Jules sat in his crash couch as he fiddled with the bulky, black combat armor that he was wearing over his two-piece suit, rolling his shoulders as the heavy ceramic plating settled. He was already going to weigh thirty percent more than usual when they touched down, he wasn’t too thrilled about having all of this extra weight to lug around on top of that. He could feel the engines of the dropship making the hull vibrate beneath his feet as it made its way down towards Borealis, the arid planet visible through one of the small portholes in the hull of the troop bay.

It looked so hostile, even from a distance. The majority of its surface consisted of barren desert, with average temperatures that rivaled the Sahara and a crushing gravitational pull of one point three Earth standard. The only life that he could see was confined to the lakes, the patches of blue water shimmering in the glare of the world’s twin suns, like country-sized oases. They were massive, making the Great Lakes of the United States look unimpressive in comparison, and around each one was a band of greenery. Thick, dense rings of tropical jungle encircled each and every lake like the walls of a fortress, trapping moisture to create a sort of micro-climate within their bounds. He could see the way that the rain clouds seemed to cluster around them, each lake having its own weather system that scarcely spilled beyond its borders. These were the Borealan territories, each one spaced hundreds of miles apart, what passed for states or countries on this alien world. As he gazed through the glass, he wondered which of them would be his destination.

He felt somewhat out of his element. Traipsing around in alien jungles was not part of his job description, but it was his responsibility to investigate and then make a recommendation. The inhabitants of the Araxie territory had made an official request to join the Coalition, and Jules had been sent by the Security Council to evaluate them and to ensure that they could meet the commitments that membership entailed.

The multi-species alliance known as the Coalition had been formed to tackle the hurdles of interstellar security. Coalition space now made up a roughly one hundred light-year bubble, with four member species including humanity, and at least two that had recently applied to join. The United Nations represented the human colonies, the UNN being their military branch, fielding a vast navy that usually took the brunt of the defensive responsibilities. Along with various other member species were the Borealans, the inhabitants of the planet that Jules was currently speeding towards. They were a feline species, hardy and well suited to their harsh environment, with a notoriously bad temperament. At eight feet tall and weighing around seven or eight hundred pounds on average, they were monstrous from a human perspective, the high gravity of their home planet imbuing them with proportionally impressive strength. Their innate resistance to injury and their repertoire of natural weapons like vicious claws and sharp teeth made them excellent shock troopers, making Borealan packs a common sight on the front lines.

Borealis was not a unified planet, however. They had no equivalent of the United Nations, and so the Coalition had to treat with each territory on an independent basis. The largest and most well-known of the territories was Elysia, they had the closest ties to the Coalition, and their territory provided the majority of the Borealan troops that fought alongside UNN soldiers. They were the most influential and the most technologically advanced territory on the planet, but even so, they had only recently discovered gunpowder when the UNN had made contact with them. Now, they had access to modern ships and weapons, trading in goods and technology with the rest of civilized space. There was some debate as to whether changing the course of their history in such a manner had been wise or even legal, but a rampaging Bug fleet would make no such distinctions.

Betelgeusian hive fleets harassed the outlying planets on a regular basis, attacking indiscriminately with their biomechanical vessels, their ruthless life cycle demanding that they attempt to seize and colonize any habitable planets that they could reach. It made sense for the different species in this arm of the Milky Way to band together against the common threat.

A hiss of static came through on the intercom, the pilot’s voice echoing through the troop bay.

“We should be hitting the atmosphere shortly, secure your harnesses, and prepare for landfall. Things might get a bit bumpy.”

Jules strapped the harness across his chest, pulling it tight, glancing over at the alien who was seated across from him. She was an Elysian, obviously female, her sparse clothing leaving little to the imagination. She was sitting in one of the specially designed seats, larger and reinforced for use by her kind, her yellow eyes fixed on the window as she waited patiently for planetfall. At about eight feet tall, her round, furry ears would have brushed the ceiling were she to stand at full height.

