felt more like the eye of the storm. The moment of rest wasn’t restful at all. Sal couldn’t allow himself to relax.

His mouth felt dry, and he resisted a sudden need to void his bowels. A few studies in his sophomore year in college taught him that it was the first indication that the body prepared for a fight or flight reaction. It was natural and not something he should feel embarrassed about. All this shit was new to him, and as much as he wanted to earn his place among the gunners, he knew that he barely made a difference. He wasn’t DPS or Tank, to put it in terms that he actually understood. He was strictly support, and didn’t seem to do that very well either. He needed to up his game.

Sal tried to keep his mind off the fact that the noise level inside the Zoo had increased. The sounds were different, though, as if an earthquake had a voice. He could feel the ground shake but not in time with bipedal footsteps as he’d originally feared. This was something constant which grew in intensity and drew closer by the second.

“I have movement,” Cortez shouted. “Ten o’clock, twenty mikes.”

Mikes? Sal wondered but had had no time to think further. “Movement over here too.”

In a few seconds, he could see a swarm of the massive locusts. They were even larger this time, almost as big as mastiffs. That wasn’t possible by the laws of physics either, but Sal had learned to put that behind him for the moment. Studying came later. Right now, he had to be a gunner first and a specialist second.

The swarm suddenly surged, leapt forward, and moved fast. For the first time, the animals’ movements made sense. Locusts weren’t aggressive creatures by nature, and whatever they did there resembled what a swarm would do when it was threatened.

Shots fired from the far side of the line seemed to spark a reaction in the creatures. Sal couldn’t help but remember how placid and friendly the single one had been that he’d encountered only the day before. Or was it two days ago? He couldn’t spare the time to check the HUD clock as the swarm approached. They were packed so closely together that it didn’t matter where he aimed. An almost two-meter tsunami of angry, giant insects raced toward them. Sal didn’t blame the person who fired first and almost wished he’d had the guts to do it. He had one full mag in his rifle and a couple that he’d looted from Richards.

“Move close together and make a circle,” Davis called, and Sal felt a hand drag him backward. What was left of the team now fought back to back as the swarm closed in on them rapidly with an angry buzz. The sound literally shook the ground. Sal wondered if the massive swarm that had caused the Zoo to expand so quickly had possibly become this wave of winged fury.

“Hold formation!” Kennedy shouted as the swarm breached the squad’s comfort zone and the entire team of five opened fire at the same time. The armor-piercing rounds cut easily through the first few of lines of insects, but it didn’t slow them at all. Monroe fired her pistol into the attackers and helped as well as she could from inside the circle. Sal’s arms were numb and he couldn’t aim worth shit, but he could pull the trigger and would hardly miss the solid mass that surged toward him.

His mag clicked empty, and he dropped it and popped the new one in with a smooth, practiced motion that surprised him. Even the half-second pause was enough for the locusts to get closer. He wasn’t sure how insects could even look angry, but these did. They were pissed the fuck off.

Sal gritted his teeth. This wasn’t real combat experience. If he’d learned anything in hours of procrastination through YouTube videos, it was that in an actual gunfight, the people most likely to survive were the ones who knew how to find the best cover.

This was more like hunting, but the creatures without the guns were the hunters.

Funny how the tables had turned. Hunting and guns had never been a family tradition, and this was the first time that he’d ever imagined violence on another animal. He ate steak and made fun of vegans over the internet, but if there was ever a lesson not to fuck with nature, this was it.

The sounds of automatic rifle fire from around him faded and became desperate, quick tugs at the triggers of their sidearms. They had almost run out of ammo and couldn’t keep this up for much longer.

Suddenly, Addams handed out fresh mags to his comrades and joined the battle.

“What’s the status?” Davis called over the din.

“Rodriguez is dead, Sarge!” Addams called back. “And I suggest that we move on. I don’t think we have much time here.”

Sal’s distraction as he tried to follow the conversation had its consequences. He missed a few shots, and a locust broke through his line of fire. His rifle was empty again, and the monstrous insect collided with a force that threw him backward. He was sure hundreds more would follow to claw at his legs and tear him to pieces. His back hit a root, and the impact drove the breath from his lungs. He fought to shove the creature’s clacking mandibles away from his face. Claws tore through his suit and dug into his legs. Sal screamed in pain and wrestled with the monster on his chest. Fatigue slowed his tired and numb arms, and the snapping jaws drew closer to press on the glass on his helmet and shatter it.

Sal closed his eyes to protect them from the shards, but he released the creature’s thorax and lifted his hands instinctively to his head.

“Oh, God,” he whispered as the sharp mandibles gnashed mere inches from his face. Some crazy part of his brain said he should do something badass. Maybe he could find his scalpel at the last second and thrust it into the creature’s body and shove it aside with a cheesy one-liner. He kicked hard against other creatures which could mangle his legs, but he couldn’t spare a hand to find a weapon to fight back with. It was all he could do to prevent the vicious jaws from tearing his face off.

A loud gunshot very close to his ears made them ring. It brought relief, though, since the angry buzz had become a high-pitched whine. Cold, blue insect blood settled on his face. He spluttered and gasped for breath, felt the creature’s heavy weight on his chest, and realized that his hands were free again. He shoved hard, then shouted and kicked as another shot splattered more blood over him. Monroe held her smoking sidearm and continued to pull the trigger, even though it clicked empty. Her shocked look probably mirrored his own as he panted heavily on the ground.

He was spent and could do nothing more than simply let them kill him already. Dying had to be better than living like this.

A hand pushed into his face, and he struggled to shake the sudden slump he found himself in. He opened his eyes to see Kennedy standing over him. She offered him her hand.

“Get off your ass, Jacobs,” she demanded. He took her hand, and she yanked him to his feet like he weighed the same as a sack of feathers.

Sal panted ragged gasps for air. A gentle trickle of blood ran down his legs, but he could still move around so the damage must be only superficial. Even so, his body felt made of lead, and he struggled to stay on his feet.

“Someone’s feeling better,” he retorted acidly. With his helmet and HUD gone he couldn’t see her expression, but from the tone of her voice she was grinning.

“Thanks for your concern, Doc.” She patted him on the shoulder. “I feel like a new woman right now. How do you feel?”

Sal nodded. He didn’t want to confess that her playful pat on his shoulder had nearly sent him to the ground. She still wore her helmet so she would see that he swayed on his feet.

“My gun’s empty, Sarge,” Sal finally managed to say. She nodded and turned to Davis, who still carried Richards’ extra rifle. He unstrapped it and tossed it to Sal, who caught it and almost lost it but hugged it close to his chest. Kennedy shouldered the empty gun and one of Sal’s packs. It seemed like the treatment had done more than simply heal her. It made her better than she had been before, and Sal wasn’t sure if she realized it or not. He wouldn’t complain. He felt like he could at least walk without the extra weight.

“We’ll make a run for the Jeeps,” Davis said.

He nodded wearily. “Let’s do this.” He’d push as well as he could, but he hoped that he didn’t slow the squad down with his dead legs and numb arms. As he couldn’t see anything, he pulled his shattered helmet off. His legs were awash with pain although he couldn’t examine the wounds. He would have them looked at when they reached the Staging Area.

When, not if. When. Sal nodded, gritted his teeth, and put one foot in front of the other. It really was all he could do. He couldn’t look up for fear his foot would catch in something and send him to the ground again with nobody to help him up. As his eyes adjusted, he realized that the area around him wasn’t as dark as he’d thought it would be. Sunrise was a couple of hours away, and this light was soft and held a blueish tint.

Moonlight with perhaps a little starlight too. It wasn’t much, but it seeped through the tree cover, which meant they were out of the thickest part of the jungle. They were closer to the edge and the Jeeps.

The small flare of hope was all Sal needed to drive him forward. He could see now and could avoid the larger roots and rocks that jutted from the ground. His pace increased, and he caught up with the team. He wasn’t sure if they had slowed for his benefit, but he was soon shoulder to shoulder with Cortez, who grabbed him by the shoulder and helped him move faster.

“They’re coming!” Monroe yelled, and again, he didn’t need to look to know that she was right. He could feel the vibration in the ground and in the air. It felt more intense as they drew closer, and he plunged forward, helped by Cortez.

He raised his gun when the creatures leveled with them and jumped from branch to branch to keep pace. Without conscious thought, he fired a few shots and heard a thud when at least one of the locusts was hit.

“Save your bullets,” Cortez snarled. “Focus on running, Jacobs. You can make it.”

Sal realized the squad had already drawn ahead by a few paces. Cortez had held back to ensure that he wasn’t picked off as the weakest member of the herd, so he dug deep and surged forward. His lungs burned, and his body screamed for relief. His hands were numb enough that he let the gun drop to hang loosely from the strap around his neck. It knocked into his wounded thigh with each step.

Can’t stop. Won’t stop. Got to keep moving.

He felt mandibles close around his ankle and drag him off his feet. Sal cried out in pain as his ankle twisted and his hip hammered painfully into a rock or root, and he couldn’t stand. He needed to, but his body refused to respond.

Cortez yanked him up by the collar, and another pair of hands supported him.

“We’re not done with you yet, rookie,” Addams said as he drew Sal’s arm over his shoulders and practically dragged him along with Cortez’ help.

Sal didn’t have it in him to say thank you. His lungs sucked desperately for oxygen. He tried to run, but the best he could do to help his companions was to keep his feet from dragging.

“Come on!” Kennedy yelled, and a Jeep engine came to life and illuminated the area around them. They’d parked almost outside the Zoo, but it seemed the trees had surrounded them. Thankfully, both vehicles were still in good shape. The second engine purred, and more light flooded the area and startled the swarm for a few seconds. Davis yanked a smoke grenade from his vest and tossed it into the locusts, which tried to surge forward as if they sensed that their prey was almost out of reach. The smoke enveloped them almost immediately, and the three comrades gained a little more time.

Someone fired to hold the insects away from the trio and Sal was shoved into the Jeep. It wasn’t the most ceremonious of landings, and it crammed him into the corner of the vehicle as Cortez and Addams piled in behind him.

“We’re in!” Cortez shouted. “Let’s go!”

With no time for seatbelts, they were all thrown to the back when the vehicle surged forward as Kennedy accelerated. Sal landed painfully on his shoulder but eventually, the bumps lessened when they reached the slightly smoother sand of the Sahara Desert. He used the little energy he had left to drag himself into a seat.

For the first time in what felt like forever, the view into the sky was completely clear. With not even a hint of cloud cover, a wide expanse of stars glittered and to the east, the almost full moon shone down. It was a refreshing sight. His breathing remained short and harsh, and all the pain of his wounds hit him like a freight train.

“Are you okay?” Addams asked. He shifted closer and turned a backseat light on. Sal blinked as his eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness.

All he could manage in response was a weak shake of his head. Addams examined his legs first.

Sal didn’t even want to look, so he stared out the window and craned his neck to see the most refreshing sight of them all. He wasn’t sure if he should feel that way, but inexplicably, he did. The Zoo faded into the distance, and he felt it’s unaccountable tug where there should only have been relief.


Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Jeeps halted, and Sal jerked out of sleep. The dreams hadn’t been pleasant, and he was almost relieved to be awake, as much as he needed the rest. Dreams of panthers, locusts, hyenas, and a massive two-legged creature large enough to crush a man with one step weren’t the release he needed. Something dreamless and deep sounded like what the doctor ordered, but since that wasn’t an option, he’d prefer to remain awake.

He pushed from his seat, but his legs gave way. Addams caught him and held him up.

“Let’s not push too hard just yet,” the medic said, his voice hoarse. He looked as tired as Sal felt but had the strength left to help Sal out of the Jeep and carry him to some seats nearby.

“Paramedics will be here to help us soon.” Addams dropped into the seat beside him.

Sal shook his head and sighed deeply. “I’m not cut out for this place,” he said, his voice slurred. The medic had mixed him a strong cocktail of painkillers, which explained why he couldn’t walk straight. It explained the weird dreams too, he realized.

Then again, he doubted he’d be able to walk at all without the painkillers.

“Thanks for helping me back there,” Sal said softly to Addams and Cortez, who had joined them. “Both of you. I would have been locust shit if it wasn’t for you guys.”

“We’re a team, ese.” Cortez bumped Sal’s shoulder lightly. “You help us out of shit, we get you out of shit. It’s how this whole squad thing works.”

Sal flinched but smirked around the discomfort. Even that light touch on his shoulder was enough for pain to flare across his body, but it was worth it. A team, a squad, all working together—with a single exception called Lynch— to help one another out of a deadly situation. It felt good. He’d always been a loner and ahead of everyone, at least mentally. It felt good to be there with people who actually wanted to see him escape alive. His smirk turned into a full smile.

“Hey, Jacobs.” Kennedy stepped out of the Jeep and approached the three men. “I need to head to the commander’s office to turn in what we picked up, along with our casualty count and other details from our mission. Do you still have the flowers we got?”

Sal nodded. “They’re in the pack you took.”

Kennedy had the pack already, so she opened it and a moment of panic surged through Sal. The flowers were in there, yes, along with something else he didn’t want her to find.

“Give it to me,” he said quickly. “I’ll find it for you.”

The sergeant gave him an odd look. “I think I can handle it.”

He shook his head. “Rather hand it over. It’s a mess in there, and I don’t want you sprayed with acid from one of my experiments or something.”

Without a word, she handed him his pack, and he set it on the ground when his arms couldn’t hold the full weight. He made a show of rummaging around and covered his Pita plant before he drew out the five sealed bags of flowers. Two were bruised and would mean a hit in the bounty they received, but three looked to have escaped damage and could be turned in for the full price. Sal wasn’t sure how much that was, but it had to be a goodly amount.

He handed the five bags to Kennedy and she took them, chuckled, and patted him lightly on the shoulder before heading off.

Sal sealed his pack quickly and tucked it under his seat before he leaned back. He fixed his gaze firmly on the view ahead and avoided the curious looks from his two companions. The Staging Area was slightly elevated, possibly to avoid the desert swallowing it up, and even with the gigantic dunes, the Zoo was still a dark smear across the horizon. It was truly massive, Sal acknowledged. When inside, he hadn’t realized how vast it was. From where he sat, it resembled a colossal blob across the whole horizon. And, he realized, the stark reality was that it moved closer.

He focused on the wall under construction, and he wondered if it would be finished in time. The sun peeked over the horizon, and he shook his head and leaned back with a sigh.

“Well,” Addams said and shoved himself upright with a grunt, “I can walk, so I’ll get myself checked out under my own power. I’ll make sure they send you paramedics to help you to the hospital if they aren’t on the way already.”

Sal nodded. “I appreciate it as I don’t think I’ll get anywhere fast. I could probably crawl, I think, but I’ll save that for a life or death scenario.”

Addams chuckled. Cortez stood to join him, and Sal watched them limp away. He assumed a base as large as the Staging Area would have its own hospital.

Someone sat beside him on the bench and drew him from his train of thought. Sal glanced at Monroe who looked exhausted. How could she not? For an entire night, they’d held onto their lives by the barest of threads. It had only been three days, but it felt like weeks since Sal had touched down there and wondered what the hell he’d find. Strangely, he somehow felt more at home there than he had anywhere else despite the turmoil and pain.

“How are you feeling?” Monroe asked as she turned to face him.

“Like I could sleep for a couple of weeks,” he answered honestly, “or something like that. Back home, I’d probably be arrested with the number of drugs Addams pumped into my system.”

She chuckled. “We’re a long way away from any significant law around here. Get as high as you please. There is the small matter of the scarcity of the good stuff, but since when has that stopped anyone?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Sal said softly and his gaze traveled over the endless vista of the Sahara. He felt drained, mentally as well as physically. He liked talking to Dr. Monroe. She seemed like she had a mind that could match his own for speed, but right now, he would easily fail a first-grade math test. His wit had abandoned him, so rather than say something he would regret later, he focused on the distant horizon and drew in deep, cleansing breaths of the cool morning air.

