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Haunted Forest by Julieann
Haunted Forest by Julieann
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Haunted Forest
By Julieann Dreamer
A BotP Fanfic

A light breeze played across his cheek, slowly bringing him to the surface. Cracking open his eyes, Mark made out a strange scene in front of him. Princess sat a short distance away on a patch of grass in front of a large gnarled tree, braiding flowers together into a string.

Sensing his eyes on her, she looked up and smiled gently. "Are you ready?"

"Ready?" he said in a voice that didn't sound like his. Confused, he sat up, and immediately his head began swimming. Taking a few deep breaths, he looked up again, only now she was standing, walking away.

"We'll be late."

"Wait!" Stumbling to his feet, Mark grabbed for support as his head swam with a vengeance, his eyesight momentarily tunneling. With only force of will, he took a few steps after her, grabbing another tree as the forest floor tilted and rolled. As he caught his breath, he looked around himself, trying to place where he was. Nothing looked familiar, and yet it did. Had he been here before?

Looking down the path, he saw Princess waiting a short distance away, her deft fingers still playing with the blue and white flowers. As he stepped forward again, he suddenly stopped. She was no longer in birdstyle. Instead, her hair flowed free around her face, now dressed in her civilian clothes. It must be the light filtering through the forest branches, but the pink in her pants no longer looked pink. Instead they looked almost red.

"Princess..." he started, then stopped. As he had glanced down, he noticed a bright red drop on the front seam of his wings where they came together. He touched it, and then he carefully touched the left side of his face. The blood was from him, from under his helmet, just above his left temple. A pounding pain reinforced the source of the injury.

How had that happened? Try as he might, he could not recall. And why hadn't Princess tended to it? "Princess, how did this happen?"

"We're late." She said simply, turning away to continue down the path, disappearing from his sight as the path curved behind a stand of dense trees.

He stayed where he was, his senses on alarm. Always before he had relied on his instinct to guide him when reason could not. His instinct was telling him something was wrong.

Reluctantly, he turned away and retraced his steps. Only now he saw what he had been leaning against. The metal was warped in prominent ripples around the engines of his jet, extending down the fuselage. Where the wing had once been attached was a huge tear that revealed some of the inner framework. Moving towards the nose of the Jet, he found the canopy shattered, pieces of it laying among his feet and covering the interior.

He looked up into the clear sky, but couldn't see any other ships, much less the Phoenix. In fact, the blue skies were clear other than a few cumulus clouds floating by. He couldn't hear the sound of engines, either. Where was everyone else? Had he and Princess been on a mission alone? Jason would have loved that. He could just imagine Jason's scour when greeted with that news by Chief Anderson.

"Where did Princess go?"

Mark whirled around, and instantly regretted it. He blinked to clear his eyesight, glaring at his G-2, "Jason, where did you come from?"

Jason looked at him in exasperation, "Princess? Remember her? Which way?"

"Down the path. What is wrong with her? She didn't stay in birdstyle."

"Not sure. I found one entrance to the base, but it was booby-trapped. Ceiling fell in. Princess isn't answering any hails."

Mark nodded. Of course, that's an obvious reason they would be here. Spectra must have a hidden base on this planet. And what had happened to Princess? Did Spectra do something to her?

"Must have been shot down." he mumbled to himself. He looked down the path that Princess had disappeared, "Did Spectra do something to her?"

"Judging from the way she's acting, I would guess so." Jason said.

"I guess we better find her."

"That would be a good idea." Jason said, heading down the path.

Mark followed, watching the ground and the forest around him. Something still didn't feel right.

Jason was still ahead of him, and had stopped to crouch, looking at the ground. "She came this way."

"Where are the others?"

Before Jason could answer, they both froze at the sound of thrashing in the underbrush. A male howl of pain and a female yell caused both of them to run forward.

Branches and wiry twigs tore at his birdstyle and attempted to slash his face as Mark barreled through the brush towards the sound. Suddenly the ground disappeared from beneath him. He fell, crashing heavy against the underbrush, rocks, and a well placed log that deprived him of his breath as he hit it.

He managed to roll out of the brush into the edge of a clearing, and then to roll again out of the way as a flash of Jason's boots flew by his vision, as well as familiar brown boots with green pants overlapping. Finding his feet, he worked air into his lungs and in an instant accessed the situation. Princess was once again in birdstyle, and completely surrounded by Spectra soldiers. Jason was on the other side of the clearing, busy with his own group, and obviously not in a position to help Princess in any way.

