My metal companion spoke, breaking hours of silently trudging through this snowy hellscape.
“The birds have gone, Miss,” said Carson-5, its voice box crackling. Icicles shivered with the echo. The machine came to a stop with a hiss of hydraulics. Steam rose from puddles of slush pooled around its oval-shaped feet. Dull and grey, Carson-5 measured ten feet to the top of its cube head, which was little more than a speaker and pair of antennae. Broad shoulders supported long arms that ended in modular stumps equipped via a backpack cargo pod. The torso narrowed sharply before flaring into wide hips and a pair of segmented legs. Carson-5 was a standard scout and exploration unit, built to withstand any environment and keep its human masters alive. It wasn’t one of the kill-and-detain Yeager-7s most bounty hunters pal around with, but I got a great deal during my last trip to Earth—this particular Carson-5 had failed two previous owners.
“What birds?” I asked, looking back at Carson-5 through the fog of my own breath. All I had kept track of for the past five hours was the crunch of my own feet plunging through snow. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. My eyes had been glued to the distant mountain, not growing larger with each stride. Miles ahead, at the base of the mountain, was a ranger’s station. Significantly fewer miles behind, the wreckage of my ship, after an orbital collision with a fugitive’s escape pod. Rock. Hard, burning place.
“This planet is home to over 3,000 species of birds, at least fifteen of which inhabit this area,” the machine explained. “I have observed regular calls from many different birds since we arrived. They have been silent for five minutes.”
I stared at Carson-5. It stared into the foliage. Cold seeped into my thermal underwear.
“This is bullshit,” I said, resuming my hike and half-hoping a frozen branch might fall and put me out of my misery. My ship—home—gone. If Kadiis O’Len’s escape pod went down, too, they might never recover any evidence that could be turned in for a reward. If it didn’t, the trail would be cold long before we got off planet. The whole situation made for a frustrating day. “We need a campsite. The finding of which is your job, by the way. Were you bird-watching when Pete Jansen was swarmed by hyperwasps on Terek Prime?”
“Observance of local wildlife is in direct support of my primary function.”
“So that’s a yes.”
“There was a very colorful specimen of Olisp bat I was trying to show Mr. Jansen.”
We marched for a few more minutes, but the silence started to get to me, too. I heard the wind, the creaking of snow-laden branches, the buzz of Carson-5’s servos, the rustling of the blankets I’d wrapped around myself. I came to a halt and peered about.
“So, what preys on the birds here?” I asked.
“There are no natural predators in this area,” Carson-5 answered. “Not since the extinction of the sabretoothed lynx a century ago. The ranger’s station ahead monitors and controls bird populations without–”
“Fascinating,” I interrupted. I eased a hand beneath my coat to grip the pistol at my belt. “I don’t suppose you’re scanning for any largish heat signatures?”
Carson-5 paused, antennae swiveling. A long whir as the robot leaned close, though its inability to control the volume of its voice made Carson-5’s feigned whisper laughable. “There is a humanoid-sized being at close range.”
The snow not five feet to my left erupted. My attacker—a six-foot, 200-pound hairball—led with paws and two-inch claws fully extended. I caught a glimpse of the breastplate, emblazoned with the curved daggers of the Silvestris Piracy, over his black-brown fur. Kadiis. Then he was on me, claws sinking into my shoulders.
I collapsed under the big cat, thankful at least that thick layers of coat and blanket mostly protected me from his claws. I sacrificed my left forearm to his canines and struggled to get my pistol free, but it was a useless effort. His teeth pierced my arm, and I grunted to stifle a scream. His back claws scrambled to find purchase on my torso. In moments, my intestines would decorate the snow drifts. Where was that damned robot? Did Kadiis have compatriots keeping it busy?
I gave up on the gun and twisted my arm and hips, kicking out with my knees to hurl the Silvestris free. He twisted in mid-air and landed on all fours, already crouching for another pounce. I didn’t bother trying to get to my feet. I met his golden eyes for an instant, and we both knew one of us wouldn’t be walking away from this. He leapt. I drew and put three shots up the breastplate and into his neck. O’Len fell dead inches from my face.
I lurched to my feet, pistol at the ready for the rest of the cat’s posse. Carson-5 stood where it had, arms just now withdrawing from the cargo pod, equipped with a hammer and three-fingered hand that would have been extraordinarily useful ten seconds ago. Carson-5 raised its shoulders in a simulacrum of a shrug.
“Nice,” I said. “That’s great. Fantastic job, partner!” I pointed to the cat’s corpse with my slightly less bloody arm. “You know who this is? This is Kadiis O’Len!”
“From the most–”
“From the most wanted list,” I parroted its voice, “yes! He almost eviscerated me!”
“I could not decide between hammer and plasma chainsaw.”
I sighed. “There will never be a time when the answer to that question isn’t chainsaw.”
Carson-5’s antennae twitched. “I am detecting the return of local fauna.”
“Maybe you’re not totally useless.” I holstered my weapon. “Pick that up. We’ll need it for the reward.”