A sewer. That’s what this planet felt like, and Sai had only been on it for a minute. The fog seeped down in great green-gray sheets, a sticky mist coating his armor, clogging the breathing vents, and sending its rotting odor into Sai’s nose. The filters would kick out anything harmful, but smells could stay. Sai would like to punch whatever engineer probably declared, all those smug degrees running through their voice, that keeping scents could be useful. Sai wouldn’t be making any good judgment calls if he kept coughing like this.

Gregor put his armored fist against Sai’s back as the two of them stood on the drop shuttle’s side. If Sai didn’t take a step soon, Gregor’s weight said, the big man would push Sai into the swamp. Dynas didn’t have crushing gravity, but Sai’s weight, with the armor, would be enough here to drag him down to the depths. Where, naturally, the suit would let him breath. But if things were this ugly up here, imagine what they’d be underneath the yellow-green glop?

“I’m moving,” Sai said, keeping his voice on the squad channel. “Settle down.”

“I’m not excited,” Gregor replied. “We are vulnerable up here.”

If the skiffs could see them through the fog, they’d already be dead, but Sai didn’t argue. Instead, he took the first step down. Off the shuttle and onto what looked like a muddy rock. His foot hit the material, and sank right down through. The metal boot descended, and his leg followed up to his knee before Sai hit something not quite solid, but thick enough to support his weight.

“Careful,” Sai said. “The ground here likes to eat people.”

The others followed, though Sai noticed they stuck to walking on the shuttle itself. Kept to its fins and floating hull. He felt their eyes on him. Waiting to see if he disappeared. If he became a casualty, a statistic.

Well, screw them.

He heard Aurora start talking to Eponi, and decided to take a second step, leaving the shuttle entirely and clomping in the goop. Then a third, though lifting his right leg out from its muddy prison took far more effort than he cared for. His respirators confirmed that the atmosphere was indeed breathable, five times thicker than Earth’s. Humid and drenched. So much so that if they stayed on the surface too long, even their suits would start to rust over.

“Sai, what are you doing?” Aurora sounded like a taut ripcord, one tug away from losing it. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Standard protocol,” Sai replied automatically. “Get away from a crashed ship after landing.”

“As you may have noticed, this isn’t standard,” Aurora said, then seemed to check herself. “But Sai does have a point. Eponi, you know where we should go? Where’s the station you were heading for?”

Eponi, standing on the nose of the shuttle, pointed off to the distance, to Sai’s left. From what Sai could tell, insofar as the suit’s compass told him, Eponi’s heading went north. A working compass was a small miracle — whether DefenseCorp cheaped out on them or Sever managed to dodge planets with magnetic polarity, the little red and white arrows proved more useless than not on their missions. Here, with visibility maybe ten meters, any distant navigation would be done by non-visual methods. Regardless, the chosen direction didn’t match where Sai had been trudging.

Sai twisted, swung his legs through the muck. Took a step forward. His left leg lurched. Slid back. Something grabbed his foot. A steady pull, no yanks. Drawing Sai deeper into the muck.

“Something’s got me!” Sai yelped. He twisted, the only thing he could see was that damn mist, the burbling, slimy mud. His left hand fumbled for the spitter on his hip. Grabbed it, swung around, and almost pulled the trigger. DefenseCorp standard regs said not to fire without a clear visual of the target — collateral damage cost cash, and came out of Sever’s paycheck.

Sai’s right hand tapped his helmet, pressing against his temple, and the visor flipped from standard to infrared. The mustard greens faded to blackish-blue, except for his own heat, and that of the thing coming after him. The thing had had wrapped itself around his foot, large and roiling.

Sai may have screamed.

“Gregor,” Aurora answered Sai’s panic with a solution. If Sai had to pick one trait about the commander that explained why Aurora held the position, it would be this one: when the tight cord keeping her control snapped, she became razor ice, cold and ruthless. “Jump in.”

“Yes.” Gregor, in his midnight blue suit, reached over his head and grabbed his hammer. Pulled it over, readied it in both hands.

“Wait!” Sai started, hoping for a chance to get away from impending disaster, but one could sooner stop a comet than halt Gregor’s assault. The monstrous man crouched and jumped. All suits came with push pads in their boot soles. If needed, they could supply a microburst of downward force. Add two to three extra meters on a jump. In this case, that gave Gregor plenty of height to swing with his hammer and come crashing down beyond Sai, leading with his hammer. Gregor drove the weapon through the mud, followed by its owner. Sai couldn’t tell what happened, because a wall of muck slammed over him. Mad laughter filled the comm.

Sai flipped back to standard vision, wiped away the dreck and stared at what’d become of his assault armor. His suit had been emerald green. Now, Sai had perfect, foul-smelling camouflage. No metal in sight.

Not that Sai had much time to think about it. Because, with Rovo and Aurora announcing their arrival to the fight with a hail of yellow laser blasts scorching the slime in front of Sai, the thing Gregor had swatted with his hammer rose up from the waters. Then kept rising. Until it stood more than three times higher than Sai himself. It seemed unfair for something that ugly to be that tall. As if mud had suddenly achieved life, and brought along the gunk, sticks and stones to sentience with it. Pieces broke and drifted off of the creature, splashing into the swamp water around Sax.

“It’s got tentacles,” Rovo said, splashing in next to Sai. “Because of course it does.”

Gray and mottled, coated with spots of mold, the tentacles shivered as the thing grew out of the swamp. They draped along the thing’s sides, and Sai counted at least ten, possibly more, with the ends vanishing beneath the surface. Sai looked for a mouth. For eyes. Found none. This monster was a giant blob, one seemingly intent on turning Sever Squad into its next meal.

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