Molli cut away a vine with her survival knife as she stalked her way through the trees, keeping her head low. It was dark on the jungle floor, despite the presence of Cyrene’s sun blazing overhead, aided by the two large force fields that hung perpetually over the distant Imperium Fortifications. She scowled; A.R.C. had been fighting them for more than a decade with nothing more than a stalemate to show for it. Low level warfare was the name of the game on Cyrene; A.R.C. against Imperium, Turrelion against Duster, the two insect tribes, one fighting the merfolken and the other in a civil war…not that it mattered to Molli. She had made a lot of money fighting in their various wars, and PED was not in short supply on this world. Smartest move she ever made was hitching a ride on the Varyag and coming to what looked like a backwater planet to get away from the repetitive C.D.F. missions that always paid just a little less than she thought she’d earned.
Of course, PED wouldn’t help her here, whether it was enough for her or not; the Panton Jungle, with its myriad of creatures, was a dangerous place. The megafauna, carnivorous and highly aggressive; some of the flora too. She took two steps forward and stopped, her foot hovering in the air. Beneath the foot writhed what looked like a living flower pot, standing upside down on the jungle floor in the leafy rot. The surface was alive, and crawled with movement, and she slowly lowered her foot and took a half-step back.
Zyzo. Panton army ants, she thought. More dangerous than even the Empis Wasps, Zyzo were a legionary insect endemic to the jungle. Every two weeks, they’d cut a swath across the jungle floor, killing and eating everything in their path for a kilometer, before stopping again. Even megafauna would move out of the way of a legion; they had been witnessed killing even a panleon, not a small feat for a small insect. Their bites were necrotic, highly venomous, and stopped the heart. She shuddered. That would have been my life, I’m not even sure my armour would be proof against a whole colony. She retraced her steps in a path around the bivouac, cutting through more vines as she went, contemplating the use of a grenade on the colony as to prevent them from ever being an issue again. Better not, she mused, I’d like as not miss some of them and set the jungle on fire. Then I’d have two major problems instead of one minor one. She got clear of the danger zone and continued her stalk through the trees. The wet decay on the jungle floor squelched under her feet, the Ghost Armour’s treads helping to keep her from slipping in the mud and rot. The sun shone over head and through a gap in the trees, illuminating the jungle floor ahead of her. As she approached the rare clearing, the hackles on the back of her neck started to rise and she spun quickly.
A rattle and the sound of tooth hitting metal. The Cyrene Rattler had thought she was a threat when her foot came too close to its head. She started to retreat, not out of fear, but to not aggravate the aggrieved predator anymore than she had; it had no chance of penetrating her armour, despite the drops of venom that had dripped on it. Unlike the Zyzo, Cyrene Rattlers wouldn’t find the gaps in her armour and exploit them to murder her. She kept on her journey through the jungle, taking greater care to step lightly. This place is no place for a human, she thought, it’s hostile by nature; the very essence of nature’s brutal reality brought to life. I should have come out here earlier.
She closed her eyes, hidden as they were behind the ghost armour’s mask, breathing in air of the jungle. Although the mask featured an air filter, she had it turned off so she could smell the scents of the jungle around her. Her mother had always taught her that if you are going to hunt, you had to smell your prey as much as see and hear it. She turned the HUD in her mask off, then removed it completely. Although it was ill advised to walk through any of Cyrene’s wilds unarmoured, she felt relatively safe here; she was borne of a jungle, and to the jungle she belonged. For a moment, a small heartache for her childhood home in Brazil on Earth panged, but she dismissed it; you couldn’t make a living there much, anymore. She opened her eyes and stared around her, listening for the telltale signs of prey.
There. In the air, over the smells of plants and rot, she caught wind of the scent of what she sought. She held fast, waiting for a second whiff of the prowling megafauna. She padded as best she could in the titanium sabatons she wore, their treads holding fast to the slippery jungle floor, and she hunkered down in the low brush. She passed another Cyrene Rattler, careful to give it a wide berth as not to disturb it; now that she was near her prey, she did not want to disturb it. She powered down her ODIS as to prevent its automatic recovery system from kicking on; this was to be a traditional hunt, not something aided by technology. Holding the survival knife in her hand, she wished she had a spear; its reach would be amazing for a hunt like this, and her skill level was greater, but there was no suitable piece of hardwood to fasten the knife to.
She crept, body held low and knees bent, toward the prey she sought–the grey furred and bright-horned panleon, its sharp teeth chewing on the carcass of a kanin. Molli frowned; kanin were native to Calypso, not Cyrene. There must have been a group imported and released, either accidentally or by design, for them to be here. This will be worth reporting, she thought. Kanin breed like their Terran cousins the rabbit. If they’re spreading across the jungle as an invasive species, there’s no telling what damage can be done to the ecosystem here. Not that the panleon will care. She slowly stalked the munching panleon, careful to stay behind its field of view. The large beasts weren’t overly intelligent, but this one was nearing the size of a Mang Chang and their teeth were sharp as razors. She crept, careful to avoid anything that would make noise as she timed her steps to the grinding of the unfortunate kanin’s body as to disguise her movements.
Crouching down in preparation of her attack she calmed her mind, and let the air wash over her. The stench of the kanin’s blood, the smell of the fur of her prey, the rot of the leaf litter around her, the sound of the panleon’s satisfied chirps. There was nothing in the world but her and the prey; and the prey was wily enough to be her predator. This would be kill or be killed. The perfect test of my prowess. If it weren’t for the other dangerous creatures in this jungle, I might even eschew the armour. She raised the knife, set for a sprint, and then struck.
The panleon screamed in pain as the knife plunged into its body between the ribs; Molli’s strike had been precise and deep. She quickly pulled the knife out to make a second strike, but the massive marsupial body-checked her, causing her to lose her feet. As it turned to face her, she rolled out, avoiding a goring by the creature’s lighted horn. She struck again, missing her mark but cutting the animal’s face, causing it to turn away as it screamed again. The scream was awful; like a combination between a whimpering dog and a dying rabbit; the face of the panleon contained a large number of nerves and touch-sensitive skin, the better to detect its prey’s movement. She frowned in self-admonishment. Take the prey with as little pain as possible. Given her druthers, she would have killed it with the first strike, however her knife wasn’t long enough to penetrate to the lungs underneath the fat and muscle the Cyrenian marsupial had.
She dodged another attempt on her life by the horn, and she lunged, sliding past the head. Grabbing the animal by the neck, she quickly slit its throat and held it, trying to make the kill as quick as possible. The Panelon, already bleeding from the chest, quickly bled out, its last breath a whimper. “Thank you, great beast of Cyrene,” she incanted, in the tradition of her people, “for you will feed both my body and my soul, and I will honor your spirit.” She cut open the panleon’s chest and efficently took out the heart, then used her nose to turn the ODIS back on. It wouldn’t do to get blood on it. The ODIS quickly broke the remainder of the body down into its usable components, and then she nose-clicked another button and her gauntlets dematerialized and rematerialized, clean of the blood.
Picking the heart up, she carefully picked her way through the jungle toward the coast. Such a prize needed to be washed in salt water to be properly enjoyed.