It was the biggest Rhin Neza had ever seen. He was easily a meter taller than the ones back in town and his footsteps could be felt even 20 meters away. His coarse grey skin was splotched black in several areas, especially around his torso which was protected by a huge chestplate. He carried what looked like a large blade that was sharp enough to cut through thick branches that blocked his path. Neza knew he would have to go through this Rhin if he ever wanted to get to Commander Regan.
Neza had been following the Rhin and three humans for over an hour hoping they would guide him back to Regan, but he was losing his patience. Heavy droplets of rain water had been beating on him for the entire time and he hated the smell of his own damp fur. He was sure they were looking for Ranico the same way they did with him, but the Rhin moved so slowly that the humans following him were able to stop every few minutes to smoke and make casual conversation without losing pace. Neza considered taking a nap for a couple hours and just following the huge trail of broken branches and fat muddy footprints they left behind.
Hiding in the jungle was difficult for him considering the plants’ reaction to his presence. Any fern or brush he hid behind would part the moment he got close, so he had to creep on all fours and stay far away from his targets to compensate. As annoying as this was, Neza kept himself amused by dashing far ahead of the group and tracking them from a distance, testing his stealth capabilities. It was fun for him to use his full potential as a predator, even with such helpless prey. He tried to see the rain as an added challenge.
The plants seemed to flee from the Rhin the same way. The trees that were too big to move were chopped down with the blade he carried. Neza could hear it humming when the Rhin swung it, creating an unnatural crackling sound when it hit the wood.
A dull throbbing pain reminded him the penalty of thought and he pushed it all away with mild frustration. He was tired of waiting in the soaking dirt, bored and unable to think for fear of pain, but he was getting used to it. Hot blood pumped through his veins as he repressed his adrenaline-fueled anticipation of the kill. Regan was not the target of his blood thirst, but the Rhin and several of the human soldiers would probably have to die before they let him near their Commander. At least he hoped that was the case.
While his internal ventures toward understanding and recovering his memory were punished with varying levels of pain, his aggressive and violent impulses were rewarded with endorphins and adrenaline. Neza felt himself giving in to his hormones and becoming a hollow shell of unthinking violence. The large rodent he killed for food earlier that day gave him an amazing rush. Tasting the blood from his kill lit a dark fire inside him. Fighting the destructive urges was getting harder every day — every hour. He valued his memory more than his mental health, but he wondered which he’d miss more if he lost both.
Forcing yet another thought from his mind, Neza sprinted another half kilo and bounded up into a nearby tree before he saw the human camp. Four large tents surrounded a large unlit fire pit and a truck carrying large empty wooden crates were easily visible. The whole camp was shaded by an enormous Deitra Tree, making it slightly less conspicuous. Once he was in the elevated post the trees offered, he could see Regan sitting with a uniformed female and three soldiers smoking cigars. Regan’s hair was longer and more grey than it was in Neza’s memories. The salt and pepper of a short rough beard outlined his tanned face. He was wearing his same black uniform, but it was unbuttoned and wrinkled. His dog tags glinted through a thick mess of chest hair when lightning struck in the distance. This was a far cry from the neat and meticulous soldier Neza remembered.
The Rhin knocked over a tree at the camp’s edge with little more than a shrug on his way in and sat quietly near the truck. He made no effort to avoid the rain that rolled down through the cracks in his rough skin and horns. His escorts gathered near the Commander without interrupting their jovial conversation. Regan and the others casually greeted the new arrivals with slapping hands and smiles. Neza dropped down from his tree and crept in closer, carefully concealing his form within the shadows.
Through The Iris
“You don’t have to take it so personally, Saf” Regan said quietly as he sat down in the mud next to the enormous Rhin. “I know you want to help us out, but you’re not really the tracker type.”
Saf’s pout sounded more like a growl because of his sheer size.
Regan’s pep talk was cut short by human screams. He and Saf stood and ran around the truck to see Major Colissa firing her rifle into the trees. “Major! What the hell–“
Something heavy and wet hit Regan hard in the back, knocking him to his knees. Struggling to pull breath back into his lungs, he turned around to see Matthews –one of his men– beaten bloody and slashed across the abdomen on the ground. Colissa was firing at a different section of trees now, her face contorted into a cold sneer.
Regan had always laughed at Colissa when she told him about the things that happened to her when she first landed in the shit. The invisible force that killed forty three of her men was like something he had read in Tolkien books when he was a teenager. Gazing into the unblinking eyes of a brutally murdered comrade, he didn’t feel much like laughing now.
Colissa ceased firing for a moment and ran over to two other bloody bodies on the ground to check their vitals. She looked up at Regan and shook her head. Her eyes burned with rage, but the same cold sneer remained on her face.
