CHAPTER ONE: OURS IS THE FIRE

Eva’s desperation had led her to Eridere Seven, the most treacherous planet in the Vedoran System.

In Eridere’s vast jungles, death could come to her in a variety of ways. If her exosuit malfunctioned, the planet’s toxic gases would kill her in less than a minute. If her plasma pistol lost its charge, the nightmarish beasts lurking in the shadows would soak the leaves with her blood.

Eva knew the risks. She came to the primitive planet expecting to die. Her demise was inevitable. Eridere Seven was the only place in the entire solar system that would grant her a quick death.

For her, being killed by a pack of feral beasts was far more favorable than what the manhunters had in store for her. If they caught her, she’d lose all hope for a swift end. They would torture her until the pain drove her to insanity, then, when she could no longer scream for mercy, they’d feast on her flesh.

Eva shuddered at the thought.

She crept silently through the dense jungle, her pistol held at the ready. Dark, towering trees surrounded her. Leaves as red as blood formed a thick canopy overhead. Wisps of toxic fog weaved through the underbrush. The shrill shrieks of unseen creatures echoed through the dry air.

She kept a watchful eye on the twin suns. They had risen far above the golden clouds, and were setting the sky ablaze with crimson light. She would need to head back at dusk. She had already wandered several miles away from the gulch where her spaceship, the White Lotus, was located. With luck she could reach the ship, depart from the planet, and slip into a wormhole long before Eridere fell dark.

She continued to venture through the jungle. Her slender exosuit, its metal plates colored a bright cobalt, brushed against the thick vegetation. Tall plants rose like spires amongst the trees. Eva avoided them at all costs. They were as poisonous, and deadly, as the toxic air itself.

Multiple warnings flashed across her helmet’s Heads Up Display. They warned her of rising toxicity levels, radiation, and of her suit’s depleting oxygen tanks. She ignored them all.

She was traveling to the heart of the jungle, where the herbivores were gathering. She hoped to spend most of the day hunting. The docile creatures would be easy prey. After she had finished hunting, she would then begin digging for precious minerals. Eridere’s soil was rich in falsidium; a material she could use to fuel both her exosuit and her ship.

After landing on the planet at dawn, Eva had left the White Lotus hidden in a desolate gulch on the outskirts of the jungle. She activated the ship’s reflective stealth panels, rendering it invisible to the naked eye. It was an attempt to hide the Lotus from unseen assailants.

At the top of Eva’s HUD was a navpoint; a blue arrow leading to a specific geographical location. She had created it hours earlier. It would help her find her way back to the White Lotus.

She had spent much of the morning wandering through the jungle. The only weapon she possessed was her plasma pistol, though it was decades old and malfunctioning. It had failed to fire several times before, making it both unpredictable and unreliable.

To the west, a tropic storm ravaged the mountains. An endless downpour of acid rain tore the jungle asunder. Plumes of toxic gas spread through the air like a cancer. The storm had raged on for hours, and would not stop until the entire region was as black as death.

Eva kept to the east, where nature was more forgiving. She stalked through the underbrush, searching for easy prey. She had encountered many herbivores over the past few days; lumbering giants that moved like snails. With one clean shot from her pistol, she’d have enough meat to last for a week.

But she needed to be careful. She wasn’t the only predator on the hunt. Winged creatures constantly patrolled the skies. Claw prints left behind by monstrous beasts covered the ground. She knew they were watching her from the shadows, awaiting the perfect moment to strike.

Eva kept her pistol raised. Let them come. She would be ready.

She came to a vast clearing in the jungle and halted. Blades of golden grass grew in large clumps throughout the area. Hordes of small insects flew around in erratic patterns, their wings gleaming in the sunlight. The incessant buzzing filled the air.

An irradiated river pierced the clearing, flowing from north to south. A shroud of thick fog lingered above the crimson water. Insects skittered across the riverbanks. Drinking. Feeding.

As Eva took in her surroundings, her helmet’s HUD began displaying a plethora of information. It showed her a cellular analysis of the fauna, the chemical make-up of the irradiated water, and even the heartbeats of the insects.

Eva pressed on. She slid down the riverbank, careful not to lose her balance. The insects dispersed in a flash of bright wings. She despised the small creatures. The day before, when starvation had gotten the best of her, she mashed a dozen of them into a paste and devoured it whole. They were far more toxic than she had anticipated. She spent several hours kneeling in the Lotus’s lavatory, vomiting into a bucket.