Most Elysians had pale skin and rusty hair that bordered on orange, and this female was typical of her territory. Her ginger fur was striped with faded markings like those of a tiger, and her exposed skin was pale and smooth. Unlike their Polar cousins, the Borealans who lived in the more temperate equatorial regions were not fully furred, their coats were confined to their forearms and their lower legs to give the impression that they were wearing fuzzy elbow gloves and knee socks. There was hair on their heads and on their long tails, but the rest of their bodies were naked, much like humans. Their body plan was similarly humanoid, it was only the digitigrade legs ending in paw-like feet, and the four-fingered hands tipped with wicked claws that gave them away. Their faces bordered on the feline, with a pink nose that reminded Jules of a cat, but their features were not so alien as to be off-putting.

This one was a Ranger, so he had been told, Elysians who lived primarily in the jungle band of their territory, and who made excellent guides and hunters. She had joined him on the jump carrier up in orbit, a massive UNN ship that ferried troops and supplies across interstellar space, but she hadn’t said much so far. It seemed that she had traveled from Elysia to the carrier upon special appointment by the Patriarch, the Alpha of Alphas, and the leader of her territory. The Patriarch claimed that he wanted to provide a qualified guide in order to ensure the safety of the expedition, but Jules suspected that her appointment was as much about keeping tabs on the mission as ensuring its success.

Her orange hair was cut short in a bob, practical, and he noted that her skin was covered in faded scars in many places. The aliens lived packs not dissimilar from wolves, and they fought for their social position using their claws, brutal bouts that left them bloody and scarred. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded. The resulting wounds were trivial by their standards, but never the less, Jules found his eyes drawn to the curved talons that protruded from the ends of her furry fingers. They looked like meat hooks.

She wore primarily form-fitting, brown leather that clung to her figure, it looked tough and durable. Her top was comprised of a vest that fought to contain a pair of weighty breasts befitting her exaggerated stature, and below it, she wore a pair of shorts that ended at her knees. Her midriff was bare, her muscular abdomen on display, and around her wide hips were various belts from which pouches and containers dangled. It looked as though she was carrying all of the tools and supplies that she needed on her person. She wore no shoes, preferring to go barefoot, the claws on her toes scraping on the metal deck. Her tribal getup was decorated with beads and feathers, much in the same style as the jewelry that she wore. Pendants made from precious stones and shells hung around her neck, and colorful plumes from alien birds protruded from her hair. It was all obviously handmade, but that was no dig against its quality, the care and detail that had been poured into every bracelet and stitch made his own clothing seem synthetic and bland in comparison.

The centerpiece of her outfit was the fur cloak that she wore, the strands of hair catching the light, refracting and glittering with a mesmerizing iridescence. It was rainbow spider pelt, a giant arthropod that haunted the Elysian jungles and whose coat was prized for its beauty. Jules had read that hunting one was a rite of passage for the Rangers, proof of their skill and bravery.

Draped across her chest was a kind of bandoleer, its leather loops threaded with massive bullets in brass casings that were designed to be fired from the enormous rifle that was resting against her shoulder. It was as long as Jules was tall, a primitive but devastating weapon that fired a single slug at a time, comparable to what one might have seen on a battlefield during the nineteenth century back on Earth. While the Elysians had access to the standardized railguns and plasma rifles that the UNN supplied, they might not be available to everyone, or perhaps this individual simply preferred to use more traditional weapons. Much like her clothing, it was clearly made by hand. The wood was lovingly engraved, inlaid with metal reliefs that were decorated with scenes of hunting, as much a piece of art as a simple gun. As primitive as it was, he didn’t fancy being on the receiving end, those bullets looked large enough to put down an elephant.

She looked so out of place amidst the bare metal and the exposed wiring of the dropship, yet this environment was not new to her. She was not some barbarian, staring slack-jawed and marveling at the magical iron bird in whose belly she was riding. It had been six or seven years since the Borealans had joined the Coalition, and if she was as old as she looked, then the existence of aliens and the prevalence of their technology might have been the status quo for most of her adult life.

The other occupants of the dropship were all Marines. Three of them were spaced out around the troop bay, fiddling with their tablet computers and checking their weapons. They wore Navy-blue uniforms beneath their black body armor, and each one was armed with an XMR configured as a railgun. The modular rifle platform was the standard-issue firearm of the UNN, made from black polymer, the barrels lined with the telltale copper-colored rings. It could be configured by the user to perform various roles, and it could be scaled up for use by the Coalition’s larger members.

