by Michael Kingswood
Wind rushed past, ruffling his hair and roaring in his ears, as Piter banked right. The instruments on the control console showed what he already knew: altitude was decreasing rapidly, and there were no landing strip beacons within reception range. Not that he expected there to be any. As far as he knew, this particular world had never been colonized. He, and the huddled passengers behind him in the cargo compartment, was damned lucky the place even had a breathable atmosphere, so he wasn’t about to complain. Except about the fact that the cussed cloud cover refused to break. Two thousand meters to the ground, and still there was nothing to see but pea soup in front of him, or to either side.
A fine mess they were in. Just a couple hours ago, the cruise was everything he could have wanted for his honeymoon: a veritable paradise of spectacular stellar phenomena as the SS Hilderand assumed orbit at the Lagrange point between Gamma Delphinus 6 and its third moon. The aurora there were legendary, among the most beautiful ever encountered, and the Hilderand’s bridal suites had specially designed observation bubbles just for such an event. Making love with his new bride beneath the awesome display was everything they’d both dreamed it would be.
And then it all went to hell.
What happened to cripple the Hilderand, Piter couldn’t say. But once the alarms started sounding, there had been a mad rush for the escape pods. The gravity field became erratic, making the stampede all the more chaotic, and he found himself, along with his bride and five others, watching helplessly as the last pod launched away from the ship. The pod was nowhere near full, but the panicked people onboard had been unwilling to wait even the minute longer it would have taken Piter and the others to get there.
Alone except for those others on a deserted vessel that was moving faster and faster into a death spiral around that third moon, Piter forced himself to bite back tears of frustration and despair, if only as a comfort to Shaunee. Then one of the other men suggested they try the cargo bays, and the group hurried further aft. In the third bay, they found a small loading shuttle and crammed in. The only one with any flight experience, Piter was the logical choice to fly the thing.
But twenty-five hours of flight training in a sub-orbital wingjet does not translate well into space flight. Once Piter got the shuttle out of the cargo bay and away from the Hilderand, it was almost as though he had no control whatsoever. He knew roll, pitch, and yaw, not orbital mechanics. After several moments fighting with the controls, he finally discovered a computer autopilot feature and activated it. Things became much easier then.
He found the controls to the sensor suite and keyed in a scan, then was unable to bite back a curse as the results came back. The third and fourth moons had atmospheres, but while the fourth’s atmosphere was breathable, the third was little more than methane. The shuttle had just enough fuel to make it to the fourth moon, but that wasn’t what evoked his curse. The escape pods from the HIlderand, programmed only to head for the nearest landing area, were all descending onto the third moon and its deadly fumes.
“My God, can’t they override the programming?” asked one of the other refugees, a plump older lady with a kind smile, when Piter announced his discovery.
“I don’t think so,” he replied, a lump in his throat as he watched helplessly.
One by one the escape pods vanished into the moon’s cloudy atmosphere, and Piter found himself thanking his lucky stars that they’d been delayed by the gravity distortions. He at once felt a twinge of guilt at the thought, but suppressed it. What else should he be thinking? What else could he think? Shaunee was sitting in the copilot’s seat next to him. Tears in her eyes, she took his hand and squeezed it tight.
Then a large explosion aboard the Hilderand split the great ship into thirds, reminding Piter that there was still work to do. Refusing to think of the thousands of people who had just plunged to their doom onboard devices that were supposed to save their lives, he turned his attention to the controls and keyed in what he hoped would be a course to the fourth moon. Taking a deep breath, he hit the execute button, then settled back to wait. To his amazed relief, over the next several minutes the fourth moon got larger in the windshield.
The computer beeped. Piter tapped the controls and a dialogue window opened. “Three minutes to re-entry,” he announced after reading the data on the display screen.
Immediately, the tension within the shuttle rose. They’d all been through re-entry before, but always on larger spacejets piloted by professionals. This was an altogether totally different experience. As the timer ticked down, Piter could feel the fear emanating from the others. As the one who was more or less in command at the moment, he tried his best to look calm. Glancing to his right, he could tell from the concern on her face that Shaunee wasn’t fooled. He gave her hand another squeeze and she managed a thin, tense grin.
