My first big bite at a vore story (Lethal Co. Parody)

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My first big bite at a vore story (Lethal Co. Parody)

Postby LordSerol » Thu Mar 28, 2024 11:21 pm

Greetings, all! I am... new here, although not new to the art of writing. I have, however, started my first story that features vore as an important element, and had hoped to offer a preview taste... and to find an answer to a question that worries me. Most vore stories that I've encountered focus on the payoff, the actual vore component. I, however, am a 'slow burn' kind of author - I like lead-up, and actual plot, before the gratuitous gorging. So, I present humbly the first half of a lengthy story that will feature three detailed vore scenes in the back half - after these scenes, which are rather long. My question to you is: would someone stick with this tale long enough to reach that tasteful terror, teased by the humor and action I include? Or do I leave people hungering long enough to seek simpler fare instead?
Oh, and about the tale itself - this is meant to be a parody of Lethal Company, though one far enough removed from the game to be intelligible to someone not familiar with its rather simplistic setup, while still preserving enough themes and cameos to make fans of the game content. Do you, sage reader, think that I achieve this? Always, my thanks for reading. Without further ado...

Alert - Your Company Balance is nearly depleted! Please report to the Survey Deck for assignment on a STARR run today!
Sophia, intern at Talitech Interstellar Incorporated, opened her eyes within her bunk. She groaned as she forced herself to shove aside the coarse sheets and too-short, thin blanket, the sound of her discomfort matched by the squeaking of the springs that supported her lumpy mattress in its chrome-metal bay. She sat up completely, running a hand through her curly, sandy-brown hair, carefully avoiding the low ceiling over the bed where a second bunk had once been located, but now was left empty. Her room - it was more ‘a’ room than hers, really, by the lack of any personally-identifiable objects. It was spartan to the extreme: a small wash basin, (empty) chrome shelf for personal effects, a shallow closet and foot locker for clothing. It was to this she turned next, stripping off the cotton tank top and panties she slept in and pulling one of a dozen identical company-issued jumpsuits from the hangers. It was a fiery red, and with built-in inserts replacing the need for undergarments supposedly - though, considering the damned uniforms fit like plastic wrap, she figured it was more likely to keep underclothes from showing through like a hair in laminate. She was careful in inserting her limbs, too, because the fabric was oddly prone to tearing - a tragic habit considering the dangerous locales they operated in, but such was what they were given to work with.
That thought drew her attention to the one splash of color in the room. It was a poster on the wall opposite the bed, its brilliant reds overshadowing muted blues, depicting the company’s mascot, Angelman, who proclaimed, “Remmeber! Happy company, happy employeses!” Angelman was a cartoon superhero with fluffy golden wings; he had heroic proportions with a largely inverted-triangular torso and bulky biceps - although he apparently disregarded leg day. And, for that matter, chin day - his squared face terminated in a sloped bump just below his mouth. His gray eyes were also oddly flat and unfocused - it seemed the company spent about as much on artistic talent as they did on safety equipment… and spell check.
Sophia attached the key connectors on the suit and pressed a button. With a hiss, the suit expelled the air between her and it, vacuum-sealing to her skin with an uncomfortable casual familiarity, like a footrub from a creepy uncle. She glanced down at herself, blushing a bit at the way the outfit clung to her curves perfectly, a crimson second skin that made her impressive breasts stand out jauntily, never mind what it did below her waist - if a man were to see her, she would die of embarrassment.
Not that such was a problem. Talitech Interstellar Incorporated employed only women, over a thousand of them, aside from a couple of men in upper management - at least that she had seen, and even those had been at great distance. The whole arrangement felt rather misogynistic to her, but that was hardly the worst of their crimes - casual disregard for worker safety, insufficient investment in worker resources, terrible cafeteria food, stringent work requirements and reliance on company scrip for purchases… the whole enterprise was a capitalist’s sloppy wet dream. That was why she-
Sophia blinked, and walked out of her room. She needed to hit the cafeteria and get something to eat before she headed to the departure platform. She reached into her waist pouch to pull out her transponder, the micro-computer showing a brief summary of crucial personal information, including, in its largest font, her company balance. 35*, just enough for a couple of meals and the overhead on her room for another night - she had let her balance get way too low. Her stomach growled piteously, as if it had never been filled before, but she had little comfort to offer it on her budget. As she walked to the cafeteria, she passed familiar posters - to the left, a large, tattered advertisement proclaimed “NUTRI-GEL! IT’S NUTRITOUS!” along the picture of an employee, dressed in company crimson jumpsuit, smiling broadly as she squeezed the silver tube firmly. Her grip, perpendicular to her gaze and at the height of her cheekbones, might explain the reason the grayish goo had splattered her cheeks and lips around her wanton grin. On the other wall was an opposing poster, featuring Angelman holding a large box before his waist; the box was opened enough to reveal a brilliant golden light emerging from it, and two extra-buxom employees stared down into the box with orgasmic enthusiasm: “Victor’s Feast - Its worth fighting over! Feturing: Savory Steakmeat - Earth-fruit - Viridan Gembeads” Sophia had never had a Victor’s Feast, which was reserved for the highest-accruing employee on a STARR run; she doubted she ever would.
