“Next!” I ordered. I did not at first bother to look up from the desktop in front of me where the standard security systems were scanning the being in front of me for weapons, pathogens, parasites and other such contraband. I only looked up when the machine flashed a message I had never seen before:
“ERROR: Unknown Species”
It was small. Barely tall enough to see over the top of my customs desk, in fact. A quadriform biped, forelimbs ending in five manipulating digits. Much of its body was covered in obviously synthetic fabric, with only the forepaws and head visible. Much of the head—the top, around the ears, and down under and around the mouth and nose—was covered in short, coarse fur of a brownish hue, apart from where this had been shaved in front of the ear to accept a cybernetic of some description. My desk registered this as the creature’s Interspecies Communication Implant, though it seemed like a shockingly crude example.
It met my surprised stare with the level binocular gaze of a species evolved for predation and the hunt. Small, but powerful and dense-seeming. Despite its lack of height, it had strapped a pack to its torso that looked larger and heavier than I could have comfortably carried.
“Abductee 907-42-96-53-3.” It introduced itself. “Name—Kevin Jenkins.” Fortunately, the crude cybernetic seemed to be functioning perfectly, and I had no difficulty in understanding the thing’s speech, or the subtle body language that spoke of a cocktail of bored resignation and weariness.
I had never had to deal with an abductee before, though I had been trained and knew exactly what to do. I closed the booth, stood up and gestured for the alien to follow me with my second right forelimb. “I will need to interview you in private.” I told it. Him.
He picked up a second bag, and strolled—strolled! While carrying more than I suspected I could physically lift!—after me. Whatever this thing was, it was from a high-gravity planet.
“I know the drill.” He said. “Pretty sure I’ll be leaving this station before long, too.”
“Why would that be?” I asked politely as I ushered him into the private interview corral and activated the privacy field. The sounds of immigration control evaporated as a sudden fuzzy silence engulfed us.
He dropped the bags and they landed with a solid, dense noise that told me they were exactly as heavy as they looked. “It’s only a matter of time before your colleagues in security prosecute me for vagrancy,” he said.
“Why would they do that?” I asked, to make conversation as I prepared the official forms.
“Article 227, paragraph 16 of the Galactic Treaty of Laws.” He said, stretching out and rolling its head. His endoskeleton issued a loud clicking sound and he issued a sigh that my implant interpreted as pleasure. He laughed, a sound that served the exact same purpose as it did in mine, though this one was tinged with bitterness. “Technically, as a member of a pre-interplanetary species, I am a non-sentient specimen of indigenous fauna and therefore cannot be legally employed or own property.”
I indicated my understanding by nodding—another gesture our body language shared in common—and raising the fur at the nape of my neck. “The Corti abducted you, didn’t they?”
“My kind call them ‘Greys’.” he replied.
I nodded. The Corti were small—even smaller than this being—grey-skinned but with large eyes and oversized brains as a result of a centuries-long eugenics program within their species which had vastly expanded their intellect. Most other species suspected that their sense of empathy had atrophied as a side-effect of the campaign to make themselves smarter. They were known for abducting specimens of a pre-Contact species, experimenting on them to acquire biological data, then using that information to be able to sell cybernetic technology to the newcomers that was appropriate to their biology the second they were welcomed into the galactic fold. Unethical, but the species as a whole could not be prosecuted for the actions of a few and so the sale of the implants went ahead anyway. Kevin Jenkins had clearly been one of their victims.
“Apt.” I said. “Why not have the implant removed and return to your homeworld?”
“Because I’d never be able to keep the secret, and so the Office for the Preservation of Indigenous Species won’t let me.” he said. “Can we please start with the official stuff? I haven’t slept in two standard Diurnals.”
“I apologise” I said, chagrined at my own lack of professionalism. I activated the corral’s recording function
“Interview begins, interstellar convenient standard date/time 1196-5-24.4. Civilian trade station 591 ‘Outlook on Forever’, Customs and Immigration Officer Krrkktnkk a’ktnnzzik’tk interviewing immigrant pre-Contact abductee. Could you repeat your identification for me, please?”