With practiced ease his boomerang flashed through the air, taking down two of the soldiers near Princess. With a sense of satisfaction, he watched them fall, even as he quickly moved in towards the other soldiers. His hands flew out, and the soldier who had turned to see him, and attempted to raise his gun, fell down in a clump.

The adrenaline was pumping now, and he engaged two other soldiers, his mouth playing a smile. Pleasure coursed through him, dulling the pain in his head as he finished them off.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Princess fall, and a goon hit her in the helmet with the but of his gun as she attempted to rise. Mark froze, and a fireball of fury went through him. Jason saw it at the same time and attempted to head in her direction when he was overrun by a new group of soldiers. The same threatened him, and Mark, determined, launched himself over their heads, flipping over, landing next to Princess. With a hard punch to the throat, the soldier going in for the kill fell at Princess's feet. Princess rolled away against a large rock as Mark turned towards the remaining soldiers.

The soldiers advanced, and then found themselves disarmed as Marks boomerang once again screamed through the air. Princess leaned against the rock, her hand to her helmet, breathing hard and watching. Mark felt his strength surging, and he eyed the remaining soldiers in a hunters glare. Pleasure raced through him as he cut down the first two. The others fell in quick succession. As each fell, the emotions grew stronger. Through his haze of fury and pleasure he realized Princess was still standing there, encouraging him and yelling her support.

The last soldier fell, and Mark took a few quick breaths, and then looked at her. Her face was consumed by a pleasurable smile. She breathed, "You did it. That was glorious!"

"Where did they come from?" Jason demanded as he finally joined them.

"Just down the path," Princess said, pointing to one behind Jason, "Shall we take out the base now?"

Before Mark could say anything Princess picked up her string of braided flowers and was walking quickly down the path. Mark looked at Jason, who was beginning to follow her.

He raised an eyebrow at him, "Ready to work, Commander?"

Mark looked down at the bodies of the Spectra soldiers that lay motionless around him. Why had he felt such pleasure? It hadn't been a pleasure of doing a good job, of knowing he was at top form. With each punch he had felt it. With every movement he had felt it.

All his senses still screamed that there was something wrong with all of this. Slowly he began following his teammates, his eyes now more watchful than ever. No obvious booby-traps lined the way. He could discern multiple footprints, including those of Jason and Princess.

He stopped at the edge of a clearing. A mound of dirt and rock covered in vegetation rose up before him. Between two piles of rock was the dark mouth of a cafe, where Princess and Jason stood waiting.

"We found it!" Princess said, smiling again. Mark blinked. For a moment her birdstyle looked much redder than its usual pink, just as her civilian pants had appeared before.

Mark took a few steps forward and then stopped. His eyes were on the cave mouth. He knew it was his imagination, but it had seemed that the cave entrance had grown bigger as he approached it. Even the rocks around it gave it the appearance of a mouth full of teeth.

His senses were screaming to him now. For some reason, he knew he shouldn't enter that cave.

"Boobytraps?" Mark asked. Maybe that was why he was nervous? Jason had said he had already encountered them.

"Not so far." Jason said.

Princess took a few steps inside. "If we hurry, maybe we can take them by surprise."

"Surprise?" Mark echoed. "After that little skirmish? The whole base is going to know we are here!"

"More reason to take the fight to them before they can bring it to us." Jason said. "Let's go."

Mark took one step forward, and then stopped again. Princess was just inside the cave entrance, her fingers playing with the string of flowers. Why was she doing that? He looked in her eyes, and even from his distance, he knew something was wrong. Was this his Princess? Was this even the Jason he knew?

"This is crazy." Mark turned to leave.

"Where are you going?" Jason demanded.

"To get the rest of the team."

"We don't have time for that!"

As if in response, a group of Spectra Soldiers appeared from the path behind him, firing their guns as they ran. As usual, their spray of bullets and laser fire impacted everywhere except their intended target.

"Commander, we have a clear path into the base! We have to take it!" Jason yelled at him.

No, this was too convenient.

Mark chose not to even bother with the Spectra Soldiers. He leapt over their heads, landed on a tree branch, sprung back to the forest floor and kept going. The short path quickly led to the clearing where they had been involved in their first fight, only now all the bodies were gone. Mark caught his breath, and then noticed there was also no blood on the ground.