“My knife’s gone!” Regan heard Saf whisper urgently behind him. The deep voice of a Rhin with thirty gallon lung capacity defeated the purpose of whispering. Regan was once amused by Saf calling the meter long High-Frequency WaveBlade he carried a knife, but against an enemy like this it may as well have been a cooking utensil.
Regan walked carefully to the passenger side of the truck, opened the door and pulled out a large assault rifle. “Form up with the Major!” he barked to Saf before rushing over to her. But Saf didn’t follow.
“Watch out!” Colissa shouted and aimed her rifle toward the turned back of the giant Rhin. Saf grunted loudly and lunged forward at something they couldn’t see from their angle. After a momentary struggle, Saf lurched backward and threw a large hairy animal several meters up into the air, away from the truck. When it landed in the mud with a splash on two robotic legs, Regan realized what they were fighting. The Commander’s jaw fell open while Colissa’s finger pulled the trigger.
Bullets streamed past so close that Neza’s whiskers twitched as he rolled away from the humans. Finding cover behind some crates and one of the tents, he peered over at the Rhin to see him yank the large blade from his shoulder as if it were a bee’s stinger. The Rhin glared at Neza and strafed around him carefully and waving the bloody blade menacingly. Neza could hear Regan shouting, “Try not to kill him!” to the protesting shouts of the female. The disagreement seemed like a good opportunity for him to pull back and prepare his next strike.
Neza bolted from behind the tents and carved a trail through the damp grass of the clearing back into the trees. The loud repeating blasts of automatic weapons rang in his ears but he arrived behind cover unscathed. As he threaded a path between the trees, Neza could feel the rush of adrenaline that his incredible speed gave him. Once deep enough, he started moving around the camp to find his next attack route. The advantage of stealth was his again.
The ground suddenly shook violently and he had to slow his pace to keep from stumbling. His eyes darted around him, but he couldn’t see anything but trees and mud. He could feel the vibrations clearly, even through the shock absorbers in his legs and had to widen his stance to balance. His eyes widened and he saw a tiny red light just as the source of the disturbance dawned on him. Neza leaped high into the air just as the Rhin crashed through the trees next to him.
Neza managed to clear the Rhin’s charge with his leap, but he landed in the wide open wake of the impressive charge. Another volley of bullets streamed by him and he felt searing pains in his left arm and ear before he could pivot away and back into the trees. It was like the Rhin could see him somehow, even through the darkness and cover of the jungle floor. Neza could hear Regan shouting something unintelligible as the Rhin strode toward him calmly grasping the blade that once pierced his shoulder –which was no longer bleeding despite the depth of the wound.
Crouched and ready to engage the Rhin, Neza didn’t know what was behind him until he felt a dagger break his flesh and not stop until its tip passed his ribcage. Immediately after, Colissa had her forearm locked around his neck from behind and put a pistol to his head. The blade in his back bore the weight of her body as she stood on it to reach his head. After struggling for a moment, Neza felt the adrenaline leave his body as quickly as hope left his mind. He allowed his body to loosen up and submit to the situation.
“Good to see you again, Neza” Regan’s voice came from beside him. “You back for revenge?”
“I haven’t decided yet” Neza spat out the words with labored breathing.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you were” Regan continued. “Those lab guys really jacked you up. I’d be pissed too.” He rolled up one of his sleeves, revealing a metallic section where his forearm should be.
Neza didn’t have the energy to be surprised. “I can’t remember… things–“
“So you came here for answers” the Commander completed the sentence. “I’m inclined to help you with that. It’s the least I could do…” he tapped his artificial limb “for my prototype.”
Colissa removed her arm from Neza’s throat and sprang down from the knife handle. Blood streamed out of the wound when her weight left it, but the Felni didn’t flinch. “Were you the one that killed my entire platoon?” she questioned coldly looking up at Neza’s face with her sidearm still pointed at him.
Neza lowered his head to peer at Regan and thought silently for a moment. “I don’t know” he muttered, deferring the question to Regan with his gaze.
“No, Major. That was seven years ago. Neza wasn’t loose until a couple weeks ago.” the Commander explained with a smug look on his face. “Before that, he never left the grounds except in my company.” The Commander pulled a first aid kit from his pack and motioned towards the trampled tents and column of smoke at their camp, “You want to learn more?” Regan began walking without waiting for a response.
Neza coughed, and small speckles of blood sprayed the splintered remains of the tree next to him. When he turned toward the camp and began walking, Colissa abruptly plucked the blade from his back and flicked the blood from it before sliding it into her boot. Neza’s pained roar scattered birds and insects from the trees around them. He glared at the back of her head as she walked by, then shook some of the mud and water from his fur before following.
