They set down just after dawn, or whatever passed for it on the unnamed planet; the dirty light from two distant stars lay across the rocky world like smog, an early bath of murky yellow haze that did nothing to improve Noguchi’s mood. It looked like gaseous piss, and even with the steady pump of adrenaline coursing through her, the intensity that came from knowing she was about to face death, she found herself wondering if it was worth it anymore.
In the back. Again. After so many training Hunts that I could teach them myself . . .
They waited for the signal in the main loading dock, the planet’s ugly surface displayed on a small screen set into the door. Flashes of glistening black darted across the screen, raising the level of greedy anticipation in the stuffy, overwarm air. Noguchi tried to breathe evenly, wishing that the masks had a better filter system; it was hot, dark, and she couldn’t get away from Hunter musk. Dia-shui, they called it, along with a clicking that she couldn’t pronounce. It was a cloving.
animal smell, and the heat made her feel like she was bathing in it.
Probably not so hot up front. Where I belong.
It wasn’t a new thought, but it still stung. Noguchi shook herself mentally, working to slide into the focus she would need, to concentrate her energy—but it wouldn’t come. She felt overheated and irritated, crowded by the towering young males all around her. The suits had individual thermostats, but even at the low end they were well over human comfort levels, and since the unnamed planet was cold by Hunter standards, the others had theirs cranked up. The heat from their suits combined with the thick, oily musk they secreted, created a humid, feral atmosphere alive with the clicking growls of barely checked excitement. At one time, the sounds and smells had excited her, too, but today it only made her wonder again if this was where she wanted to be.
Focus, focus, focus . . .
Right. It didn’t matter that she was in the back, or in the middle of the back, the worst position from which to score a kill. Didn’t matter that she bore Broken Tusk’s mark and was still Hunting from the least honorable position—
—stop it! Focus or die, you can’t have both.
Beneath the sweaty face mask, Noguchi gritted her teeth, silently cursing her wounded pride. It wasn’t the time or place to be bemoaning her lot or letting her emotions take over; this was a queen Hunt. It wouldn’t be scored, not burner only, but that didn’t mean it was going to be a walk. She kept her gaze front and center, rinding Topknot’s raised claw and fixing on it. She couldn’t see the Leader from her position—most yautja stood two and a half meters, some taller—but the taloned fingers were visible to everyone in the pyramid formation. There were five half-trained novices in a line in front of her, three on either side; the three lead positions were for the more experienced Hunters—
—where I should be—
—and though the Leader was almost always in front, one of the two males behind Topknot had been unBlooded on her first Hunt; even then, she’d outranked him, and on the last Hunt, she’d killed six drones, only one behind Topknot himself—but being ooman, as they called it, meant that she’d pulled rear guard. Again.
At least you ‘re here; he could have denied you even this. There are twentysomething trainees just hissing to take your spot. Better to place low than not to place at all—
There was a shuddering rumble all around, the metallic floor shaking underfoot and a flash of brilliant light on the small viewscreen as the ship’s weapons laid down cover. Topknot chittered a command and the other yautja raised their burners, growling excitedly, jostling each other in anticipation. Topknot signed as he spoke, one of the simple gestures that was specific to Hunting. “Prepare” was the gist of it, the raised claw twisting back and forth, the talons curled into a fist.
Noguchi held her own burner high, the dark metal of the alien rifle hot and heavy in her hands, feeling her heart start to beat faster. A glance at the screen showed an increase in lithe movement as another rumble shook the ship, as beams of burning light from the carrier shot into the early-morning haze and black bodies flew.
Topknot let out a battle cry, a guttural shriek of bloodlust that pierced the wet heat and brought the others to a frenzy point. More screeching cries and violent hisses filled the shadowy dock, the musk smell growing thicker as the Hunters screamed, shaking back their ropelike locks, holding their weapons high. The passion, the hunger was impossible to ignore and Noguchi let it in, her own howling voice lost in the furor, joyously reminded of the reasons she’d joined with them in the first place. She wasn’t yautja and maybe they hated her for it, but she shared this one thing with them, this religion of spirit that defined her deepest self.
The Hunt. The kill.
Still screaming, Topknot opened the door and they plunged out into the hazy morning light, a thousand dark drones running to meet them and howling their own warrior cries, teeth dripping and arms grasping. Noguchi picked her first target and fired, feeling nothing but alive.
The queen had called all of her minions home, and though the ship was less than a hundred meters from the hive, they had to fight for every centimeter. Even from her guarded position, Noguchi took out five within the first minute, and the unBlooded were killing beyond their wildest expectations. Even though it wasn’t to be officially scored, there was some small honor in numbers.
The hive was in a marshy area and the splashes of the spiny, taloned bugs as they came was a pounding storm, tails whipping up muck, shining exoskeletons mottled with black mud. They didn’t come in waves but in a wave; there was no lull in the onslaught, no time to breathe between kills. It was a tsunami of needle teeth and razor claws, of grinning, trumpeting death.
Noguchi didn’t think. She danced, swirling and feinting, spinning and firing explosive heat through the wall of bodies. Behind to the left, a shrieking, elongated skull blown into shards. Claws and arms flying in multiple directions, legs smashed and falling, grinning metal teeth shattering. An alien chest bursting with a splash of green acid, the blood hitting the murky water, the swamp turning to bubbling steam before the Hunters had gone a third of the distance.
The fire from the ship continued to clear a path through the worst of it, but there was still no break in the running bodies. Like ants or bees, the drones sacrificed themselves to protect their queen mother, an individual’s life meaningless to the good of the hive. They came from everywhere at her beckoning, alerted by
some pheromone or telepathy; not even the Hunters knew.
The scents of slime and musk, of fire and some dark and unnatural thing, of alien filled the hot, close space inside Noguchi’s mask. She didn’t smell it, didn’t feel the steaming heat, didn’t see anything but the next target. And the next. And the next, as the small band of Hunters pushed on to the nest, leaving broken, bleeding creatures in their wake.
As the wall of animals began to thin, Noguchi didn’t notice; she was too intent on the blast of blue-white heat coming from the end of her burner, the crash of imploding light that tore into each hard alien body and left it dying or dead. Topknot had stopped at the mouth of the huge, high, rounded shell made of sleek and dusky alien secretion, the queen’s egg-laying chamber and home. The drones wouldn’t risk damaging the eggs; they were still coming, but the recklessness of their attack had dropped. However they communicated with their queen, they knew to be careful the closer they came to the nest.
Another bug, down, another screaming, clutching monster rushing at her—
—and she was roughly shoved aside.
Noguchi stumbled, hard, her concentration blown for the half second it took her to realize what had happened. She reflexively brought her burner up, pointed it at her assailant, but didn’t fire.
The competition for kills on the Hunt was fierce, but there had been no call for what the yautja had done. Except for a very few, the drones had broken off their attack; it gave her ample time to hate him as he took out the drone in her stead. Shorty. Of all the novices, he was the one most often singled out as a target by the others; he was barely a head taller than she, distinctly undersized, and in the weeks that his group had