“You know,” Monroe said, her voice soft and almost reverent, “despite the crazy animals and plants in there—or maybe because of them—I have to say that the Zoo is one beautiful place to be. It’s so new and exciting. I don’t think I could see myself working in some boring lab or another, even if it were in a civilized part of the world and paid me like a CEO.”

Sal nodded. “It has its charms, there’s no denying that. But I think I need time to come to terms with how much crazy comes with the good. I hope that the next time I go, we at least have a team without a weak link like Lynch. I’d say may he rest in peace and I hate to speak ill of the dead, but holy shit, that guy was made of asshole.”

She laughed. “I’m glad you’re thinking of the next time.”

Sal looked at her. “How so?”

“It means you’ve decided to stay.” She smiled and raised an eyebrow. “If you’re already planning the next trip, it means that you’ve decided that you’ll go on another trip.”

Sal smirked. “I guess you’re right.”

“Here’s something to keep in mind, Jacobs.” A sly smile played across her lips. “Something beautiful generally comes with a hint of crazy to keep you on your toes. You have to decide if the beauty makes the crazy worth it.”

An open Jeep with a section for a stretcher came to a stop across the road.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” The paramedics exited the vehicle and hurried toward him. “I’ll talk to you later, Monroe.”

She smiled as they helped Sal up, assisted him to limp over the road to lie on the stretcher, and drove away.


Chapter Twenty-Eight

Most of the day was spent in the hospital ward, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Addams had done the best he could in the vehicle with the little equipment and few supplies available, but nothing could take the place of real rest and real doctors who knew how to treat wounds like his. It wasn’t an emergency situation, but as he watched them clean the wounds on his legs from the angry giant locusts, he suspected that infections were a real possibility.

They were thorough, but Sal felt virtually nothing. The doctors asked questions about what happened, but he wasn’t sure how well he answered. He could recall the painkiller cocktail Addams had given him and that most of the wounds were inflicted during the last day and night. Fifteen cuts on his legs needed stitching as well as one on his face from his shattered helmet. He hadn’t even felt it at the time, oddly enough, and he wondered if it hadn’t happened when he’d yanked his helmet off. It was all conjecture now, though. He was put into a bed for recovery and was out like a light for hours.

When he woke again, he tried to pull himself out of bed but collapsed onto his back with a low, pained groan at a sharp muscle pain. He had no idea of the time or how long he’d been out. While he did feel more rested, that meant little in the bigger picture.

He took a deep breath, pressed the button that tilted the bed from a horizontal position, and he realized that he wasn’t the only one in the room. PFC Abel Hawkins looked like he’d dozed off too until the sound of the bed woke him.

“Dr. Jacobs. I’m so glad to see you up and about again.” Hawkins stood and assessed him carefully.

“Well, awake, anyway,” Sal said. “How can I help you, Hawkins?”

“Oh, I’m simply returning your house key to you.” He held the key card out. When Sal didn’t take it, the man blinked and put it on the bedside table. “And we need your signature to open your bank account here in the Staging Area so you receive your paycheck from your first trip.”

“Right,” Sal said, a little bemused. The PFC put a datapad on his lap so that he could sign it at his leisure. “How much did I get from the trip?”

“Well…” Hawkins paused to look over the details. “There’s a five-thousand-dollar commission for a specialist on one of these missions. Plus, your additions to the database from your suit amount to another thousand. Then there’s the bounty for the flowers you brought in. The total was sixty-three thousand dollars which, divided between the four survivors of your squad, amounts to fifteen thousand, seven hundred and fifty dollars. All that added up, with the reduction from the taxes you have to pay—”

“Wait, what?” Sal interjected. “Taxes? What taxes?”

“It comes with the government contract,” Hawkins said blandly. “You must understand that your taxes pay for your lodging, food, and medical treatment. If you weren’t under contract, you would have to pay for all this separately.”

Sal nodded. “And I’m sure that the government doesn’t take a cut for itself.”

The man looked at the ground, clearly a little uncomfortable. “I’m sure I don’t know about any of that. Sixteen thousand, three hundred and fifty dollars will be deposited into your account, already properly taxed and ready for use.”

“Use where?” Sal looked around. “There’s nowhere to spend it.”

Another issue nagged at him. Hearing his three days in hell measured out and calculated at just over sixteen grand made it all feel worthless. That bundle of numbers was all he had to show for this whole adventure.

Well, the trip was all dissertation gold, but he still wanted to feel outraged about the corporate treatment he received.

In reality, though, Sal didn’t have the energy for indignation. It was all so far above him. Perhaps the next trip wouldn’t end with a squad member running off with most of their earnings, and maybe he would be left with more for his efforts. Hopefully next time, he wouldn’t have to deal with a forest full of enraged creatures.

Which reminded him that he had ended up with a lot more to show for his efforts than the money and experience he’d earned. He had a small plant of his own. Sal looked at his pack, which hadn’t been moved from his bedside where he’d put it before he drifted off. He quickly signed his name into the device on his lap. A few seconds passed as the pad processed his request and it pinged with success and a message that he had a payment pending. He accepted it, and sixteen thousand dollars was suddenly in his account.

That was more money than he’d ever had when he worked for Caltech. Most of his study had been through scholarships, so he was fortunate not to have a massive student loan to pay off, but he hadn’t rolled in dough either.

“Thank you so much,” Hawkins said with the tone of a dentist’s receptionist. He reclaimed the pad and logged out.

“Yeah, whatever,” Sal grumbled. The door of his room opened, and Kennedy stepped in.

“What’s up, Jacobs?” she asked. She looked bright and chipper in shorts, and she had no bandage on her right thigh, and no sign of stitches. There wasn’t even a damn scar there. He raised an eyebrow as he leaned against his pillow. He’d have to ask her about that later. She also looked far too full of energy for someone who’d spent the past couple of days in a jungle with a gaping leg wound, and certainly better than he felt.

“Nothing much,” he said, and nodded at Hawkins. “We set my bank account up so I can get my first paycheck.”

“Yeah.” Kennedy scowled as the private left the room. “It was a shit haul, but all things considered, we came out with a decent profit. Most other times, though, we have fewer problems and we get a heftier paycheck.”

Sal nodded. “I’m not complaining. I was an academic, remember? Getting paid that much for three days’ work is a good deal—serious and life-threatening three days’ work, but still. I don’t think I’ve ever seen five digits in any of my bank accounts ever, so I’d say I’m happy with how things turned out.”

Kennedy smiled an odd smile and nodded. “Besides, you figured out a way for us to make money more efficiently out there, so I’ll make sure you’re my specialist on every single one of my trips into the Zoo.”

“What makes you think I’d want to go back in there with you?” he asked and raised an eyebrow. She detected the playfulness in his tone, though, and smirked.

“Please. As if you could ever find a squad leader better than me. Although I will make sure to limit any and all independent contractors we take out there on future missions. I don’t want any Lynch bullshit coming back to haunt us. So, do you feel up to a celebration?”

Sal raised his eyebrows. “What kind of celebration?”

“Us survivors are heading to the bar to sink some of our earnings into the local economy.”

“You guys have a bar out here?” It seemed like a stupid question, but what the hell did he know about quasi-military bases in the middle of the Sahara Desert?

“Of course,” the sergeant said. “How do you think we keep so many people in line around here? There has to be some entertainment, and since a water park is out of the picture, they settled for a watering hole. Now, get your clothes on and meet me outside in five minutes.”

Sal nodded, and Kennedy exited the room. He pushed out of bed with a groan. Bandages covered his legs, and a couple of muscle relaxants were placed on his thighs and shoulders. The doctors had told him they would help with the muscle tears that had developed. They seemed to have an analgesic effect, too, since he couldn’t feel much in those areas.

He pulled the hospital gown over his head and tossed it aside. Sal assumed that he didn’t need a doctor to sign him out, and if he did, it made no difference. They would probably tie him down for the night, but when there was a celebration to enjoy, he didn’t intend to allow protocol or security to stop him. He yanked his pants on—the ones he’d brought from home had been delivered clean and folded—and a light shirt. He thrust his feet into his shoes and was ready to leave.

Kennedy waited for him outside the hospital and assessed him with a sharp glance.

“You look much better when you don’t bumble around in those silly specialist suits,” she said, impressed.

Sal didn’t feel good as he’d had to limp and stumble his way to the exit. “I only hope you brought a ride to get us to this bar of yours. I don’t think I’m up to a walk.”

She grinned and motioned for him to follow her to a Jeep parked nearby.

“Why do I think you didn’t drive that here yourself?” Sal asked and heaved himself into the passenger seat.

The sergeant shrugged. “Well, it’s not like they’re running short of them,” she said and gestured at the wide selection of Jeeps. “They won’t mind me appropriating it.”

Sal didn’t reply. He didn’t know enough to judge whether what she did was bad or not, but after the couple of days he’d had, the convenience of a drive outweighed the stirring of his conscience.

When they arrived, the place looked much like every other building they’d passed. All had been erected quickly and were meant to endure. The only real drawback was that they looked like they’d been made in a factory, with identical walls and roof shingles and all the same boring beige color.

The only real indication that there was a bar inside was the tiny sign painted in bright red. Mark’s Pub didn’t inspire enthusiasm from the outside.

“So, is this place a Brit pub that only shows soccer?” Sal asked. There weren’t many American bars that called themselves pubs.

“The guy who founded it wasn’t American,” Kennedy explained as she killed the engine and jumped out. “Do you need help?”

Sal raised his hand. He didn’t want her help yet but also wanted her close by in case he actually did need her. He gripped the side of the vehicle, lifted himself from the seat, and grunted softly as his feet landed on the road. He swayed as Kennedy watched with a raised eyebrow.

“You all right there, Gumby?” she asked with a grin.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” he growled and focused on the necessity to stop his sore legs from what seemed like inevitable collapse.

“I intend to,” Kennedy said, “but it’ll have to wait. It looks like the rest of the team’s already inside.”

Sal followed her in slowly. While the outside conformed to the same bland, uniform shape and color as the rest of the damned base, the inside had a certain rustic charm to it. The general impression was one of a bikers’ bar in eighties B-action flicks. Soft rock played in the background, and a gruff, grizzled man stood behind the bar. The decorations could have tried to go neo-noir but ended up simply noir with all the neon on display. One even featured a cowgirl, and blinking lights made it seem like she did a goosestep in a summer dress.

It wasn’t a bad place. Then again, Sal didn’t frequent that many bars, so his reference point was limited.

The rest of the team was already there. Most looked like they had recovered admirably during their full day of rest. Sal limped to the bar where Cortez and Addams greeted him with hearty and slightly painful back-slaps.

“There he is,” Cortez said with a grin. “The rookie specialist with cojones of pure steel. Seriously, how do you get through airports? Your first round is on us, my friend.”

Sal winced as he sat but forced himself to smile. “That’s not really necessary, you know.”

“It really isn’t,” Davis cut in and his voice boomed throughout the bar which, aside from the team, was mostly empty. Only one table was occupied with a handful people in lab coats who talked quietly over their beers.

“How so?” Addams asked.

“Thanks to you guys,” Davis said, “we managed to bring in one of the biggest hauls we’ve ever had. Just in bounties, we got over forty-five grand each. We wouldn’t have made it back without you guys helping us out, so I think it’s only fair that I get the first round.”

A collective cheer rose from the team, and Sal smiled. He wasn’t sure what he would drink. Everyone ordered beers, and something fancy and probably expensive didn’t seem to be included in the offer of the first round.

Beer it was, then.

The bartender filled up seven pint glasses and distributed them among the group. He looked large and burly, but the man had a dexterity that made Sal wonder if he wasn’t a former special forces man himself. He hadn’t spoken yet, so he wasn’t sure if the man was actually British. He had to be, right? There was no pretentiousness among the teams around there, so the only reason he’d call his bar a pub was if that was the name he was familiar with.

Sal realized that he was probably overthinking and took the pint that was offered.

He’d never been a fan of beer, wasn’t a big drinker, and never had the opportunity to do so socially. He sipped cautiously, made a face at the bitter taste, and moved to the tables where the teams had assembled. They talked loudly and recounted the various adventures that each squad had but also called a few moments of silence to honor their fallen members. It was a small group and fairly relaxed. Sal felt like an outsider but thought he should stick around, if for no other reason than to honor the fallen.

Not Lynch, though, because fuck that guy.

He leaned back, conscious that he had little add to the conversation. Cortez, Addams, and Kennedy certainly knew how to tell the stories of their adventures a lot better than he did. So long as they didn’t know about his stupid little stunt with the bounty hunters, he was happy to let them take most if not all the credit.

He was almost halfway through his pint when Monroe sat beside him. She looked good with her dirty-blond hair tied up in a loose bun. Sal hadn’t noticed before, but she almost epitomized the small, petite yet buxom blonde. It had been hidden by the heavy and rather silly-looking specialist environment suit, but now that she wore a button-up shirt and a pair of jeans, Sal could fully appreciate her figure.

“Do you mind if I join you?” she asked and pushed her glasses up her nose.

She hadn’t waited for a response, but Sal gave one anyway. “Be my guest,” he said with a small smile and raised his pint glass. She grinned and clinked it with hers.

“Congrats on the big haul,” he said to keep the awkward silence at bay for a moment. “We had something similar but—”

“Lynch ran off with most of it,” she said with a sad nod. “I heard your friends tell the story. They also talked about the bounty hunter incident.”

Sal closed his eyes. “God damn it.”

“I mean, the part where you snuck up behind the looters who had everyone pinned down and distracted them enough for your squad to finish them off. That was pretty brave as I see it.”

“You don’t think it was merely a dumb thing to do?” Sal asked. “Because it seems like it was a ridiculously dumb thing to do.”

Monroe chuckled. “Yeah, well, risking your squad’s specialist might seem stupid in hindsight, but considering that you would all die if you didn’t do something, it was a calculated risk.”

“It was a calculated risk, Monroe,” he said and sipped his beer. “But I clearly suck balls at math.”

“You can call me Courtney while we’re not in the field,” she said. “And, well, I always had a low opinion of independent contractors. You know, people brought in here by third parties almost against their will. It seems like a lose-lose situation, since they don’t actually want to be here, and we’re stuck with a person who isn’t committed to the whole operation, you know? It’s always best when they bring in volunteers, but you proved me wrong about the other guys.”

“Wait, what?” Sal asked. “What do you mean, third parties? I thought the government bought out my contract.”

“The government can’t buy out contracts from private companies,” Courtney said matter-of-factly.

“But agents dragged me out of my home,” Sal growled. “They wore suits and carried badges. It was very official. They kicked my door in for good measure.”

Courtney tilted her head as she considered this. “Well, I guess the government can help with bringing in new contractors considering it is a government project.”

“So the whole reason I was rushed over here was that one of the specialists was wounded in the last trip he took into the Zoo, and they couldn’t find a replacement in time?” He shook his head. “I won’t lie, I feel fucked over right now.”

She nodded. “Well, there is a silver lining to all this. Kennedy says you’re one of the best specialists she’s ever worked with. I’d say, from what little I saw of you in action, that I agree. And considering the list of specialists we’ve both worked with in the past, that’s quite an honor.”

Sal couldn’t help a smirk. “Well. Thanks, Mo—Courtney. I really appreciate it. Although I can’t imagine being in a place like that and not helping everyone get out alive. I seem to recall you saved my bacon once, so that makes you the best specialist I’ve ever worked with. Since you’re my first, though, it’s not as high an honor.”

“I’m your first?” Courtney said and raised an eyebrow.