Eva waded through the river. The red water rose past her chest. Her boots crunched against unseen rocks and plants. Her exosuit documented the sudden spike in radiation, and gave her a countdown before it could no longer protect her from poisoning.

She reached the opposite riverbank long before the countdown hit zero. She pulled herself out of the water, sweat dripping from her brow. She checked to ensure that her equipment had survived the crossing before leaving the river behind her.

Eva climbed up the riverbank, drew her pistol, and entered the thick jungle beyond. Colossal vines coiled themselves around the crooked trees like a mass of cobras. Leaves as large as humans formed the canopy above. The sounds of distant thunder rang through the air like a symphony.

She wandered east for more than a mile. When fatigue finally got the better of her, she stopped to rest beside a cluster of black rocks, her lungs burning and muscles aching. She used a small nozzle inside her helmet to drink from her water canister. The cold liquid extinguished the fire within her chest.

As she drained the canister dry, a new warning flashed across her HUD. Her suit’s air filtration systems were slowly failing, forcing her to replace its hydrodite core. She disassembled her outer chest plate, and used a screwdriver to remove the faulty core. She then retrieved a spare from her utility belt, screwed it in place, and reassembled her suit.

With that done, she ran a diagnostics check through her suit’s mainframe. The exosuit was far older than Eva, and was prone to malfunction. It required constant repairs. The metal plates protecting its circuitry were cracked and rusted. The helmet was riddled with scorch marks.

Eva did her best to keep the suit operational. It allowed her to survive in a variety of hostile environments, including the vacuum of space. Without it, she would surely die.

Confident that her suit would function properly for the time being, Eva set out again. As she began to head east, she noticed a sudden change in the air. She halted, perplexed.

The horde of insects was nowhere to be seen. The wind grew still. A grim silence fell over the trees.

Something was terribly wrong.

Eva spun around. A large predator had emerged from the underbrush, and it was charging toward her.

At first, Eva thought the beast was a panther. But as it drew closer, she realized how grotesque different it truly was. It ran on six legs, its claws ravaging the dirt. Hundreds of black needles, each as long as a pencil, sprouted from its skin like a porcupine. Two barbed tails were raised above its head like a scorpion preparing to sting. Four crimson eyes, as bright as jewels, peered into the depths of her soul.

It was upon her in a heartbeat.

Eva acted on instinct. She dove to the side, narrowly avoiding the beast’s sweeping claws. She rolled across the dirt, mind racing. The beast followed her every move, eyes burning with malice.

It towered above her, viciously thrusting its barbed tail into the ground. Eva jerked her body from left to right, avoiding evisceration by mere inches. Deafening thuds rang through her ears as the ground was torn asunder.

Eva performed a perilous dance with the beast, her life hanging in the balance. It lashed out at her with jagged claws, rigged fangs, and spiked tails. Eva did her best to evade its attacks. She furiously pounded her fist against its underbelly. Her assault did little to deter the beast.

With a bone-chilling roar, it pinned her to the ground. She gasped in pain, her chest catching fire. It lunged forward and straddled her. Its maw was agape, revealing rows of serrated fangs. Saliva dripped down from its gums and splattered against Eva’s visor.

Eva raised her plasma pistol, shouting in defiance. She took aim, then pulled the trigger. The pistol misfired. Blue smoke erupted from its frame. Eva screamed in frustration, cursing her bad luck.

The beast clamped its teeth around her left arm. Eva could hear her suit cracking under the intense pressure. In an instant later she was weightless. Eva found herself hurtling through the air. She slammed into a tree several meters away from the beast. Her suit splintered the bark with an audible crunch. Bright stars flashed across Eva’s vision. Searing pain surged through her. The impact knocked the wind out of her.

She slumped down to the dirt. She lied on the ground for what felt like an eternity, fear and pain consuming her mind. Her hands trembled. She fought to regain her composure.

Loud thuds. Ragged breaths. Again the beast was charging toward her.

Adrenaline spread through her like a wildfire. Her body grew numb; her fear and pain all but forgotten. Before she knew it, she was sprinting. The world became a blur. Time seemed to slow.

She ran back toward the river. Behind her, the beast roared again. The thunderous pounding of claws on dirt came shortly after. A cold chill slid down her spine.

The chase was on.

Eva quickened her pace, chest heaving. Thorns and low-hanging branches scratched her exosuit as she ran past. The loose dirt made it difficult for her to keep her balance. The snarls of the beast as it bit at her heels caused her heart to skip a beat.