“Here we go,” Piter murmured under his breath as the countdown timer reached zero. Gradually he felt Gs begin to build up from friction with the moon’s atmosphere. A multi-hued cloud of plasma grew until it completely filled the windshield. The acceleration became greater. He heard the passengers groaning, and knew he was joining them: it was much more intense than on any spacejet he’d ever been aboard.
The ordeal went on for several minutes more then the acceleration began to subside, and with it the plasma cloud. When Piter was finally able to push himself forward in the pilot’s chair, the radar altimeter read eight thousand meters, though all that was visible was the white-grey interior of a cloud. He took the controls again, switching off the computer guidance, and grimaced as the shuttle bucked through a pocket of turbulence.
“Looks like we’re through the worst of it,” he announced, and heard a half-hearted cheer from those in the rear. Of course, they knew as well as he did that their troubles were far from over. He glanced at the altimeter again: four thousand meters. Still nothing to see but the cloud.
Suddenly a large, black object appeared directly ahead. Piter barely had time to register webbed wings, talons, and a gaping maw before the shuttle struck the beast, whatever it was. The port side of the shuttle’s nose buckled completely, and the windshield cracked open. Hardened plastic shards sprayed back into the cockpit, and the shuttle tumbled into a stomach-turning spin, almost completely out of control.
The roaring wind, sudden cold, screams from the passengers, and shock from the impact rendered Piter unable to react for several seconds. He’d only had the most basic instruction on stall and spin recovery in his training so far. Trying hard not to panic, he did what he remembered his instructor telling him. Reduce engine power. That had taken care of itself; the engine indications were all dead. The collision must have knocked it out. Worry about that later. Roll controls to neutral, apply yaw in the opposite direction of the spin, nose down… The altimeter continued to tick down rapidly. Not much time left. But slowly, the spin began to subside. Finally, at two thousand five hundred meters, Piter was able to return the shuttle to straight and level flight, or as close as he could get to it.
And so, a few minutes later, he found himself banking to avoid what looked from the radar returns like a large mountain range a few kilometers ahead, descending on a steep glide slope with no engine, and wondering when the hell the clouds were going to let up. Fifteen hundred meters. Still no visibility. Twelve-hundred.
Then Shaunee exclaimed, “Look!” and pointed off to the right. Or at least he thought that’s what she said; it was almost impossible to hear anything aside from the wind noise. He followed her extended finger with his gaze and felt his spirits buoy considerably. Through a break in the clouds, he could see trees, or at least the alien equivalent.
Piter banked right again, and the clouds thinned noticeably. Then, a few seconds later, the shuttle slipped below the cloud ceiling and he beheld the world. Ahead, he could see rolling, forest-covered hills a thousand meters below. Off to the left, there was not a mountain range but an escarpment that stretched as far as he could see in either direction and rose up into the clouds. To the right, the hills continued for a few kilometers before appearing to smooth out. And was that a lake off in the distance?
Piter turned toward the lake, hoping to get as close to a water supply as possible before they landed. Another glance at the altimeter: five hundred meters. He needed to find a clearing or something, but there was nothing close enough to do any good. He breathed a curse under his breath.
“Hold on tight everyone,” Piter shouted.
Easing the nose up to reduce the shuttle’s airspeed, he looked around one last time for a better place to put down. With nothing readily apparent, he tightened the straps on the seat, then looked over at Shaunee and attempted a re-assuring smile.
The initial impact with the forest canopy sent Piter surging forward, straining against the seat straps. He felt an additional impact as someone crashed into the back of his seat, then the shuttle struck something else, and rolled to the right. Another, even more jarring impact came a half-second later, completely shattering the windshield and sending the shuttle rebounding in a totally different direction. Screams of fear and pain issued from the passengers behind. Then he felt another impact, and the seat straps tore out. Piter saw stars for a second as his forehead struck the control panel, then it all went black.
Piter had no idea how much time passed when he woke up, but it was still light outside so it couldn’t have been too long. As he opened his eyes, all he could see was an amorphous blob directly ahead. He heard something, as well, but it was unintelligible. He thought he groaned, though he couldn’t be sure.
He blinked his eyes a few times, and the blob slowly resolved into Shaunee’s face. Concern etched into her sweet features, she was leaning over him. Her lips moved, and he realized that the sound he was hearing was her voice. What was she saying?
