I'd been on collection teams before. Quite the lucrative undertaking if successful. Io, Ganymede, Europa, Titan, and Ceres--the gauntlet of near-habitable worlds I've checked off my list.Three men, including myself, were asked to plunder a world called Ichthys in Ursa Minor. The aqueous moon is one of three that orbit the steel-blue gas giant, Benthis. "How's your cut looking for this job," asked Carlson, a stocky ex-Canis Corps medic. I'd worked with him several times before in my Canis days as a marine and considered him a friend. "Heard those eggs are worth a lot." "Yeah," I muttered, not really answering him, "pretty good." I was hunched over by a porthole, drinking warm coffee from a pouch and staring at stars. Shaking off the rust from fugue was a gradual process. My joints ached and my head throbbed. It's definitely not one of life's rosy moments. "I read that the yolk from the eggs can rejuvenate the human heart and circulatory system," Amani said. He was a biologist-turned-mercenary I'd met in passing somewhere before. Amani was the only formally educated mercenary I'd ever met. I raised an eyebrow. "And where did you read this?" "The Journal of Exo-Planetary Biology. They wouldn't waste money to send us there unless sufficient research had been done," he said as if we should already know his science mumbo jumbo. "Knowledge is power, Sykes," Carlson quipped. He had a habit of striving for humor in serious situations. "Whatever. I just want to get there, do the job, and get my cut," said I as I floated over to them. "Before you go stomping into foreign territory, you should know how big these eggs are," Amani said with a grave look. He spun his research tablet around to show me. The egg pictured was waist-high to a man with the girth of an average doorway. "Big eggs mean big life forms," Amani said. I said, "They don't know what the creatures look like?" "The eggs used in research were found at an abandoned nesting site. I don't think the team wanted to stick around to see where the eggs had come from," Amani said. "I'm sure we'll find out. Nothing we can't handle with rifles right?" I pointed out of the porthole to Ichthys. "We're here. Let's get ready." We all got into our drop ship to descend to the surface. Descending down, the surface was astounding. Powder blue oceans were streaked with archipelagos as the only landmasses to speak of. The slender island chains were like claw marks on a marble. Amani shook me from my gaze. "Sykes! Did you hear me?" "Hear what, dammit?" "When you're done sightseeing, I wanted to inform you we're landing on that longest island in the southern hemisphere. That way we can stick to one island for our collections. Carlson got the estimates for land area. It's 622 x 10 kilometers." "Lots of real estate," I said, my irritation subsiding. "We're going to start near the lagoon on the west side. There's a sea cave where the research team found those eggs. They left a beacon to guide us," said Amani. "Weapons check," Carlson broke in. We all did an inspection and a functions check of our rifles. The upper and lower receiver inspection checked out, as well as my pulse carrier group. My charging handle and trigger were also good to go. We were set as the ship droned into its automatic landing process. The three of us moved down the back ramp of the ship. "Keep your heads about you, guys," I said. The air was thick with moisture, but safe for human lungs. I hacked at its near-tangibility but it sure beat the ship's recycled atmosphere. Amani said, "That must be the sea cave there." He pointed North. The beach ran straight into the cave, though it narrowed a bit. I guessed that the water in the cave was around eighty meters wide with a dozen meters of beach to walk on. "Let's throw our light sticks in and check it out," Carlson said. Three light sticks could illuminate a large area--more than sufficient for what we needed. I threw mine in first and we strode in. A raucous clacking came from the water. "Hear that? It's coming from the water," I whispered. There were large objects, skulled domes, drifting into each other. "What the hell?" I converged my shoulder beam on the area for better lighting. I could see below the clear surface. The creatures were like jellyfish, but anchored into the sandy bottom. Dozens of them were congregated some twenty meters from shore in an entanglement of violet and fuchsia tentacles. "They smell rotten," I muttered with a wave a nausea. Carlson was holding his nose but Amani didn't seem to mind the stench. "Maybe it's for attracting symbiotic organisms like carrion flowers do on Earth," Amani mused. He motioned onward with his head. "Let's get on with the job." With sufficient lighting, we continued to walk until we found a spacious path leading into the rock face. We took one of the light sticks in with us. That path forked into two and there was a nest at the end of each. The eggs rested on a bed of leaves with a ring of stones around them. "Seems like that report was accurate about the eggs, Amani," Carlson said. "As if there was any doubt to that." Amani bragged. He squatted down and lifted an egg. "I can lift it but taking it a hundred yards back to the ship might be a tall task. I'll go ahead and carry this one while we go back for the hover wagon." I asked, "Why didn't we bring the wagon in the first place?" "I wanted to locate eggs first, then worry about the wagon once we actually needed it. We can probably fit the other five eggs in it. Make it in one trip," Amani huffed as he walked with the egg back to the cave's beach area. Carlson and I followed him with the light sticks. The clacking of jellyfish skulls continued to echo