She inspected her plasma pistol in mid stride. The weapon had overheated during the struggle, and shut itself off to prevent further damage. Her HUD scanned the weapon and displayed a myriad of issues, but no solutions. Eva scowled.

She rounded a gnarled tree and rebooted the pistol. With a loud crash the beast slammed into the tree, shattering it upon impact. Eva was sent careening forward. Bark, branches, and crimson leaves filled the air.

Eva tucked her knees into her chest. The instant she hit the ground, she kicked outward, using her forward momentum to perform a front flip. She landed clumsily on both feet, her back facing the destroyed tree.

Then, a miracle occurred. Her plasma pistol burst to life with a shrill hiss. Its frame glowed a bright blue. Eva spun around, preparing to fire. She squeezed the trigger as the beast lunged forward, fangs shining in the sunlight.  

A second misfire.

Eva’s heart sank. The beast swung its tail through the air. She ducked, narrowly avoiding being knocked unconscious. She whirled around and ran for her life.

She came to the irradiated river and leapt over the riverbank. She hit the water with immense force. Her knees slammed against the rocks, and she screamed in anguish. Pain jolted through her legs, bringing tears to her eyes.

There was a resounding splash as the beast jumped into the water behind her. Eva panicked. She frantically plowed through the water, fearing the beast would grab her at any moment.

She rebooted her pistol again, praying for another miracle. There was a flash of blue light. Eva was elated. Plasma began to charge within the weapon; corrosive, volatile energy that emitted an eerie glow.

She reached the other side of the river, climbed up the bank, and made a mad dash for the tree line beyond. Her muscles burned. Her stomach twisted. Exhaustion and starvation were beginning to take their toll. Her pace slowed.

The beast caught her before she could reach the tree line. It lunged onto her back, sunk its fangs into her right shoulder, and took her to the ground. Eva screamed in terror. The pain was excruciating. Jagged claws slashed her chestplate. Crooked fangs gnashed her helmet. Barbed tails pounded against her arms.

Eva was too weak to resist. She became lighthearted. Blood seeped forth from the corners of her mouth. She closed her eyes, awaiting death’s cold embrace. The beast bit deep into her right leg. Its fangs pierced the thin plating around her calf. A wave of hot pain flooded Eva’s mind. Tears welled in her eyes. She whimpered in defeat.

The beast viciously dragged her to the nearest tree. Her back slammed against the bark. Stars flashed across her vision. The beast towered above her; twin tails raised high above its head.

Eva stared solemnly at the beast. She wondered what it was thinking as it prepared to kill her. Did it realize how scared she was? Did it even care?

Eva trembled in fear. She was going to die. She thought of her brother Ezra, and the promise she had made him years prior. He would no doubt be waiting for her to return to Earth, as she never broke a promise.

The beast snarled. Eva flinched. She instinctively moved her right hand, and her fingers brushed against the plasma pistol lying beside her. It powered on, a plume of blue smoke erupting from its frame.

Eva mustered all her strength. She raised the pistol high, her eyes narrowing as sunlight reflected off its frame.

She pulled the trigger.

The sudden recoil caused Eva to cry out in pain. There was a resounding blast as the pistol unleashed a swirling orb of azure energy. It struck the beast in the forehead, exploding upon impact like a grenade.

The beast wailed in agony as a wave if liquefied plasma swept over its head. The plasma melted its face like lava, then quickly corroded the tender flesh beneath. The loud sizzling of cooked meat filled the air. Flakes of burned skin fell away from its disintegrating head.

The beast swayed back and forth. It took low, guttural breaths. One of its eyes was hanging down from the socket, and its fangs littered the dirt below. Eva could see portions of its skull through fissures in its deformed face.

With one final breath, the beast fell in a heap to the ground, dead. Eva stared at its corpse for what felt like an eternity. Her pistol overheated again, and shut itself off with a dull hiss.

Silence. Eva rested her head against the tree. Searing pain lanced through every inch of her body. Blood seeped forth from her injured calf and soaked the blades of grass beneath.

As small insects crawled along her arms, Eva used a canister of ada-gel to seal the breaches in her exosuit. The gel hardened within seconds, forming temporary clumps of metal in-between the plates of her suit.

When she was finished, she let her body fall limp. She gazed at the distant suns, too dazed to admire their beauty. The pain in her lungs flared up with every labored breath. Her throat was dry, and the taste of blood still filled her mouth.