That made more sense. Obediently, he tried to sit up, and she pushed him back down again, shaking her head. But not before a wave of nausea swept over him. He almost retched, but was able to suppress the urge.
“I said don’t try to move.”
Piter intended to nod, but instead found himself drifting off into unconsciousness again.
When he awoke next, it was dark out, though the flickering of a nearby fire provided some illumination and warmth. The side of his body closest to the flame was somewhat comfortable, but the other…the night was extremely chilly. Suppressing a shiver, Piter raised his head to look around, inwardly grimacing in anticipation of the expected nausea. But nausea didn’t come to accompany his headache, a small mercy that he appreciated more than he would have thought. Emboldened, he propped himself up on his elbows and looked around.
The scene around the fire was one of misery and controlled despair. Opposite where he lay, Piter could see the hulk of their shuttle. It was battered, barely recognizable for what it was, unusable. Two people lay side-by-side next to the carcass of the shuttle. He thought they were asleep for a moment; then he realized their chests weren’t moving. He recognized the old lady with the kind smile; the other corpse was a young man, barely more than a boy, with sandy hair and a face that could have been handsome or ugly. It was hard to tell, since his face was completely caved in; he must have slammed head-first into something.
With a shudder, Piter looked away from the corpses. A quarter of the way around the fire, his gaze found his wife. Shaunee stood talking with another man, older than both she and Piter by a good ten years. The man was tall, with dark brown hair that was streaked with grey in several places and a strong face. His bearing was that of a man who knew his own worth, and that it was great. Piter took him in at a glance, but he only had eyes for Shaunee.
He chuckled inwardly at the cliche for a heartbeat, but the amusement at his own thoughts faded as he fully took in her condition.
She looked like hell. Her left eyes was black, as though she’d been in a fist-fight. Her right shoulder was also bruised, and that arm was in a makeshift sling. Her pants were torn, and he saw a scabbed-over cut on her thigh. But she stood straight and tall, or as tall as her one meter fifty-five frame could manage.
“Shaunee,” he called. Or rather, tried to. All that came out was a hoarse grunt, barely audible even to his own ears. He tried again, and managed something that was at least loud enough to carry, if not entirely comprehensible.
Shaunee and the man with her looked over. Her eyes widened in surprise. Then she smiled, a broad grin of joy and relief, as she hurried around the fire to his side. She caught him in a fierce embrace. As always, he was surprised by the strength in her small limbs. Also as always, he found himself a bit aroused by it. That was awkward, considering the circumstances, but still more than a little pleasant.
“I was so worried about you,” she said into his ear, punctuating her words with a kiss on his cheek.
“I’m ok,” he replied. His voice was beginning to come back; he actually understood what he was trying to say.
Apparently Shaunee did as well, because she gave him another squeeze, then helped him sit up. Squatting back on her heels, she gestured toward the man she’d been talking with.
“Piter, this is Stanley Fromier.”
Piter blinked in surprise and looked at the man more closely. Holy cow. Now that she’d said his name, Piter recognized him from the holo-vids. He was one of the most famous actors in the business. Hell, he’d just won Best Actor for his role in “The American King”.
“It’s…It’s an honor to meet you,” Piter managed, trying not to sound too much like a pathetic fan-man.
Stanley burst out laughing, and took Piter’s hand in a solid grip.
“You saved my life, brother. I think I’m honored to have met you.”
Piter looked from Stanley to the destroyed shuttle to the dead bodies next to it.
“They wouldn’t agree with you.”
Stanley and Shaunee looked over at the bodies as well. Shaunee frowned, her eyes returning to his with an expression of compassion and shared pain. Stanley, on the other hand, shrugged. His gaze as he looked back at Piter was direct.
“No one could have set that shuttle down in this forest smoothly. Hell, we should all be dead. But we’re not, and that’s due to you. When we get back, I’ll thank you properly. But for now, thanks. Really.”
Part of Piter’s mind told him he shouldn’t feel good about the job he’d done, but for whatever reason Stanley’s words evoked a warm glow in his chest, and Piter smiled with a certain pride of accomplishment.
“Thanks, Mr. Fromier.”
“Call me Stan.”
A thought occurred to Piter.
“There were two others…?”
“They left a few hours ago to find water,” Shaunee offered.
“From the lake we saw in the air?”
“That was several kilometers away.”