“My first…specialist,” he added lamely.

“Right.” She laughed and winked, but Sal’s eyes were drawn to the other side of the room. Kennedy and Addams talked privately at a nearby table. He remembered the closeness they’d shared and the idiotic twinge of jealousy he’d felt when he first saw it. Stupidly, he felt it now too.

Courtney followed his eyes and looked away. She made a face. “Well, Jacobs—”

“If I can call you Courtney,” he interrupted, “you can call me Sal. My friends do. It’s much easier than saying ‘Salinger.’”

“Right,” she said with a chuckle. “Well, Sal, I have to say that I look forward to working with you in the future.”

Sal smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “Likewise,” he said, but he was distracted by the fact that he had initiated physical contact himself. It seemed so out of character for him. His gaze followed Kennedy and Addams as they made a subtle exit from the pub, but he shook his head, pushed those annoying thoughts aside, and he decided to join the conversation.

He was only a beer in, but he already felt more outgoing. Pub talk and the shoulder touch were two things he didn’t do. Maybe he felt bolder because of the hell they’d all gone through together.

Or maybe he was simply a lightweight when it came to alcohol.


Chapter Twenty-Nine

Sal dragged himself into bed. He’d slept most of the day so wasn’t surprised that he wasn’t tired, but he couldn’t help feeling that he should probably get as much sleep as he could during the off times. There was no telling how much he’d get when the times were on again.

He’d tossed and turned in his new little bed in his new little apartment—not exactly what he’d call restful. The fact that any wrong movement sent shafts of pain through his body didn’t help either, so he’d consigned himself to the shittiest night of sleep ever.

Which was why frustration surged when someone knocked at the door as he finally dozed off.

Sal groaned and stood. He swayed and took a moment to find his balance before he limped to the door. Another knock sounded, lighter than the first.

“Yeah, yeah, wake me up in the dead of night, and I’m the asshole because you had to wait,” he grumbled. He fumbled his first attempt to open the door when he groped for a handle instead of the knob. Annoyed, he muttered a curse and twisted to pull it wide.

“Evening, sailor.” For a moment, he wasn’t sure whose voice it was. It sounded familiar but throatier than he remembered.

“Kennedy?” he asked but she put a finger on his lips to shut him up as she slipped inside, close enough to press her body against his as she closed and locked the door behind her.

“No need for formalities tonight, Sal,” she whispered. She trailed her finger lightly down his cheek and over his neck. Tingles of sensation shivered through his body as she moved closer and pressed her lips where her fingers had been.

Sal sucked in a breath when she pulled away. It was odd to hear her call him Sal. It had been ‘Jacobs’ or ‘Doctor’ or some combination of the two since they’d met, and he hadn’t expected that to change.

She slipped around him, took him by the hand, and guided him to the bedroom.

“What are you doing here?” he finally managed to ask.

“I’m here for a little fun,” Kennedy murmured, pulled him in, and pressed her lips to his neck. She slid her hands down his back to grip his ass firmly.

“Are you drunk?” he asked, not sure why he was reluctant. It had to be a dream. Even drunk, she hadn’t seemed like the kind of person to jump someone she barely knew. But what the hell did he know about her anyway?

“Please,” she said and chuckled as she walked him backward until the single bed pressed against his hamstrings. “It takes more than a couple of beers to get me drunk. I’m…pleasantly buzzed, is all.” She pushed him back into the bed. He landed with a soft grunt, but she didn’t follow immediately.

Kennedy pulled her shirt over her head, shimmied out of it—more for his benefit than her own—and unclasped her bra. Her shoes were kicked off next, but when she pulled her pants down, she turned to give him a good view of her backside as she bent and guided them and her panties all the way down to her ankles. By the time she straightened and kicked them aside, Sal felt he could ignore a couple of aches and pains.

“I mean,” he said in one last weak attempt, “I thought you and—”

“Shh,” she said and placed her finger on his lips once again. “There’s only one word I want to hear on your lips tonight, Sal, and that’s Madigan.”

“M…Madigan?” Sal asked and raised an eyebrow. Oh, right, that was her first name. How could he forget? Well, the naked woman beside his bed might explain it. The light was off, and even though it was dark, his eyes had adjusted and the soft moonlight that filtered in made her body almost breathtaking. She was tall, lean, and athletic, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have curves. Her breasts were more than a handful each, and from what Sal could see, she possessed a firm, round ass too.

The finger on his lips trailed down over his bare chest to rest on the growing bulge under the pants he still wore. She curled her fingers around it and stroked slowly.

“Oh…fuck,” Sal breathed.

Kennedy smiled and licked her lips as she slipped her fingers into his pants. “You know, make that two words,” she whispered in his ear as she pulled his cock out. “Madigan and…fuck.”

Sal leaned back and watched her kiss lightly down his chest. She paused to twirl her tongue over his right nipple, kissed down his stomach, and used her hand to guide his cock into her mouth. He held his breath as she ran her tongue lightly over the head before she opened her lips around it and sucked and moaned softly.

Sal’s whole body tightened at the sensation. His toes curled, and he gritted his teeth as a low growl rumbled from deep inside his chest. She bobbed her head and took more and more of his shaft into her mouth with each downward motion as her fingers cupped and caressed his balls.

Finally, he gripped the back of her head and pulled her away. She looked him defiantly in the eye.

Kennedy knew what he wanted, and he could tell that she wanted it too. She licked her lips again and climbed quickly on top of him to straddle his waist as she guided him into her and sank down slowly. Her eyes rolled toward the back of her head and her lips parted as a low groan of pleasure escaped her when she ground against him.

Sal put one hand on her waist to balance her as she rode him with increasing speed. He used the other to explore her body, stroke her hips, and cup her breasts. She rested her hands on either side of his head and pushed harder. He felt some small discomfort, but it was easily ignored as he held her close to him and his hips rose to meet hers.

She gasped, and her head dropped to kiss and bite at his shoulder as her pussy tightened around him.

“Oh, fuck…Sal,” she whispered and gripped him closer to her as she pushed harder for his sake now rather than hers. His hips bucked and his cock twitched inside her as he came quickly. His hands gripped her and his body tightened, pressing him into her as he kissed her lips.

“Fuck, Madigan,” he muttered hoarsely and bit her bottom lip before he fell back on his bed and gasped. She lay breathlessly on top of him.

They remained silent because nothing needed to be said. They wound down from their respective highs, and she slipped off and climbed out of bed.

She pressed a light kiss quickly to his lips. “And that’s my way of saying thank you,” she whispered and stroked his cheek.

“Any chance I get to say, ‘You’re welcome?’” he wondered aloud, and she chuckled.

“Maybe sometime,” she replied and pulled her clothes on hastily. Before he could ask her to stay the night, she had gone. He lay quietly, his brain still numb with disbelief, and finally, drowsiness took over and he drifted to sleep.


Chapter Thirty

Sal smirked and leaned back in his seat. He’d met up with Madigan a couple of times after that night and even headed out for another trip into the Zoo with her. She’d called him Jacobs and he’d called her Kennedy, and it was business as usual. She acted like she hadn‘t come to his room that night—almost three months ago now—and he decided he should probably do the same. He didn’t know what the protocol was for stuff like that. It wasn’t like he’d had to deal with one-night stands that often, but keeping his mouth shut seemed like the best option.

It had been almost surreal, and the next morning, Sal had thought it had all been a dream courtesy of the painkillers the doctors had given him and the admittedly small amount of alcohol he’d consumed. He’d always heard it was dangerous, and maybe the combination was responsible for an intense but pleasurable hallucination. He’d gotten up the next morning, chuckled about it, and promised himself he’d never mention it to her lest he die of shame.

But, as he’d started to unpack his meager belongings and arrange the place to suit his tastes, he’d found a pair of panties. They weren’t his and hadn’t been in his room the night before. Thin, lacy, and pure black, they had the initials M.K. embroidered on the back.

He now had irrefutable evidence that she’d really been there that night.

Sal glanced back at his work. He’d finished his dissertation, made all the adjustments, and caught all the typos, and it was ready for submission to the board.

Despite the inner sense of achievement, he didn’t want to submit it yet. It wasn’t that he felt anxious about it. He knew it would blow minds and rock foundations. This was the first dissertation written on the biological findings of the alien life forms in the Kudzu, and he had no doubt that it would be enough to earn him the elusive doctorate everyone assumed he already had. It was more the knowledge that it would be studied and he would most likely have to defend his findings in front of the board. That was an unpleasant thought, one he was sure he would have to learn restraint for. Those people would question something he had experienced first-hand in three trips into the Zoo, after all.

But the biggest hurdle was that he didn’t actually want to leave. The man-child who complained about the hard life he was forced into was long gone. He’d turned over a new leaf that he had been determined to turn, and he was ready for more. Maybe in a couple years, when he’d made enough money and no longer wanted to risk his life to gather knowledge, he could go home. It wasn’t like there would be other doctoral students out there working on the same thing.

Sal turned to his other project. It was a letter of resignation which requested the termination of his contract and for him to remain involved in the missions that were launched into the Zoo from the Staging Area. It had been Courtney’s idea. She’d told him that so long as he was tied down by that damned contract, he had to share any and all findings with the government and the corporations that had this whole operation by the low and nasties. Even with the extra costs, the people who worked as freelancers without any contractual ties made a hell of a lot more money than their counterparts. He decided to test that hypothesis.

Sal had a lot to gain and very little to lose if he could drop that kind of dead weight. He had a lot of plans that he didn’t want to share with greedy and uninvolved higher-ups. He was done with them all.

The letter was ready, and he pressed send and dropped the file into the Staging Area’s database.

Less than a minute later, a response waited in his inbox. His letter of resignation was accepted, and they were all so very sad to hear about his decision and hoped he would reconsider in the future, blah blah blah. Oh, and attached was a bill for his living arrangements, rent, and health insurance included in a single package.

Sal assumed they had to do this since anyone living around there could drop dead at any given day or hour. It was better to have all the bills already paid so the government didn’t lose any of its paydays.

He was fine with that and saved the bill to be paid later.

That accomplished, he leaned back and spun his chair to look at the plant on his bedside table. It had grown considerably in the past couple of months and three flowers had already bloomed, with a fourth close to opening. Sal expected it to show bright blue color any day now. He kept meticulous records of the plant, even though he thought it was safer to keep it in the containment box. It allowed light and air but didn’t release any of the pesky pheromones. He really didn’t need the Zoo animals hunting it down and going crazy in the middle of the Staging Area. That was bad for business.

“What will we do, Madigan? Will to take over the world or save it?” he asked the plant as he stretched his arms. “That’s the problem with taking a young genius to his playground of choice. You never know which direction he’ll go in when he achieves the impossible.”

The plant said nothing in return. He’d started the habit of talking to it while he worked on his dissertation, and not once had it shown any sign of higher intelligence. Oh, well, a guy could dream.

He turned back to his computer and typed a new message, this one addressed to Sergeant Madigan Kennedy.

Dear Sergeant Kennedy,

I hope this letter finds you well. I’ve canceled my contract but have decided to continue my work here. I’ll start my own company and will call it Heavy Metal. If you are interested, confirm you will meet me at the Mechanized Merchants 800 tomorrow. Wear your mech pilot suit.

Regards, Salinger Jacobs.

He pressed Send, leaned back once again, and sighed. It was a shot in the dark. If she said no, he was both willing and able to fulfill his dream of working for himself there. He had learned enough over the few months to be able to take care of himself. Even so, Kennedy had been there when he first started, and he really wanted her to help him see his dreams through. He couldn’t imagine that all she wanted was to be able to retire with a tidy little fortune.

Then again, what did he really know about her dreams?

His computer pinged, and he saw she had already replied. Sal’s heart hammered as he clicked it open. It was only one word, but it was enough to put a smile on his face.

Confirmed.


Chapter Thirty-One

Sal had adjusted to the early mornings. It came naturally when you alternated between living on a military base or in the field with military people. They didn’t force him to wake up early unless he was in the Zoo. But that was a hostile environment where adrenaline-filled action was one dumb mistake away. They’d kept the stupidity to a minimum over the past few trips, and Sal felt better about his abilities in there. He’d even bought a handgun of his own for the trips. It was smaller than the massive handguns they gave the gunners, but from his recent experience, it had sufficient stopping power against the small to mid-sized animals the Zoo threw at him. He hadn’t needed it as much in his last two trips as he would have in his first, but he felt safer with it around and ready for action.

Once or twice, he’d even taken it to the Staging Area’s shooting range for target practice. He hadn’t scored well with targets farther than fifty meters, but the sergeant in charge told him that it was to be expected from anything without the long barrel of a rifle. Sal decided to take him at his word and focused on his reaction time at short ranges instead.

This morning, though, he felt better about it all. He felt excited and a little terrified, but the whole situation was uncharted territory. That made him feel like he headed into the Zoo for the first time, but without the pants-shitting terror that had involved.

The renewed confidence faltered as he left his apartment and his gaze went instinctively to the Zoo. It inched relentlessly toward the wall they were building, but it approached the Staging Area as well. Not only that, it grew faster than anyone had anticipated, which made everyone who currently resided in the base worried that they’d be overtaken by the jungle. They’d altered the trajectory of the wall to include a section that would shield the base from the Zoo when it reached the area.

Sal still felt iffy about it. As much as his confidence for the trips had grown, he didn’t want to live inside for too long a period. He wasn’t sure his nerves could take the constant bombardment. Besides, he hadn’t forgotten that the goop was capable of producing monsters that could crush the little prefab buildings with a single step.

He didn’t think he would sleep comfortably if something that big loomed over him.

Of course, loss of sleep wouldn’t be at the top of his to-worry-about list if the Zoo overtook the Staging Area. The more likely option was that they would have to set up somewhere else, a location hopefully already protected by the wall. It would be a massive pain, but so would having to fight monsters on the way out for dinner.

Sal found that his spirits plummeted every time he looked at the jungle that inched closer and closer to them, so he decided to simply not look. It would still be there, but at least it wouldn’t worry him so much. Out of sight, out of mind was still a valid technique for evasion.

The sun had begun its climb to transform the cool early morning air to the uncomfortably warm mid-morning air. It would be scorching by noon, but he hoped to be indoors by then. He was reluctant to call for a Jeep since he would now be charged for that. There were downsides to working freelance, but he’d made his choice. He could afford a few extra walks; he was used to it, and at least the paths were clearly marked.

The business that sold tools and weapons to freelancers was close to the center of the Staging Area, which meant that it was equally close no matter where you were.

When Sal reached his destination, it already buzzed with activity. A fair number of licensed freelancers worked in the area and didn’t have government-issued equipment. Those who did seemed to feel they could always be improved. Besides, they could keep everything bought there once they left the service. He had to wonder if a handful didn’t buy simply to take it back to the States, tax-free, and resell it.

It was good business.

Sal looked around. Kennedy had sent him a “Confirmed” message, and he had asked her to send that if she was interested in joining his company. He wasn’t sure if the ambiguity of her sending him only the one word in response was intentional, though. Had she simply told him what he wanted to hear so he wouldn’t bother her? Or maybe she wasn’t sold on the idea and had time to think it over and now had second thoughts?

He didn’t like his overactive mind. It included an overactive imagination which, as he looked around the business and didn’t see Kennedy, immediately clamored with all kinds of negative questions. Worst-case scenarios played in his head. Maybe she’d received a better offer and didn’t want an awkward conversation with him.

He would have done the same thing, in all honesty, or at least considered it. Awkward conversations should be avoided at all costs.

Which was why his mind thought it was possible, he decided. Human nature never thought someone was capable of something if you weren’t capable of the same thing.

“Hey.”

“Gah!” Sal jumped and turned when someone touched his shoulder from behind. Kennedy laughed at his reaction.