To be honest to herself, she would be happy just to make enough today to be able to support herself by doing maintenance and repair work around the base, Compound Beta. Most of the employees did that for the majority of the time. STARR (Special Tactical Appraisal, Retrieval, and Return) runs were sent out a few times a week, with about twenty girls assigned to each run. Most runs were simple things, raiding abandoned habitat-units or office-blocks for simple supplies and bringing them back to Compound Beta, and for those, most of the girls - never all - would make it back. FAR (Favored Asset Recovery) runs were far more infrequent, and involved more dangerous target locales, where the items with bigger price tags could be found. If, of course, one managed to return. Most did not. The creatures that inhabited this planet were hostile, hungry, and hellishly intelligent, and so stepping foot out of the compound was a step into an open maw for most of the girls. Which was why it surprised her so much that their numbers-
“Sophia!” As she got into the Nutri-Gel line, Sophia turned to see her friend Melissa approaching her with a broad grin. Melissa always created complicated feelings for Sophia - the woman had a body that would earn her fame in a certain sort of film, though not any for general release - her curves had an innate eroticism that would raise the age-rating of any movie she appeared in just for the view of her body. Her breasts were truly hefty, yet spit in the eyes of gravity with a grin - her hips made to swivel and be gripped like the handles of an urn - her face smooth and youthful, with pouty, almost-bee-stung lips under her soft blue eyes. She looked 18, but her body purred confidence and sensuality, and Sophia would never make up her mind whether to be jealous or to just accept changing her sexual alignment to ‘bisexual’ for this one woman.
“Hey, Mellie,” Sophia greeted her friend warmly. “Fancy seeing you in the discount line down here.” Melissa was one of the company’s most competent employees, with five successful STARR runs under her belt - or, well, jumpsuit elastic waistband. Accomplishments like that were the best way to advance in the company, as shown by the shiny name badge Melissa wore that declared her a VIP - Sophia’s own was a paper-sticker with “Intern_(Insert Name Here)_” printed onto it. That also meant Melissa could afford to eat in the “Real Food! Real Tasty!” line, which tended to cost considerably more, but at least tended to have identifiable food items, that one could actually chew. Sophia was sure that was the source of the extra padding that Melissa carried everywhere that mattered - and it made her want that food all the more.
“Well, I ‘do’ need to cut back a bit,” Melissa admitted, glancing back at her own shapely rear, which her jumpsuit hugged like an amorous koala. “But no, I’m actually running low. I’ve bought a few things for my room with my last run’s pay, and it ended up having some hidden fees and upkeep, so…” She sighed, blowing a gust of air that ruffled her flat-cut dark bangs. “So I’ve signed up for the next run out. And just my luck - today’s is a FAR run!” The words were sarcastic and bitter, and Sophia paled at them.
“Today?!” A FAR run meant greatly increased danger, but they were also so extensive that they meant that all smaller STARR runs would be canceled for a few days, and she simply didn’t have the money to afford waiting. She would have to accept this particular run, and that was… unfortunate. Risky. Suddenly, she had much less of an appetite, but she still followed the halting line, knowing she would need to have a full stomach if she was going to have her wits about her.
“Yeah… apparently it’s a big deal. I spoke with Sadie in Mechanical, she said they’ve requisitioned 3 cargo-haulers for this one.” Sophia blinked in surprise - typically, the transport shuttles they used hauled 20 girls - 5 squads of 4 - so that probably meant this mission would have triple the usual amount of agents deployed. “And they are aiming to fully load them before departure here in a couple of hours, so if you need in, you’d better hurry. I’ve still got a spot on my squad if you do.” Melissa gave her a quick wink, and Sophia felt her cheeks warm.
“Any idea where we will be going?” Sophia asked, resigning herself to the mission. It wasn’t as if she had a choice, anyways. As she admitted that to herself, she finally came up to the front of the line. At the end of the tray-shelf each girl scooted their cafeteria tray along, a smooth-faced machine with a single aperture awaited, and she pushed the button beside that hole. A glacially-slow, hesitant clunking emanated from the machine, and after a pregnant pause, a silver-sided tube fell onto her tray, looking more like a container for toothpaste than a meal substitute. Sophia bit back her sigh as she stared at the container for the tasteless, textureless, hopeless Nutri-Gel, wishing there was some condiment she could add to it to make it more - no, to make it palatable, period. Resigning herself to her dismal gastronomic fate, she stepped aside to let Melissa press the button on the machine, which resumed its clunking, unbalanced contemplation of the universe before disgorging an identical tube of paste.
“Yeah, she told me,” Melissa said, and her usual teasing, confident tone was gone. She looked to Sophia with naked concern. “Data Management Complex.”
Sophia’s green eyes widened. Data Management was a major installation, one of four that formed a trapezoid around Compound Beta. Years ago, Talitech Interstellar Incorporated had built a sprawling industrial research center on the moon of Expiation, which had been one of the company’s three major bases. It had even been home to the company’s CEO, Mason Taliburn, and its brightest scientific minds. That had come to a sudden end when the planet, hostile on the best of days, had suffered major catastrophic geological disruptions. The earthquakes had shattered the infrastructure of the company’s holdings on the moon, undermining some buildings, burying others under entire mountains. In a few days, between the destruction from the catastrophe and the predation of the native wildlife, the company’s workforce had been decimated, and most operations had been shifted to the other two bases. Never one to let a single resource sit untapped, however, those who had been asked to stay on Expiation were tasked with recovering every scrap of technology, research, or materiel they could come across. Hence the STARR and FAR runs - they were slowly stripping the former strongholds of their equipment, until nothing valuable remained.
“I know,” Melissa breathed out a deep sigh, her shoulders slumping as she followed Sophia to a rickety folding dining table nearby. “My second “successful” run was there. We took forty girls that time… seven of us made it back.” She shot Sophia a long look. “If you think your last mission was bad…”
Sophia nodded. Her last mission, yes… the one where she had… where?
Melissa continued. “Twelve squads tells me they intend to go deep this time. We’ll not be able to establish a landing right at the complex, because that area is littered with crevices and fissures that go far into the moon’s crust. But, the last time we went…” She stopped, shivering. “I spent most of the time fending off the Flesh Hounds outside, and recovering lost packs. I still lost my whole squad.” She slumped, staring without sight at the Nutri-Gel tube before her. “This time… they’ll want me to go inside. That’s why I wanted to find you, Sophia. I trust you, and I need you, since I also have-”
“Melly! Sophy!” bleated a voice just behind the two of them.