“They said that’s why they should head out as soon as possible. I told them they should wait until you woke up, so we could all go together, but they wouldn’t listen. They took bearings off the shuttle’s instruments and headed out.”
Piter frowned. It would be very easy to get lost in these woods. Wait…what had she just said?
“Do you mean there’s still power in the shuttle?”
Piter’s spirits rose. “Then the rescue could still find us. We need to turn on the emergency beacon.”
He tried to push himself up from his sitting position, but Shaunee prevented him from standing.
“Already done. After the other two took their bearings, we turned on the beacon and powered down everything else. So stop worrying. We’ve got it covered.”
Piter’s stomach growled, but there was no food. The shuttle had contained precious little in the way of emergency supplies: just a small first aid kit, a pack of five flares, emergency breathing equipment, and some life jackets. Shaunee and Stan had already used one of the flares to get the fire started. So there was little to do but settle in for the night. Shaunee suggested, and Piter and Stan agreed, that they should keep a watch through the night, not just to keep the fire going, but also in case the others returned and needed help.
But by morning, there was no sign of them.
On the bright side, Piter was feeling much better. He’d had the first watch, but after that, the remainder of the night’s rest had done wonders for his head. Gingerly at first, then with increasing confidence, he stood up and walked around the campsite.
In the morning light, he was able to make out details that were hidden in the night. The shuttle was crushed against the base of a tree. The trees were mammoth: trunks almost two meters in diameter, standing at least a hundred meters tall and topped by a short branches with long, wavy leaves. Several trees had been felled over a span of a few hundred meters. A few more were leaning over, bearing large gouges in their trunks. The shuttle’s final descent had covered more distance than Piter realized. Looking around at the destruction, he was amazed any of them had survived the crash at all.
He and Stan spent several hours exploring the area around the camp, leaving Shaunee to tend the fire. There was little undergrowth, but despite that they never saw any sign of animal life. However, in a small clearing maybe half a kilometer from the camp, they found several bushes that were heavily laden with berries. Caution stopped Piter from immediately eating his fill. How could they know if the berries were edible or not? Thinking about it more broadly, would they be able to safely eat anything at all on this world? Despite their being able to breathe the air, the life here could very well be completely chemically different from humans. For that matter, was there even water in that lake, or just some mass of toxic chemicals? Maybe the others hadn’t returned yet because they’d found out the hard way.
Piter got a sinking feeling in his belly. How long would the rescue take? Maybe they’d survived a mercifully quick death in the crash only to slowly succumb to starvation and thirst.
In the end, he and Stan decided to leave the berries. Upon returning to the camp, they found Shaunee engaged in conversation with a man and a woman that Piter recognized from the Hilderand. They both were grubby and looked exhausted, with several visible cuts and bruises, but they seemed in fair health, all things considered.
“You made it,” Stan remarked as he and Piter approached. “Any luck?”
The man, of medium height with balding black hair atop a round, chubby head, gestured to the side, where a makeshift bucket lay, filled with water. Or what looked like water.
“Not so hard getting there, but it was mostly uphill walking back. The lake looks clean enough, though. Water’s tasty.”
Piter looked at him askance.
“You drank it? Did you boil it first, at least?”
The man looked confused and shook his head.
“Should I have?”
Piter waved the question off and lugged the bucket over to the fire. It was too late to worry about it now, at least for them. The pair introduced themselves as Ben and Shirley, a married couple from Centauri who’d booked the cruise as a second honeymoon. Piter halfway expected them to take ill: who knew what sorts of bacteria or other bugs lived in the water on this world? But as the day wore on and dusk set in, they showed no signs of difficulties, so Piter began to think he was worrying too much. At least they had water now, however limited a supply. That was something to celebrate.
As they made preparations for the night, it struck Piter that daylight seemed to last a long time. A glance at his chronometer, set for a standard twenty-four hour earth day, confirmed it. Not that he should have been surprised. The odds of this moon having a rotation rate anything close to Earth’s were minuscule at best. But it was still a bit disconcerting to be bone weary before full dark.
But sleep would have to wait a bit longer. The two bodies were starting to smell, and it wouldn’t do to keep them nearby for much longer. Besides possibly attracting animals, there was also the worry of disease. So the men dug a small pit about fifty meters away from the camp proper, using makeshift tools from the shuttle scraps. Then Stan and Piter dragged the bodies over. Ben offered to help, but half-heartedly. The revulsion on his face was plain, and he actually looked a little bit green. So they waved him away and managed on their own.
