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Jungle Gardeners by Lucius

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The planet of La Terre is located in the Ra system, far enough away from the traditional homeworlds and colonies of the Orion Arm that it wasn’t until 3000 it was noticed. In between the rocky asteroid world of Ungstir, the freewheeling planet of Antimone and the ultimately desolate homeworld of the robotic Phyrrians, that is to say Phyrria, it is no wonder that this desolate area of space was never plied – no reason to go there, no trade, no nothing; just empty space as far as most were concerned. Others, such as Bartholomew Ritter had different ideas; it was he who found and then colonized the planet in 3000. He destroyed it with well placed plasma bombs a year later, to “protect” it from the encroachment of the Lem’ming invasion fleet. The planet was brought back a year after that, to the shock of the galaxy’s residents.

It is a large planet covered in oceans, and, like it’s namesake it is very much a planet similar in land water distribution. The two large continents that rest in between its oceans, though, carry not nearly as much variety as Earth’s once did. They are covered mostly in jungle, whether on flattish ground or hillier and only 100,000 people live on the planet. Officially, that is. Unofficially it’s been considered, since its discovery, to be the best, non-descript hideout for wanted criminals. There are none of the unabashed violence that accompanies people on Tomin Kora and U-999, less government controls than New Luna and also many less people to go searching for undesirables. As a result, besides the 100,000 residents of La Terre there are a large amount of people outside the official lines. Drug dealers, wanted fugitives, terrorists with their training camps… the list goes on and on.

It wasn’t important to Lucius Tullius Castus, though. Ever since he’d left the reformed Guardian Fleet with a few of his buddies after the Battle of Ganymede, they’d been taking jobs as a group of mercenaries. Their expertise, gained in the first Guardian Fleet and the Martian Legions after proved to be quite an asset to any potential employers. So the five of them, self-dubbed Hesperia’s Finest came out to La Terre on contract from some petty arms manufacturer.

It didn’t matter to Lucius. Ever since he’d dropped out of the military, his once noble sense of sacrifice had become jaded. Who he worked for wasn’t as important as how much they paid. Besides, if he helped this guy kill his rivals then there’d be an easier time for people like him to get their wares. Somebody needed to make the guns that people operating on the far side of the law used, anyways.

So here Lucius was, stuck in the middle of some forsaken jungle, on a backwater world, sweating his balls off. Of course he’d drawn the shortest straw and been sent out on a recon mission without the rest of his buddies. They were back at McNair’s, the aforementioned arms dealer hideout, probably playing some cards. Instead he was put in with a bunch of McNair’s cronies, dropped into the wilds and told to be there in case they need “consulting”. This was, in Lucius’s mind, tantamount to being told he had to baby-sit a bunch of drooling, slack jawed idiots. Great, thought the former Legionary. Not like I intend to do anything if they fuck up, anyways. They don’t pay me enough.

  • * *

La Terre’s population is mostly what one would consider to be within the normal bounds of the Orion Arm. Most of the planet’s official population lives within the confines of the greater urban area of New Paris. Only a small few outside of it live in small villages and frontier type settlements, many of them only in sparse contact with the capital. Then there are the aforementioned criminals making bases among the vast wilds of the lush planet. Of course, there are also always groups in such areas, in the remote, unexplored sections of the jungle that are rumoured to exist. Like in ancient communities of Earth, these people are spoken of in hushed tone; their behaviour always said to be flagrant and strange, used as bed time scare stories from children to their parents.

Unfortunately for the children, they go beyond mere rumour.

  • * *

And so it was the Lucius and the rest of the weapons manufacturer’s cronies were moving through the jungle on a little shake ‘n bake, seek and destroy mission. Since their objective had been handed to them with only vague coordinates, it was unlikely they were expected to come back with anything concrete he surmised. They’d passed through a little border town a few hours. This was one where the residents acknowledged the presence of the illegals grudgingly in exchange for guns to protect themselves with, and in return gave them food. Then they’d shut their mouths when the government officials came around. It was all a fine deal, and the Martian got himself a pouch full of jerky, some hot roast and a half a loaf of bread, all for nothing. Hey, not too bad. He stopped abruptly in a clearing, pulling out his datapadd. The gadget had a bit antenna stuck on its top, giving it GPS capability. He scratched his chin as the rest of the thugs bantered, or stretched out, bored. “Alright, due north another three kilometres and we’re good.” He announced much to the dismay of the men and women. Three kilometres in a jungle was never fun. Nonetheless, it had to be done.

As the group powered on ahead, they were forced to come to an abrupt conclusion. The path they had been walking along, sweat dripping down their collective foreheads, ended at a rather strange time. This leaft a small clearing ahead and then... nothing. As Lucius once again pulled out his technology, he sighed. The canopy around them was a mix of different plants, all unfamiliar to the Martian man whose only sight of forests had been on Earth and Mars, where Terran species were imported. Strange birds and other animals sung their songs, grunted and made a general racket which to most in the group provided a slightly unsettling background noise. He shook his head, tucking the equipment back into his BDU trouser pocket. “Alright, looks like we’re going to have to travel through the forest. It shouldn’t be too long before we have Dalat’s camp in sight, then we’ll take our pictures and get the fuck out of there. There’s no need to dally about.” Most of the people in the group gave nods of the head, grunts of approval or shakes of their firearms in agreeance with that. It was acceded, apparently, that they all wanted to get back to the base as soon as possible.