Actions & Motives
The ground shook as the Rhin sat down thirty meters away, evidently uninterested in the conversation. Colissa put all of her attention into loading and cleaning her rifle and sidearm. Even Neza could tell that she was struggling to contain a wave of rage toward him. If Regan weren’t here, Neza might be dead by now.
“You killed three of her friends. I’m sure you can understand her… apprehension” Regan said quietly. The sound of antiseptic spray preceded the stinging sensation as it usually did. The bullet in his arm was removed and the hole was patched. “I just met the guys the other day, but she’s known them awhile. It might take some work to win her over now.”
Advances in medical nanotechnology made a punctured lung a minor injury, even in the field. The medic only needed to program the swarm of microscopic machines for species and injury type before injecting them into the bloodstream. They caused hardly any pain and exited the body in coughs, sneezes, or waste. “Don’t worry, your synthetic lower digestive system can handle these things even better than a normal human’s. No wear and tear.”
Neza didn’t seem to care at all. The fact that they made no attempt to restrain him made it easier for him to trust them, but not by much. After several minutes of silence, his curiosity finally reached its limit. Neza turned toward Regan and broke the silence, “What did you mean when you said I’m your prototype?”
“I’m not sure how much you remember, so I’ll just give you the whole story… That is, if you’re ready for a long night.” Regan waited for Neza to nod before beginning his story.
“When we got here, the whole planet was green as hell. Scientists told the Arc HQ on Earth –that’s our home planet– that this planet could be home to the Key to Terraforming. I’m not sure what exactly that means other than big stock market gains and government contracts, but it’s not really my area of expertise. Anyway, they deployed the Science Teams along with us Security Forces to protect them while they search for whatever this key thing is.
“We established a landing party and touched down not far from here only to find you guys. We knew there was life down here, but we didn’t realize it was sentient life. Our first contact with the Felni was… not very successful. Both sides were panicked by the other and we lost several men and Felni right away. It wasn’t until one of the older Felni stopped them from fighting that we could ceasefire.
Eventually, we arranged for one of your community leaders to allow us to analyze your language with our computers. This allows us to understand and speak Felni –or ‘Meow’ as some of the Security guys call it. Over time talking with your people, we became friendly and they decided to help us find what we were looking for as long as we shared some of our technology.
“Sadly, before the negotiations got to that point, two of our expedition teams were completely wiped out when they tried to explore the jungles without guidance from the natives. The Major over there is one of the few survivors of those teams.”
Regan paused for a couple minutes to start a fire. The sun was setting and the rain had finally stopped. Neza barely blinked. All of this information was bringing back small shards of his shattered memory, but nothing had helped him yet. He could feel the shards slicing his brain to ribbons as each of them arrived. Neza could see the flickering fire in Colissa and Saf’s eyes as they sat together by the truck watching him from a distance.
“I know you were just a cub back then, but you can probably understand her suspicion. Most of the things she saw in there could only be explained by calculated attacks, not accidents.” Once the fire was crackling loudly, he sat back down. “And you certainly fight like you’re invisible.” Regan seemed to be apologizing on Colissa’s behalf.
“I’m not interested. Continue your explanation.”
Regan nodded with a slightly disappointed look on his face before continuing.
“Once we made peace with the Felni, we learned more about your planet. Your people told us about the other species that live here, like the Rhin and the Canis. The Rhin were in bad shape with their numbers dwindling from their constant territorial battles with the wilder Felni tribes on the eastern plains. They embraced us when we welcomed them to live with us and help us process the local minerals into fuel for our equipment. Since then, they’ve been doing much better and their genes have even strengthened, allowing them to give birth to some truly gifted Rhin like Saf over there.
“A year or so went by with everything going pretty well. Inter-species relations were moving in a positive direction and everything was mutually beneficial. Then, some of the young Felni and Rhin started going missing. Rumors started among the parents that they were being kidnapped by humans, but Arc denied it. They said external tribes of Canis were stealing the children, but the rumors still continued. Small riots were suppressed throughout the Felni area of the town until the humans had to put up fences around their living areas to keep them safe. Human workers in the factory were pulled back to other areas and replaced with natives to prevent racial tension between the workers.
“But the rumors persisted and grew worse. Some of the science team members with guilty consciences were accused of leaking information about what was going on at some of the lab ships, but they were always sent up to the orbit team before they could say too much. As Commander I’m usually privy to information like this, but this was extremely sensitive. I was never sure what to believe until a couple years later… when they introduced me to you.”
Neza stared at him, “What are you trying to tell me Regan?” He wore his impatience and interest on his face.
“You were a magnificent beast– err, soldier. The very first day I was assigned to take you out into the jungle for a trial, you outran all of us in seconds. We had to pull your Leash to catch up.”
