by Michael Kingswood
Sleep was impossible for the rest of the night, and not just because of the horror they’d witnessed. The creatures growled, roared, and barked, and tried endlessly to ascend the shuttle’s hulk. One got halfway up, but Stan knocked it off with a strong kick to the muzzle. Then, after an hour or so, it began to rain, a light drizzle which quenched the last remnants of the fire, leaving them in near total darkness. Even worse, though the drizzle at first was little more than an annoyance, gradually it drenched them all, leaving them to shiver, miserable, in the darkness. It was particularly uncomfortable for Piter. The cold made his injured back stiffen up, and every position he sat or lay in was an exercise in pain.
Slowly, inexorably, the darkness began to fade, replaced by the faintest hint of twilight as the drizzle came to a stop. As that happened, the creatures’ behavior began to change. While some continued to roar and scramble at the shuttle, trying to reach the survivors, several began to whinny and walk in circles. Finally, when it became light enough to see the creatures as more than just shadows moving in near-blackness, the larger creature let out a drawn-out, gurgling call, then turned and scampered away. As if on cue, the smaller ones turned their heads to the side then, in unison, turned and followed the larger one away.
Except for the five that had been whinnying. They turned away as well, but their gaits were unsteady. As they moved to follow the others, one lost its footing and collapsed to the ground. Several meters later, a second dropped. Then a third, just before the group moved out of sight. Piter could only assume the others did not make it very far before falling as well.
“Wha-” Shaunee swallowed, her gaze darting around in the gloom and her expression saying she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “What just happened?”
Piter shook his head. He was baffled as well.
It seemed too good to be true that the creatures had just left. That they weren’t playing a ruse of some sort. So no one left the top of the shuttle for a long time. But finally, after it was fully light, Stan shrugged his shoulders and slid down to the shuttle’s crushed nose, then jumped the rest of the down to the ground.
Piter watched, his heart in his throat, as Stan quickly circled the perimeter of the camp. Completing the circuit, Stand looked back at them and spread his hands with another shrug. Then he beckoned them to join him as he crouched down next to one of the collapsed creatures. Piter and Shaunee exchanged glances, then slid off the shuttle as well. Piter nearly fell over when he reached the ground: the landing jarred his back, sending a flare of pain running up his spine. But he managed to keep his feet and, gritting his teeth, he followed Shaunee over to Stan.
The creature didn’t appear to be wounded. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it at all, aside from the fact it was dead, and terrifying to look at, especially with drying blood still splattered all over its muzzle.
“So what killed it?” Piter said quietly.
“Hell if I know,” Stan replied. “Does it matter?”
Stan stood back up and looked off in the direction the creatures took when they left.
“Let’s check the others.”
The other two creatures in the camp were the same: dead, without visible wounds. A few minutes searching revealed the missing two creatures, also dead. The only difference was that it appeared one of the creatures had vomited before dying. Seeing the vomit pool, Shaunee cursed.
“It was Ben.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it was, babe, but try not to think about…” Piter’s words stuck in his throat as he turned his gaze from the creature to Shaunee. Her expression was serious, even grim, not repulsed. She shook her head vigorously at Piter’s statement.
“No, I mean it was eating Ben that killed it.”
Stan cut in. “Look, maybe we shouldn’t talk about this in front of…” He stopped talking abruptly and looked around in confusion. “Where’s Shirley?”
“Didn’t she come with us?” Shaunee asked, her voice becoming suddenly fearful again.
As they rushed back to the camp, Piter couldn’t help but fear the worst. But when they arrived, Shirley was still seated atop the shuttle. Piter felt a surge of relief that died quickly as they drew nearer to her. She sat indian style, her gaze fixed on the place where Ben had died. It wasn’t hard to find, as it was strewn about with chewed-on body parts, shredded clothing, and, despite the drizzle for half the night, a large amount of gore. The rest of them had made a point of not looking at it too closely, but her eyes never moved from the spot, never seemed to blink.
The three of them shared a look, then Shaunee climbed back up onto the shuttle. Stan and Piter moved away to give them some privacy.
They found the water bucket, upended and empty, not far from the shuttle.
“Well that sucks,” Piter muttered.
Stan nodded. His lips pursed for a moment and he looked away, in the direction of the lake. “We’re going to need more water.” He paused as he looked back at Piter. “Maybe we should just go to the lake for good.”
Piter shook his head. “I don’t think so. T first rule when waiting for a rescue is to not move around. Stay where people are most likely to come looking. The beacon will lead the rescue here, so…” He shrugged.
Stan snorted. “This isn’t the Boy Scouts, Piter. Those things are going to come back, you know. They’re probably night hunters. But even if they don’t come something else will. This place probably smells like a Smorgasbord.”
Looking around, Piter was forced to concede Stan’s last point, at least. Still, the shuttle provided a bit of shelter. And, Piter was forced to admit, being able to see a piece of civilization, however battered, was oddly comforting.
“I don’t know.”
Stan bent over and picked up the bucket. “We’re going to need water, regardless, and it’ll be safer to remain in a group. Let’s just go and check out what the lake has to offer. If there’s nothing promising, we can come back.”
That made sense. Despite his misgivings about leaving, Piter couldn’t think of any other reason to stay. And the notion of being there when the creatures returned was unappealing at best.
“Ok, let’s do it.”
A few minutes later, Shaunee slid down the shuttle and rejoined them. Her expression was grim.
“She’s lost it. I haven’t been able to get her to say a word, and she won’t stop staring at…” She gestured toward Ben’s scattered remains.
Piter cursed under his breath. “Well do you think you can get her to move? We’re going to head to the lake, and we need to leave before those things come back.”
Shaunee looked doubtful, but she nodded. “I’ll try.”
While she climbed back up, Stan took a moment to examine Piter’s injury. Thankfully, he wasn’t cut, but there was an impressive bruise that encompassed most of his left side. No wonder it hurt to move too quickly, or to twist. The women were deeply engaged in conversation when Piter lowered his shirt and looked up. Or at least, Shaunee was leaning close to Shirley and talking quietly with her. It was unclear whether Shirley was responding or not. But there was no time to worry about it. He had to trust that Shaunee would get results.
Going into the shuttle, Piter switched on the instruments again while Stan rooted through the cargo area for anything else they missed in their previous searches. Piter felt his hopes shrink, though he hadn’t thought that was possible this morning. The instrument console was extremely dim; clearly the shuttle’s reserve power cells were nearing the end of their capacity. He called up the transmitter status display, and was gratified to see the beacon was still functioning, though the transmit power was much reduced from the last time he checked.
Then he noticed the receiver status was flashing, and tapped to shift the display. His heart leapt. As the display shifted, it became clear an incoming transmission had come in at some point during the night. He hit the playback, but all that came through was several seconds of a barely discernible voice that was overwhelmed by static. Still, it was something, and when he switched off the console, Piter did so with much improved spirits.
Stan managed to yank a pole that had been installed as an attachment point for cargo bins from the wall. About a meter long, with a jagged break at one end where the crash had dislodged it, it would be useful as a tool or weapon. But aside from that, there was nothing else of use. Stan left. Before following him out, Piter picked up a shard of broken plastic and carved a message in the vinyl of the pilot’s chair: “Went to lake. Four survivors.”
Piter emerged from the shuttle and was pleased to see both ladies standing on the ground. Shirley still looked wild-eyed, but at least she was up and about. There wasn’t much to bring along with them: just the bucket, the first aid kit, the flares, and Stan’s pole. So without further ado, they set off in the direction of the lake.
It was a long walk, though not particularly difficult. As Ben had told them the day before, it was mostly downhill. Still, it was a good ten kilometers or more, and by the end, it was all Piter could do to put one foot in front of the other. His back throbbed with each step, and if he hadn’t had Stan’s pole to use as a walking stick, and Shaunee to offer him support as well, there’s no way he could have stayed on his feet. But finally, they walked between the last two trees and stepped onto a field that ran down to the edge of the lake.
It was a breathtaking view. Now that they were out from beneath the forest’s canopy, he could see that the clouds had parted. Gamma Delphinus, glowing white in the sky alongside its orangish companion star, was a unique enough view for Piter, who’d grown up in a single-star system. But more interesting still was the moon’s mother planet, dominating the sky just above the horizon and clearly visible, even now with the stars just a bit past local noon. Combined with the highly reflective lake and a mountain range in the distance, and Piter wished fervently that he had a camera because it was an award-worthy image.