Sophia’s eye twitched; at the squeaky voice, at the truncation of her name, at the interruption. At Beth.
Beth plopped down beside Sophia, scooting her to the side with a gregarious nudge of the hips. Beth took up a surprising amount of the bench, though not from obesity - as a matter of fact, no employee of Talitech was in less than stellar shape, though they all did have plenty of mandated gym fitness hours. No, Beth was beautiful, but in a ‘fertility goddess’ style; if Melissa’s body was ‘sex in a fine wine,’ Beth was ‘a fucking in a heady, heavy beer.’ Her breasts were likely record-setting; her hips and ass expansive and made to bring out a man’s inner orangutan. Her face was just as plump in all the sexual dimensions, and her long blonde hair gleamed under the artificial light, but not as bright as her sky-blue eyes. But it wasn’t jealousy that affected Sophia; she had standards, and looking like the best-paid trophy wife ever wasn’t an ambition for her. It wasn’t even Beth’s vapid, childlike thought processes, though that tended to be pretty galling. It was her fucking luck… or apocalyptic lack thereof. Beth had no successful runs under her belt where she had brought in the quota for a STARR run, and tended to summon trouble unwittingly. Some girls said she was so sexy monsters could smell her. Others said she was cursed by some jealous sex goddess. Sophia said that Beth was better off far, far away from her.
“I’m all packed up and ready to go FAR!” Beth chirruped, grinning from Sophia to Melissa and back. “Are you coming too, Sophy?”
Sophia had long ago abandoned trying to get Beth to remember her proper name. No one called her Sophie anymore. “Yes, I’m-”
“Yay!” Beth hugged Sophia, causing her to splash the partially-liquid Nutri-Gel on her face and Beth’s jumpsuit as the blonde trapped Sophia’s head and pressed her to Beth’s spacious bosom, rocking back in forth in the hug in a way that caused her soft, firm flesh to mash in waves against Sophia’s cheek. “This’ll be so fun! We’re going on an adventure! We’re going to be rich!”
Sophia and Melissa exchanged a look. It wasn’t going to be that easy.
It never was.

******
A few hours later, sixty women stood on the Survey and Departure deck of Compound Beta, a milling sea of red jumpsuits stretched across chests and asses that belonged on the covers of magazines. There was something about the gathering that made Sophia uncomfortable: it might be the general beauty and youth of her co-workers, which made her consider the attribute-weighing progress that HR used for recruitment; it might be the eager conversation, which suggested an utter obliviousness to the dangers of the mission ahead; it might have been the fact that this dangerous military-style raid on hostile territory featured a briefing on a flickering projector using a free-license presentation software that was overly-fond of fade-in graphics. Whatever it was, the impending disaster was hard to ignore, but they all continued blithely, as if this would be a Sunday stroll down the lane.
“Our target today is the Data Management Complex,” Melissa announced, taking charge of the meeting. She frowned at a pair of girls - one dark-skinned, the other with a curled bob cut to her black hair - who continued to talk through her presentation. Many of those observing paid only sparing attention to the lecture; certainly none aside from Sophia stood at unconscious attention. “This was not only the communications hub for the entire installation before things went to hell, but also the forward-facing corporate HQ for the planet.” Melissa pressed a button on the lozenge-shaped controller in her left hand, and the presentation cycled, a picture of the Data Management Complex circling the screen before settling in the middle. The building was a massive tower with glass windows that increased in size with elevation, with a wide base that extended into a smaller, less-ornate tower to its right. Shuttle tracks ran into the lower structure, but no connecting paths extended between the two towers. “This picture is from before the earthquakes; you can see that the building was built along a cliff shelf.”
She clicked the controller, and the picture faded out in a chessboard-pattern, before a new picture faded in with the same effect. “As you can see, this building was hit hard; the collapse of the shelf into the Dextral Ravine took out most of the Data Management side of the complex.” Indeed, the new picture showed that the taller of the two towers was partially crumbled and its gleaming windows had been blackened by the abuse, but that tower was in far better shape than its lesser sibling. That tower, and the base beneath it, had partially fallen away, off the side of the cliff. The part of the building that remained leaned precariously off to the right, suspended over the yawning chasm for now, but doomed to eventually disintegrate into the abyss. Melissa held a laser pointer in her right hand, and she pointed it to the middle of the still-intact tower. “We will be focusing our efforts here…” The red dot dropped and went to the right, and the eyes of most of the girls followed with cat-like intensity, “And here.” The second location was the part of the base below the Data Management tower, the part not suspended over the decaying cliff.
Another girl interrupted Melissa, stepping up onto the platform. This woman was stockily-built, with an athletic frame and her pale blonde hair pulled back into a long ponytail, aside from the sides, which she had shorn close to her skull. “These locations are pretty much unlooted, so… go wild, come back rich.” The girls all cheered at that, and the blonde grinned, while Melissa glared at her. Sophia vaguely recognized the sporty blonde as Kayla, another girl well-known for her success rate and self-proclaimed rival to Melissa. “You can afford to be choosy, even!”