“A bit jumpy there, eh, Jacobs?” she asked as she tried to stifle fits of laughter.

“Very funny,” he growled but soon laughed with her. He’d read that it was an evolutionary response, a way to vocally tell the tribe or group that everything was okay.

It still felt awkward and weird.

“Are you ready for this?” she asked once they’d both regained seriousness.

“Ready for what?” Sal asked.

“Ready for wh—” She narrowed her eyes at him. “For the whole heading out on our own thing? Project Heavy Metal? Getting our act together and going on tour?”

“Oh, right!” Sal shook his head. “Ready for that. Yes, I’m definitely…ninety percent ready for that.”

Kennedy chuckled. “You know that you don’t exactly fill me with confidence.”

Sal nodded. “Yeah. I only made the decision myself yesterday. I finally finished my dissertation, and I didn’t want to share it with the corporations that owned my contract so they could edit the crap out of it before it reached the doctoral board. Who knows what kind of typos they’d make? You know the men in the ivory towers hate them some typos.”

She nodded. “I don’t know, but I’ll take your word for it. I’m happy that you finished your dissertation, though. Does that mean that we can officially call you Doctor without you getting all pissy about it?”

“I don’t get pissy,” he retorted. “But I don’t feel I’ve earned the title yet. It’s like calling someone by a higher rank than they’ve actually reached. I mean, how would you feel if I called you…Colonel Kennedy?”

She chuckled. “I’d be pretty flattered, though the problem would be if the actual colonels heard you call me that.”

“That’s how actual doctors feel about me getting called a doctor.”

Kennedy shrugged. “I don’t know. Dr. Monroe doesn’t seem to mind, and she’s one of those who’s been here the longest.”

“Yeah,” he agreed with a nod. “She’s one of the coolest doctors I’ve ever met.”

The sergeant smiled and winked at him.

“What?” he asked and narrowed his eyes as they walked toward the building.

“Nothing,” she replied with a chuckle. “Monroe is pretty…cool.”

“What was that?” Sal asked.

“What was what?” Kennedy asked as they stepped through the doors.

Sal rolled his eyes. “I’m not playing games. I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, and I won’t be distracted by your…wordplay.”

“We’ll see about that,” she replied, and he shook his head.

“So, what made you think about going solo?” Kennedy asked as they looked at the different equipment they’d need to set up shop for themselves.

“Well…” Sal scratched idly at his chin. “I saved up a fair amount of money thanks to the little—” He coughed, and she grinned. “Uh…alterations I made to the sat phones. I’m sure you did too, but I realized that I don’t like being afraid my edge will be stolen by the corporations when they find out about it. If they get the improvements, I want to be fairly compensated for them. And by fairly, I mean at a price that I decide is right, not whatever the military wants to give me minus a tax that would make Prince John get a raging boner.”

“Prince John?” Kennedy asked and raised an eyebrow.

“You know—Prince John from the Robin Hood stories?” When she shrugged, his eyes widened. “You’ve never heard of the Robin Hood stories? Not even the Disney Cartoon classic?”

Kennedy smirked. “Well, have you ever heard of Lt. General Paul Van Riper?”

“I…” Sal rolled his eyes. “Fine, that’s a fair point, but not my original point. Anyways, I feel like I’ve done some impressive stuff in my own right and I’d like to have more to show for it than the odd pat on the back.”

Kennedy nodded. “I get that. So, second question, the Brain, how about you tell me why you chose me out of the rest of the troops to join your company?”

“Wait,” Sal said and raised a finger. “If I’m the Brain, does that make you Pinky?”

She opened her mouth, and when nothing came out, closed it again and made a sour face. “Dammit.”

“Yeah,” he said with a grin.

“But you know there are a lot of theories on the datanet that say Pinky is—”

Sal raised his hand again. “Don’t. Don’t do that, it’s a little pathetic. You win some, you lose some. Own up to the fact that you lost that one and we can move on.”

Kennedy shook her head. “Yeah, okay, whatever. Anyway, you didn’t answer the question. Why me? I mean, Addams would be more versatile in the field with his medical knowledge. Cortez is a better shot than I am. Why me?”

Sal shrugged. “It’s pretty insulting that you have to ask. We work well together, and the fact that you haven’t sold my secret to the military tells me you’ve got my back, even when it means you get less on the hauls you make without me.”

“It’s not like I could even replicate it without you there,” she grumbled and looked faintly flushed.

“You could have told your superiors that I found a more efficient way to find stuff out there in the Zoo,” Sal interjected. “My point stands. I trust you and I think you trust me too, or you wouldn’t be here. We’ll make some money, tax-free, and after we’ve tested our ideas in the field, we can sell them at the corporate level, make a mint, and walk away from this damn well off.

“My contract was tied up neatly with the government, so I had to do a bit of digging. With some help from Dr. Monroe, I figured out that all I had to do to get free was to ask for cut-away and they’d let me stay on. I’ll have to pay for my own amenities like rent and medical costs and whatever. It would be illegal to do in the States, but so would the shit that they pulled to get me here in the first place. If they want to come at me, my brother’s a specialist in international law, and I’m certain we could walk away from this even richer if they tried.”

Kennedy nodded. “It sounds like you put a lot of thought into this.”

“I needed something for my brain to multi-task with while I worked on my dissertation.” Sal managed to keep a straight face until she punched him lightly on the shoulder.

“Quit being a showoff and tell me what it is we’d need for this to work,” she demanded.

“Well, we’d probably need to bring our own supplies,” he said. “There’d be some charge to use the government’s suits and weapons, along with food and other stuff. I thought that we could probably start there, right?”

“This is the part where I step in, yeah?”

“Yep.” He touched a couple of the smoke grenades they’d produced en masse after their squad had field tested it. “If I were working alone, I’d still have to rely on government-sponsored missions into the Zoo to pay the rent, so it’s great to have you to help me with this. It’s my first time owning my own company and first time doing inventory, so I’m completely lost, of course.”

Kennedy laughed. “Is it weird that your self-deprecating style of charm doesn’t really fill me with confidence about this whole endeavor?”

“I could tell you that I know everything will work out and we’ll be millionaires in a couple of months, but while that is the idea, I’m not sure if I can pull it off. So, in the immortal words of that one wrestling guy, ‘I’m all out of gum.’”

“See,” she said, “that’s a reference I understand.”

Sal nodded. “Of course it is.”

“Moving on. I’ve owned a business before, and if you ever had, you’d know that the first thing you should do is talk to the supplier. They generally want you to know what you’re buying.”

“Yeah, but won’t they overprice stuff?” Sal asked.

“Yeah, if they’re con-men who look for a single score.” Kennedy made a face at him. “But if we talk about an actual business that relies on reputation to stay in business, they’ll want to make sure of two things: A, they’re the only ones to supply you, and B, that they’re not over-supplying you since they don’t want you to go out of business. Most of their money comes from repeat customers, so they want you to repeat your purchases for as long as possible. That means you stay in business for as long as possible.”

Sal nodded. “That’s…actually some good points.”

“Yeah, I interned in the purchasing department of a clothing retail store,” Kennedy said.

“Huh,” Sal grunted. “I did not know that.”

“There’s a whole lot about me you don’t know, sailor,” she said with a grin and a wink. “You can’t open the book of my life and start in the middle.”

Sal nodded, but before he could answer, they reached the man in charge of the store.

“Mr. Jacobs!” He greeted him with a massive grin. “How’s that pistol working out for you?”

“Mr. Boulos,” Sal replied, “it’s really good. I mean, I still can’t shoot for shit, but that’s probably more on me than the gun.” Boulos was a massive, dark-skinned man with a British accent. His parents were Lebanese and had emigrated to the UK when he was five years old. He ended up in the military to pay for his business degree and worked his way from there to sell weapons back to the military in other places like this around the world.

It was actually ingenious, Sal realized after he’d had a moment to think about it.

“Well, you keep on practicing,” he said with a massive smile.

“What, so I have to keep coming back to you to buy bullets?” he asked and raised an eyebrow.

“Well, a man has to eat, right?” Boulos said with a laugh. “Are you here for something bigger, maybe? Something with a bit more kick?”

Kennedy cut in. “Actually, the two of us have gone into business for ourselves, so we’d like to get new equipment. We don’t want to have to rent it from the military.”

“Oh, wow,” Boulos said with a nod. “That’s a substantial investment.” He turned to the computer. “So what will you two need?”

“Standard equipment,” she said. “Armor suits, weapons, fully functioning HUD equipment, and the extra scientist package for this one.” She inclined her head toward Sal. “Plus shelter tents, food rations, the whole supply megillah.”

“Huh.” Boulos grunted and clicked a few buttons. “You know, to get all this stuff off the shelf, just out of the factory, will be pretty expensive. For the both of you, it’ll come out to over fifty grand.”

“Ouch,” Kennedy said with a horrified look at Sal.

“That would sap everything I’ve saved,” he muttered. “We’ll probably have to get the secondhand stuff and work our way up to the full investment.”

Boulos nodded. “Well, rations and shelter tents are standard, so there’s no point in buying them second-hand. They’re not the biggest dents in the budget anyways—less than five grand to set you both up for two dozen trips.”

Kennedy nodded. “You can put us down for that then. How about the weapons?”

“They recently launched new assault rifles, so they’re selling the old ones cheap. They’re still about ten grand for MARs and sidearms if I set you up with the new stuff. I can bump that down to five if you can take second-hand, plus the ammo’s cheaper for those too.”

“That sounds great, too, Boulos,” she confirmed. “What you’re saying is that the really expensive stuff is the suits.”

“Yeah,” the large man said. “Even second-hand, they will set you back about fifteen thousand each. Besides, you don’t want the older suits. Even armor from about six months ago won’t offer much protection. Folks still weren’t sure about the real dangers that explorers would face back then, and the critters in there get better and better at it. You don’t want to skimp on armor, let me tell ya.”

Sal nodded, made a face, and looked at Kennedy.

“Look, Boulos, you have to meet us halfway here,” she said. “I know you have to keep a profit margin, but we can’t run off into the jungle in our civilian clothes. We need something from you first. Is there no way you can give us a payment plan on this stuff?”

“Sorry.” Boulos looked apologetic. “You have to have a government contract to get payment plans, and from what I see here, the two of you just broke off. But that does give me an idea.” He scanned through a couple of different armor products and turned the screen for them to see.

“It’s a Mark Seventeen,” he said proudly. “Top of the line, best of the best of everything, from the HUD combat systems to the stabilizers. They had a video online of an APC trying to knock one of these babies over. No dice.”

“How is it this cheap?” Kennedy asked. “Five grand for a suit like this? What’s the catch?”

“I don’t have it in stock, exactly,” Boulos explained. “A dude working out of the Fifth Regiment put in for one of these and was doing the payment system. I had to put in a systems checker and a GPS tracker to make sure he kept up the payments. If he tried to walk away without paying, I could shut it down and send someone to bring him back.”

“Oh, come on, Boulos,” Kennedy protested. “Please tell me you didn’t turn his suit off while he was in the middle of the Zoo?”

“What do you think I am, a monster?” he asked, looking genuinely offended. “Nah, the medical systems tell me that he had a catastrophic system failure due to internal trauma. He probably fell from a good height, and while the suit is made to take hits like that, the human body isn’t. I still have a lock on the system, and outside of some minor sensor damage, it’s in working condition.”

“So, you want us to pay you to go and get a suit back?” Sal asked.

“Well, the dude still owed me five grand on his payment when he bit it, so if you get it back, you’ll have top-of-the-line armor,” Boulos explained. “I’ll even repair it to factory conditions when you get back free of charge.”

“It still sounds like we have to pay you to retrieve it from the Zoo for you.”

“Well…” Boulos shrugged. “I know where it is. Think of it like you’re paying me for the coordinates, since without them, you’d comb through the Zoo forever.”

“That’s a good point,” Sal admitted grudgingly.

“It’s still not worth five grand, Boulos, and you know it,” Kennedy said. “We still do the dirty work, and if the guy only owed five, that’s already way into your profit margin. So, for going in and picking up for you, we’ll pay twenty-five hundred.”

“I’m still in the hole for that much,” Boulos complained.

“You’re in the hole whichever way you cut it, the way I see it,” she pointed out. “You might as well make some of it back. You know you won’t find anyone as desperate to go in and get that suit as us, and we won’t pay full price for it.”

Boulos shrugged. “Look, I can bring it down to thirty-five hundred, but that’s it.”

Kennedy nodded. “Keep the free repairs in that and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

He shook his head but finally chuckled. “You’re right. I’ll never find anyone desperate enough to go get it. You’ve got a deal, but you pay up front.”

She shook her head firmly. “Come on, Boulos, you know me better than that. Besides, if I try to yank it, you can shut the suit down, right? We’ll pay once the repairs are done. Not a second before.”

He extended his hand, and she shook it heartily.

“You drive a hard bargain, Kennedy, but you’ve not welched on me yet, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this one time,” the man said with a grin, and she laughed. “How will you two go in to get the suit anyway?”

“We’ll need a geek suit for Jacobs,” Kennedy said. “One of these three grand ones should do just fine. I’ll rent a suit from the base for this one mission.”

“Deal,” Boulos said with a grin. “I really hope you two make it.”

“You and me both,” she responded cheerfully. “Can you get everything including the guns and supplies to his residence today?”

“It’ll be delivered this afternoon.”


Chapter Thirty-Two

“So,” Sal muttered once they left the emporium, “it looks like we’re not off to the smoothest start.”

Kennedy shrugged. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Going out on your own means looking out for yourself, and that’s not always the easiest adjustment to make. We’ve made inroads, and we have something to start with.”

He nodded. “Well, that is a silver lining, but we still need to get you that suit.”

“Yep. Look, Jacobs, I’m looking forward to working with you, but I think we need some ground rules, okay?”

Sal narrowed his eyes. She wouldn’t bring that up now, would she? He thought they were past the whole drunken sex thing.

“What kind of ground rules?”

“I want a stake in this company,” she explained. “Shares or whatever they’re called. A piece of the profits as well as a piece of the investment when it comes time to expand, you know?”

Oh. Those kinds of ground rules. He shook off the odd feeling of disappointment and nodded.

“Since you’re the brains and will do a lot of the work, it’s fair that you get a bigger cut,” she continued. “But I’m your gunner, so I want ten percent of all company profits, plus to keep whatever I bring in. The looting law still applies, you get me?”

Sal nodded. “That seems fair.”

“And I’m only actually on board with this whole thing once I get the suit,” she added with a tone of finality. “I won’t put my neck permanently on the line for you in the military garbage.”

“That’s also fair.” He offered her his hand. “I don’t have a contract or anything written up yet, but if you’ll take a gentleman’s agreement for now, I think I can address the paperwork once we actually get the suit back, okay?”

Kennedy squeezed his hand firmly until Sal could feel his knuckles grind. He only winced slightly, though, which he thought was something to be proud of.

“I’ll hold you to that, Jacobs.” She pointed a warning finger at him.

“You can quote me verbatim if you like.” He rubbed his aching hand surreptitiously. “So, what’s our next step? Even with a military-issued suit, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to head into the zoo on our own.”

“It isn’t,” Kennedy growled. “Which means we’ll have to piggy-back on another operation. From the coordinates Boulos gave me, it’s safe to assume that this guy died doing a sweep run. They’ve set those up to keep the animals from straying too close to the wall construction. If we find another team heading that way, we’ll convince them to let us tag along and ask them to take a quick detour to where the suit is, pick it up, head on back, and your mom’s brother is Robert.”

Sal raised an eyebrow.

“You know,” she explained. “Bob’s your uncle?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” he said with a grin. “Seems like such a dorky thing for someone as badass as you to say.”

