By the time Corvalus Andraxas regained consciousness, the aliens had thrown him into some sort of cage. It was an oblong enclosure hemmed in by an orange energy field, standardized, the kind of thing that could be mass-produced, and that was the most horrifying observation he could have made - the idea that this was something these strangers did often.
The ambush had caught the survey team completely off-guard. So far as they could tell there wasn’t a single livable planet in the cluster, no reason to believe alien life might have managed to carve out a niche in this wasteland of a galaxy, and he was telling himself even now that he should have known better, should have been more cautious. For all that it would have availed them: three dropships full of hulking, chitinous bipeds with pulse rifles had been more than a match for a handful of scientists and a small security detail, neither of whom had been expecting a sentient threat.
It had to have had something to do with the bizarre black monoliths they’d encountered; they’d gone six weeks with no hostile contact, but the moment they’d set foot in those ruins they’d been set upon, too quickly to think they hadn’t been being watched. If his comrades had all been Phasmodean, they might have fought, and would certainly have died. But while he could count on any of his own people to have a baseline of combat experience, most of the survey team were untrained civilians, scientists - and dying in those ruins would have meant cutting off the Combine from any possibility of being forewarned of this threat in time.
Surrender had been both a necessity and a tactical move, probing the intentions of the enemy - one that obviously hadn’t wanted to kill them outright, but had been more than willing to open fire when provoked. They had been rounded up, forced onto the shuttles at gunpoint. The aliens didn’t speak their language, or at the very least feigned a lack of understanding, and had shouted at them meaninglessly if anyone dared to move, gestured aggressively for silence as they were airlifted into the unknown. The unknown, which had turned out to be a compound concealed within one of the unnamed moon’s many rocky craters.
There, the aliens - he kept hearing a word that sounded like ‘kry-iht’, and was starting to think of them that way - forced them into a single group, then began to separate them by species. Two of them had bickered loudly when both he and a woman named Tyrax had been forced to the front of the group. They’d gestured forcefully at his fringe, her corona - debating, maybe, whether or not they were the same species. When one had gripped Tyrax by the mandibles, turning her head left and right as though examining livestock, she had bitten it and cracked its chitinous fingers like driftwood, prompting a scuffle. The last thing he recalled was the loud crack as the butt of a rifle caught him between the plates at the base of his neck.
And now, sitting on the floor of a cell, his eyes had just fixed on a surface across the room, lined with what looked like medical instruments. Several blades, a variety of syringes and needles - and the set his gaze kept being dragged back to, which looked like a chisel and a mallet. The vulnerable grooves in his carapace already itched with anticipation.
The architecture was foreign, but he got the sense of some kind of lab, and he was starting to get a clearer picture of what their captors might intend to do to them. Might already be doing to the others, if any of them had been deemed more interesting specimens than he was. A feeling of flighty tension had begun to form at the base of his neck in response to the confined conditions of the cage. Too much like the cryopod, too much like beating his forelegs on the inside of the pane and praying he wouldn’t suffocate. He had to deliberately meter his breathing to keep himself calm, focus on solutions rather than fear.
Research, that was what this was. The aliens hadn’t killed them because they wanted to know more about them. It followed, then, that they were currently ignorant of what they were dealing with, and that might be the only advantage they could eke out against a force superior in numbers, arms, and training. The element of surprise was likely all they could hope for. Any possibility of escape would rely entirely on exploiting what the aliens didn’t know.
He was seated on the floor of his cell when one of the things - the Kryiht? - finally entered the room. Different from the ones that had rounded them up, its chitin sleeker. It was inscrutably androgynous, but the crown-like structure looped around the back of its head looked intimidatingly feminine. The ostentatious color of its flowing robes pointed it out as one in some position of importance, but Corvalus wouldn’t have needed that evidence to tell - the look of utter superiority and complete disdain it favored him with was hard to misinterpret. He flexed his mandibles wide, inflating his thorax until a bass growl rumbled low in his subvocals. The Kryiht sniffed delicately, fixed him with a look he chose to translate as amused mockery, and turned neatly away, toward the table of instruments he had observed earlier.
He could see the deep rivets in the chitinous plates shielding its back, and had a brief memory of hunting chellix with his mother and sister outside of Nelphi. Watching his mother’s apical claw sliding neatly between the sutures in its exoskeleton and prying it open, showing them how to clean their kill as their ancestors had done. An innocent memory turned into an impulse, and while the Kryiht’s back was turned he slowly removed the polymer sheaths from his tibial spines, discarding them behind him as the beginnings of a ruse - if not a proper plan - began to form.
They didn’t know what he was. If he was lucky, that was something he might be able to use. It was easily the most cliche trick in the book, but this was a new galaxy - if it wasn’t possible here, it wasn’t anywhere.
The first time he heaved, the Kryiht didn’t react, but by the third wet, grating hack he had its attention. It turned to find him on his haunches, clawing at his abdomen, freshets of thick blue-white sputum spewing out of his mouth amid dismayed droning. It turned on its specimen, began to shout and gesture emphatically, all intelligible communication lost in the language barrier between them.
The subject failed to respond to threats, continued to convulse - was it ill? contagious? dangerous? Too few specimens to afford complete disposal - the only other they possessed of this species and sex was elderly and frail, likely would not stand up long to testing. This one was young, strong, and its genome was too valuable to lose. They made a split second decision to open the cage, euthanize the specimen, and send it for sterilization - a risk, not incinerating it within the enclosure this very moment - but one the Proctor deemed necessary.
A pity, for their own sake, that they were unaware this species fed its young through regurgitation, regardless of sex.
The syringe prepared for the specimen never found its mark. The Proctor had underestimated its reach, and it hooked the bony spurs jutting from its calf under the Proctor’s left ankle, flipping them onto their back in one fluid sweep. The alien was on top of them in moments, hooking needle-sharp claws into the grooves of the Proctor’s shoulders, and it crushed their clavicle plates with its spiny forearms as though cracking open a nut. The specimen’s head cocked sharply and fixed its stark, staring compound eyes on its captor. The last thing the Proctor saw as they pawed for their communicator was a set of black mandibles burrowing into their field of vision. They felt their eyes pop like berries inside their skull, shrieked as they summoned their electrostatic field and hurled the alien across the room. Blind, fumbling, furious, they reached again for their communicator, hearing the specimen rise and vocalize a trilling shriek that these primitives passed off for language. They reached instead for their weapon, a split-second from firing blind when an unseen blunt force knocked it from their hand.
The alien descended again, snapped a blow at the Proctor’s temple, then its jaw, the heavy, ineffectual clack of carapace meeting chitin. A buzzing outcry, and grasping claws seized them by the chin and wrenched their head back, exposing the bare sliver of skin at the crease of their throat.
Chewing. Mandibles like razors digging into their flesh, and the Proctor screamed again as oily yellow ichor spurted from their wounds, as the creature shook its head savagely, like the korlyk shaking the life from its prey. Their pistol was wrenched from their hand - then the sound of gunfire, and then nothing.