These were not your average Marines, however. They were scruffy, and their uniforms were not up to spec. Back on the carrier, everyone had been prim and properly groomed, the Marines had looked just the way that they did on the recruitment fliers. These guys had rolled their sleeves up all the way to expose tattoos and scars, two of them foregoing their shoulder armor entirely. Another had let his beard grow out, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet at all, preferring a faded green bandanna and a pair of dark sunglasses. Much like the Ranger, they had trinkets and small decorations made from beads and feathers attached to their clothes in places. They had a few additions made from leather, one of then sporting a bandoleer that had been modified to hold magazines, and one of them even had a Borealan-style engraving on his chest-piece. These guys weren’t fresh off the boat. If Jules had to guess, they had been deployed to Borealis for a long time. Some of those scars looked suspiciously like claw marks.

The dropship lurched as it entered the atmosphere, Jules reaching down to grip his seat, his knuckles white and his eyes wide as the vessel began to shake. He glanced at the Marines, and none of them seemed concerned, the one with the bushy beard wasn’t even strapped in.

When he turned his eyes to one of the windows, he saw that flames were licking at the hull, the nose of the craft burning as the friction of reentry blasted it with searing heat. The blackness of space slowly gave way to a deep azure, the ship leveling out, and the vibration fading as it began to glide towards its destination on its stubby wings.

“Is all of this firepower really necessary?” Jules asked once he was able to hear his own voice over the noise. The bearded Marine slammed a magazine into his XMR’s receiver with a click as if to make a point, locking it into place as he grinned across the bay from behind his opaque sunglasses.

“Never been on a Borealan safari before, Mister Lambert?”

Jules shook his head, his combat helmet shifting with the movement. He reached up to straighten it as the Marines exchanged amused glances.

“Araxie is uncharted,” the bearded man elaborated, “we don’t know what kind of critters we might encounter down there. Not to mention the fact that the locals might not be as friendly as they make out.”

“Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” the one with the engraved chest plate added. Jules inspected the relief more closely, noting that it portrayed the same insignia that was sewn into the patch that the man wore on his sleeve, but larger and more stylized.

“I’m Simmons,” the one with the beard said, then he gestured to the man with the decorative chest-piece who was sat beside him. “This is Edwards, and that over there is Velez.” The third man waved to Jules with a gloved hand, his tan skin covered in colorful tattoos where it was visible on his arms and his neck. “It’s our job to make sure you don’t get eaten.”

“So…we don’t know anything about our destination?” Jules asked.

“She does,” Simmons said, pointing his thumb in the direction of the Ranger. She turned to look at them, seeming somewhat annoyed that they were involving her in the conversation.

“The Araxie are an elusive people,” she explained. Her voice was gruff and husky, yet distinctly feminine. “We know only that they inhabit the dense jungles of their territory, and that they are seldom seen beyond its borders.”

“But you can guide us through the jungle?” Jules asked.

“Maybe,” she replied with a shrug, shifting the weight of her weapon as it leaned against her. “I am familiar with Elysian jungles, but Araxie is not Elysia. The terrain will be subtly different, there may be new breeds of animals and unknown plants. The territories are as islands on an ocean of sand, separated by natural barriers for millennia. I cannot say what we might find there.”

“So, why do you think they’re coming out of the woodwork now?” Jules continued.

“Trade with aliens has made Elysia prosperous,” she said, “now other territories seek to expand their influence. They want technology, weapons, powerful allies.”

“Well, it’s not as simple as just signing a piece of paper,” Jules continued. “If they’ll be permitted to join the Coalition or not depends on several factors. For example, they have to commit a certain percentage of their gross domestic product to defense spending, and they’ll be required to provide troops or material support of some kind for the war effort. They must commit to inter-species cooperation, work towards integrating their society into the interstellar community, and pledge to respect the sovereignty of their neighbors. Then the Security Council has to vote on it, of course, and all of the different representatives have a say. I’m here to evaluate whether they can live up to those commitments.”