“Abductee 907-42-96-53-3 Male. Name—Kevin Jenkins. My species refer to ourselves as ‘Human’. Our homeworld is a category twelve temperate at co—”
I interrupted him. “I must ask you to take this interview seriously. Your visa will be denied if you continue to mock the immigration system.”
Its facial feature twisted up into an expression of amusement. “I assure you officer, I am not mocking the immigration system. My species homeworld really is a category twelve temperate. You will find documentary verification of that fact on this data storage.”
I ripped the data from the storage and attached it to the recording. True to his word, a full survey of the “human” homeworld revealed that it was indeed category twelve—a death world. Hostile, vicious and forever primordial. Experimentally I tried to enter this fact onto the paperwork, which of course threw up an error code.
“It is considered impossible for sentient beings to evolve on category twelve planets,” I said.
“As I explained off the record, according to Article 227 Paragraph 16 of the Galactic Treaty of Laws I am, legally, not a sentient being.” it raised its forelimbs and the torso joints moved in a complicated way, denoting resignation. I gave this some consideration, and scrapped the form. He was quite correct and that status made properly navigating him through the immigration paperwork impossible. The recording would just have to do. Jenkins nodded, and our implants eventually decided that he meant that a prediction had come true. “You can see why the administration on station 442 kicked me out.” he said. “I’m a bureaucratic anomaly. The whole system is far too rigid to accommodate me and mine.”
I caught myself nodding my agreement and shut the gesture down. It would show up on the record and negatively impact my next performance evaluation. “I get the impression that station 442 is not the only place where you-”
I was interrupted by an alarm. Three short howls of noise—the attack alarm.
“Impossible!” I exclaimed as I leapt out of my chair, and registering the motion the corral shut down our privacy field. The remaining passengers from the shuttle that we had been processing were responding with varying degrees of calmness. Some, more skittish species, were beating a hasty retreat to the shuttle’s airlock, while others waited for instructions.
I had not finished gathering my thoughts when there was a sudden violent lurch that knocked me from my feet. I saw Jenkins sway with the motion and remain upright, despite the fact that he was balanced precariously on only two legs. A second alarm began to sound—the long wail of a station damage alarm. This was then followed by the angry growl of a hull breach alarm, but oddly not the decompression alarm.
That could mean only one thing.
“Them? Here?” I asked of nobody as I struggled to my feet and trotted to the weapons locker.
“Them?” Jenkins asked, loping along easily next to me in what was clearly much lower gravity than he was evolved for.
The locker reacted to the security codes my station security officer’s harness was broadcasting and opened, spilling out a pair of pulse guns, two personal shield emitters and a magazine of coin-sized nervejam grenades. I slapped the shield emitter to the power dock on my harness. There was no visible change, but the sense tendrils along my back felt a tingling as the shield came online. The pulse gun configured itself for my species as I picked it up and connected its power cable to my harness.
“Hunters,” I whispered.
Jenkins didn’t seem especially frightened by the news, but then I realised he had almost certainly never heard of the only carnivorous species in the galaxy that preferred the meat of fellow sentients.
I didn’t have time to explain. There was the sound of pulse-gun fire and a squealing being galloped into the customs area before being caught from behind by a kinetic pulse that hurled it to the ground, broken and dying.
Jenkins sprinted for cover, and I followed. Despite my longer legs, he covered the ground faster and threw himself behind a customs booth as another kinetic pulse missed him. I turned and shot at the Hunter that had aimed at us. My shot evaporated harmlessly against a protection field identical to mine. There were three more behind it and I ducked into cover next to the human as their return fire threatened to overwhelm my defenses.
“We’re in trouble…” I whined. All around us, fleeing and panicking immigrants were being smashed to the ground by Hunter firepower. Jenkins popped his head above the countertop and ducked again as a volley of shots targeted him. “Six of them” he said. “Ugly motherfuckers.”
I had to agree, as I fired a few suppressing shots around the corner. While judging any species by the aesthetic values of your own species doesn’t make a lot of sense, Hunters were ugly. Their skin was a grotesque matte ceramic-white, and their seven eyes, each blinking independently, provided them with exceptional depth perception. On six legs, they were extremely stable, and their forelimbs were cybernetically fused into their heavy pulse guns, making disarming them impossible. These ones were wearing full military combat harness—my own light security harness was no match. Our only hope was the magazine of nervejam grenades which, I realised with a falling sensation of failure, I had left in the locker.