Before settling in for the night, Piter went into the shuttle and switched on the instrument panel. By the indications, the beacon was still transmitting, but for how much longer? With a sigh, he powered the panel down and stepped back outside. There was nothing to do but hope. Besides, those beacon transmissions contained their coordinates, so it wasn’t like the beacon had to be on continuously for someone to find them.
All the same, as he laid down next to Shaunee, he felt a surge of despair. His last thought before drifting off to sleep was certainty that they were all going to die there.
An ear-piercing, guttural roar woke Piter from a deep sleep. He sat bolt upright, and saw that the others had done the same.
“What the hell was that?” Stan asked.
Ben, who had the watch, was standing off to the side, peering out into the woods beyond the circle of firelight.
“There’s something moving around out there,” he said.
“No kidding,” Shaunee muttered softly, so that only Piter could hear. He smirked, giving her a wink in reply.
Another roar wiped the smirk from Piter’s face. Whatever that thing was, it was getting closer. Then a second roar, halfway around the camp from the first, drew every eye in that direction.
“Two of them,” muttered Stan, his voice quavering as his eyes darted quickly from side to side. He inched closer to the fire, then slowly crouched and withdrew a large stick from the blaze. Burning brand in hand, he looked a bit less afraid. Piter couldn’t blame him.
The two creatures got closer still, until Piter could hear their footsteps and raspy breathing, as they circled around the fire. A couple times, he thought he caught a glimpse of one of them, at the extreme edge of the firelight, but it was gone quickly. Finally, the two creatures stopped moving, over by the grave the men dug earlier. The roars became a series of snuffles, growls, and barks, and Piter could hear a rapid scuffling sound.
He gulped. “They’re digging up the bodies.”
Shaunee, pressing closer to him and her eyes wide with fright, shuddered.
The scuffling stopped after a few moments, and one of the creatures let out a longer, higher pitched roar. It was answered after a short moment by a number of lower pitched barks and roars, from every direction. Piter tried to count how many, but he lost track at fifteen. The new creatures quickly drew nearer, their vocalizations becoming louder by the second.
Piter bumped into something, and looked to his right to see Shirley standing close at his side. Stan was standing just as close on her other side. Without even realizing it, the small group had backed up into a cluster as close to the fire as they could. Only Ben remained apart from the rest of them, out closer to the edge of the firelight, where he’d been keeping watch.
The creatures converged on the gravesite, and it quickly became obvious from the sounds that some of the creatures were fighting each other for the meat. Barks and growls, shrieks of what Piter could only assume was frustration or pain, snapping noises: it became quite a cacophony for several long minutes. Then, silence.
“Ben, come back to the fire!” hissed Shirley.
Ben gave a start, as though he’d lost track of where he was until Shirley spoke. Then he turned around, a sheepish expression on his face, and took a step back toward the group next to the fire.
Something big and black leapt from the shadows beyond the firelight and landed on Ben’s back. Piter heard himself crying out in shock, echoing the others around him, as clawed limbs dug into Ben’s shoulders. Ben stumbled forward, screaming in a mixture of surprise and pain. He grasped at the claws, trying in vain to dislodge them, and fell to his knees. A head with a long muzzle and sharp teeth appeared over Ben’s shoulder and bit into the side of his neck. He cried out again and grabbed at it. Then, heaving his torso forward, he pulled the creature by the head, dislodging it from himself and hurling it toward Piter and the others.
They all dove out of the way to the side, and the creature bounced past them and into the fire. It screamed as the flames ignited its flesh, and squirmed and thrashed wildly. Piter pushed himself backwards, away from the burning beast. He watched, horrified and fascinated, as the creature kicked out its last breath, scattering the burning wood in the process.
Pushing himself back to his feet, Piter turned toward Ben, and saw him resting on his hands and knees, breath coming in quick heaves. Shirley was at his side, concern etched on her face and tears streaming from her eyes as she grabbed him in a fierce embrace, heedless of the blood seeping from his wounds and staining her clothes.
Stan and Shaunee were on their feet as well, wearing stunned and terrified expressions that Piter knew he mirrored.