“What, I can’t be badass and dorky?” Kennedy asked.

“No,” Sal said firmly. “The two are mutually exclusive. The dorkier you are, the less badass you become, and vice-versa. It’s been the high school law since the sixties. Have you not seen any of the terrible sixties high school movies?”

“Nope. I think that’s where your dorkiness cuts into your badassness.”

“Touché.” He rolled his eyes. “So, where will we find a sweep trip? Do we head to the commandant’s office? Ask him if any missions are going out?”

“No.” Kennedy shook her head. “He’s not authorized to make any personnel changes without an okay from the team leaders. It’ll be quicker and easier if we find one of them and get them to include us on their own without any outside intervention.”

“That sounds good,” Sal said. “How do you propose that we find one?”

“Well, let me ask you a question. Where would you be if you were mentally preparing yourself for a trip into a place where animals will do their best to tear you apart?”

Probably in his apartment, gaming and getting his blood up for the mission to come, but he didn’t want to tell her that.

“I’m not the right person to ask that,” he pointed out without getting into details.

“The bar, dumbass.” She smirked. “And if you think I’m walking all the way out there again, you’re out of your damn mind.”

“Wait, what?” Sal asked. “Did you come to meet me from the bar?”

“Hey, Jacobs,” Kennedy said. “You can expect me to put my military career behind me and get into some business deal that might end with the both of us killed. I think I owe you that much. But if you think I’ll do this shit sober, you’re out of your damn mind.” She stepped into a nearby Jeep and started it up.

“Do you really think you should drive drunk in a military base?” he asked.

“Who are you, the highway patrol? Get in.”

He Was Not Prepared

The bar was the same, yet it looked different every time Sal walked into it. Maybe the owner moved the decorations around, or maybe he wasn’t as observant as he used to think he was, but every time he walked in, it felt like he’d arrived for the first time.

The place had heart, although it wasn’t a particularly healthy organ. The arteries were probably clogged, and the owner very likely had diabetes or something similar, but it had a heart in it, and Sal couldn’t deny that he enjoyed being there. He wasn’t even that much of a drinker and he usually left after only one beer, or maybe two, but the antique jukebox was enough to lift his spirits no matter what kind of mood he was in.

He was an alcohol problem away from one of those regulars in an eighties sitcom, he suddenly realized as they entered.

Despite the early hour, three patrons had already gathered to get their drink on. They toasted each other’s health and made bets about how many kills each would get. Whatever kept their spirits up before heading into the Zoo, Sal decided. The thought of killing the animals for a bet still made him slightly nauseous, but his hands weren’t exactly clean of the critters’ blood either, so who was he to judge?

“Kennedy!” one of the men called as they moved toward the bar. “Look who decided to show up for a drink!”

Kennedy grinned. “Xander, looking fresh as always.”

Sal narrowed his eyes. Xander was one of the more notorious team leaders around. The man did everything by the book, and it seemed he always managed to bring in above-average hauls. For whatever reason, none of the other soldiers liked working with him. He’d been one of the squad leaders on Sal’s second trip into the Zoo, and while he wasn’t as engaging or charismatic as Davis, he was still perfectly acceptable.

“Come on over and have a drink with us,” the man said and pulled a couple of extra chairs to their table. “You can bring your friend too.”

“Thanks, Xander.” Kennedy looked at the bartender. “Can we have a couple of frothy ones?”

The bulky man grunted, nodded, and filled two clean glasses.

“So, what brings you in here, Kennedy?” Xander asked. “Don’t tell me you’re a daytime drinker.”

“Well, actually she has something of a drinking pr—” Sal’s joke was cut off when her elbow dug into his ribs.

“I’m actually going freelance,” Kennedy explained as the bartender arrived with their drinks. “Jacobs here and I need to make some extra cash, so we’ll head out on our own for a while. We got a job to retrieve some loot from around the area you guys run the sweeps through.”

“Fall in with some sharks, huh?” Xander asked, and Sal narrowed his eyes. What was this, a nineties movie?

“Something like that,” she said easily and ignored the look on Sal’s face. “We need to head into the Zoo, and I don’t like the idea of only me and a specialist. I hoped that I could snag a spot in your crew. You guys are headed out tomorrow morning, right?”

He nodded. “You’ve got your facts right. To be honest, I feel shitty about heading into the Zoo with only a trio, but after the past couple of weeks, we’ve had to run more sweeps to keep the construction sites clear and our boys are spread too thin. I think I can justify bringing you in as a freelancer. It would be good to have someone with your kind of experience, but I can’t justify a member of the geek squad, you know? The higher-ups won’t go for it. This isn’t a Pita run.”

Kennedy nodded. “I understand. So, what can you do for me?”

Xander looked at Sal, who regarded him calmly. “Well, can he hold his own in a fight, or is he one of those specialists who need us to wipe their asses for them?”

She chuckled. “I’ve been on a few jobs with Jacobs, and he’s got balls of pure steel, even if he shoots like a myopic grandmother.”

The group laughed, and the team leader grinned as he leaned back in his seat and studied Sal with a more critical eye.

“Look, I can’t justify a specialist, but if he’ll take a freelance gunner’s pay, I can squeeze it through,” he said finally and took a long sip of his beer.

“We’ll take it.” Kennedy nodded. “We have our own suits, guns, and supplies, so that should make it easier for them to swallow.”

“All right, it’s a deal,” Xander said with a grin. He gripped Kennedy’s hand first, then Sal’s. “We’ll leave at six and won’t wait for you if you’re late. Meet us on runway five and we’ll set off.”

Sal rubbed his sore hand furtively. He needed to get used to this sort of thing or he wouldn’t be able to work at all. And he had to pay for his own medical bills now. He couldn’t imagine the kind of fees they’d charge around there.

“Let’s drink on it,” Kennedy said and raised her glass. “And the next round is on me.” They cheered in response as they downed what was left of their drinks and the bartender refilled them. Sal called it quits after finishing the drink Kennedy had bought him. He wasn’t a daytime drinker, and he had other ways to prepare himself for the trip into the Zoo. It never got easier, but it did become more routine.


Chapter Thirty-Three

Sal scowled and poked at his suit.

“Would you cut that out?” Kennedy asked although she looked supremely uncomfortable in hers too.

They’d gotten one of the cheaper options of scientific exploration suit, which was probably something they’d used before they’d even put the goop out in the Sahara. It was basically a hazmat suit, complete with a thick rubber outer covering and a plastic facemask with a buggy HUD. It wasn’t one of the newer devices, so while it had a basic scientific software patch, it lacked most of the features Sal had started to get used to when it came to equipment.

Kennedy didn’t look happy either, even though she wore one of the newer versions of the gunner combat suits. It was the Mark Fifteen, but it was still functional, with a proper power arm for her assault rifle and a fully upgraded HUD system.

She was unhappy about the price of it and having to rent it out of her own pocket.

Sal had tried to convince her to let him cover it, but she’d insisted that she had to put some investment into their little operation too. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a fair partnership. He thought it was bullshit. They paid specialists more than double what they paid gunners, which meant he had managed to save a good deal more extra cash than she had—and had spent a lot less of it at the bar.

But Kennedy could get damn stubborn about things, and he had learned over his admittedly limited time with her that it wasn’t worth it to try to win arguments like this. He only hoped that something in this job would pay for all their expenses.

And, hopefully, for something better for future trips than the hazmat suit he now wore.

“Seriously, Jacobs,” she snapped. “I’m hungover and only one coffee into the day. You keep messing with that suit, and I’ll rip it off you in a less-than-sexy way.”

Sal nodded. “Loud and clear.”

At around five-thirty, the squad’s Jeeps arrived. The sun had barely peeked over the horizon, and the whole view of the Sahara, the Zoo, and the wall under construction was really something to look at.

From the look of the rest of the squad, though, he doubted they would even notice it. They were clearly all in the same, one coffee, totally hungover boat as Kennedy was, but they lacked the great looks and the charisma to make it charming rather than annoying.

Maybe that was why nobody liked going into the Zoo with Xander, Sal realized. The man had neglected to shave and looked like he hadn’t slept all night.

“You two are early,” he almost snarled as he stepped out of his Jeep.

“The way I see it, you’re doing us a favor here, Xander.” Kennedy kept her voice low. “It would be terrible manners to arrive late when you’re helping us out.”

“Right,” the man said and yanked his helmet off. “Well, we won’t have much time to wait while you collect your loot. Like I said, we’re run pretty thin keeping all these critters away from the construction crews. If we are separated and you have to head on back, I can’t promise that you’ll get the salaries for running with us, although they’ll probably pay you for whatever it is that you pick up.”

Sal and Kennedy nodded, and he tried to stop messing with his suit. She had been able to restrain herself from attacking him due to their quasi-friendship. He had no such relationship with the other three in the squad, so he didn’t want to test the limits of their control.

“Okay,” Xander instructed, “Carlson and Waters, you guys know the route. We don’t have time to brief Kennedy and Jacobs, so you will have to follow our lead. The objective is simple. We’re not looking for Pita flowers, although if you find any, feel free to collect. Jacobs, you’re paid half a specialist’s salary for this run, but that doesn’t mean that you work half the time. You’ll carry your own weight, and we won’t wait for you to keep up as we move through the jungle, understood?”

He nodded. His physical conditioning had improved during his time there, and since he’d been expected to carry his own weight during the past two trips and worked with a scientist’s suit instead of power armor, he’d easily managed to keep up with the gunners on his squads.

It didn’t mean it wouldn’t be difficult, but it would be easier than his first time in there.

“Okay, guys, let’s load up and get this show on the road,” Xander shouted, and they piled into the one APC that had been provided for this sweep run and started off. Sal could sense that the team leader seriously lacked the charisma and ability to keep his team’s spirits up during a mission that Davis had. Davis also didn’t let his teams drink the day before a mission, which was probably why the man still led teams on Pita runs, as they were called, instead of being tasked to protect the walls. The sweeps didn’t pay as much as the flowers did since there was less chance of bounties on a run that squads covered every couple of days.

Sal was seated between Kennedy and a massive Viking of a man called Carlson. He had long blond hair and a big bushy beard that Sal was a little jealous of. Anything he tried to grow on his face resembled peach fuzz.

“So, you come armed, Jacobs?” Carlson asked, and Sal could see Waters, a powerful if shorter man with dark skin, also listened for an answer.

Sal nodded and drew the pistol from the holster he’d fitted to his suit. It was a Ruger thirty-seven with a fifteen-round magazine. With the shredder rounds Sal had asked for, it had a pretty decent stopping power at under twenty meters.

“Do you know how to use that?” Waters asked in an accent that indicated that he was from deep Georgia.

Sal nodded again. “I’ve had it for a couple of runs into the Zoo already, and I take it to the shooting range whenever I can.”

“That’s not the same thing as knowing how to use it,” Carlson said with a sneer.

“I can vouch for his fighting ability,” Kennedy said quietly. “I’d trust Jacobs with my life in the Zoo, and I’ve had to the couple of times we’ve gone in together.”

Sal was worried that the two would mock him for having her back his skills with a gun. He thought they might even wonder at their relationship if she was willing to go out of her way to make sure they trusted someone who was as unreliable as a specialist was likely to be in a gunfight.

But it seemed like she had earned their trust and respect, so when she said she trusted someone with her life, they didn’t bother to challenge her or Sal on it and quickly quieted. The drone of the APC had a calming effect on the raw nerves of the squad, and the complaints about being hungover decreased over time.

They headed in a different direction than Sal had in his previous three trips into the Zoo. This time, they traveled toward the wall, which made sense since their task was to protect it. He had never actually been close enough to appreciate how huge it really was.

What appeared to be a single structure from a distance was actually three. The one in the middle rose much higher than the others. All of fifty meters high, it was made of a similar material to the prefab they used for the buildings in the Staging Area but was a lot denser and thicker. It looked like it could probably stop a tornado in its tracks. Sal had lived in LA for the past couple of years, so he was accustomed to huge buildings, but he was now used to the squat little buildings in the Staging Area. Seeing something that high and stretching across that much space was truly breathtaking. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how much work went into it. While he wasn’t an engineer, he could still appreciate it. He leaned closer to his window as they approached it.

“Pretty impressive, right?” Waters asked. “They’ll set it up in a tier system. The first wall will let the Zoo through, but barely, and use electricity to prevent the effects from spreading. The goop won’t be able to get through the second wall, and even if it does, the third one goes down instead of up and blocks it underground. They’ve positioned seismic sensors to make sure nothing slips through.”

Sal looked at the man. “How do you know about this? I assume it’s classified.”

“My brother works as a foreman for Wall Three, the one going underground. He’s an engineer, and he actually invented the detectors that they use.”

“That’s impressive.” He looked at the wall, which stretched far beyond what the eye could see to the east. It had to reach all the way to the Indian Ocean, he realized. That was a magnificent feat of engineering. The most impressive part was how fast it was being built. And maybe the most dangerous too. Rushing something like this had been how they created the whole Zoo situation in the first place.

Sal could see the construction work progressing at a frenzied pace as hundreds of workers set up the massive steel frames that the prefab material would be connected to. It all looked very solid and very professional.

“Something’s happening,” Kennedy said. The rest of the squad peered out the windows. A tall barbed wire fence surrounded the construction site, but a number of six-legged panthers prowled the area. Gunshots and yelling could be heard even from a distance.

The most awe-inspiring sight, though, lay about fifteen meters from the fence. It appeared to be one of the massive creatures they’d narrowly avoided on his first trip, but it was already dead, which explained why the panthers tried to attack the construction site. The barbed wire kept them away, though, and the security team made quick work of them.

“Why are the animals trying to stop the construction?” Carlson asked rhetorically.

“It’s hard to explain,” Sal replied, “but it’s like they know that the wall stops the goop’s expansion, so they’re trying to clear the path ahead.”

“That’s not how animals act, though, right?” the man asked and looked at Sal, who shrugged.

“The Zoo is changing all the rules,” he said quietly as his gaze drifted to the massive dead monster. “All we can do is adapt.”

They pulled the Jeep to a halt a few feet from the barbed wire fence. The squad dismounted quickly and looked for more of the creatures. They were too late, though, as the surviving panthers ran back into the jungle, apparently losing their stomach for a fight. He doubted that would be the end of it, though.

“What’s the situation?” Xander asked the men guarding the perimeter. They wore combat suits, but Mark Tens, the oldest in production. Still, they could cut the mustard, as the old adage went, when one had a barbed wire fence between themselves and the animals that tried to kill them.

Sal gripped his pistol but didn’t draw it yet, although he watched the tree line. He didn’t have enough confidence to be this close to the Zoo and not be on edge.

The perimeter guards were men brought in by third parties. As a rule, they weren’t trained soldiers, since the corporations assumed that security would be covered predominantly by the massive military base nearby. They weren’t wrong, but at the same time, they obviously weren’t aware that the Zoo would get as close as it had.

The security team didn’t much like the amount of work they had.

Sal didn’t care, though. They were paid twice as much as he was and complained that the squad should have been there earlier? Irritated, he focused on his work. Sure, he was paid to be a gunner, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t do his thing.

He jogged to the corpse of the massive creature which looked vaguely like a dinosaur. Massive jaws and sharp teeth indicated a carnivorous diet. It was the same type of monster they’d run into before—judging by what he had seen from Monroe’s footage—but it was a lot smaller.

It was still tall enough to reach the roof of a two-story house, though. He recalled that an odd glowing line followed the creature’s spine. Of course, the footage had been taken in the dark while now, blistering sunlight would obscure it. A series of spines up its back followed the line of the vertebrae.

He had a theory he wanted to explore. The animals reacted to the death of these monsters the same way they did to removing the Pita plants, which indicated that they were chock full of the goop as well. It had to be why these creatures could grow so large and not have gravity crush their bones and organs.