“But you can’t afford to be careless,” Melissa scolded, stabbing the controller. The picture of the complex disappeared, and a new image entered in a zigzag pattern. This one made the entire crowd shudder, even the chatty handful falling into sullen silence. Flesh hounds were not an uncommon threat, but no one took them lightly - certainly not twice. The picture was of a beast that stood nearly nine feet tall, with a vaguely canine body shape, though its torso was more horizontal than vertical, and its stance much wider due to that. It was reddish and looked to have been skinned, but thick scales covered some vulnerable places. The head was also wide rather than long, with massive jutting teeth that made the face resemble a Venus Flytrap - it would never be able to bite or chew with those teeth, which served instead to catch and cage prey. A long, rope-like tongue lolled out of its mouth, studded with fleshy, backwards-facing barbs. Atop its flat head, a low skull featured deep-sunk eyes that glared with red eyes. “Flesh hounds are apex predators in this region, located in the wilds outside the complexes - they rarely, if ever, enter buildings. We lose more girls to them than any other threat. They hunt primarily by sound - they have terrible vision and scent. However, they are incredibly fast, and will devour their prey whole in an instant, using their tongues to shred jumpsuits before using gravity to force their meal into their stomachs.” Another click, and the girls hissed in communal displeasure. The underside of the beast was oddly thin-skinned, and the picture showed a full hound with lumpy protrusions that seemed decidedly human in shape. Also, the beast’s massive member was visible as well, mashed up against its stomach as if to support its gravid fullness. The shape of the penis was decidedly animalistic, with an almost concave end with a long slit, and the shaft featured swollen portions that would prevent backflow of semen out of its unfortunate mate’s canal. “As you know, all Flesh Hounds are male, so being eaten by one is horrific, but being taken alive is worse. If you are eaten, they have a very slow digestion process - we have had scouts report their prey still moving in their stomachs for nearly a week after being consumed. However, if one manages to sting you-” The enraptured audience followed the red dot to the thick tail drooping from its backside, which ended in a needle-like barb, “they administer a local non-anesthetic paralytic. That leaves you helpless, and they will take their time mating with you. Gestation is insanely quick - just over a week - aided by the copious amount of metabolic-boosting semen they leave in their mates. It makes the babies grow crazy fast, but all those nutrients come from their host, so after a litter or two there isn’t much left of their mates, and they typically eat them alive immediately after the mother gives birth.”
The entire crowd was silent and horrified. Beside Melissa, Kayla muttered, “Fucking wonderful description, professor, way to psyche them up.” Ignoring her petulance, Melissa clicked the controller again.
“Moving on!” The crowd blinked as the image of the swollen Flesh Hound vanished, replaced by the somersaulting static image of an odd insectoid creature. When the picture finally settled, it revealed a beetle-like gray arthropod. It had transparent wings folded under a dense chitin shell, and its face was wide and unassuming. “We call these Looterbugs. They aren’t a major threat themselves… they aren’t aggressive, they don’t have natural weapons, and we don’t even know how they reproduce. But they do tend to steal things.” A second, smaller image appeared, this time of the insect scurrying away from a trio of jumpsuit-clad employees, two of its limbs rotated above its body to clutch a wide piece of technology that reminded Sophia of a boombox. “For whatever reason, these creatures hoard technology, and will try to make off with your packs if they can. Fend them off, and feel free to follow them, but be careful - if they get wounded, they tend to screech. It doesn’t do anything, really, but you’ll have a headache afterwards for a while.” Shrugging, Melissa advanced the slide a final time, and a new image appeared with a shower of star-shaped sparkles.
The girls all relaxed at this new photograph. The last image depicted a smooth white robot, with a rounded head and exaggerated epaulets. The machine’s right arm ended in a dangerous-looking gun, encased in the same white plating as the robot’s body. “Toy Soldiers aren’t a threat most of the time. We’ve encountered a handful of malfunctioning ones that tried to apprehend our employees, but in general these guys are our friends.” She flicked the pointer up to the single eye on the rounded head. “If they scan you, this eye should turn green. If it turns red, watch out. But feel free to lead creatures to them - they are aggressive to every living thing that they don’t scan as human, and their guns pack a bigger punch than anything we typically use. If you find a wrecked one, you can grab the gun, but we don’t have ammunition here, so you are stuck with whatever you can find, and you have to turn it in when you return - company policy, and you get a good price for it, anyways.”
“Speaking of,” interjected a third woman. She was of Japanese descent, her expression behind her thin black glasses haughty despite hints of nervousness in her stance, “we will proceed to requisitions as soon as this presentation is done. Pick up your sacks and equipment, and remember - you have to spend company credits to get better gear, to cover replacement costs.” This set the whole crowd grumbling - they wouldn’t be going on such a risky mission if they weren’t all nearly broke - but they knew the futility of trying to change the company’s mind on anything.
“Any questions?” Melissa asked, and the 57 women rumbled for a moment, speaking mostly to each other, before lapsing into a grudging silence. “Then, a few last details. If you were assigned to Squads 1 through 5, you are with me about the Merry Malachite, shuttle 12. Squads 6 through 10, follow Kayla to shuttle 7, Dancing Dolomite. 11 through 15, go with Kimiko to shuttle 19, Jovial Jadeite. Listen to your squad leaders, don’t take risks, get in and get out - come back safe.” Melissa nodded a salute to those about to deploy. “Good luck, ladies.”

******

“What do you mean, I can’t get a stun blaster?” Sophia glowered at the woman behind the counter, an administrative employee in a green jumpsuit. The woman shrugged, adjusting her cowboy hat with one hand and twirling one of her braided pigtails with the other.
“Sorry, sugar,” the Requisitions employee drawled sympathetically. “You just don’t have the credits. A stun blaster costs 28*, and you just have 25* on your account.”
“Fucking rookies,” snarked a voice from behind Sophia, and she turned to see Kayla accepting a stun blaster from the other green-clad Requisitions intern, the white-encased bulbous weapon resembling the gun used by the Toy Soldiers from the presentation, if it had gone soft with a beer belly. “You should be happy you can get a flashlight.” Laughing, the blonde woman threw her sack over her shoulder and sauntered away towards the waiting shuttle, and Sophia stared broadswords in her direction.