"Tiny, Keyop, come in!" Mark yelled into his bracelet. He was met by static. At the sounds behind him, Mark continued in the direction that he hoped would take him to his plane.

On the other side of the clearing he found an incline, but couldn't see where he fell down it. He struggled through the underbrush moving uphill as fast as he could. The foliage seemed determined to resist him. A branch rebounded and hit him in the helmet, and his eyes swam as he went to his knees.

He recovered quickly. It was about time his implants started kicking in on the healing, he thought to himself.

He struggled to the top of the rise, finally finding a trail. The sun had moved a little, but he was somewhat certain he was heading in the right direction. A little ways farther he stopped a moment to see if he could hear anyone coming up behind him, and then he realized what was wrong.

The silence.

It was completely silent.

No animals, no insects. Even the breeze in the trees hardly made a sound.

Nothing was moving.

He looked around him again, looking with fresh eyes. It all looked surreal. Like the set of a fantasy movie. Or perhaps a conglomerate of all the various planets he had been to, many of which were wild wildernesses?

Yes, that made sense. An Orchid from Arcturus, some of the trees looked like they were from Lucavia. The more he looked, the more he found. Brush and grasses from Zarkadia, vines and moss from Zebore and Riga.

What was going on?

Even more swiftly he began moving towards his plane.

He knew some species of plants and animals were present on multiple planets. He had seen many evidences of it, but nothing like this. There was too much, from too many, and not enough that was totally unfamiliar.

Riga. Some of the grass here was from Riga, like the long grasses that grew along the shore. They shouldn't grow inland, and his nose could not smell the tang of salt in the air that would indicate he was anywhere near an ocean.

Mark closed his eyes at the thought of Riga. Of the last time he had stood on on the rocky shore of its largest ocean, just outside the Spectra cave, watching the sky turn crimson. The pain was still raw after all these months.

"Mark!"

Mark's breath caught, and he slowly turned around to the person behind him on the trail.

"I finally get a message out to Chief Anderson about this slave site, and now you refuse to do your duty and rescue the poor people in the mines below." Colonel Cronos stood there, just as Mark remembered him. The same uniform, the same helmet, and the same set of his mouth that he so well remembered.

"Let me guess, you've been here all the time, not dead on Riga."

Cronos laughed. "How many assassins have tried to kill me? None of them have succeeded. A quick death was too good according to Zoltar. Many of us from the capital city were brought here."

Mark took a deep breath, and then gave a small smile. "Happen to know where my jet is? I need to call in Tiny and Keyop. Then we can take care of this place."

"Your bracelet..."

"It's not working. Some kind of interference. I assume that is why no one knows of this place. Scans don't pick it up." Mark said.

"Makes sense." Cronos said as he walked up and past Mark, "I kept waiting for Galaxy Security to show up. It's not as if Spectra has taken the effort to really hide this place. I'm not sure, but I think your jet is this way."

Mark noticed a short time later that Cronos chose a path that veered away from the direction his instincts said he should go. Without saying anything, Mark let him continue, and then turned off into the other direction. As he thought, he soon found his Jet.

It laid as before, crumpled and rather pathetic looking. It would obviously never fly again. Mark found a small splotch of blood on a rock just outside of the cockpit, where he had awoken after the crash. He must have been able to pull himself out. He looked back at the path, and the place Princess had sat before weaving her flowers.

He shook himself. None of this was reality. It couldn't be. Zoltar had played many tricks on him, including one where Cronos was alive. He would not fall for it again.

He climbed up to the cockpit, and gingerly lowered himself into his seat from between the jagged edges of the what had once been the cockpit canopy.

The cockpit panels were a mess. Obviously some of them had shorted out, some were clearly damaged upon impact. There was a little bit of power, enough to power some of the systems, but he couldn't bring up the main computer, or communications. He worked two of the intact panels out, and started connecting wires. Just as he finished, he heard a noise outside.

He leapt out of the cockpit, not relishing being a sitting duck while inside. A second later Jason and Cronos appeared.

"There, we found him." Cronos said.

"Commander, if you are finished playing, we have a mine to stop. Keyop and Tiny are already with us. They are helping Princess secure the entrance." Jason said.

Mark slowly nodded, "That's good. Especially since nothing seems to be working." He gestured to his plane.

Jason hardly looked at the jet. "Spectra is sure to know we are here by now..."