Sal climbed over the body and retrieved his scalpel. A quick cut where the skull connected with the spine revealed a heavy sac which contained fluid that glowed visibly, even in the sunlight. It smelled absolutely terrible, though, and Sal tucked it quickly into a vacuum-sealed bag. Further exploration revealed no more of the goop-filled sacs.

He scowled, shook the blood from his suit, and made his way back to the squad, who appeared to be in a debate.

Kennedy looked up from the huddle. “Where were you?”

“Doing research,” he replied and held out his sealed souvenir.

She narrowed her eyes. “What is that?”

“Probably the biggest haul of the Pita juice ever. It was buried in the spine of that big fucker over there,” Sal said as she took it from him. “I need to do some research, but I’m sure that’s what it is. Keep it safe, ya hear?”

“Why give it to me?” she asked, tucking it gently into her pack.

“Well, besides the fact that you have the best armor for the job? I’d say you should probably keep it. Call it a sign-on bonus or something.”

Kennedy smirked. “Or something. We’ll see if this is worth anything before we divvy up the rewards.”


Chapter Thirty-Four

Sal wondered what the hell was wrong with him that pushed him to constantly enter the jungle. A hint of greed was part of it. He wanted to get rich quick as much as the next man, but there had to be easier ways to do it. If he applied himself to it, he could probably make a fortune in a one-time visit to Vegas. He’d read how it was all about numbers and he was good with numbers. He could probably do it.

But who the hell was he kidding? This was so much more fun than dodging the odd casino bouncer after the corporate equivalent of taking candy from a baby.

Sal held his weapon ready and cast wary glances to either side as they marched through the foliage. Unlike his last trips, this was intended to keep animals away, and the squad would place motion sensors all along the wall. For now, they held to the right of the wall with the Zoo itself to their left. Sal couldn’t help but feel that a puny trio of walls wouldn’t be sufficient. It had shown a degree of sentience—or at least protective instincts—that were more than you’d expect from goop.

Expectations of how the Zoo should or could react were stupid. All he needed was to keep an open mind and a ready gun, and he could walk away.

“So,” Sal asked Kennedy, “where is our suit?”

She looked quickly at her sat phone. “We’re about three hundred meters from the coordinates Boulos gave us, but it’s a bit deeper into the Zoo than the rest of the squad is comfortable with. When we get there, we’ll break off and try to meet up with them later. If we can’t, we’ll head back to the Staging Area, but then we won’t get paid.”

Sal nodded. “I think I can live with either of those options. What do you think?”

“I think we’re not in any kind of position to turn our noses up at a payday,” she replied. “We should stick it out with the squad if we can. It’s only a two-day run so we won’t be gone long, and it’ll give us a chance to try out this new suit of armor.”

“Do you honestly want to put something on that has damaged sensors?” Sal asked.

“Well, we can run a systems check on it, at least,” Kennedy said with a shrug.

Sal nodded. He still wasn’t sure how they would carry a full suit of battle armor around, but they couldn’t afford to leave something like that behind.

“Xander,” Kennedy called to their team leader.

“Yep?” the man replied.

“We’re breaking away to find that loot now. We’ll try to coordinate to meet up with you before you camp for the night. If we can’t find you before then, we’ll head back to the Staging Area.”

The man didn’t answer but gave them a thumbs-up as Kennedy gestured for Sal to follow her. They moved deeper into the Zoo, and the massive wall receded from their view behind the foliage that blocked the sight off after less than a dozen paces.

“It should be somewhere around here,” she said after a few minutes. A handful of smaller creatures had shown some curiosity about the massive wall and the people intruding in their territory. It made things annoyingly eerie. Sal remembered the same feeling from his first trip—they would walk into some kind of trap or, perhaps, into the territory of one of those massive creatures.

“Why do they have to replace the motion detectors?” Sal asked as they searched through the underbrush.

“The forest kind of swallows them up,” Kennedy replied. “I’m not sure how. Maybe the animals pick them up and take them off to nests. But something happens every night to create huge gaps in their coverage, so they need to be replaced over and over again.”

Sal nodded and opened his mouth to answer. He was cut off when the root he stepped on gave way. The entire bush that he’d tried to push through crumbled and revealed a massive drop right in front of him.

“Jacobs!” Kennedy called behind him, but everything he tried to grab onto broke away.

A sense of vertigo filled him as he fell and lost his balance. It wasn’t simply a hole but a cliff face that spanned almost fifteen meters. Trees did grow in places, but there was nothing between him and what looked like almost twenty meters of sheer nothing.

“Oh, fuck!” Sal gasped and flailed his hands frantically to find an anchor. For the longest of desperate moments, his hands found nothing and his downward plunge increased speed. Panic surged, and his attempts to slow his fall seemed to accelerate it. He’d faced all kinds of monsters and dangers in this place. He hated the thought that after all that, he’d be killed by gravity.

A few meters into the drop, something caught his shoulder and spun him around and against a tree that grew from the cliff face. Dirt trickled free at the base of the tree at his sudden weight, but it held. Sal clutched the trunk with both hands and shuddered when he realized how far he could actually have fallen. He tried to focus on the vine-like growth that had caught him and realized that his visor had shattered on impact with the tree trunk.

“Jacobs!” Kennedy called, and he looked up. He’d fallen almost halfway, he realized, which was why his chest hurt so badly.

“Kennedy!” he responded and saw her scan the ground below for his splattered corpse. She finally saw him pressed up against the tree.

“Are you okay?” she asked, and Sal nodded in response.

“Look, stay right there.”

He knew she didn’t have any rope in her pack as they hadn’t expected to climb much but simply gripped his tree a little tighter. Provided he maintained a decent hold, there was no danger of falling. While he waited, he peered below him and squinted at was definitely a foreign object

“Kennedy!” he called, and she poked her head over the edge again.

“What?”

“Look down and a little to the left.” A few plants grew over it, but it certainly looked like a suit of armor leaning against one of the massive jungle trees.

“Do you think that’s what we’re here for?” Kennedy asked.

“Do you know any other pieces of armor that would lie around here?”

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

“I can probably climb down from here,” Sal replied, seeing a selection of branches and vines that could provide handholds all the way down. “Can you circle around and meet me down there?”

“Okay. Race you to the bottom?”

Sal looked up quickly to see if she was serious, but she’d already disappeared.

“Fuck.” He felt like he’d bruised a rib but he’d told her he could climb down, so she expected him to find his own way.

Ten meters was still a terrifying height to drop from, so he moved carefully to his left and found footholds in the cliff. It didn’t look like sand but wasn’t rock either, merely dirt that must have eroded.

He found a branch that enabled him to climb lower. Step by step, inch by inch, he worked his way down to the bottom of the cliff. He’d never had a problem with heights although his parents couldn’t stand them and even had a problem with taller office buildings.

Despite that, all that kept him in place was loose soil that had recently been sand, and he wouldn’t take risks. Before long, he reached trees that weren’t clinging to the almost vertical drop, and he gained confidence.

Quicker than he’d anticipated, Sal finally managed to drop to the ground with a grunt. His ribs were definitely at least cracked, but now wasn’t the time to worry that out. He hurried over to where he’d seen the suit of armor.

It was considerably larger than the one Kennedy wore and appeared to be power armor all the way through, which was very useful for survival in a place like this. He wondered what could power it as solar energy couldn’t be relied on given the filtered sunlight. It could be a small nuclear battery. They weren’t cheap, but they were reliable and could recycle energy for close to a decade and a half.

The suit was expensive enough to afford its own dedicated power unit, Sal recalled from what he’d seen in the price lists. A man still occupied the suit and judging by the skin discoloration and the desiccated eyes, he had been dead for a while.

“Well, I really hope Boulos reduces the price for the bad smell.”

Vines grew around the suit itself and seemed to move in search of a way inside. They had infiltrated a few holes in the armor and were a possible reason why the sensors had failed as Boulos had told them.

He’d seen a lot of interesting stuff in the Zoo, but carnivorous plants were something of a novelty. Sal searched in his pack for a strip of beef jerky. He peeled the packaging away with his teeth, bit a chunk off, and spat it out onto the ground near the moving vines.

They detected it, and a vine slithered like a snake, wound around the piece of meat, and dragged it into the trees. It wasn’t clear whether the tree itself had initiated this or whether a parasitic vine had adapted to the lack of sunlight and developed carnivorous instincts.

Sal was somewhat creeped out by it but allowed a new idea to distract him. Even though the new suits had a sealed environment, the plant still seemed to detect food inside.

He moved closer and drew his gun although he preferred not to deal with vines attempting to draw him in as lunch.

They ignored him for the moment, which made it easier to approach the suit. An emergency lever would open it should the person inside need medical assistance and couldn’t open it themselves, but it was also a combat suit, and the lever wouldn’t be easily accessible.

He fumbled around the side and found something to pull.

“This won’t smell good.” Sal buried his nose in his sleeve and tugged at the lever. The smell of rotten flesh seemed to soak into the air around him. With his visor broken, his eyes stung, and he retreated carefully. The vines reacted immediately to the suit opening and found the access point. They apparently lacked both taste and smell as they immediately wound around the corpse. All the vines engaged in this process to drag the body up the tree, and after a few moments, it slipped out of sight.

It was, he decided, a rotten way to go and averted his eyes. But at least he didn’t have to worry about body disposal.

The place still reeked of corpse, though, and Sal made a face as he checked the suit to confirm that none of the vines remained.

A couple still tugged at the loose wiring, and he used his combat knife to slash at them. They withdrew quickly, which meant that the plant was a scavenger and would avoid fights that were even remotely fair.

He still wondered how the Zoo functioned as a whole. Since the animals seemed to react like a well-trained army when invaded, how did that correlate to what seemed like a properly functioning life cycle with predators and prey that behaved much like others everywhere else in the world?

When humans stepped in, they all went nuts. Crazy, that was the word for it.

Sal stepped into the suit and tried to ignore the powerful smell that lingered unpleasantly. It would have to be stored in the filters until Boulos repaired it.

Sal tried to seal it again, but something locked. A notification appeared on a screen to his left in bright red letters.

Please input authorization code.

“What?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

If you have forgotten your code, please contact your customer support to receive an alternative code.

“Contact customer support, please,” he said and wondered why he was polite to a damn VI. Saying please was unlikely to provide quicker service.

Contacting customer support. Please hold. A phone sign pinged to confirm the attempt.

“Hello, this his Achmed with customer support. How may I assist you?” said a very familiar and very bored voice over the suit’s comms.

“Boulos?” Sal was incredulous.

“Jacobs?” the man asked and sounded just as surprised.

“Look, I found the damn suit,” he said. “I’m in something of a pinch here and I need to move the suit, but it asked me for an access code.”

“Right,” Boulos said. “There was an override access code with the suit when I got it. I need to find it again. Hold on a sec.”

Sal nodded, but as he looked away from the blinking screens, he saw a couple of hyenas move closer.

“Shit.” He raised his pistol and aimed it at the creatures.

“What?” Boulos asked over the comms, sounding distracted.

Sal didn’t answer right away. The smell of the rotting corpse had probably attracted them. To scavengers that smell meant a free meal, and he was well aware that there wouldn’t only be three. The others would be pissed off if he shot their buddies. He didn’t want to fight a whole pack of these creatures dressed only in a ruined armor suit.

“What’s the matter, Jacobs?” Boulos asked.

“I have company here,” he whispered and kept his weapon raised as the creatures ventured closer and raised their elongated snouts.

“What kind of company?”

“The hungry kind.” They had caught sight and smell of him and shuffled forward. He heard more prowling the area, and Sal knew that the moment he opened fire, they’d hurtle out to avenge their fallen. Or eat them. They hadn’t been too picky about that the last time he’d had run into them in large numbers.

“Why me?” he wondered acidly as one padded closer, sniffed the suit, and snapped its massive jaws at him.

He reacted by lashing his foot out and caught the creature across the snout. It jumped back with a yelp and growled in pain, then clacked its jaws at him again.

“Fuck!” The hyena noticed his retreat and surged forward. The killer jaws tried to close around his neck.

Sal brought the pistol up, aimed at the creature, and pulled the trigger twice. Both shots struck home, and the creature dropped with a smoking hole in both the head and neck. It was dead before it hit the ground.

He had no time to celebrate his improved shooting skills as the rest of the pack immediately broke free of the underbrush and growled menacingly.

“Jacobs, you still there?” Boulos asked.

“Not for long,” Sal replied.

“Here’s the access code,” he said quickly. “Kilo-Alfa-Tango-Romeo-Niner-Seven-Three.”

Sal put in the code in quickly.

Code accepted. The suit closed around him. One of the beasts seemed to realize that their prey would escape, and hurtled forward to bite at the armored arms. It yanked and shook furiously in an attempt to break through the heavy combat suit.

Updates queued. Would you like to postpone? the suit’s HUD asked as it closed in around him.

“Yes please!” Sal shouted as he took control. He could feel the environmental vacuums kick in with a hiss and remove the outside contaminants. The smell decreased, but it still lingered as Sal pushed away from the tree and managed to dislodge the hyena from his arm.

The suit added about half a foot to his height. The extra weight moved smoothly as if with mechanical assistance. He knew he could do it but would tire fast. Even though he had worked out in his off time, only extreme training could have prepared him for this.

Adrenaline would work for now, though. He used the armored arm to draw the assault rifle from its holster on his back, and the specs immediately appeared on the HUD’s screen with details of a full mag and a clear line of shot. A targeting reticle appeared and followed his aim which certainly made shooting easier.

The enormous rifle kicked back hard, and the reticle jumped each time he pulled the trigger. A single bullet would be more than enough to kill the giant hyena that had tried to chew through his armor. As the pack charged, Sal swung his free hand and knocked the first wave into the second. He fired into the rest until his mag clicked empty.

Reload?

“Please do.” He watched as a mechanism in the arm ejected the empty mag and slapped a new one in a lot faster than he could have done.

He decided that being polite to the suit had worked out damn well for him thus far.

A dozen or more of the creatures were down and many wounded before the hyenas retreated, probably in search of an easier meal. A few dragged the bodies of their dead comrades away. Sal chased them, but there was little need to shoot them if they no longer attacked him. Not only was it a waste of bullets, but despite their aggression, he was still reluctant to kill without provocation.

Animals were animals. They were bound by instincts and the need to feed, and he couldn’t hold that against them.

“Jacobs?” he heard Boulos say into the comm. “Are you still there? Sound off if you’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said and cleared his throat. “Merely fighting off some hungry hyenas.”

“Oh, thank God,” the armorer said. “Call me back if you need more technical support, okay?”

“Will do. Thanks again.”

Sal released a long sigh of relief and removed the helmet. He’d pulled it over his so-called geek suit, and while it fit well enough, moving his head was complicated, especially with the broken facemask.

He tossed the damaged headgear away before he replaced the helmet. The armor had been made to fit someone else. It was too big with much space for muscles he didn’t have, and even the helmet sat way too loosely.

The suit he still wore helped to fill some of the space, but not by much. It might be too big for Kennedy too. Hopefully, Boulos could adjust it for her. He’d probably try to charge extra, but she was a good haggler and would negotiate to her benefit.

Sal slid the rifle in its holster and found somewhere to fit his pistol. He couldn’t hold it while in the power armor, but since this was something for Kennedy to wear, he’d need the handgun later.

He turned and searched for the way Kennedy might use to circle around to meet him.

The cliff he’d almost died on and that the previous owner of the suit had died on stretched for miles. It also didn’t appear in any of the topographical maps of the area, which meant it was new—and moving closer to the wall.

Could the goop cause that? Was it a way to get it around the wall? Did he really consider whether goop was smart enough to know that the best way breach a wall was to undermine it?

