Scavengers by Chrissie Rohrman

The air on Voria is choking-thick and tainted, stinking of char and something vaguely chemical, and dangerous to breathe for long. Saera tugs the bandana higher on her face, covering her nose and mouth more securely as she follows Tyr into the mine.

The pebbled ground crunches underfoot, the sound echoing along the rock walls. A heavy sense of claustrophobia settles over Saera like a blanket, and the material obscuring her face isn’t helping with the rising sense of suffocation. Sweat gathers at her hairline, in the scruff of short hair at the back of her neck. Tyr passes her a hand-light as they press on, and Saera rotates her head to glimpse the outside world once more before it disappears from view. Beyond the mine’s narrow entrance, craggy boulders and skeletal trees are ringed with an orange aura, like a dozen fires are raging in the distance. Voria is a long-abandoned hellscape, a forgotten planet of ruin that both thrills and terrifies Saera. Only scavengers venture this far from the central ring—to this deserted labyrinth of mines filled with remnants of ore that fetch a fortune at trading posts on the inner planets.

It’s a dangerous undertaking, but a worthwhile one. At least, that’s what others say as they boast of their earnings over mugs of ale in the pubs. Tyr suggested they make the journey, but Saera didn’t need much convincing. A score like this… it brought to mind thoughts of the kind of life they could have without needing to take on minor smuggling runs. They had grown up together on Halara, an outer rim planet where people did what they had to to make ends meet. Tyr had always been meant for more than could be found there, and when the opportunity came to join up with a crew of scavengers, he was all-too-eager to leave home, and Saera was all-too-eager to trail along in his wake. Now, she’s literally followed him to the edge of the galaxy.

 “You know what you’re looking for?” Tyr asks, his voice muffled by the bandana around his face.

“Yeah.” She’s never seen the ore in its unrefined state, only the polished bits that women in the central rings wear dangling from their ears or around their necks.

They prowl the mine in silence as the air grows thicker and sweat pools in the collar of her jacket. Finally, her light reflects off a glint half-buried in rock and dirt at the base of the wall. “Here,” she calls, and Tyr turns to her.

There is no warning betraying the change. No static charge in the air, no ominous flash of light.

Tyr is there.

Then, as Saera watches, he is gone. Taken over from within, right in front of her.

His expression changes to something straddling the border of wicked and amused. Both are foreign on his handsome, open face, distorted even more by the shadows cast from the light in his hand.

Fear slips down Saera’s spine and she shivers despite the oppressive heat this deep in the mine.

He—it—doesn’t attack, but stares at her, jaw clenched as though in pain.

She is frozen in place, struck with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. They’re completely alone here, quite possibly the only people on this entire planet. Though, clearly, not the only lifeforms. She steps away from the glittering rock wall, wary of touching anything, unsure of what opening the thing used to steal Tyr. She has been all over the galaxy, has seen men killed before her eyes, but has never felt an immediacy of danger quite like this. She panics, can’t catch her breath. She yanks the bandana from her face and sucks greedily at the thin air, which burns her throat on its way to her lungs.

“Who are you?” Saera asks, trying for brave but with a tremor in her voice.

The thing inside her partner smirks but doesn’t respond. The expression is all wrong, more like a snarl, baring too many teeth. It’s an insult to Tyr, and she feels a flush of responsibility for them both.

Saera holds her breath and weighs her options. They aren’t so deep in the mine that running isn’t an option. But she can’t leave Tyr like this, host to this thing with unknown but likely nefarious purposes. She wonders how many of those men bragging in pubs are merely hosts to these creatures, luring others to Voria so their brothers can escape this planet as well.

She knows she can’t let this thing out of the mine, just as strongly as she knows the feeling is mutual. Her gloved hand twitches toward the blaster on her hip, but she knows she’ll never take the shot. She knows just as surely that Tyr—courageous, meant for great things, and unburdened by childish notions of love—will.

“Take me instead,” Saera says, surprising herself, fingers moving away from her weapon.

The thief cocks Tyr’s head as it considers her offer. It flexes his strong hands, weighing its own options. Tyr’s body twitches, and Saera thinks of that pained look on his face. Tyr is fighting this snatcher with all he’s got, and that should mean the creature will accept her as host instead.

“No tricks.” Saera drags the weapon from its holster and tosses it to the ground between them. She raises her empty hands and takes a bold step forward, despite the ache in her chest as she struggles for breath. “I won’t fight. Take me.”

The answering grin is hungry and without any of Tyr’s rugged charm.

The shift is quick. Tyr stumbles, sucking in a ragged breath. Almost simultaneously, Saera can’t move, but she can see and hear as her body is puppeteered forward by the stranded alien hijacker, toward her discarded weapon.

It looks like Saera knew Tyr exactly as well as she thought. There’s sorrow in his gaze as he lifts his gun, but also resolve.

Chrissie Rohrman is a training supervisor who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband and five rambunctious fur babies. She is currently drafting her debut novel Fracture, the first installment of a fantasy trilogy. Follow her on Twitter.