Eva was ashamed. Her lack of courage and strength had nearly gotten her killed. She had so easily let her fear take hold. How, after all she had been through, could she still be so weak?

“The world is cruel, Eva,” her father had told her as a child. “Everyone, be they friend or foe, clings to the weapons that define their hearts. To survive, you must understand them all. Our enemies? Theirs is the Fear. It corrupts the spirit. It takes hold of men and drags them into a vacuous abyss. But ours is the Fire. It keeps our souls strong. As long as we keep the flames bright, we will never drown in darkness.”

Once again, his words rekindled her Fire. Newfound strength coursed through her. Hope banished the fear from her mind. Eva rolled onto her stomach, and began to crawl.

She headed for the navpoint. For a brief moment, she filled with renewed vigor. Her pain had subsided. She made good progress. She crawled so far into the jungle that she could no longer see the beast’s mangled corpse.

But after a few minutes, she was forced to stop. She leaned against an overturned log, too exhausted to move. Drowsiness swept over her like a tidal wave. She was far too weak to resist it. Before she knew it, she was fast asleep.

Her dreams took the form of a horrid memory. She was once again stumbling through the ruins of the starship Andromeda, mere minutes after escaping the manhunter ambush.

The ship was in shambles. Its main thrusters were destroyed, and entire sections of its hull were breached. The enemy warship’s cannons had nearly torn the vessel asunder; obliterating its core engines and tearing much of its exterior to pieces. The Andromeda was damaged beyond repair, and was now a metal corpse drifting through an endless abyss.

The ambush had left Eva traumatized. She wandered through the ship, drenched in sweat and tears. Her hands trembled. The bodies of her comrades were strewn about the dilapidated corridors. Pools of blood soaked the floors. Emergency sirens blared through distant speakers. Sparks erupted from scorched cracks in the walls.

She found no other survivors.

A sudden, brutal realization snapped Eva out of her trance. The Andromeda was doomed, and so was she. She was now stranded in the far reaches of the Outer Galaxies. With no other option, Eva entered the ship’s control room. She activated the Andromeda’s distress beacon, then shut off the ship’s non-essential functions to conserve power.

As the Andromeda fell dark, Eva entered the cryo bay. She reluctantly placed herself into cryo-sleep, hoping, praying, that someone would stumble upon the ship and rescue her. Until then, she would retreat into her dreams, where she could finally escape the horrors of reality.

Eva woke to the sound of stampeding feet. Night had fallen. A crescent moon was rising above the gnarled trees. Pale moonlight pierced the canopy and clashed with the slender shadows beneath.

Far to her right, dozens of bipedal aliens, each as small as a dog, ran frantically through the trees. Their bodies were covered in crimson scales. Their feet were crooked and webbed. They moved in unison through the jungle. Even in the dark of night, Eva could see the fear in their eyes.

They were heading south. Eva looked to the north. At first, she saw nothing. But as her eyes adjusted to the night, a dark mass came into view above the far trees. Terror gripped Eva’s heart.

There, hovering above the shadowed canopy, was a manhunter warship. It was a starship of unparalleled size; spanning several kilometers from bow to stern. Its hull was the color of tempered gold. It was triangular in shape, with jagged spikes protruding from its frame. An orb of emerald, electric energy rested in the center of its hull.

Eva shuddered in fear. The manhunters had come for her again, and she needed to run.

She quickly rose to her feet. A jolt of pain surged through her injured calf. She winced in anguish. She felt as though someone had struck her with a cattle prod. Her legs wobbled, and she grabbed a nearby tree for support.

There was a sudden flash of green light. She turned toward the stampede, her mind racing. Pandemonium had broken loose. The aliens were scattering in all directions, clearly fearing for their lives. Several of their kind were lying dead on the ground. The corpses were so badly burned that Eva couldn’t discern their heads from their tails. Billowing smoke rose from the smoldering trees nearby.

A symphony of deafening cracks rang out. At first, Eva thought it was the sound of distant thunder, until she saw the flashes of emerald light coming from the northern trees. Seconds later, a volley of energy bolts emerged from the darkness. They were as bright as lightning, and burned with the intensity of a star.

Eva dove to the ground as all hell broke loose. The energy bolts struck the trees, igniting them in an instant. Tongues of emerald fire licked the leaves and burned the grass. Smoldering branches fell to the ground like rain. Shrill shrieks rang out as several of the fleeing aliens were burned alive.  