“Fine. Give me a flashlight, then,” Sophia relented, and the befreckled southerner nodded, pulling out the long-handled light and extending it to her, along with a polyester duffel bag and a standard-issue helmet. With huffed gratitude, Sophia stepped away from the counter, slinging the sack diagonally across her back as she stuffed the helmet and flashlight into it. The bag was reinforced with straps and made of dense material; hypothetically, it was to increase the load it could carry, but Sophia found it suspicious that the bags they used to carry loot were made of sterner stuff than the jumpsuits they wore into dangerous territory. There was one exception - the strap that held the bag across their shoulder was prone to snapping if caught on something. This meant that, far too often, the only signs of employees who had fallen to the monsters that constantly hunted them were shreds of crimson jumpsuit and an abandoned duffel with its strap hanging free like spilled entrails. Some employees even saw this as good luck - after all, finding a free sack meant that they got to claim credit for the loot the hapless former owner had gathered - except that most of the monsters in the region had quickly learned this particular quirk of their favored prey, and tended to hang around to use the bags as bait for second, or third, helpings of girlmeat.
There was nothing else to do but board the shuttle, so she headed for the departure bay. It was very close by; Requisitions, Departures, and Appraisal all shared a floor, which was formerly the station for the trams that connected all of Talitech’s installations on the moon. After the catastrophe, however, all of the rails had collapsed or been covered by landslides, so the shuttles themselves had been repurposed with anti-gravity technology - a surprising expenditure in Sophia’s eyes, considering how cheap the corporation tended to be with supplies. Now, the shuttles served as the only real way to traverse the hazardous, uneven terrain of Expiation. Despite their importance, the shuttles themselves struck a jaunty figure; Sophia was reminded of historical photographs she had seen of Old Earth trolleys, mixed with a deep-keeled boat. A railing surrounded the deck, atop which sat the rectangular personnel bay. A ramp descended into the lower portions of the shuttle, which contained storage cabinets for smaller items and empty floor space for larger ones. The trio of shuttles were painted in different hues, and each bore their number and name painted in flourishing strokes along their sides. Sophia spotted the rich green shuttle in the middle, with #12 Merry Malachite painted along its side, and headed towards it.
She discovered the three team leaders standing not far from the ladders that led up the side of her shuttle. None of them paid her any mind as she approached; to Kayla and Kimiko, an intern was beneath notice, while to Melissa, Sophia was a reassuring source of support. “So, since there isn’t a safe place to put down anywhere to the west of the complex, and the ground is too unstable closer to the Dextral Ravine, we’ll have to go in from the south, and that means a hike. And a hike means we’ll be vulnerable to hounds.”
Kimiko was nodding along eagerly - she seemed new to her position as a team leader, and while she wore an impassive mask, that mask was small enough for Sophia to see anxiety peeking around the edges. Kayla, however, barked a laugh. “There’s 60 of us. Good luck to them, I say. Even stun blasters can put one down if you pump enough juice into it, and that rough terrain will make it just as hard on them as on us.”
“No, it won’t,” Melissa insisted passionately. “The crevasses in that area are deep but not wide. Some, the hounds can jump across, and we can’t. The last mission we took to this installation set up portable bridges, but we don’t know what shape they are in, and even if they are fine, those spots will be bottlenecks.” She extended a crude map to the other two girls, but Kayla still shrugged her off.
“We’re going to have to deal with them. Let them come, I say. We hit them hard, give them a bloody nose, and then go on with our business. Better that than having to duck and scurry the whole time.” Kayla lifted her stun blaster meaningfully. “They’re animals. If you show them you’re more of a threat to them than what they get out of hunting you, they’ll back off.”
Melissa shook her head in frustration. “I’m telling you, it didn't work that way on our first run.” She pointed to the waiting shuttles. “We just hit the lower levels of the main building, so we didn’t have major opposition until we were coming back. And they still wiped us out. Only one shuttle made it out, and that was because one of those dogs - a big one - jumped onto the other shuttle. We didn’t see what happened, but no one else made it out alive.”
Kimiko frowned, looking between the two, her glasses sparking like forcefields under the harsh glare of the bay’s overhead lights. “Maybe we should-”
“Kimmy, there’s two ways to get to the top like us.” Kayla pointed an accusing finger at Melissa, the digit sinking a knuckle deep into the cleavage of the brunette’s jumpsuit. “Either you scavenge off girls brave enough to go in but unlucky enough to get caught, or…” She jerked her thumb back towards herself. “You go in bold, and you come out quick. Only one of those ways will keep working, I promise you that.” Her cocksure grin set Sophia’s nerves on edge. “You won’t be in the top spot for long, Melissa. I’ll show you that today.”
“Only if we’re both alive for you to do that,” scowled Melissa, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
“Then better try to keep your fat ass safe. But then again, you’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?” Kayla’s final insult was a Parthian shot, offered over her shoulder as she stomped towards #7 Dancing Dolomite. Melissa snapped off a return sneer that missed Kayla’s attention, while Kimiko shrugged apologetically and patted Melissa’s shoulder before heading for her own shoulder. Sophia saw Melissa take a deep breath before she turned to face her friend with a wounded smile.
“Come on, let’s get on board. We’re first squad, so we get good seats.” Sophia nodded, following Melissa up the short metal ladder that was the easiest way on board to where they would sit. They rounded the observation deck, surrounded by a simple railing, before entering the passenger section. The shuttle’s passenger deck was cramped, with each side sporting two long bench seats, with a final fifth one perpendicular to the others, pressed against the wall that divided the area from the control booth. Above them was a storage space for any goods they needed to carry on, but with empty sacks and little in the way of equipment, most of those bays were unused. Melissa led her back to the farthest row, the one facing the entrance, where Beth and another girl awaited.