At that, they heard the multiple shots of a multi action laser rifle. All three of them ducked, and laser fire splattered on the ground between them. Before any could react, Spectra soldiers were among them, dividing into 3 groups to attack. Instinctively Mark protected himself, and as his punch collided, he again felt that sense of pleasure. He stopped, and then ducked to avoid a punch.

His instincts told him this wasn't right, either. Once again, it was too convenient

He summersaulted backwards, over the jet and to the other side, and then ducking past the remains of a wing. Knowing he had only a few seconds, he closed his eyes.

After many years of practice of using meditation as part of his training, he could put himself into that state in a matter of seconds. Blocking out the sounds and sensation around him, he looked for his center. He found it, and with it the peace it always brought.

But he dared not stay. And so first he opened his ears and listened. The obvious sound was that of the battle. No, the sounds of battle were not right. What else was there besides that?

No, the sounds of Jason and Cronos weren't right either. What else?

There wasn't the sound of a forest, but now...yes, he could hear the sound of wind. But a lonely wind. A wind that blew without impediment. Like that in a desert.

Next, the sense of touch. Only his face was exposed, but it felt hot. Not cool, not shaded as it should be in the forest. And dry. Very dry.

A desert.

The smells that the wind brought were of decay. Of heat and sand. Not of trees, grasses and flowers.

Slowly Mark opened his eyes. He was in a desert, not a forest. The forest shimmered before him for a second and vanished.

Heat waves distorted the barren hills in the distance. Dead scraggly twigs and the skeletons on ancient trees still dotted the landscape. How long had they been standing there, dead? Rocks of all sizes littered the ground. The ground was baked as hard as concrete with the occasional small sand dune that was slowly shifting in the wind.

His jet remained. It was real. So was the shattered look of it. He had obviously crashed. He walked around it, and as he figured, no one was there. Less than a mile away he saw a rounded hill with several black cave openings, and far to the left, the decaying jagged outline of a city.

Well, someone had lived here once, a long long time ago. Perhaps at a time when the land was still green? He didn't know why, but he felt with a certainty that this place had once been filled with life.

His eyes went back to the hill. That was where he had been a short time ago, he was certain of it.

Mark fell to his knees as something crashed into his helmet.

"The rest of the team and Phoenix is waiting for us. If I have to drag you there, I will." Jason's voice said angrily. Another sharp blow from behind and Mark collapsed, his vision going dark.

When he resurfaced, Mark found that he was draped over Jason's shoulder. Okay, so not all of it was an illusion. But even this didn't feel right. He had been over Jason's shoulder before, when Jason had carried him out of a chemical fire.

Even though his head was still swimming, he delved down to find his center, and then opened his senses one by one. Yes, by touch and by smell, this was not Jason. The shoulder was blockier and rock hard. There was metallic smells, almost engine smells.

Marks eyes shot open, and in one movement he twisted and pushed. His legs slipped out of the impostors grip, and Mark flipped over his back to stand behind him.

The robot stood before him, rotting fabric covering some of the frame, draping in a way that gave it the appearance of a nightmare birdstyle.

"Commander, the Phoenix is just past the caves. We'll get you there. You are obviously not yourself."

"Really? Could that be from the being shot down, or being attacked by my supposed G-2?"

It was then that Mark realized that they were almost to the cave entrance. The mouth of it opened menacingly, and Mark once again knew he did not want to enter it.

His bracelet crackled, and for an instant Mark recognized Tiny's voice say a few jumbled words before the comm link went dead again.

"Looks like my real team is trying to track me." Mark said.

Before he finished his sentence, the robot charged him. Mark easily evaded, landing a kick at his head. The robot stumbled, and then rushed him again as Mark landed. A series of smaller robots, some limping, poured out of the mouth of the cave.

Mark launched his boomerang at them. The first two avoided it's blades, but a third did not, and fell as the boomerang raked it's neck. Mark continued his movement and slammed the robot in front of him with a foot blow to the head. The robot fell, and Mark cart wheeled out of the way before it could reach for him, catching his boomerang as he came to a stop.

He froze, realizing that the boomerang was now stained with blood. He looked at the three robots that were now on the ground lifeless. That surge of pleasure had been there again, but now Mark was certain it wasn't coming from him.

The other robots simply stepped over the fallen robots. There were too many to fight in this restricted place, so Mark turned and ran. He launched himself into the air to glide over a large long rock, only to find himself tangled in webbing.

With a hard thud he fell to the ground, and was dragged towards a larger robot that had thrown it. Mark opened the blades of his boomerang and began working at the strands, only to find the blades seemed to have hardly any effect.

The remaining robots kept their distance, but surrounded him as he was dragged towards the cave. Mark continued to saw feverishly.

The mouth of the cave swallowed him and the small amount of sunlight penetrating the maw quickly disappeared, leaving complete darkness. He was knocked on his side as he was dragged over several sharp stones. Mark had lost his place in sawing at the netting, so he began on a new strand, working at it with all his strength. He wasn't positive, but he felt like the tunnel was angling downwards, and slightly curving to the right. Again he was knocked over as the netting holding him brushed hard against a wall as they turned a corner. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he noticed a deep red glow appearing in front of him as they moved deeper into the cave. Then the floor became smooth and even.

A large dimly lit cavern opened up around them, with odd shapes being thrown on the wall from the dim light emanating from the center. In the center of the room stood a large shape, with limbs radiating out and up. It looked like a tree, until the limbs started moving.

The robot dragging him stopped and bowed in front of the moving tree. Several thick limbs moved forward as if watching him.

"We bring us sustenance, My Lord."

"Yes, the feeding has already begun." a very low voice said that made all the hair on Marks body stand up on end. The lighting in the cavern brightened, but maintained a blood red color.

The Cavern was large and high, but completely symmetrical. The walls and domed ceiling were covered, a combination of unknown organic and inorganic that spread out overlapping each other. To his right many of the robots stood in cocoons of spidery partially translucent webbing. One of the cocoons to the far left was illuminated in blood red with a human form standing motionless inside.

Mark had sometimes been aware of more than most. Emotions, feelings of intuition. With that, he knew that the one did hold someone, or it did once. And it was in terror.

"With emotions come completion. With life comes emotion. And so we shall feed off both to become complete."

In horror, Mark turned towards the source of the voice. His intuition flashed again. It was feeding off it! This thing had been feeding off him in the fights!

Hands grabbed him, holding him still against the cold floor, his boomerang snatched from his hands. He was then half carried/half dragged towards the center of the cave, to the tree-like form. Limbs reached out to him. Mark flinched away and for a second was able to reach his other wrist. With a tap the bird scramble signal was activated, and hopefully an open channel, but he had no idea if it would be heard. Why hadn't he activated it earlier? His head trauma must be worse than he thought.

The hands of the robots gave way to the limbs wrapping themselves around his arms and legs, one of the larger ones around his chest.

"We prefer our new ones to come to us on their own accord. Even in injury, your mind has been difficult to penetrate." One of the smaller limbs touched his face, and seemed to be cleaning it of the dried blood. As it did, a sound of pleasure erupted from the creature. Mark tried to move his face as it continued, working its way up to his temple. Another limb snaked around to hold his head still. The other limbs were not crushing, but they held him firmly. "Such a strong spirit. You will sustain us for a long time. Come my children, it is time to feed and grow in strength."

The robots muttered to themselves happily and headed to the cocoons. His head turned to one side as the tentacles continued their careful work on his face, Mark saw one robot stop and look at him, fingers still working on a string of dried twigs. The motion was familiar. The robot blinked at him, and then turned to the cocoons, carefully placing the string down in front of its cocoon as it stepped inside. The Webbing closed around it, and the robot stood motionless as a red light began to fill the cocoons.

"...screech....commander....crackle....screech....here...."

Marks heart leapt with hope at the sound of Jason's voice. Even as he did, a tentacle wriggled under his helmet. Mark screamed out at the pain that rippled through his head and body. It felt as if the tentacle was invading his very head. A flash of images, noises and sounds flashed through his head of past events. The pain when he had come out of surgery after the first implant. His first solo flight. His mothers voice. The smell of Princess's perfume the first time he had tried to kiss her...

He heard his wrist comm sound again, but he couldn't make out the words as he felt a mental presence at the edge of his waking mind. With determination, he gathered his strength to make a stand against it.

The creature seemed to sense the upcoming struggled and laughed softly to itself, as if enjoying the struggle. The presence grew in strength, and Mark did what he could to push it away.

Another ripple of excruciating pain, and Mark screamed again. In agony, he cried out, "Jason, fire a damn bird missile!"

He screamed again, and could feel the presence systematically advancing forward. He could no longer see, hardly hear, but his other senses were magnified, and he did not like what they were telling him. What was this thing?