from the cave. I stared into the dark cave water, thinking how tourism would boom if humans ever settled Ichthys permanently. Rich sightseers gawking at the creepy jellyfish, their skull domes clacking all hours of the day. I felt an odd pity for the jellies as they floated in the water their entire lives. Carlson and I unloaded and assembled the hover wagon while Amani placed the egg into a cubby cooler. Within ten minutes we were heading back to the cave as the sky darkened. The limpid, powder-blue ocean darkened to a navy brine as howling winds surged to a banshee scream. "What's going on with the weather, Amani?" asked Carlson with shaky undertones. "It's an ocean planet with an atmosphere. Storms are common here," Amani replied coolly. "Doesn't mean I have to like it," said Carlson. He looked up at the clouds, visibly nervous. "Never been a fan of storms." Getting closer to the cave, I noticed the sand had been disturbed and there were deep claw marks. No sooner than we'd noticed the tracks, a towering bird of at least four meters lurched into view from the murk of the sea cave. Vulture-like with a short row of gills on each side of the neck, it also sported claws with smaller duplicates within to back them up. Its front feathers were white and faded to powder blue on its back. The leggy avian cocked its bony head in a curious motion. It began to advance with instinctive confidence. My hands slowly matriculated to my rifle. Carlson raised his weapon. In a swift motion, sand was thrown in our faces by the winged adversary. I wiped the sand from my eyes in time to see the vulture on top of Carlson. My damned rifle jammed, double feed, but Amani fired a volley into the creature. It shrieked and took a looping dive into the ocean. "Are you okay?" I asked Carlson, running up to him. His tibia was poking through the skin while his arms sported multiple lacerations. "No, I'm not okay," he yelled. "Let's get you up," I said. Carlson hollered when I yanked him from the ground. Amani blared an urgent warning. "Double-time it. More birds coming." I was nearly dragging Carlson, helping him back to the ship. Amani was providing cover fire. "Almost th--" I started to say before Carlson was snatched from my arms by a vulture. The others converged and starting eating him alive. His screams were pleading and blood-curdling. I'll never forget the sound. The birds were ravenous. Nictitating membranes glazed over their eyes as they fed with primal satisfaction. "Let's go," Amani said. He was already halfway inside the ship. I realized I was frozen in shock and could barely acknowledge Amani. "We can't leave him here," I said, breathing hard, "even if he's dead." "There'll be nothing left of him though, Sykes. Now let's go!" He was right. Before I could start my trot to the ship, a vulture landed and blocked my path. Its head came down and I was halfway in its mouth. I was swallowed whole! I radioed from inside the bird. "I'm in big trouble, Amani. Big fucking trouble." "Damn, Sykes. I saw it take off over the top of the cave." I reached for my hunting knife. "See if you can follow it in the ship." It became difficult to catch my breath in the cramped crop of the animal. I tried to remain calm as my heart raced. The vulture continued to fly, then came to a stop. I could hear tiny squawks of vulture chicks. Nearly breathless and in panic, I managed to get my old Canis knife from its sheath with pure force and contortion. I started slashing flesh with the five-inch blade. A reddish-orange blood flowed from the wounds and onto my face as the vulture began to regurgitate me. I raked the knife blade along it's throat as I was being pushed out. Seeing light finally, I prepared myself for a knife thrust through the roof of the animal's jaw and hopefully into its brain. "I'm being regurgitated," I hollered to Amani. "I'm getting the ship over to you right now," he replied. "Doesn't look like I'll be able to land though. I'm gonna lower the scoop." I ignored him for a moment while shoving my weapon up and into the bird's skull. In moments, it fell limp and I wriggled myself out onto a rocky nest. I frantically wiped the bird's blood from my face. Two young vultures did a shimmy toward me when I stood up. As they attacked, I saw the drop ship hovering overhead. The rescue scoop was lowering down behind the man-sized chicks. Any other direction would send me over the asymmetrical cliff's edges. My only option was to go through the bestial barricade. The one to my left snapped at me and missed in juvenile clumsiness. I grabbed its beak into my armpit and cut its throat in a brutal flourish. The other "baby" was distracted by the ship so I ran around and toward the scoop. A striding jump onto the concave padding area secured my rescue as the cable began taking me up. Amani came into the cargo hold after putting the ship on autopilot. There was a period of silence and looking at each other as we processed what happened. "You think...they knew about...the birds?" I asked Amani, almost hyperventilating. It scared me to struggle for breath. He walked over to help me out of the scoop. "The research company?" "Yeah." I sat down in a bucket seat. "Probably," Amani said. "How do you figure?" "Animals adapt and learn from experience. Those birds recognized a rifle as a weapon." I said, "My guess is that they've been shot at before. But why wouldn't they tell us about it?" "Apparently we're expendable. At any rate, we'll blow the whistle on this when we get back to Earth and make sure Carlson didn't die in vain," Amani said, "but, for now, let's just focus on orientating the ship."
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