And so, off they went merrily into the tree line, the dampness of the jungle finally making its reality known and sitting on them like a wet rag. Well, maybe not so merrily.

  • * *

They were still two clicks away from Dalat’s camp, marching in the humid jungles when sounds started to be heard. At first it was by the most perceptive of the group, but as they progressed, slower now, everybody started to pick up on them. These sounds were loud enough to transcend the ambient noise of the jungle. Yet they also sounded vaguely human. In the areas where the thick canopy could be peered through, one could make out what looked like smoke from a fire very close by. So, with some reservation, the group approached very, very slowly and came on to what looked like another clearing of some sort. This was indeed an odd clearing, for it was filled with things unseen by civilized eyes for years. Vaguely bamboo-like huts perched on large stilts ringed the area, while several massive bonfires were blazing in a triangle. The area was bereft of any decoration, besides some rather menacing looking animal skulls perched on small spears.

The strangest, of course, was yet to come, as there were apparent residents of the area. Men and women danced around the fire and chanted furiously, nude except for small reed skirts they wore. They were uniformly gaunt and dark skinned, even though they appeared to have come from a variety of Terran backgrounds. This latter fact was probably due to the massive amount of sun that shines in this area, surmised Lucius. Needless to say, everybody in the group was taken a bit aback by this display.

It appeared they were in the process of performing some ceremony, as some of them carried what looked like sticks of incense, others massive amphorae of some liquids and still others carcasses of local animals. Just when they thought it couldn’t get any stranger, a smaller group of these apparently savage humans appeared out of another portion of the woods. They marched in a column with merriment. On their shoulders was perched the mangled body of what looked like a man, dressed in safari shorts and a jacket. From a distance it was apparent that he had been sliced up by whatever bladed weapons these ‘natives’ carried, but he was still breathing, albeit shallowly. At this point, the thugs began to become jittery. Whispers travelled to and fro, debating the logic of being here, or why they didn’t interrupt this ceremony. More importantly, they wondered what the hell was going on.

“Hold here and keep quiet. I’m going to go take a look around.” Said Lucius, and without waiting for a response began to quietly pad around the side of the encampment. As the Martian rounded a group of trees and placed himself on the other side of the clearing, he found a ditch and plopped down to observe. The chanting from these strange people grew louder. It was at this moment that the man was roused from his unconscious state, probably by the intensity of the cries. Needless to say, he looked disoriented and unpleased. After all, who’d be pleased if they were being restrained by seven angry people in reed skirts?

“Why am I here? Who… who are you people?” Asked the confused man, struggling to get free. He went unanswered for a few moments. This was, of course, until one of the natives, dressed more elaborately in a leather skullcap with two feathers approached. In his hand was an obsidian knife of great beauty. “You trespass on our land, stranger. You defile this sacred ceremony. It is written that God demands your honourable ascension.” The safari gear clad man stared right back. “Ascension?” Skullcap nodded in return. “Yes.” And with that there was a yell from the figure. The restrainers yanked safari man’s limbs and held him down, while the other figure performed the unspeakable. As the restrained screamed, he cut out his heart, slowly and with demented enjoyment.

Lucius, staying as silent as he could, unslung his rifle from his shoulder and clicked the safety off. He knew that there was nothing that he could do himself. Of course it’s the religious fanatics. I always get the religious fanatics, he mused. He was half in horror at the disgusting debacle and half in survival mode, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, the thugs he had brought with him, now on the other side of the clearing were not nearly as disciplined as he was. Audible even over the chants and screams of the man he could hear the sound of people retching, and their own screams. They wanted to get the fuck out. They wouldn’t.

Out of the huts popped men with short crossbows and what looked like machetes. Possibly, they had been waiting for their part in the ceremony to exit. Now though, there was quarry to be caught, and this disposition was evident on their faces as they ran through the forest with glee. There were a few scattered sounds of gunfire, but mostly of screaming and hacking. Lucius did his best to block this out of his mind but found this hard to do. After a few minutes, the would-be hunters dragged corpses of the a variety of thugs into the camp, preparing to butcher them up and sacrifice them to God. They declared this intention loudly and clearly in Terran Standard. This was odd, since most of their ceremony was in another language, unknown to Lucius.

He didn’t have a choice. He could have ran and met the same fate as his former comrades. After they’d been butchered, heads put on spears and choice morsels tossed into the bonfires, the rest of them had been cooked. They were part of a grand banquet which took place after the ritual, just another garnish with whatever other foods the natives had collected. Lucius was only barely able to hold back vomiting many, many times. As the natives all passed out drunk from the festivities, Lucius lay prone on the jungle floor. There would be no photographs of Dalat’s camp for McNair. He began to crawl back to the path. A long journey lay ahead.

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