Nobody asked any further questions, perhaps they weren’t fans of politics, and so Jules sat back in his seat and went quiet as the dropship descended towards the ground.

“Have you guys spent a lot of time on Borealis?” he asked, the silence getting uncomfortable after a few minutes.

“Yeah, you might say that,” Simmons replied. “We must look pretty different from the boys in blue that you met on the carrier.”

“Yeah, they were a little more…uniform,” Jules replied.

“Borealis is a tough place, it’s hot, high gravity. Command doesn’t pay much mind to enforcing dress standards as long as we do our jobs properly, and UNN uniforms don’t exactly breathe too well.”

“The locals like to decorate their gear,” Velez added. “They’re fond of engraving, damascening, jewelry, things like that. You spend enough time with the mad cats, and you’ll pick up some of the local customs.” He brandished a sidearm, Jules recognizing it as a modular handgun, its tactical black finish coated in some kind of decorative enamel that had no doubt been applied by the aliens. Velez noticed that Jules’ eyes were wandering to the knitted scars on his forearms. “Another local custom,” he explained with a toothy grin. “Borealans tend to get physical when you piss ’em off, but once you start to understand how they think, they’re easier to deal with than you’d expect.”

These Marines certainly seemed to have adapted to their environment, and Jules was starting to suspect that those who could not adapt would be taking the first transfer off the planet that they could get.

The dropship hit a pocket of turbulence, Jules gripping his seat again, peering out of the nearest window as the vessel banked and weaved to shed velocity. He could make out foliage now, the canopy of a vast jungle zipping past far below. The bands of greenery that encircled the lakes had looked deceptively small from orbit, but now he could really appreciate their sheer size. It was like flying over the Amazon rainforest. As they dropped lower, the jungle seemed to extend infinitely in every direction.

“I don’t suppose they’ll have a landing pad ready for us?” Jules asked apprehensively, and Simmons just laughed. “Do we even have a destination?”

“We’re gonna put down in the nearest clearing, and then we’re gonna make our way through the jungle towards the coordinates that we were given,” Edwards explained.

“So how long will we have to spend in the jungle?”

“We have enough supplies for a few days,” the Marine replied. “Hopefully, it won’t take that long.”

The dropship circled for a while, the pilot searching for a place to land amidst the thick jungle canopy. He finally found a suitable clearing, the thrusters on the belly of the vessel flaring as it hovered, the landing gear deploying with a clunk as it began to slowly descend. Jules watched the trees rise up to engulf the vessel through the portholes, casting them into shadow as the canopy blocked the harsh rays of the twin suns. There was a tremor as the ship touched down, and then the troop bay was filled with movement. The three Marines rose from their seats, slinging large rucksacks over their shoulders and collecting their gear. The Ranger stood at full height, moving towards the landing ramp as she waited impatiently for it to open.

Jules fumbled with the clasp on his harness as he freed himself from his crash couch and made to join them. The ramp began to open with a hydraulic whine, the sliver of light growing as the relatively dingy bay was illuminated, and then he reeled as a wall of heat hit him. It was like opening the door to an oven, hot, humid air that carried the alien scents of the jungle flooding the bay. Immediately, he began to sweat, already regretting his choice of attire. His companions didn’t seem bothered by it, this was just a regular day for them. They hadn’t just spent several weeks on a climate-controlled jump carrier.

He watched as they descended the ramp one by one, the Ranger following after them, her hair and the short fur on her tail and forelimbs blown by the idling engines. Jules was almost afraid to leave the confines of the ship, but he didn’t have a choice, slowly making his way towards the ramp. It only seemed to grow hotter as he left the bay, it was difficult to breathe at first, the heat searing his throat. As he set foot on the planet and left the artificial gravity field of the dropship behind, his legs very nearly buckled, Jules stumbling as what felt like two bags of sand were deposited on his shoulders. The gravity was nightmarish. He leaned over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. They had warned him about this, the doctors back on the carrier had made him undergo a physical before they would even let him set foot on the planet, but their warnings hadn’t done it justice. The armor that had already been uncomfortably heavy now felt like lead weights, just standing up was a feat of athleticism.