But there was no time to sit around and enjoy the view. It went without saying that the creatures would follow their trail to the lake, and they needed to find a secure place to camp. The most likely candidate was a rocky outcropping thrusting up from the lake shore a kilometer or so to their left. Piter groaned inwardly at the thought of walking that far, bad as his back hurt. But staying still, here in the open, was not an option. So he pressed on with the others.
It was very slow going with Piter barely able to walk, but eventually they made it to the outcropping. It was about a fifty meters tall, sheer on the side facing the lake, and very steep on the others. There was only one part of the outcropping that looked to offer a walkable path up to the top, but even that was boulder-strewn and required them to climb hand-over-hand at one point. It was perfect.
And perfectly difficult, especially for Piter with his bad back and Shaunee with her injured arm. Shirley was no help at all, just following along with a blank stare, saying nothing. So Stan was left to assist the rest of them to the top.
Even with Stan’s help, the ascent was grueling for Piter, particularly the vertical ascent, short as it was. His back was bad enough, but two days without food left his stomach feeling like a huge empty cavern. By the time he reached the top, he was totally spent, and collapsed to the ground. He would have passed out if his back didn’t hurt so much.
“We need to find something to eat,” Stan said as he, too, flopped down onto ground.
“I don’t think we can,” replied Shaunee. She looked sidelong at Shirley, who had settled down a short distance away and sat silently, staring out at the lake. Lowering her voice, Shaunee continued. “I think eating Ben and the other bodies poisoned those creatures, and that’s what killed them.”
“So if we’re poisonous to creatures here, they’re probably poisonous to us also.”
They were silent for a long time after that. Even if Shaunee was wrong, they couldn’t exactly risk it. Piter prayed silently, forgetting for a moment that he didn’t believe in God, that the static-laden voice he’d heard over the receiver was from the rescue, and that the voice’s owner would arrive soon. He wasn’t looking forward to starving to death.
They rested for a few minutes, then took stock of their surroundings. There were only a few scraggly bushes and a single small tree on the outcropping. If the four of them were going to camp there, they were going to need firewood and water. Piter was in no condition to move, let alone haul heavy loads, and Shirley remained all but catatonic. So it fell on Stand and Shirley to gather what the group needed. With hardly a grumble, the two stood and made their way back down the rocks.
Watching them go, Piter felt a twinge of guilt; he should be helping. But even gathering himself to try to follow after them sent spikes of pain throughout his lower back. And, disturbingly, through his lower abdomen as well. With a groan, he laid back onto the ground and tried to relax, get some rest.
A scream roused him from a light slumber. Startled to wakefulness by the sound, he sat bolt upright, not even noticing the pain in his back, and looked around. Stan and Shaunee were nowhere to be seen. Shirley was on her feet a short distance away, still looking out at the lake. She had her hands pressed to her temples, and she screamed again, a piercing wail of pain and despair.
“Shirley,” Piter began, but stopped, his breath catching in his throat, as she turned to look at him.
Shirley’s eyes were wide, her face contorted with pain, but also with something else. Something…wrong, like madness. He’d never seen such an expression on a person before. Except in the holovids, and only then in tales of horror. But then, she’d been living a horror tale for the last day; they all had.
“I’ve lost him,” she wailed, pulling at her hair with both hands. “Lost everything!”
Piter gulped. “It’s going to be ok. The rescue…”
Shirley barked out a bitter laugh and turned away. More softly, she muttered, “Rescue. What good is that?”
He tried again. “When we get out of here, you can rebuild…”
“There’s nothing to rebuild. It’s all over.”
She took a step forward, stopping on the edge of the outcropping. Piter felt a chill going down his spine.
Piter tried to stand, but fell over as his back spasmed. On his belly, he began to crawl over to her.
“Come back from there. You don’t want to…”
“I don’t want to go on.”
With that, she stepped off the edge. Piter shouted her name and reached out in vain to stop her, but she was too far out of reach. She plunged out of sight, and he scrambled frantically toward the edge. Maybe she landed somewhere further down, where they could reach her. He forced himself to crawl faster. Finally, after what seemed forever, he reached the edge and looked over.