“The grenades….” I swore.
“Only hope?” Jenkins asked. He was holding himself low and hunched, and I could see those dense high-gravity muscles tense and ready under his lightly-furred skin.
I nodded, fighting back the urge to excrete in my terror. If they took us alive, we would be food. By the time I realised that Jenkins had taken off at a flat sprint toward the locker, he was almost a third of the way there.
I knew what I had to do. The Hunters were turning to fire at him as I popped up from cover. They saw me coming but I put three rounds into one and its shield failed against the third. It collapsed, what passed for its face shattered by the impact, and I ducked as its fellows returned fire. One ignored me and kept firing at Jenkins, but he was so fast, so small, and the rounds smacked into the deck plating around him. He threw his feet out ahead of him and slid the last few strides to the locker. He popped up to his feet, looked at me as he raised his arm, and threw, accurately and much, much further than I could have thrown them.
Then a pulse round took him in the torso and flung him against the wall.
I had no time to mourn. I caught the grenades, slipped one from the cylindrical container, counted two light pulses from the indicator around its edge, and threw it toward the enemy on the third. A second later there was a flare of light and shrieking, but it was not enough. Two of the Hunters rampaged past their convulsing comrades, rushing me. I fired, but fear took my aim and the best I managed was a single round that impacted harmlessly against a shield before their return fire broke my own shielding and ruined my arm.
I collapsed, shaking from the pain. The Hunters trotted round the corner, eerily silent—nobody had ever heard them communicate verbally. I stared at their twin heavy pulse guns, too afraid even to close my eyes before the end.
It didn’t come. Instead something black, blue and brown hurtled into the flank of one of the alien warriors with a crunch and a hiss of pain. It staggered, collided with its comrade and fell.
Jenkins—somehow, impossibly alive despite taking a kinetic pulse round to the chest—wrestled very briefly with the Hunter, and then there was a horrible organic splitting noise, the hiss became a shriek, and the gun was in hands, blood and mangled meat dripping from the cybernetic interface.
The second Hunter snap-fired and Jenkins dropped the gun as the shot winged him. He didn’t seem to notice—instead he pounced and a second shot barely missed him before his forepaw lashed out, balled up into a hard knot of gravity-densened bone and flesh which he drove into the Hunter’s eye cluster.
It shrieked and flailed, swatting the human with its hindlimbs. He didn’t appear to care—instead he caught one of the flailing limbs, braced one of his own feet against the Hunter’s flank, and heaved with a roar. There was a grim tearing noise, and the Hunter’s leg came away. Its blood sprayed thick and fat through the air, coating the man from the death world but he ignored it. He didn’t spare the fallen alien a second glance as he charged at the lone survivor.
It was suicide. The Hunter had a clear shot and took it. Then it took a second. Then a third, and a fourth, and though every single one was on target, Jenkins just kept going, apparently completely impervious to impacts that would have pulped any other species.
Hunters don’t wear inter-species communication implants, but I didn’t need one to recognise the fear and panic it briefly had time to show before it was beaten to death with another Hunter’s severed leg. Jenkins just kept hitting it, again and again, snarling and shouting, ordering it to die and declaring improbable things about its parentage before finally he stopped and stepped away from the broken thing he had made, gulping down great shuddering breaths of what, to him, must have been very thin and dry air. Then he apparently lost the strength to stand and his forelimbs folded up underneath him. His head sank down until the pointed bottom of his jaw was resting against his torso.
I swallowed my pain and staggered to my feet. My arm dangled useless by my side and every slight movement was agony, but I had to know if he was alive.
The all-clear alarm sounded just before I reached him, and he moved in response to it. One of his eyes had swollen and was turning a dark red-purple. But the other blinked at me and his mouth curled upwards at the corners. I saw that one of his teeth was missing.
“Tough bastards.” he said, and spat bright red blood onto the Hunter corpse next to him.
I couldn’t help it. I had to laugh.