“Get to the point!” Neza roared as he stood up and glared down at the Commander. Colissa and Saf both stood, ready to defend Regan.
Regan didn’t flinch. He stared right into Neza’s eyes, “I think you were one of the kidnapped cubs. I think they took a bunch of you so they could run their biotech experiments on you.”
Neza could see it now in his mind. He was walking home one night when a uniformed human called him to come talk. He could see the inside of a wooden crate with blurred vision from being drugged. Neza’s head was pounding with incredible pain, but he ignored it. He fell backwards a few steps only to be balanced by his legs. He sat down across the fire from Regan.
“We needed biotech to survive the conditions here and all of our experiments that worked on Earth mammals were failing when applied to humans. There was something about the species of this planet that gave us a closer test subject to refine our designs.” Regan continued. “At least that’s what they told me when my mods were ready.” When Neza didn’t respond he continued, “The mods that you have in your legs were put into my ankles and right arm. They put an upgraded version of your Brain OS into my skull.”
Neza stared at his steel feet. Drops of salt water fell on them and slid down their sides, but he said nothing.
“Yours warns you of incoming solid objects like falling trees or a truck speeding toward you, right? Well mine does that and also allows me to communicate with other soldiers in the field. It also kicks up my accuracy and efficiency with firearms when I use my right hand.” Regan beamed with excitement talking about his mods. Upon realizing his inappropriate mirth, he dialed back the smile on his face and lowered his voice, “I’m sorry, Neza. I’m sure this is all very… difficult.”
Neza looked up at Regan with red tearful eyes. “Are you proud of this?” he choked out.
Regan hesitated,“No, I’m not.” he finally muttered, “But I wanted you to know what happened to you. I wanted you to know that I’m with you on this. They stole your memories, your childhood, and your family. But they gave us some incredibly powerful weapons that we can use to keep it from happening to anyone else.”
“What did they do to my family?” Neza heard little else after that sentence.
Regan dropped his head in the first exhibition of regret Neza had ever seen from him. “Your father was one of the Felni leaders that we made peace with. He was a very smart and brave guy. After you went missing, he heard the rumors and began organizing some of the Felni to infiltrate the lab ships. They killed several members of our science teams before they were killed by Security Forces. The autopsy is the only reason we found out he was your father.”
Neza looked like he had been stabbed through the heart. “And my mother?” his voice wavered as he spoke.
“She died a couple weeks later when she refused to eat or sleep until both you and your father were back. After that, your two sisters separated and found shelter with other families.”
Neza’s distraught face continued to stare up at him. He made Regan nervous.
“I understand if you want revenge. In a way… I want to help.” Regan said, trying to remain humble while he tried to read Neza’s expression.
“You can resurrect the dead?”
“No, but with your help I can make sure no other cubs like you have to go through the same thing.”
Neza was silent for a moment. The tears stopped pouring from his eyes and dried in his fur. After a few moments, he seemed to calm down. “What do you get out of betraying your own race?” Neza spoke without faltering at all. His expression didn’t change, but his tone was almost business-like.
“A clear conscience. I want to show you and your fellow species here that we’re not all bad.” Regan adopted Neza’s tone, “And because I didn’t do anything to help you when I should have. I think I owe it to you. You’ve helped my family so much by tracking all that Ranico with me.”
Neza nodded weakly, “I guess it’s not like I have anything else left to live for. What about those two?” Neza motioned toward Colissa and Saf, “Won’t they turn on you?”
“Major Colissa might, but not until I help her track down whoever killed all her men. She’s pretty set on that and the Security Forces won’t listen to her or launch an investigation. They think she’s nuts. They’re probably right.” Regan chuckled quietly. “Not that I’d blame her. I’d be nuts too if I saw what she did. She’s currently listed M.I.A. from Security Forces, but they seem to be glad to be rid of her for now.”
“… and the Rhin?”
“Saf? No way. He’s in the same boat as you. The only difference is I helped him out the way I should’ve done with you. We deactivated his Leash software and got him off the drugs soon as we had the chance. Arc thinks we’re both dead. They think you are too.”
“Why is that?”
“You fell off a lab ship that was hovering at 1000 feet. Hell, I thought you were dead too until Saf tossed you around a bit. You must be built to last.”
Neza’s eyes slammed shut. He could no longer ignore the electric pangs coursing through his skull. He clasped his hands over his skull and growled in frustration. Then, as instantly as if it were never there to begin with, the pain was gone.
“Sorry, I forgot you still have Leash installed” Regan interrupted Neza’s thoughts. “I can override some of those headaches for you.”
Regan smirked. “I’ll show you all there is to know about your mods. By the time I’m finished with you, you’ll be almost as dangerous as me.”