Those were problems for later, he decided. Kennedy would probably try to keep up with the rest of their squad and head east while she looked for a way to reach him.

He determined to follow the same course, shoved his discomfort aside, and simply put one foot in front of the other.


Chapter Thirty-Five

Sundown was only a few hours away, but Sal had found no end to the cliff. It seemed to follow the wall move for move. The more he saw of it, the more convinced he was it was intentional. He needed to warn the builders that a huge chasm headed toward their construction.

Sal kept moving and sweated hard with the exertion. The weight began to tell on him. Even though the power armor carried most of the weight, it was still heavier than what he was used to.

He wished that he could take the damn thing off and go home to a long, relaxing shower instead of having to camp out in the Zoo again.

“Is that you, Jacobs?” The voice broke and crackled over his comms.

“Kennedy?” Sal asked.

“Yeah.” He could hear her fiddle to set her device. “Jacobs, can you hear me? I’m trying to track you on the sat phone, but the connection is a little iffy.”

“Wait, how are you tracking me?” he asked. Not that it wasn’t a good thing that she knew where he was, but he didn’t want that to become a permanent thing.

“Boulos told me that you were in a jam and sent me the GPS on the suit,” she replied and sounded a little clearer. “Is everything okay?”

“Uh…yeah. I hope you don’t mind, but my suit was damaged in the fall, and I had to put this one on to fight a pack of hyenas.”

“That’s fine.”

“You should also know that it smells really badly of the last occupant so you’ll probably only want to wear it after Boulos has changed the air filters.”

“He’ll probably charge us extra for that,” Kennedy grumbled. “Anyway, I see you going east, so I’m heading right toward you.”

“Did you find an end to the cliff?” Sal asked.

“No, the tree cover got thicker, so I managed to climb down easily. I think this cliff might stretch forever.”

“Yeah,” Sal said. “I have a bad feeling it might be the goop’s way to tell us that it doesn’t want a wall to block its path.”

“What, do you really think that it might be intentional?” She sounded incredulous. “Don’t you think that’s a little crazy?”

“Crazy or not, I don’t think we should rule it out,” Sal said. “Where are you, anyway?”

“I’m about five hundred meters ahead of you. Keep walking in the same direction and I’ll find you.”

He complied and finally heard another suit of armor in the distance. Sure enough, a few minutes later, he saw Kennedy moving closer.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“A couple of bruised ribs from the fall but nothing serious. How are you?”

She shrugged that question off. “How’s the armor treating you?”

“It’s great in a fight. A big hyena couldn’t bite through it, so there’s that.”

“That’s more than I could say about this piece of shit,” Kennedy said and patted her own armor. She was right. Aside from the power arm, the rest was similar to Sal’s geek suit.

“It’s heavy though.” He raised his arm with some effort and let it drop. “But I’m sure you won’t mind that, being the badass you are.”

Kennedy laughed. “While I appreciate that you think I’m a badass, I’m sure that’s adjustable for the individual wearer to enable it to help more with movement and such. Boulos should be able to tweak that for me. It is still my armor, after all.”

“I don’t know,” Sal said as they headed east once more. “I feel like I can defend myself instead of having to rely on a gunner. If I have a suit like this, what do I need you for?”

Despite the barrier between them, Sal felt the punch she landed on his shoulder.

“Watch it, mister,” she protested good-naturedly. “I’m sure that many start-up businesses would be glad to have me. Keep pushing, and I’ll start looking.”

Sal grinned but didn’t respond. He really didn’t want her hunting for another job, not even as a joke.

“I’m kidding, you know,” Kennedy said after they’d walked for a while. “There actually aren’t that many people starting up businesses around here, and the ones willing to invest money aren’t the kind I’d want to work for. Present company excluded, of course.”

“Let’s not exclude people,” he said. “That’d be rude.”

“Well, you know me.” Kennedy chuckled. “I like to speak my mind, politeness be damned.”

Sal stopped, his eyes drawn to the cliff face.

“Is that where you climbed down?” he asked and pointed at a huge landslide that turned what had been a sheer drop into a very manageable incline.

“No. That wasn’t here when I came back, either. I climbed down a half-klick farther.”

“Then that’s very worrying,” Sal said. “Even if it makes our reaching the top a bit easier.”

“What do you mean?” she asked as they hiked through the loose dirt.

“Well, my geology is a little rusty, but collapses on the edge of a sinkhole usually mean that the sinkhole is spreading.”

“So, you think that—”

“Whether it’s intentional or not, that cliff is pushing toward the wall,” Sal completed for her. Either the suit had begun to adapt to its weaker occupant or Sal had adjusted to the added weight, but the climb seemed easier. Only a few minutes later, he reached the top and helped Kennedy up as well.

“These new armor suits,” she said once they were ready to move again, “are worth every penny, even though they cost…what was it again?”

“I think the lowest I saw on Boulos’ computer was north of thirty grand,” he said. “A bit cheaper for the used ones, although none of them were as cheap as this one.”

Kennedy nodded. “I look forward to protecting you while wearing it.”

Sal laughed. “We’ll see about that.” He looked around. “So how will we find the rest of the squad again?”

“The motion sensors they use now have GPS locators on them,” Kennedy said and raised her sat phone. “The higher-ups don’t want to keep replacing them, so they want to know where all the old ones disappear to. We can track them on my phone.”

“Does that phone have my little upgrade?” Sal asked.

“Yep. There are a couple of Pita plants on the way. We can hit them and still catch up with the squad.”

Sal suddenly realized why this section of the jungle seemed to have no animal life aside from the odd monkey that watched them like blue versions of Curious George. The cliff kept them away, or maybe the goop didn’t want its pets crushed under the weight of the walls falling down.

Sal clenched and unclenched the large armored fists. Kennedy looked at him strangely.

“You okay there, Jacobs?”

He shook his head. “I’ve always assumed that the wall would be enough to contain this. The thought that it might not be and that the rest of the world is in a lot of danger makes everything that we do here just…terrifyingly pointless. It doesn’t matter how many flowers we collect or how many walls we put up, there’ll always be something that we can’t understand or comprehend pushing forward to force us toward our inevitable doom.”

Kennedy narrowed her eyes as they continued in silence.

“Damn, man,” she finally said. “Way to bring the mood down.”

Sal shrugged. “The history of humans tells me that we’ll evolve past this. We’ll find a way to survive somehow, but it also tells me that whatever this is, it can evolve faster and can do more. Eventually, our planet will realize that this goop is the younger, hotter thing with bigger boobs, divorce us, and take our money and go and live on a boat with the goop.”

“Did that metaphor get away from you a little?” Kennedy asked and raised an eyebrow.

“A little, yeah. But my point stands. It seems able to manipulate the environment far better than we can, and it could possibly even out-think us eventually.”

“You’re the expert and the specialist and everything, but until this goop makes—I don’t know, the Earth divorce us, or whatever your metaphor was—we can still make a shit-ton of cash while trying to stop it, right?”

Sal sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“So instead of negativity, why don’t you see how much you can make by at least slowing this thing down?” She pointed. “There’s a Pita plant cluster barely three hundred meters from us. Let’s start there.”

It sounded suspiciously like she’d tried to cheer him up and he appreciated the sentiment, so he decided to focus on the positive. They reached the plants after a few minutes’ hike.

They found a good number of the flowers, and while not the biggest that they’d seen, there were enough to justify a trip into the Zoo—larger than their first post-Lynch haul.

“The sun’s about to set,” Sal noted. “Should we try to locate the squad again or give up on that?”

Kennedy shrugged and continued to pack their haul. “We can’t turn our noses up at money, even if it isn’t specialist money. If we track their last-placed motion sensor, we can find them from there. The last one isn’t even a full klick away, so we can probably do it.”

Sal nodded. “We haven’t run into the animals we’d need a full squad for, so maybe our next few trips could be only the two of us.”

Kennedy smirked as she hauled her pack onto her back. “There are more romantic places you can take a girl. I thought the Bahamas, personally. After this jungle, I could do with a nice long swim on a secluded beach and maybe drink some mojitos in the evening. I need a fucking vacation, man.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond. Only the panties he’d found afterward reminded him that their little encounter hadn’t been a dream. She’d made no mention of it since, and they’d had the opportunity. He’d somehow expected a serious conversation about it, but…well, nothing. She didn’t seem to take romance that seriously, all things considered, so her comment about a romantic getaway put him in something of a bind. If she was joking about the romance and he took it seriously, that would complicate their smooth collaboration. If he didn’t take it seriously and she did mean it, the fallout would be similar.

Saying nothing seemed like the best option, and Kennedy didn’t seem to mind as they ventured on through Zoo.

They found the rest of their squad as the trio set up camp. They had managed to put one more motion sensor out and camped right beside it, making it easier for Sal and Kennedy to find them.

The first topic of discussion, of course, was the armor. The rest of the squad eyed him like they were seeing him for the first time. He wasn’t at all imposing in the geek suit, whereas he’d gained stature wearing the Mark Seventeen.

“So,” Xander said. “Y’all found what you were looking for then?”

Sal nodded. “Yeah. It was down a cliff and surrounded by carnivorous plants and giant hyenas, but yeah, we found it. No big deal.”

“You didn’t tell me about the carnivorous plants,” Kennedy interjected with a sharp look.

“I…yeah, well, I’m embarrassed because the facemask of my geek suit was destroyed and I couldn’t gather any intel on them.” It was a reasonable excuse since he’d forgotten about the vines dragging a corpse into the trees until now.

“Well, you’re welcome to join our little camp.” Xander indicated the other two, who were erecting the shelter tents. “We’d half-decided you had been eaten or had headed back to the Staging Area.”

“Thanks for the confidence, Xander,” she said with a grin and nudged the man in the shoulder with a fist. “But yeah, we got what we came for and decided that since we signed up with you there was no reason not to see the mission out. We might even be able to find a few Pita plants to make this mission more profitable for everyone, right?”

“Well, you’re welcome to look, but I doubt we’ll find anything,” Xander responded as he started a heater plate for his dinner.

She gave Sal a knowing smile. “Oh, I think we’ll figure something out. Right, Jacobs?”

“There’s no telling what you’ll find in the Zoo. It’s best to go in with an open mind.”


Chapter Thirty-Six

With the help from Kennedy’s sat phone, they managed to make everyone happy before they left the Zoo and reached the construction site where they’d left their vehicle. They’d found more Pita plants that were only a few minutes out of their original path. The haul from that brought enough goodwill from the new squad that they could ask them not to mention the detour Sal and Kennedy had taken.

The team was more than happy to oblige. It had been a while since they’d gone on a bounty run, and a little pocket cash was welcome.

By tacit agreement, the partners didn’t mention the fact that they were able to track the plants. They had earned goodwill by appealing to the men’s greedy natures, but it would take far more to buy their silence over a potentially game-changing discovery.

They told the group they’d run into the plants while scouting to verify the extent of the cliff. Sal wasn’t sure their companions bought it, but with enough spending money for at least a couple of trips to the bar, they left it at that.

It took most of the day to position the last motion sensors along the wall and return to the construction site. Sal gathered footage of the cliff to take to the heads of development at the Staging Area. They’d know what to do with it. He wasn’t an architect, engineer, or physicist and didn’t have to come up with solutions to a jungle that could undermine walls. It was better to take Kennedy’s advice and make as much money as he could while he tried to keep the goop at bay.

Sal looked back as they drove to the Staging Area. It was strange that they couldn’t see the drop, and that satellite images hadn’t identified the moving cliff. Then again, he couldn’t see anything, and he was a good deal closer than a satellite would be. The goop seemed to mask the advance of its cliff frighteningly well.

He still found it difficult to attribute this degree of intelligence to what was basically fertilizer from space. But at that point, what harm was there in crazy and paranoid since the best-case scenario was that he was wrong and the worst case was that he was right?

Both cases, good and bad, were entirely subjective. But he really, really liked being right, even if it was a particularly terrifying prospect.

They arrived at the Staging Area as the sun set and reached the commandant’s office while it painted all kinds of red and orange over the sky. Sal was thankful that they wouldn’t spend another night in the Zoo, but he could still appreciate the sight of the sun setting over the massive green blanket where there had once been desert.

There were interesting conflicts in the whole situation. This goop was actually a solution to many of the world’s problems, most of them man-made. It would help people live longer, and it created life in what had once been the largest barren expanse in the world.

The only problem was that it appeared to dislike humans and was intent on murdering them at every turn. That was a real problem and one that needed a solution, but killing the goop off seemed like a bad idea.

Then again, was killing it even possible? There would be idiots who wanted to try, though, and to whom the big picture meant nothing. Of that, he could be certain.

They stepped out of the Jeep, and Sal peeled his armor off as Kennedy and Xander stepped inside to file the mission reports before the office closed down for the night. Sal didn’t want to return in the morning to declare their earnings. His body demanded that he go home and sleep, preferably for a couple of days. It had been a comparatively boring trip, but he was still exhausted.

One of the officials came out of the building.

“Salinger Jacobs?” he asked.

Sal paused his attempt to take his geek suit off. “That’s me.”

“PFC Aaron Marshall. I’m with the commandant’s office. I understand that you and Sergeant Kennedy were last-minute additions to the squad sent on a routine sweep?”

“That’s right.” He cleared his throat. “We got the go-ahead from Sergeant Xander to join. We needed to do a quick resource acquisition run anyway, and it seemed the squad was a little short-handed.”

“No need to justify it,” Marshall said and peered at the pad in his hands. He was young, barely out of his teens, and while he was taller than Sal, he was thin enough that his uniform hung off him as it would off a scarecrow. “The commandant’s office welcomes and encourages freelancers to lend a hand on our missions. We’ve been a bit short-handed lately, and while petitions have gone out for more personnel, we’re grateful for any help we can get.”

Sal nodded and waited for the inevitable “however” he knew would come.

“However,” Marshall continued, “I’m sure you understand that our budget doesn’t allow for a specialist’s salary on a mission that didn’t require one. It’s a logistical issue that would raise a lot of flags we simply can’t afford at the moment.”

Sal nodded again.

“You have to understand, we appreciate the work you put into it. Your research is valuable, and you’ll be paid full price for it as well as the bounty on the flowers. Kennedy also said you brought in a potential new source of revenue. While it will have to be verified by our labs, I’m sure our sponsors will be more than happy to pay top dollar.”

Sal glanced at the door as Kennedy stepped out. She saw him talking to Marshall and her expression soured.

“No, I understand completely. Logistics can be a bitch.”

The man looked relieved. “We appreciate your understanding, Mr. Jacobs. Your gunner’s salary should be in your account tomorrow morning.”

“You have yourself a nice evening, Marshall.”

“Thanks,” the PFC said and marched back into the building behind him.

“Can you believe that bullshit?” Kennedy asked once Marshall was out of earshot. “I mean, I know we agreed to gunners’ salaries, but you brought some fairly alarming news for the whole operation here, and they can’t spare a little extra for that?”

Sal chuckled. “It’s what we agreed to. We can’t complain about getting less than what they offered, right?”

“Like hell, we can’t,” she retorted, but she didn’t seem determined to push the point.

“Look, we walked away with what we went out there for.” He nodded toward the armor. “We saved ourselves a hefty payment right there. Boulos will probably charge for the extra fixings and everything, but it’s still worthwhile. Plus all the sets we brought back, plus that…sack of stuff from the big critter. All in all, I’d say that it was a damn good two-days’ work. Wouldn’t you?”

Kennedy narrowed her eyes at him. “The Jacobs I know would complain about everything right about now. He’d grump about not getting fair pay along with having to march through a jungle in a suit of armor that didn’t fit him. Who are you, and what have you done with that guy?”