“What the fu…” Stan’s words caught in his throat as more shadowy creatures became visible around the camp. “Oh shit,” he breathed.
Piter grabbed a burning stick, tossed from the fire by the creature’s thrashing, near his feet. Brandishing it like a club, he turned around, and saw more shapes on the other side of the camp as well. Frantic, he looked to the side, and saw more shapes. They were trapped.
The light from the fire, dissipated now that the fuel had been scattered, was dimming rapidly. The crouching creatures advanced steadily as the circle of firelight grew smaller. From all sides, Piter could hear raspy breathing. He could all but see salivating tongues licking over the creatures’ teeth in anticipation of the kill.
Shaunee’s exclamation made Piter’s head whip around toward the mangled remains of the spacecraft. She was already moving toward it, and Piter instantly understood: high ground. Keep out of their reach. The others caught on just as Piter had. Shirley and Stan hauled Ben to his feet and began moving toward the shuttle as Shaunee hauled herself atop the hulk. Piter hurried to catch up.
A roar from the side drew his eye, and his heart sank. A creature, larger than the others, was advancing toward them.
He shouted, and waved his stick at the creature. It growled, but recoiled from the flames. Piter backpedalled quickly, bumping into the others in his haste to put distance between himself and the creature. He heard Stan curse at the impact, and they all fell to the ground. In the confusion of tangled arms and legs, it took what felt like an eternity for Piter to regain his feet.
He found himself looking into the large creature’s gaping maw.
Screaming a terrified denial, Piter leaped backwards. His back struck the side of the shuttle with a solid thud, sending pain lancing through him as something dug into his lower back, near his left kidney.
Ahead of him, Stan and Shirley were only just getting to their feet, and Ben was still on his knees. The larger creature lunged forward, its teeth sinking into the flesh of Ben’s ankle. He screamed, pain and terror contorting his features as the creature pulled him backwards, away from the shuttle.
Shirley screamed a throaty denial and grasped at Ben’s hands, but the creature pulled him from her clutches, and she fell to the ground. Stan charged forward, striking at the creature with his own burning stick. It hit the creature on the head solidly, snapping the stick in two. The creature recoiled, dropping Ben’s leg as the flames and the impact drove it back.
But two more smaller creatures darted in, jaws snapping at Stan, who had to leap backwards to avoid being bitten. They almost had him regardless, but Piter pushed himself off the side of the shuttle, biting back the agony of his protesting back, and again laid about with his burning stick.
“Help me!” cried Ben, his voice pitched high in agony and mortal terror, as the larger creature, out of Piter’s reach, again bit him in the leg. Piter watched helplessly for a moment, as Ben, his fingers digging ruts in the earth as he desperately scrabbled at the dirt to try to arrest his movement, was dragged further and further away. But then it was all Piter could do to keep the two smaller creatures away from himself. Frantically striking first right, then left, he found himself backing up inexorably, barely managing to keep from being bitten.
His back struck the side of the shuttle again. It flashed through his head that this was the end.
And then he was being lifted off his feet. Hands grabbing him under the armpits from above lifted him up toward the roof of the shuttle an instant before the creatures leapt at him again. He felt a tug on his boot, and looked down to see one of the creatures dangling from it by its teeth for a moment. Then it lost its grip and Stan and Shaunee hauled him the rest of the way up.
Shirley was up there as well. Her eyes were wide, her jaw slack in an expression of mind-numbed horror and inconsolable pain. Below, Ben thrashed desperately, his screams becoming more and more shrill. The larger creature dropped him, not far from where the first creature’s corpse lay, and backed away.
The smaller creatures darted in.
Stan grabbed Shirley by the shoulders and forced her head into his chest. Clutching her close, Piter heard him say, “Don’t look” into her ear.
Then Ben’s screams and pleas turned into a long, drawn out shriek of utmost agony as he was completely covered by the smaller creatures. Ben’s death cry seemed to last forever before it finally ended in a pathetic gurgle and the sickening crunch of jaws snapping against bone.
Piter’s stomach heaved, and he found himself retching: long heaves that brought up nothing from his empty stomach. It only lasted a moment, but it felt like forever before the heaves subsided. When he’d gotten control again, he slid over and held Shaunee close. She was weeping, and he realized that he was as well.
To Be Continued…
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: