Katya strode towards Juno through the ruins of the obstacle course she and her Antipodes had just demolished.
Juno hated Katya so very, very deeply.
“Dear Juno,” Katya said, her eyes mirthful over the top of the bandana covering her lower face. “Don’t be upset. You did very well for somebody from USAriadna.”
“Thanks,” Juno responded. “Wait. What?”
But it was too late. Katya had continued to flow past her and was already halfway to the debriefing room. The three Antipodes followed her, hulking brutes of coiled muscle and fangs, snarling at Juno as they passed. Juno noticed that one of them was bleeding heavily from an open wound on his shoulder, but if the alien creature noticed the wound it gave no sign.
“Arroo?” whimpered Bear, nuzzling Juno’s hand with his nose. She smiled down at the small Antipode, his eyes bright and wide. By Antipode standards, Bear was a runt, barely twice Juno’s size, his fur still the soft baby-brown that would one day give way to the courser grey coat typical of older, bigger Antipodes. And without pack-mates, he was about as smart as a brick.
He rubbed up against her with his cheek, and despite her frustration, Juno chuckled and pushed back with both hands, scratching behind his ears as she did so.
“Am I interrupting something, recruit?” snarled Sergeant Ross.
Juno stood ramrod straight and saluted. Bear, seeing Juno’s sudden change in demeanour, plopped down directly into a puddle.
“Sir! No Sir!” Juno said, feeling her skin flush.
“Are you certain, recruit? By all means, spend today picking ticks off that mangey creature you continue to insist is an Antipode! Perhaps share grooming tips?”
“Sir! No Sir!” A cold sweat broke out on her forehead.
“Do I need to tell you how abysmal your performance was?” Ross was almost shouting, eyes narrowed and teeth bared.
“Sir! No Sir!” Juno pulled her shoulders further back, trying to weather the storm of Ross’s fury. “It’s not Bear’s fault, Sir! He needs a pack to be smart enough to…”
“A pack!?” Ross roared. “Are you insane, recruit? You can’t control one Antipode, and you want more of them? They’ll rip you to pieces, eat the larger chunks, and piss on the smaller ones!”
Bear rolled over, thoroughly coating himself in mud, and gazed up at Ross with his big brown eyes. Ross, for her part, didn’t waste any effort acknowledging the wolfen creature.
“I can control him, Sir,” Juno said, trying not to sound like she was pleading. “I just need more time to form a proper bond!”
“We know how to control them, recruit!” Ross snapped back. “We’ve been doing this for decades!”
“High Command seems to believe in my theory, Sir,” Juno countered, narrowing her eyes.
“High Command can go fuck itself sideways with a Trench-hammer for all I care!” Ross snapped back. “High Command isn’t out there in the mud fighting! You managed to impress some five-star fuckbag with your tales of a kinder, gentler Antipode link, it’s not their ass that’s going to be eating plasma or bludgeoned to death by a Morat!”
“It will be my ass on the line, Sir!”
“Bullshit! Do you think I give two damns about your ass, Private Juno!?” Ross lowered her voice, lifting her cap with one hand and pulling a sleeve across her forehead. “You’re going to get everyone else killed, Private.”
“Orders came down the pipe this morning.” Ross sighed, closing her eyes as she placed the cap back on her head. “We’re shipping out to Paradiso at oh-six hundred.”
Juno blinked at that a few times, her arm finally lowering from the salute.
“You wanted to prove your drug-free, implant-free method of Antipode control is as good as the traditional way?” Ross started walking past Juno. “Here’s your chance.”
The shuttle smelled of wet fur, sweat, and machine oil. Bear, curled in a ball on the chair next to Juno, was immune to the jostling and rumbling as the ship pierced the atmosphere of Paradiso and headed to the surface.
Katya sat across from her on the shuttle. She was tapping her command device, looking up as she did so at one of her Antipodes.
The big creature snarled, blinking and rotating its ears. This satisfied Katya, who turned to face the next Antipode, repeating the process.
Juno scratched Bear behind his left ear. “You got a new Antipode?” she asked, noting that the injured creature from the obstacle course had been replaced by an equally massive, scarred one.
“Hmmm? Oh, yes. The last one was too damaged to make the journey.” Katya flicked her eyes at Juno.
“What’s his name?” Juno asked of the most scarred, muscular Antipode of the three.
Katya paused, giving Juno a confused glance. “They do not have names. What is your knife’s name? Or your pistol’s?”
Juno shook her head. “That’s not the same!”
Katya shrugged. “I am surprised you brought that runt to the war. There are plenty of others available for linking.”
“None of them are like Bear,” Juno said, looking down at the gently snoring Bear with a smile.
“True,” Katya said. “Most are much better.”
Juno was opening her mouth to respond when the explosion ripped through the back of the shuttle.
Juno’s next memory was of something wet and rough dragged across her face like a soggy piece of sandpaper. Her nose was filled with the smells of smoke, ozone, and metal.
She forced her eyes open a moment before Bear licked her again, and her eyes filled with saliva. She grunted, trying to push Bear away while blinking rapidly.
The ruins of the shuttle were scattered in a thirty-metre circle around her, twisted bodies intermixed with fragments of hull. A few scattered fires had sprung up where the pieces of the hull had impacted shrubs and small trees despite the soggy ground and humid air, and the gentle crackling of the fires was the only sound aside from Bear’s heavy breathing.
“Yuno,” growled Bear. “Up. Must.”
Juno blinked up at Bear. “Bear… did you just…”
“Up. Must.” His voice sounded like a bag of gravel dragged across broken glass, but he was speaking to her! “Quick. Up. Must.”
Juno shook her head. Everything hurt, but nothing seemed broken. She gingerly rolled over to her side, and then onto her hands and knees. She took a few deep, shuddering breaths, and then raised to a kneeling position.
“Yuno,” Bear said, his voice even lower. “They come.”
Juno staggered to her feet, grunting as she did so. She could hear movement in the surrounding wilderness, rustling of leaves and footfalls.
“Private,” Sergeant Ross said from behind her, and Juno winced as she turned.
“Sir,” she managed, saluting slowly. Her eyes focused on the group of six Ariadnan troops, most looking as bad as Juno felt.
“Good to see you made it, Juno, but where is that runt of yours?” came another familiar voice.
“Katya,” Juno sighed. The Cossack had a long gash on one arm, but otherwise seemed unhurt.
Juno hated her so very, very deeply.
“Bear’s right here…” she turned to where Bear absolutely was not. “Oh. He was here just a moment ago…”
“No time for jokes, Juno,” Katya said. “I lost the connection to my two surviving Antipodes. If they weren’t killed in the crash, they could be as dangerous as the aliens that shot us down.”
Juno was about to respond when a roar echoed through the crash site from behind her. It was pure, primal fury. She turned and looked up.
The Antipode behind her, one of Katya’s unnamed monsters, stood on top of what was once the cockpit of the shuttle, fangs and claws bared and arms thrown wide. It tilted its head back again, something between a wolf’s howl and a lion’s roar erupting into the air.
Ross and the grunts were all pointing their rifles up at the creature, and Katya swore emphatically as she pulled out her command device and pointed it towards the Antipode.
Juno wrinkled her forehead, her left-hand hovering over her pistol. Something wasn’t right here. Why was the Antipode drawing attention to itself if it was going to attack?
Unless drawing their attention was the whole point.
Behind them came the wet crunch of a Trench-hammer impacting down on one of the grunts followed almost instantly by the muffled whump of an explosive charge.
The Ariadnan troops spun. Bear stood over the ruined remains of one of the grunts, the Trench-hammer grasped in both hands and his tongue hanging out of a smile that looked perfectly menacing.
“They’ve gone feral!” Ross shouted, rifle raising towards Bear. “Kill them!”
“No!” Juno shouted, reaching towards Ross’s rifle. She was too far away, and moving too slowly.
Bear bounded sideways, bullets spraying through where he had stood moments before. Juno had never seen her Antipode move with such speed, loping on all fours, his claws tearing through mud and grass as he leapt away.
A third Antipode jumped up from Juno’s right, running towards the soldiers with murder in its eyes. Ross screamed and pivoted towards the new threat heading towards them, planting one foot behind her as she adjusted her sights.
Katya and most of the other soldiers dove to the ground, trying to roll out of the way of the charging Antipode.
One soldier kept his attention on Bear, bringing his rifle back to his shoulder and aiming down the sights.
Bear spun and hurled the Trench-hammer one-handed as the soldier opened fire on him. It lodged in the chest of the soldier, who staggered back three steps before his torso exploded outwards. Bear twisted and spun as the bullets impacted.
Juno screamed as she pushed Ross, knocking her aim off from the third Antipode.
“Private, what the fuck are you doing!?” Ross shouted, bringing her rifle up towards Juno.
“Speculo!” Katya screamed from the ground, wide-eyed.
Juno barely registered any of this, her eyes glued to the crumpled form of Bear on the ground. His mouth was open, and his pink tongue flopped down.
Ross was breathing heavily, eyes wide. The rifle shuddered up and down with each breath.
Juno closed her eyes.
She opened them to see Katya standing in front of her, arms wide, shielding Juno with her body.
“Not her, Sergeant,” Katya said. “Them.”
Ross didn’t move the rifle, but turned to look over her shoulder at the bodies of the two soldiers Bear had killed. Both corpses were smoking now, melting and bubbling in a way that could only be described as inhuman.
Ross lowered her rifle and Juno stumbled towards Bear.
Towards the corpse of Bear. She already knew that he was gone. Tears welled in her eyes, and she closed them and bowed her head.
She felt the two Antipodes approach.
“Yuno,” growled one softly. “Must. Up.”
Juno’s eyes flew open and she looked up at the massive creature. Maintaining eye-contact, the Antipode plopped down directly into a puddle.
She turned to look at the second Antipode, who was smiling with its long pink tongue hanging out of its mouth.
Juno rose to her feet and placed one hand on each of their foreheads.
“Private, we have to move,” Ross said, slinging her rifle over her shoulder, and helping the other soldiers up off the ground.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Katya whispered, walking up to her, glancing at the two Antipodes with a mixture of confusion and apprehension.
Juno smiled. “We haven’t lost Bear.” She nodded at the two Antipodes. “He is now part of something better.”
“Better?” Katya said in confusion.
Juno could feel the muscles of the two Antipodes flexing. She could sense their hunger, their joy, their contentment. Their desire to find her enemies and rip them into little pieces, eat the bigger chunks, and piss on the smaller ones.