“Sophia, this is Naomi; Naomi, Sophia.” Melissa handled the introductions succinctly before explaining a bit further. “I’ve worked with you both before, so you both know me. Naomi, Sophia here is quick-thinking and capable; there’s no one I’d rather have on my team, especially going into danger. She’s saved my ass a bunch of times. Sophia, Naomi is really reliable and listens well - if you need something done, you can trust her.” Sophia eyed the new girl - ebon-haired and with caramel skin, her dark eyes peered back with just as much measurement. After a moment, the two nodded to each other, both trusting their own appraisal along with Melissa’s.
“And what about me?” piped up their other member.
Melissa’s smile was only slightly strained. “Beth, I’m just going to try to keep you alive.”
“Aww! Thank you!” Beth gushed, standing to hug Melissa enthusiastically, her grin blithely innocent.
“Ten minutes to departure - please find your seats. Barring storms, we should be there in about an hour,” piped in the pilot through the passenger section’s loudspeakers. The rest of the departure was a bustle of movement and people finding their seats, and finally, Sophia felt the jarring motion as the shuttle detached from the docking clamps, rocking back and forth in the air. With a building thrum, the ship began to lift from the ground, coming to a rest fifteen feet above the floor where they had listened to their strategic briefing, before finally sailing out of the cavernous bay, the other two shuttles hot on their heels. The wall that was the bulk of Compound Beta stretched upwards before them - it would be many miles away that they would be able to see the entirety of the oddly-shaped building, which featured, far above the main complex, a massive vertical structure that terminated in a cross-shape with two perpendicular cross-bars. Above those spokes was a massive blue-glowing crystalline form, and smaller ones were found at the end of each of the spokes - the girls all called it the Beacon, their way to find home, and Sophia had to admit she did feel that the structure all but called to her, a soft pull that waxed and waned with the glowing of the blue radiance at its peak.
As it disappeared over the horizon, lost to the curvature of the moon, Sophia settled in, calming her nerves and preparing for the mission to come. She slowed her breaths and forced her mind to clear, calmly ticking off in her mind all the key facts she knew about her objectives and the terrain - it was an old strategy she used to keep herself focused after mission briefings, which often felt heady with excitement and heavy on details. Beside her, the other girls chattered, Beth leading most of the conversations, but finally Melissa stood and excused herself to step outside, and Sophia followed her soon after, knowing from the tension at the corners of Melissa’s eyes that something was up.
She found her friend leaning against the observation railing, staring at the terrain as it whipped by. The shuttles weren’t the fastest mode of transportation Sophia had taken, but they still ate up the miles, and by now the ground around them was already showing signs of the ecological devastation found around the Data Management Complex. The ground had become barren and cracked, spiderwebbed with fissures and gulches like the earth itself was a shattered windshield. At the railing, Melissa was checking her stun blaster with practiced efficiency, as if she were mechanical rather than it, but her eyes scanned the terrain with an intensity that felt more nervous than calculating. Sophia sympathized - coming back to the scene of a failed mission was never a pleasant feeling, which she knew well from-
A howl rose above the sounds of the shuttle’s engine, and Melissa’s face tightening into a hateful scowl. “Here they come,” she said, and Sophia nodded, taking a place at the rail beside her. She could see the loping forms of the flesh hounds sprinting across the shattered plains, their almost-lizard-like bodies surging along the ground. There had to be a dozen of them, flowing towards the shuttles - slower certainly than the transports, but orienting themselves in the right direction. Sophia frowned as she noticed a huge one among the group, darker-skinned, its skull-like face marred with a wicked scar. “It’s the fucking alpha,” Melissa snarled, and with a jerk, she slammed the access hatch of her stun blaster back into place. She cranked the modulator dial on the top of the weapon, and raised it in front of her face. Sophia watched, tensed, as the other woman sighted, taking aim at one of the smaller creatures that had come closer to their shuttle. She waited with frigid patience until the flesh hound approached one of the wide gaps along the ground. Melissa’s finger twitched, and a brilliant ball of lightning flared out of the tip of the blaster, sailing straight at the hound. It didn’t show any sign of noticing the ball-lightning until it was struck in its shoulder just as it tensed to leap over the gap. Its rear legs didn’t get the memo in time, and the beast soared, veering to the side and already flailing. Even over the hum of the engine, both women could hear the crack of pulverized bone as it collided with the chasm wall feet below the edge it had been aiming for, and Melissa lowered the stungun, turning to face the openly impressed Sophia.
“Didn’t know those things had such a range,” Sophia admitted. Melissa nodded, not looking at the gun, refusing to look at the flesh hounds, which still chased the shuttles, ignoring the splattered remnants of their comrade in favor of sweeter meat.
“Fucking hate those,” Melissa breathed, her expansive chest rising and falling heavily. “Hate all of the creepy, angry, twisted monsters on this moon.” She looked to Sophia as if desperate for her understanding. “It didn’t use to be like this… I don’t think. And we, we’re at such a disadvantage out here… we can’t even talk to each other without these.” She pulled a communications unit, then looked at it before extending it towards Sophia. “Oh, I got you one, by the way. Figured you didn’t have the cash for it yourself, and they came in handy last time.”
“Thanks.” Sophia took the unit, reaching into her sack and pulling free her helmet. The clunky, stinky piece of equipment was often more trouble than it was worth - most of the girls didn’t even bother to use one - but at the least it had a clip for a walkie-talkie, and Sophia knew from experience in training that going without a helmet was asking for trouble. With the headset secured in place, she put it back into her sack until deployment. When she looked back up, she noticed Melissa staring at her with odd intensity. “What? Do I have something on my face?” Sophia asked, laughing, and Melissa shook her head, but her look of concern stubbornly refused to fade.