An image formed in his mind, of several great cities, occupied by humans. One he knew was the city outside. Then, in the night sky, in the memory he suddenly knew was from some in the cocoons, came a flash and a streak. It impacted outside the city, and many came to see it.

Some were influenced by the creature inside the small round craft, some began to worship it and believe in the great promises it made. Some resisted it. This was the part the creature loved the most. Infiltrating the minds of the inhabitants without them even being aware, inciting the violence and intense emotions it loved to feel and feed off of.

Eventually a few became suspicious about what the creature was doing, and what it truly was. To prevent it from having the power it needed to repair its ship, they made a suicide pact. In a day, they scorched the planet, first focusing on the area around its ship. Then, to prevent the creature from feeding off of them for whatever power it could drain from them, they then killed themselves.

The beauty of the planet gone. The rich biosphere went from green to brown, gray and white.

The creature kept those who had stayed loyal, feeding on them when necessary, even altering them as parts of their bodies died. However, their power was limited, and the creature preferred to keep them alive to attend to its needs.

Once in a while a ship fell from the sky, and the creatures attendants would go out to lead them back to the ship, while the creature entered their minds and began feeding on them even before they would arrive at the cave entrance. But there was never enough.

But now it had a new source of power. It would go and search the humans out on new worlds. There would be new feedings. And Mark was to be the strength behind it. With the strength of this unusual human, repairs on the ship could be completed. For a moment brilliant slanted yellow eyes filled his head.

At the horror of the thought of this creature loose again, Mark struggled anew. He would not be used in such a way, even if he had to kill himself.

Despite his diminishing hearing, Mark heard a high pitched whine. His mind instantly identified it. The room shuddered, and a portion of the ceiling fell and struck one side of the creature. It howled in pain. In that second, the grip of several of the tentacles faltered and the mental connection weakened.

Mark's senses came rushing painfully back. Pulling at his right arm, he was able to reach into his pouch and drop a few star bombs. They fell down through the tentacles and exploded on contact with the floor. A scream of pain came from the creature, and several of the tentacles fell away as it pulled them back to protect the trunk. Mark took that as his cue, and threw a few more star bombs towards the trunk of the creature.

The last few tentacles dropped him as a hair-raising scream echoed through the room. He landed hard, the breath leaving his lungs painfully. The tentacles flailed around as if trying to find him again, and even though his eyesight had not completely returned, he was able to jump out of the way.

He quickly moved into the shadows, moving behind a tall object. He kneeled down out of sight and tried to catch his breath.

Obviously someone had heard him. The bird missile impacted nearby, but not right on top of their location. He imagined the team was landing nearby to begin a rescue mission, and then Tiny would launch again for backup. Mark listened to the creature whimper in pain.

"Your people will suffer greatly for this. How dare you attack a god! I will make all of you suffer as you cannot imagine!"

Mark knew he couldn't let the team have the time to come in after him. He needed to escape, and he needed to destroy this thing before it killed anyone else. But if his wrist comm couldn't get a clear signal, how could he pinpoint the area for a missile?

He pulled out the tracers out of a pouch on his belt. It was a long shot, but he hoped it would be enough of a signal. Carefully he placed one on top of the other, until all 8 formed one long cylinder, their pointy graspers poking into his gloves. His eyesight accustomed to the darkness again, he lodged it behind the cocoon he had hidden behind. A tap on the top tracer activated it and all the tracers below it, each amplifying the signal of the one on top.

Looking around the cocoon, Mark searched for the entrance he had been brought through. Several headed off in different directions, but only one had the webbing near it. He then looked at the creature, wondering if he could reach that entrance before it could reach out to him. Was the thing even mobile?

Another explosion rocked the cavern, another piece of bio-mechanical debris hitting the floor in a crash that echoed loudly through the room. In a flash Mark sprinting for the entrance.

"That's enough, Tiny. Give us time to get inside." Came Jason's voice crackled over the wrist comm. Jason must be really close for his communication to come through so clearly.

"You will not leave!" A voice roared.

Mark heard the whoosh of limbs over his head as he ducked, bolted to the side, and kept going.

"Do not enter the caves!" Mark yelled into his wrist comm as he gained the cave tunnel.