Sal shrugged and smiled at the backhanded compliment. “I told you. I’m trying to turn over a new leaf. I feel better about this whole situation. Not great, but better. Besides, why are you complaining? I would have thought you’d approve of the brand new me.”

“Well, I don’t dislike this new you,” she said with a begrudging smile. “Ugh, fine, we’ll look on the bright side. I turned our stuff in, and they said they’d give us an answer on that new sac thing tomorrow. How confident are you that it’ll be something they’ll want?”

“Worst case, it’ll be a new anatomical discovery about the animal, and they have bounties on that too. It’s not as substantial, but it’s something.” Sal rubbed to ease the stiffness in his sore shoulder. “Best case, that sac looked like it had enough goop in it to equal three or four sets of flowers. They’ll probably stiff us on it, but it’s a new source of revenue, which means more money for us. They’re happy, and I’m richer. I can live with that.”

Kennedy shook her head. “I’ve got to say, I like this new side of you.”

Sal shrugged. “Well, you’d better get used to it. It looks like this new me is here to stay. Now, let’s get the suit to Boulos so he can work on it first thing and we can get some sleep.”

“That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve heard you say all week.”


Chapter Thirty-Seven

“Come on,” Kennedy protested. “You told us you’d do this when you sold us the GPS coordinates. We’ve already settled what we owed on the suit. Why can’t you call it even?”

“It needs new air filters,” Boulos pointed out. “Unless you want to smell dead corpse all day when you wear it. I can’t justify that with the price you paid. I’ll fix the broken sensors, that was the deal, but the new air filters will cost the same amount you’ve already paid, and I won’t even charge you for the labor.”

Sal sighed and rolled his eyes. They had gone to the labs first, but there had been no final word on the sac yet. It contained the kind of liquid the corporations were willing to pay for, but they’d need to conduct a long distilling process to see how much they were willing to pay. Kennedy had gone off on the corporate assistant who had delivered the news to the point where Sal almost felt bad for him.

He was two days into owning his own company, and he needed his bottom line to be as impressive as possible. If they kept him waiting for weeks—or, God forbid, months—he’d have to run into the Zoo a few more times to make a profit.

As bets went, it wasn’t terrible. In the long run, it was not that bad an idea, since the weeks it took for the higher-ups to approve it as a new revenue stream meant more time for them to gather them. It would mean hunting those big fuckers, but hey, they’d been through worse, right? It was doable.

On second thought, Sal decided they should avoid it. The last time someone had shot one of those creatures in the middle of the Zoo, they’d barely escaped with their lives.

He sighed again and leaned back in his seat. It had been a decent payday, but all the fees needed to open the business had sapped his resources. He didn’t have much money left after the armor payment, and now they had to pay more on top of that.

Kennedy was good at haggling for a lower price, and he really hoped she could manipulate Boulos’ avarice and business knowledge to bring the cost down or his rent would slide for the next month or so.

“Come on, Kennedy,” Boulos said and looked up from tinkering with the suit. “I have a business to run here. I can’t give free parts away. I have a bottom line too. I have a CEO looking over my shoulder to make sure I turn a profit or I lose my job.”

“It’s bullshit and you know it, Boulos,” she retorted. “You’ve already made a sizeable profit off the suit. I’m sure your profit margin can take the hit.”

“You know it can’t,” he muttered.

“You have to meet us halfway,” Sal interjected finally. “We’ll bring you a lot of new business.”

“Yeah,” Kennedy agreed. Her face said she’d had an idea. Boulos noticed and scowled.

“What are you thinking?” he asked Kennedy.

“Well, if you can cut the cost for the repairs to a third of the price you gave me, I’d be more inclined to drop a decent amount on a new geek suit for this one.” She nodded toward Sal. “Something top-of-the-line, along with a full complement of weapons and ammo for the both of us. You can tell that CEO who’s looking over your shoulder that you gave us the cut in price because we bought a lot of stuff along with this. A warehouse discount, as it were.”

Boulos frowned, although he looked willing to consider it.

“Hey, Beesley!” the man finally called, and one of the young men who worked for him jogged from the other side of the warehouse.

“Yeah, boss?” the young redhead asked and brushed his long hair from his face as he approached.

“Keep working on this suit.” Boulos pushed it toward him. “I need it ready to go by this afternoon. It needs new air filters, and we should give the HUD a workover too. Some of the sensors were damaged.”

“You got it, boss.”

Kennedy grinned and winked at Sal, who looked incredulously at her as they followed Boulos to the sales counter.

“How can we afford all this?” Sal asked in a hushed whisper. “I didn’t make enough to afford another suit, and certainly not top-of-the-line.”

“I’m paying for it, moron,” Kennedy said, her grin firmly in place. “I made money off this last trip too. And I need to invest into Heavy Metal, so if you shut your trap, we can do some business and walk away from this whole thing ready to make runs into the Zoo without having to rent equipment.”

Sal nodded. “Wow. That’s really generous of you.”

She shrugged. “You got the suit out for me. That means I’m with you on this, for better or worse. We have to handle this shit together, or it won’t work. Consider this part of my investment in Heavy Metal—and stop looking at me like I gave you the best blowjob of your life.”

He looked away. “Sorry. I… It wasn’t… Well, I was grateful, but not that grateful. Not like a blowjob or anything like that.”

She winked at him and grinned. “Sure.”

Again, he wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He found her really difficult to read. He thought they had a good dialogue and chemistry, and he didn’t want to ruin that. In cases like these, it was better to err on the side of caution, right?

Sal realized he was out of his element in more ways than one as Kennedy moved past him to talk to Boulos.

The haggling went on for a little longer, but since Boulos had dropped the price to a fourth of what he’d originally cited, she chose a new sidearm for herself, since the suit already came with its own rifle, and one of the smaller assault rifles for Sal to use in the field. She told him that she’d help him practice and get used to it before they went out again. A new suit for him and a veritable crap-ton of ammo set Kennedy back just over fifteen thousand dollars.

As investments into small startups went, it was one of the biggest Sal had ever seen. She was certainly doubling down on her interest in staying with Sal and Heavy Metal.

It was a working title, he realized. He hadn’t decided how well he liked it and it waned and waxed depending on the time of day.

Hours passed as she dug relentlessly for better prices from Boulos until both were marginally satisfied. Kennedy transferred what she owed, and Sal added enough to cover the filters for the armor and some of the smaller items. She protested, but in the end, they were both invested.

“All right,” Boulos said. “I’ll finish the suit tomorrow, and I’ll deliver it with the rest of your order. A pleasure doing business with you, Kennedy.”

She shook the man’s hand firmly. “You can look forward to more business from us in the future, Boulos. Not because I approve of your stinginess, but because you don’t really have much competition out here.”

He grinned. “You’re a tough sell, Kennedy. I like that in a woman.”

She winked and gestured for Sal to join her as they exited the store.

“That was…intense,” he said as they drove toward Kennedy’s apartment. “Remind me to never get on the wrong side of a negotiation with you.”

She chuckled. “It’s all about the stance. You have to walk the line between a hardass and an innocent victim like an Olympic tightrope. It doesn’t hurt when you have some femininity that you can fall back on.”

“Sadly, I don’t have the…ahem, characteristics to help me with that,” he said with a chuckle as they stopped.

“Yeah, the ladies help too,” She grinned. “You gonna take the Jeep to your place, or will you walk?”

“I’m too tired to walk.” Kennedy slid out, and he climbed over to the driver’s side. “Oh, by the way, while you did your professional haggling, I got a message from the lab. The corporation is willing to pay fifty-nine thousand for the sac. They’ll transfer the money to my account tomorrow. I’ll send you your percentage in the morning. Still ten percent?”

Kennedy laughed and punched him in the shoulder. “In your dreams, Jacobs. You gave it to me, remember. This has been a good day, wouldn’t you say?”

Sal nodded. “I have to agree with you on that. I’ll see you tomorrow, Kennedy.”


Epilogue

Sal drove the Jeep to his apartment, and a sense of quiet elation filled his body. He’d felt iffy about striking out on his own, and about he and Kennedy standing up for themselves in this brave new world. In the beginning, he’d had moments of uncertainty about Kennedy, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why. For some odd reason, she seemed to have his back. Things would probably get tougher over the next few weeks, but he felt he could handle it now. They had the supplies, armor, weapons, and tools they would need to last, and were both competent enough to use that leverage to reach great new heights.

He could barely keep the grin off his face as he drew the Jeep to a halt outside his apartment and pressed the dashboard button to clock himself out. They would charge him extra to send someone to pick it up, but he could afford to splurge now.

The apartment was blissfully cool after the blistering mid-afternoon heat. He sighed and drew in slow, deep breaths as he moved to the bathroom, peeled his clothes off, and turned the water to lukewarm. He stepped into the stream, closed his eyes, and let the shower strip his worries away. Not all the stress from the past few months would go. There were things even a shower couldn’t cure, but on the whole, the sense that things would work out well restored his peace of mind.

He sighed softly as the water cascaded over his body and relaxed his sore muscles. They had noticeably improved over the past few months. Gone was the skinny, vitamin-D-deficient genius who had complained about being dragged from his miserable existence in California. He still wasn’t the stud that the male personnel on the base seemed to be, but he would get there. Baby steps. He had something that resembled a six-pack, and where there had once been flab, sharp definition had begun to sculpt his hips and chest. He wasn’t a soldier yet, but one day, he might be.

Sal smirked at the thought, turned the water off after what must have been at least thirty minutes, and stepped out. The bathroom was filled with steam, and he took a moment to shave. He’d been too tired to do it the night before, and although he’d tried, he couldn’t grow a real beard.

He finished and heard someone knock insistently at the door. As distracted as he’d been, he couldn’t be sure how long they’d been knocking. He dried his face quickly and headed through the living area.

“Okay, chill out. I’m coming.” Sal yanked the door open and raised his eyebrows. Kennedy stood there with a bemused smile on her face and bit her bottom lip as she ran her eyes shamelessly over his half-naked body. She had a duffle bag slung over her shoulder

“Well, let’s hope you’re not coming too soon,” she purred and stepped inside.

“Kennedy?” he asked, shutting the door quickly behind her. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I’m here to spend the night. I don’t want to have to rush out in the middle of it like last time,” she explained nonchalantly and looked around the living room. “Huh. This place looks smaller in the daytime.”

Sal raised an eyebrow. It was the first time she’d actually acknowledged that night almost three months ago. He still wasn’t sure what she meant by spending the night. Well, he had an inkling, and she had been fairly forward about what she wanted the last time.

“I…. You… Well, we… I don’t think…” Kennedy stopped him when she stepped close enough for him to feel her fingertips running lightly over the hem of his towel. He realized how close to naked he was.

“Stuttering isn’t a good look on you, Sal,” she whispered and stood on her tiptoes to press her lips lightly to his. He was distracted enough by it that when she pushed the towel down, he didn’t react in time. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure he wanted to either.

“Agreed,” he mumbled and let her guide him to the couch. He sat and watched as she yanked her white tank top over her head and tossed it aside. He didn’t see where it landed, distracted as he was by Madigan’s lack of a bra.

“I’m here to get my panties, Sal,” she whispered, ran her hands up his thighs, and dropped to her knees between them. “And I’m willing to work very…very hard to get them back.” She punctuated her words by wrapping her fingers around his cock and stroked it a few times. It drew an immediate response from his slowly growing member.

“Oh…fuck,” was all Sal could say as he leaned back. Her lips took the head in as her tongue ran over it slowly. They were business partners, but if this was how she wanted to spend their off time, it was an arrangement he could come to terms with.

She smiled. Sal closed his eyes as a moan escaped his lips.


She Is His Witness Coming January 1, 2018

The story continues with, She Is His Witness, book two in the Birth Of Heavy Metal Series.

He Was Not Prepared

Order now at Amazon


Author Notes - Michael Anderle November 29, 2018

THANK YOU for not only reading this story but these Author Notes as well .

(I think I’ve been good with always opening with “thank you.” If not, I need to edit the other Author Notes!)

RANDOM (sometimes) THOUGHTS?

The book you just finished, the first ZOO book (Birth of Heavy Metal Book 01) comes out in just four (4) days and I’m feeling anxious.

Is it going to work? Will the story (not my typical main character at all) resonate? Will readers go further into the book to see whether Salinger redeems himself?

Will he learn not to stick his foot in his mouth? (A big ‘if’ as he is a precocious 21 year old.)

As a father with three sons, two of them just about to hit 20 years old, it seems kids NEVER grow up and just ‘adult.’

Yet, I’m sure my father looked at me three decades ago and wondered, ‘Will that kid ever grow up?’

It took me fifteen years longer than you wanted, Dad. But yes, I did finally grow up.

HOW TO MARKET FOR BOOKS YOU LOVE

We are able to support our efforts with you reading our books, and we appreciate you doing this!

If you enjoyed this or ANY book by any author, especially Indie-published, we always appreciate if you make the time to review a book, since it lets other readers who might be on the fence to take a chance on it as well.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

One of the interesting (at least to me) aspects of my life is the ability to work from anywhere and at any time. In the future, I hope to re-read my own Author Notes and remember my life as a diary entry.

Today, I’m back in my condo in Vegas having just finished a conversation with collaborator Laurie Starkey talking about ZOO projects, Protected by the Damned projects and a whole new Universe we (mainly she) are releasing starting in January.

I’ve asked Judith for a sanity check on responses to Matia from Publishers Weekly and to pick out some photos from a photoshoot we did down in Cabo earlier this year.

Why Cabo? Because the photographer here in Vegas went (in my opinion) nuts after finding out who I was.

We asked, and received confirmation that we would be getting photography done where we would own the rights once the shoot was done, and what was the price etc. etc. She quoted us (I believe) around $600.

Then, we send her links about myself and the contract comes to us WAY higher than that amount, with re-use pricing and all sorts of stipulations. We point out this wasn’t what we asked for and she was adamant nothing would change.

Oh yes, something could change. Our choice of photographers could change.

So, we were going to Cabo anyway, and Judith found a photographer who could rent out the top level of a restaurant for the morning.

Now, I have headshots that are a bit unique.

AROUND THE WORLD

I sincerely hope (and pray, and worry) that you are enjoying these books and the ZOO project overall. It is vastly different than some of my other work, and I hope to use the project to allow new authors (including those in other countries) access to a new Universe as they can bring fiction to life from a completely new perspective.

Imagine if a Spanish, or German author wrote a series using other encampments? Or Russian or Chinese? Or Israeli? I hope (one day) to meet authors from other countries who have written stories set in our ZOO Universe and have American readers who love it.

The ONLY way this will work, is if we please fans with what we have, and therefore…

As we say in America -The buck stops with me.

FAN PRICING

If you would like to find out what LMBPN is doing and the books we will be publishing, just sign up at http://lmbpn.com/email/. When you sign up, we notify you of books coming out for the week, any new posts of interest in the books and pop culture arena, and the fan pricing on Saturday.


Ad Aeternitatem,

Michael Anderle


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Books by Michael Todd


PROTECTED BY THE DAMNED

Torn Asunder (1)

Killing Is My Business (2)

And Business Is Good (3)

Sit Down, Shut Up, And Pull The Trigger (4)

Welcome To The Jungle (5)

Metal Up Your Ass (6)

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (7)

For Whom The Bell Tolls (8)

WAR OF THE DAMNED

Resurrection Of The Damned (1)

No Quarter (2)

Dark Is The Night (3)

Dim Glows The Horizon (4)

Waking The Leviathan (5)

Subversive Giants (6)

Juntto (7)

DAMIAN’S CHRONICLES

Crucifix (1)

Renegade (2)

ZOO

DEATH OF HEAVY METAL

He Was Not Prepared (1)


Books written as Michael Anderle

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