“Sophia… do you remember our last mission? The Communications Building? We were going to restore planet-wide communications and the Stellar-Link transponder… It was a FAR run. Do you..” Melissa’s voice was softer, as if she sought to comfort Sophia, who could only respond with confusion. “Do you remember the big muscular thing, black wings-”
“Hey! There it is!” Sophia turned to see Beth standing near the shuttle’s prow, pointing out and up at a smudge on the horizon. Sure enough, if Sophia focused, she could make out the rise of the main tower extending further into the sky. They would be to the LZ sooner than she had expected, and that made the knot of worry in her stomach tighten.
“No, sorry, I don’t remember. I’ve done so many of these runs,” Sophia laughed, scratching her head.
“Yeah, so many it would be hard to remember any one of them in particular.” Melissa’s voice still sounded hesitant, but she put on a plastic smile for Sophia. “Hey, this one should go better, we have three whole teams this time.”
“It’ll go fine,” Sophia assured her, her voice compassionate. “And, look - if you make quota?” She tapped the badge on Melissa’s chest meaningfully. “You’ll be promoted to Boss-tier. You’ll get to talk straight to the company heads, see if you can get things changed to be better for us on the field.” Sophia nodded up at the waving flag above the shuttle, which featured Angelman posing heroically. “Kick some company ass for all the shit we go through.”
Melissa laughed at that. “They’d better not let me keep this, then.” She hefted her stun blaster, then dialed back its modulator and let off the activator to let it fall into sleep mode. She reached out to clasp Sophia’s shoulder warmly, her smile now genuine, and grateful. “Let’s get everyone ready to go,” she said, confidence quickly recovering in her tone. “We’ve got promotions to earn.”

******

The landing zone was much more of a confused press than the departure bay had been, but the same three women stood at its head. Behind them all, the paths diverged into separated cul-de-sacs where the shuttles had been able to land without drawing as much attention but not so tight as to cause problems for a hasty exit. The path from here winded through a few canyons before reaching the plateau where the complex stood. This clearing was the first that was big enough to hold them all together, and so it had been chosen as their first rally point - the second was just outside the complex itself, if it was needed.
“Alright, ladies,” Melissa barked, hefting her stun blaster. “This is a loot-and-scoot. We go in, we go to our specified areas, and we grab everything we can fit in our sacks. Stay close to each other, cover your escape routes, and try to listen for contacts from other squads as well. Our escape route is going to need 3 squads posted to keep it open, so mine, Kimiko’s, and Kayla’s will take first watch, and we will rotate after the first groups come back with loot-”
“My team has already covered this,” Kayla interjected brusquely. “We’re doing run-and-gun, five minute delays - no one wants to be stuck babysitting the road out of here while everyone else is getting rich.”
Melissa scowled, turning to face her. Their conversation was too quiet for the rest of the women to hear, but it involved a lot of angry gesticulations - and probably, from the looks of it, instructions on which orifice they each could insert their respective plans into. This disagreement did little to maintain morale, but finally Melissa turned back to the group, face reddened with anger. “We will be using a run-and-gun strategy. For each team, the first two squads will move together, then the third five minutes later, and the last two five minutes after that. Each team is free to take their own routes.” The bitterness on Melissa’s face made it clear to Sophia that Kayla’s recalcitrance had made this the only plan that would work - without mutual cooperation and communication, the plan that Melissa had been forming would be useless, but this one stood a greater chance of allowing squads to be ambushed. “Squad leaders have a map of the ravines, so communicate with your teams to know which route to take. Any questions, ladies?” Behind her, Kayla stood with arms crossed across her chest, smirking in victory, but most paid her no mind.
“No, ma’am!” The shout rang through the tight canyon, amplified by the craggy walls.
“Then let’s move out, quick.” Melissa activated her stun bluster, and the humm of her weapon reverberated in the hearts of the women ready to charge into danger. “Let’s go earn our paychecks!”

******

The tower loomed over them when the first attack came. The entire force had reached a bottleneck, one of the prefabricated bridges set up by the first teams deployed to this region months ago during their doomed run. The bridge looked sturdy enough - possibly - despite the way it seemed to sway in the wind, and the odd clangs that sounded with every step onto it. Honestly, Sophia found the thing as trustworthy as month-old tuna salad, but she wasn’t in charge here, so she slipped her helmet on - (“Sophie, you look like some kind of badass marine!” Beth chirped) - and followed Melissa onto the bridge.
And they almost made it across, too. Melissa had crossed onto solid ground, and Naomi had just started across, when the clanging became insistent - as demanding as a debt collector’s knock. Sophia felt a jerking shudder beneath her feet, and turned to look at Beth, who was right behind her, not spaced out further back as she had been instructed to be. “Beth, go!”
“Hunh?”
Surely it was coincidence, but Beth’s very next step seemed to trigger the collapse. Behind them, one of the supports snapped with a rending squeal, and Sophia grabbed the other woman and forced her ahead. To Beth’s credit, she sprinted to the end, and so did Sophia - three steps behind, three steps too many. Beth dove onto the lip of the ravine, but the bridge bucked as if consciously trying to throw Sophia off its back, and as it twisted to the side she was forced to grab the railing, clamber onto it, and throw herself into space in the vague direction of safety, praying she would find it.
She flew through the air forever - and then the air left her lungs as she collided with the wall of the ravine, just like that flesh hound Melissa had killed. Her less-powerful leap spared her the same messy fate as the beast, and the hands desperately grasping hers spared her from falling to the ground below. She glanced down - it was survivable, maybe, but she really didn’t want to volunteer to check. Instead, she kicked with her feet, scratching for a toehold. Finally her foot pressed against a lip of stone, and she used that to scramble up, Melissa and Beth groaning as they yanked on the arm they had captured. Despite her shoulder’s agony, she was grateful for the hoist, especially when she spilled onto flat earth once more - though she still crawled several paces away from the edge of the cliff, just in paranoia of a collapse.