Mark could hear lots of movement behind him, even over his own panting breath and his feet pounding the tunnel floor. The light behind him was left behind, and he was left in darkness, and yet he continued to move. He hit a wall hard as the tunnel changed direction. He threw a few of his cluster bombs behind him, and in the bright spark of their explosions, he could only for an instant make out the tunnel. But it was enough. His feet pounded the floor again. At the count of 5 he threw two more cluster bombs behind him. This time came a howl of pain from the other side of the explosion.

In a swing of his arms, Mark brought up his communicator to his head, "Tiny, get a bird missile ready. I left several tracers in the cavern. As soon as I am clear of the cave mouth, hit it with everything you have!"

"You got it Commander."

For good measure, Mark threw another few cluster bombs behind him and was rewarded with another howl of pain. At every few strides he threw more, until the pouch was completely emptied. But by then, the welcoming rays of the diminishing sun was lighting up the tunnel entrance.

Mark continued his sprint even when free of the cave mouth. He did not look back to see if the creature was still behind him. He didn't need to see it to know it was there, so infuriated at Mark that it had left its protected domain. It hated the sun, but the sun was not as bright as it once was. Mark would find no protection in the quickly shadowing landscape.

"Damn, look at that thing!" Came Jason's words, and that was enough for Mark. He continued running as fast as he could, moving in, over, and around the large rocks, hoping not to give a good target to the thing.

" ***Above you***" Keyops voice said sharply, and Mark looked up to see Keyops vehicle flying in low, its mouth opening up. Mark took the hint and launched himself upwards.

His aim was a little off, and he managed to hit his head against the top of the mouth as he he gained the inside of the Space Buggy. He dropped to the floor as Keyop closed the mouth and sharply angled away, causing Mark to roll up against the outer wall.

"***got him!***" Keyop said happily, "***ugly thing!***"

"Yeah it is, and I've got it." There was a pause and then Jason said with a smirk in his voice, "Thing isn't impervious to everything!"

"How is Mark, Keyop?" Princess asked.

Her voice was like music in his ears. Princess was okay. She was acting normally. Mark didn't have the strength to answer himself. His head rested against the floor of the buggy and he felt himself fade out.

"***Not so ****well***" Keyop said worriedly.

"Everyone get back to the Phoenix. We'll make sure nothing survives in this valley." Jason ordered.

Even in his half state of consciousness Mark smiled. Jason would be happy. He was getting to fire missiles to his hearts content without Mark limiting the number of shots. Considering what had been in the cave, Mark wasn't about to say no.

-------------------------------------------

The first sensation Mark had upon waking was how soft the bed was. He was covered with a sheet and blanket, and he could feel and IV in his left arm. Someone was beside his bed. He could hear the regular breathing, and he guessed it was Princess.

He opened his eyes and recognized the inside of the medical wing of Center Neptune. He tilted his head carefully towards Princess to see her reading a biking magazine, her hair highlighted in the soft lighting of the room. He was pleased that his head didn't pound when he moved his head. Idly he wondered how long he had been asleep. Obviously the entire ride from whatever planet he had crashed on to here.

Princess continued to read, sometimes smiling to herself or scowling. Then, feeling his gaze, she looked up.

"I was wondering when you would wake up!" She said, standing up and putting the magazine down on her chair. She came to stand next to his bed. "You had us worried for a while. Your cerabonics were drained."

"Where was I?" He managed to ask, his voice sounding rough.

"Ilexis 5. Pretty barren planet. We didn't pick up any life at all. Not even you. Good thing you managed to get that signal going in your Jet, though we almost didn't pick that up, either." Princess said as she went to the small sink and poured a glass of water. She brought it to him and with her help sipped at it, "What was that thing that came out of that cave? The others looked like robots."

"I'm not sure, but it was about to feed on me. Tell Jason he aimed those bird missiles really well, and at the right time."

"Sounds like it's going to be some mission report." Princess said.

Mark looked around the room and then at Princess, "And not one I'm sure will be completely believed."

Mark closed his eyes, wanting to believe this reality, but still nervous. He could feel his own heartbeat. Then he opened his other senses one at a time.

In time he opened his eyes and looked at Princess with a soft smile on his face. "This is as it should be."

She looked at him questioningly, but he shook his head. Princess shrugged, "Okay, okay, I'll just read the report. Glad to have you back in one piece, Commander."

From outside his door he heard the voices of Jason and Tiny, and then the squeal of Keyop. Again he smiled as the door opened. Things were as they should be.

The End

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