Eva’s heart raced. She was in grave danger. The energy bolts were being fired by unseen seeker drones; primitive automatons created by the manhunters to capture or kill their enemies. Eva was certain they were coming for her.

Muscles aching, she clambered to her feet and fled. She stumbled through the dark, her boots crushing fallen leaves and branches. Thick smoke lingered in the air. Flames ravaged the trees around her. The groans of dying aliens echoed through the night.

A bright searchlight descended upon the jungle. Eva narrowly avoided it. The warship was drawing closer; dozens of blinding searchlights surveying the area.

Eva dared not fire her pistol at the ship. It would be futile. Manhunter starships were as indestructible as their otherworldly pilots. Eva had seen the warship take direct hits from multiple nuclear warheads and emerge from the blasts without a single scratch. Their drones, however, were vulnerable to human weaponry. Eva believed they were made of a weaker type of alien metal. Regardless, she could destroy them, and she intended to, should the opportunity arise.

Eva ran through the underbrush, chest heaving. The fire was spreading rapidly through the jungle. The smoke obscured her vision. She used the navpoint on her HUD to guide her through the darkness. Though the Lotus was still miles away, Eva did her best to remain hopeful.

Energy bolts soared overhead. The trees in front of her exploded in a blast of fire, bark, and smoke. Eva was sent hurtling backward by the force of the impact. Her back slammed against the dirt, knocking the wind out of her.

She rolled away as the barrage of bolts set the underbrush ablaze. One shot passed her head and shattered a nearby boulder, missing her visor by mere inches. Eva staggered to her feet as smoke shrouded her helmet.

She raised her pistol, aimed at the darkness, and fired. It overheated. It took all her willpower not to throw the weapon into the night in anger. Instead, she clutched her injured leg and ran off.

She entered a vast clearing. A searchlight was surveying the trees close by. Eva crouched behind a boulder, panting loudly as she struggled to breath. She lied flat against the rock as the light slowly passed overhead.

Eva waited until the searchlight was more than a kilometer away before pressing on. She left the clearing and ventured out into the desolate night. She ran. Minutes passed like hours. Hot pain coursed through her veins like poison.

She passed through a vast sea of tall grass, then traversed the steep ravines beyond. It took her what felt like an eternity to climb the sharp rocks. Her exosuit weighed her down considerably, and she feared she might fall.

When at last she reached the top, she halted. From her perch atop the towering rocks, she could see for miles in all directions. The warship was flying high above the burning jungle, surveying the chaos. Emerald flashes illuminated the trees in various locations as seeker drones flew through the flames, searching for her.

She turned toward the navpoint. She could see scarcely the gulch where the Lotus was hidden. It was less than a mile away. Between the ravine and the gulch was an expanse of steep cliffs and canyons. Eva bit her lip. With her injuries, it wouldn’t be an easy area to cross, but she had little choice.

Before she could begin the climb down, an energy bolt struck the ravine. A blast of searing energy sent Eva careening into the air. She violently tumbled down the side of the ravine, her body slamming against the jagged rocks.

Eva fought through the pain, tucked in her arms and legs, and rolled the rest of the way down. She reached the base of the ravine within seconds. She came to a stop by jabbing her gauntlets into the loose dirt.

Groaning in agony, Eva staggered into the canyon beyond the ravine. She was dazed. Her hands trembled. Her lungs burned with every breath she took.

To her dismay, a trio of seeker drones emerged from the darkness. They hovered ominously above the ravine, using golden lasers to scan the area. They were small automatons, barely larger than Eva’s helmet. Their metallic frames were spherical in shape. Alien runes adorned their crescent wings. Energy blasters protruded from their angular heads like mandibles.

They quickly spotted her. Energy bolts rained down on the canyon as they opened fire. Eva dove into cover behind a spire of rock. She pressed her back against the spire as the barrage of bolts demolished the surrounding rocks.

The drones advanced, rocketing through the air at alarming speeds. Eva was pinned down, and the automatons would reach her within moments. Panicking, she decided to try her luck with the plasma pistol again. She activated the weapon, aimed at the drones, and prayed for a miracle.

She pulled the trigger. The resulting blast destroyed the side of the spire. She watched as an orb of superheated plasma shot through the night. It struck a seeker drone and exploded, sending a wave of liquefied energy into the air. The automaton fell in a heap to the ground, its metallic frame corroding into nothingness.