Melissa stood, panting, and waved frantically back to the other girls. It was a needless warning - most of them had seen the bridge collapse, and Naomi stood safely on the other side, waving the others back away from the edge. A quick glance proved irrefutably that the bridge itself was permanently out of order - the collapse had twisted and warped the support columns. The only parts that remained largely intact were the end posts that had helped to support and anchor the bridge to the cliff sides, and, as Sophia watched, Beth checked one of the metal beams, only to have a chunk tear off into her hands, a four-foot length of pole that would make an admirable cudgel, but never again part of a structure.
“Go… around!” Melissa shouted over the wind through the canyon, motioning emphatically with her hand towards the nearest side passage they had all passed. It would add time to their travels back and forth to the site, but with the bridge down, there was no choice but to accept that. The crowd of women nodded, and began to turn - only for Kayla, paling, to point back at them and start screaming something, her words consumed by the howl of the wind.
Sophia’s instincts warned her before she turned, and they were soon proven to be decent prophets. Sure enough, two flesh hounds were clambering down the sides of the passage ahead of them - lean and sinewy, these were smaller even than most of the ones they had passed earlier, a fraction of the size of the alpha. This still left them considerably larger than the women they were hunting… large enough to devour them whole, which was exactly what they had in mind.
Sophia heard the hum of Melissa’s stun blaster powering up, and with a solid click the other woman changed the setting of the weapon from concentrated blast to extended arc. That would discharge a solid stream of electricity into a target, incapacitating it for a while, long enough for others to escape or add fire into the beast to dissuade it - but that wouldn’t happen here. “I’ll draw their attention,” Melissa announced, stepping in front of Beth, on the other side of the broad path from Sophia. “You two-”
“Like hell.” Sophia saw the problem immediately. Even if she sacrificed herself to keep one of the beasts down, the other would be free to consume her in an instant, and that left her and Beth in little better positions than before. “You two, take the one on the left. Leave the other two me.” She sounded confident, Sophia told herself. Confident enough that she almost believed herself. Not quite, but close!
The flesh hounds snarled, their barbed tongues dangling from their mouths. They had the time to be deliberate, to play with their cornered food. They stalked forward, eyeing their meals, muscles tensed and ready to pounce. They separated as they came, leaving no path of escape… just as Sophia wanted.
“Hey! Bitchface! Your momma fucked a wafflemaker! Nobody thinks you’re a good dog! How’re you supposed to sniff asses with a face like that?” Sophia wasn’t sure the beast understood her - and if it cared about her insults if it did - but suddenly, she had two flesh hounds charging her. She waited, and that pause was one of the hardest things she could ever remember doing in her life, but it paid off: a moment later, and the farther of the two beasts yelped and went down, brilliant lightning searing into its hide. Sophia even had a moment to see Beth sprinting heavily at the monster, forcing aloft the pole she had taken from the wreckage of the bridge, as well as the head-sized chunk of concrete at its other end. But then the hulking wolf-like beast was almost on her, and she ran like she was about to be eaten.
It wasn’t far to the edge of the cliff, but that worked in her favor. Her flight incensed the beast, which had expected her to cower and be consumed, and it surged forward, jaws held sideways to snatch her up in a bite. She could hear its paws ripping at the earth as it pounced. It wasn’t far to run, she knew, the perpendicular canyon yawning before her - one maw to swallow her or the other. They were both upon her - and she jumped, reaching out for the remaining support left by the bridge’s calamitous demise. And it wasn’t far behind, the beast that had meant to eat her alive - too close to stop, to veer away, to save itself.
She felt the air rush past her as the beast snapped its mouth closed where she should have been, but now she was swinging, reversing her course, the support beam screeching and terrifyingly yielding to her weight, jostling her in her tight parabolic arc. The creature’s shoulder nearly completed the disaster, clipping off the support, but it glanced away, scrabbling to stop, to hold - and it was gone.
An agonized screech tore through the air behind her as Sophia let go, sprawling in a roll that was far less intentional than it looked, however little that was. She took to her feet, checking in on the other two girls. Melissa was waving her smoking stun blaster, which had overheated, but its work was done: the flesh hound lay flopped like roadkill, its head dented and misshapen. To add the final flourish to her work, Beth lifted the chunk of concrete over her head one final time, the pole flashing in the sunlight as it descended, and the beast’s skull surrendered to it unconditionally, splattering like an overripe melon. Beth turned around, smiling despite the raspberry-jelly-like goo decorating her face and jumpsuit. “At least we wear red!” she consoled herself enthusiastically, ignoring effortlessly that the shades were nowhere near a match. Blanching, Sophia turned and checked off the edge of the cliff, finding what she had expected: her pursuer had been pierced by one of the crumpled supports still swaying over the wreckage of the bridge, and had been corkscrew-peeled like an orange before hanging in tatters from its pinning, the clawed legs dangling nervelessly over rubble painted with its gore. With a triumphant sneer, Sophia turned back towards her allies, only to pause as a raucous cheer came from the other side of the ravine. She, Melissa, and Beth turned to see the rest of the company’s workers roaring their approval, shaking their fists in respect. Sophia snapped off a more formal salute, which she saw returned by Kayla, the blond looking at her with a gleam of grudging, but accepting, approval.
Sophia turned back to Beth and Melissa, and they shared a knowing nod, their adrenaline still coursing through their systems. With a ‘clunk,’ Beth let her makeshift club drop to the ground, and together the trio continued down the path. Over them, the Data Management Complex loomed, like the final stage of a video game, like the Tower of Babel the day after construction ended.
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