There was no time to celebrate. Eva turned and ran. The two remaining drones stopped to inspect their fallen comrade, giving Eva enough time to hide. Her pistol had overheated yet again, leaving her completely defenseless.

An eerie silence fell over the canyon. Eva crept from spire to spire, trying to remain unseen. The seekers flew overhead, their blasters glowing in the night. They were all playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, one that Eva did not intend to lose.

As she stalked through the shadows, a sudden message appeared on her HUD. She was drawing close to the navpoint. She looked ahead, spotting the steep gulch where she had hidden the Lotus. Her heart soared.

She crawled to the outskirts of the canyon. The drones were bombarding the nearby spires with energy bolts, trying to flush her out of hiding. She quickened her pace. Once she reached the edge of the canyon, she made a mad dash for the gulch.

The drones, alerted by the sudden noise, opened fire. A storm of searing bolts rained down upon Eva. She felt as if the air itself had caught fire. The ground was torn asunder by emerald blasts. Hundreds of smoldering rocks were launched into the night. Eva ran erratically through the chaos, fear clawing at her heart.

She entered the gulch. She used the datapad installed on her left gauntlet to de-cloak her ship. The White Lotus appeared out of thin air a few yards away, its reflective stealth panels shimmering.

Like all sparrow-class ships, the Lotus was relatively small. It was fifty feet long from bow to stern, and nearly thirty feet tall. It had a sleek, aerodynamic design, with sharp wings and twin thrusters. The ship possessed only one cannon, which was mounted below its nose.

As she approached the ship, its main doors slid open. Proto, a small, diamond-shaped droid emerged from the vessel. It had a curious design: Multiple layers of crimson metal were built around a glowing, white orb at its center. Tiny wings protruded from its sides like fins, and miniature hover-nodes allowed the droid to fly through the air.

Proto glanced at Eva, then at the approaching drones, then back to Eva. “It appears you are in danger, master!” it exclaimed in a high-pitched, robotic voice.

Eva ignored the droid. She ran into the ship. The drones continued to fire, their volatile bolts coming dangerously close to hitting the Lotus. Proto flew with haste back into the ship, its orb glowing a bright crimson.

Eva entered the cockpit. She strapped herself into the captain’s chair and took the controls. The ship exited standby-mode and roared to life. The overhead lights activated, illuminating the entire interior. The main reactor let out a resounding hiss as electrical power surged through the Lotus like adrenaline

She brought the primary cannon online and spun it toward the attacking drones. The cannon’s targeting system was being displayed on the Lotus’s windshield, and Eva used it to lock on to the seekers. She opened fire.

The Lotus shook as its primary cannon unleashed a barrage of molten lasers. They burned a bright crimson, and decimated the surrounding rocks. The seekers were obliterated by the resulting explosions. Shards of smoldering metal flew in all directions as the smoke settled.

“Hostiles neutralized!” Proto exclaimed. “Excellent shot, master!”

Eva paid the droid no mind. She prepared the ship for liftoff. The manhunters would be alerted by the destruction of their drones. She knew they’d come for her at any moment.

She pressed down on the ignition. Pillars of blue fire erupted from the ship’s main thrusters with incredible force. Bright flames encircled the gulch, sending plumes of smoke out into the canyon. The Lotus began to ascend into the air, its hull glistening in the moonlight.

She took the controls and gently spun the ship around. She could see the manhunter warship off in the distance. Its searchlights were pointed toward the Lotus, and its thrusters were ablaze with unholy fire.

“Hostile life forms detected!” Proto shouted. “They’re right below us!”

Terror gripped Eva’s heart. A chill slid down her spine. She glanced down, her mind racing.

There, standing above the remains of the destroyed drones, were the silhouettes of three figures. Eva could scarcely see them. They were more than eight feet tall, with slender bodies and jagged heads. They had four rigged arms, and two elongated legs. Shadows danced across their alien armor.

Manhunters.

Eva panicked. She brought the thrusters to full power, and prepared the ship for interstellar travel. The manhunters made no attempt to stop her. Instead, they watched her fly away, their head cocked to the side.

As the Lotus left the gulch, the centermost manhunter, who stood a head taller than the others, stepped forward. A searchlight descended upon it, revealing its glistening suit of golden armor.

To Eva’s dismay, the golden manhunter lifted its hand and waved, as if bidding her farewell. 

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