The face of the outcropping was just as sheer as it had appeared from below. There was nowhere to land except the lake, and it would be a hell of a difficult climb under the best conditions. Far down below, bobbing in the lake, he could see Shirley’s body, floating face down. She wasn’t moving. Deep sadness welled up within him, eclipsed a heartbeat later by anger. Anger at their predicament, at fate, and at Shirley for doing such a thing. Then anger gave way to shame at thinking ill of a woman he barely knew, whose world had just been gruesomely destroyed while she could only watch. Disgusted at himself, Piter pushed himself away from the edge and rolled over onto his back. The flare of pain as he shifted his weight only heightened his suffering.
Shaunee came rushing into view, Stan just a few paces behind. Concern, near panic in fact, was etched on her face. Seeing him lying there, she rushed over and engulfed him in an embrace.
“We heard the screams. What happened?”
“Where’s Shirley?” Stan added.
Piter squeezed Shaunee tightly as he replied. “She threw herself over the edge.”
He heard Shaunee gasp in his ear, then begin to sob. Stan looked shocked. Walking over to the edge, he looked down for a long moment. When he turned back to them, he shook his head and squatted down next to them.
“And then there were three,” Stan murmured.
There was nothing to do except say a few prayers for Shirley, then get back to work. The twin suns were getting closer to the horizon, and they definitely didn’t want to be caught down in the clearing when night fell and the creatures returned. So Stan and Shaunee spent the last hours before sundown hauling up the last of the wood and water they’d gathered earlier.
As before, Piter sat, nursing his back. But it didn’t get any better. In fact, his discomfort just got worse as the afternoon turned to evening. The pain spread from his lower back throughout his lower abdomen, and he began to suspect something was very wrong. Then, when he went to relieve himself and saw that his urine was bloody, he knew it for a fact.
He didn’t say anything when Shaunee and Stan returned. No need to worry her any more than need be.
They waited anxiously as night fell. But by an hour or so after full dark, they’d neither heard nor seen any sign of the creatures. Eventually, even fear of the creatures’ return and his increasing pain couldn’t keep Piter awake, and he drifted off into a fitful slumber.
Sometime later, he became aware of loud noises nearby, and managed to open his eyes a crack. Shaunee stood close by, her back to him and a flaming stick in her hands. Stan was nowhere to be seen, but there was another light in the darkness beyond her, in the direction of the noises. That must be Stan over there. What was he doing?
Piter knew he should be alarmed about something, but what it was didn’t register. He became fixated on the flames flickering atop Shaunee’s stick. Mesmerized. The glow of the flame called to him, and he began to feel light, as though he was just a hair’s breadth away from floating up into the sky, if only something wasn’t anchoring him to the ground.
He found himself smiling, and thought with bemusement that it had been days since he’d last done that. Why? He couldn’t recall.
Then darkness closed in again.
When he awoke, Shaunee was asleep beside him. Stan stood to the side, clutching his metal pole. The jagged end of the pole was covered in a greenish-grey fluid, and he had several visible cuts on his arms and shoulders.
“What happened?” Piter asked, his thoughts more clear this time around.
Stan turned to look at him, surprise flickering across his face for a moment. “They came back. One almost got to us by climbing up another’s back.” He glanced down at the end of his pole and smirked. “We beat them back. Blocked the path with more rocks. They shouldn’t bother us again.”
“That’s good,” Piter replied.
Stan shrugged his shoulders. “Sort of. I don’t know that we’ll be able to get back down again, though. I really did a number on the path.” Glancing at their single bucket of water, over by the stack of firewood, he pursed his lips.
The implication wasn’t lost on Piter. If they couldn’t get down and back up again, they couldn’t re-supply. Crap. Just then, he realized that he was parched, but he decided against asking for some of the water. Suddenly, it seemed a rare and precious thing.
The next day passed slowly.
Early in the morning, Stan and Shaunee went to inspect the path. Piter wanted to come along. He managed to convince them to help him to his feet. But after only a few steps with support from both of them, he collapsed again. His back and belly were too painful, and his legs were wobbly.
When they returned from their excursion after a long inspection, the despair in Shaunee’s eyes told Piter all he needed to know before she said anything.
“Stan was right,” she said.
“There’s no way down?”
“He dislodged a lot of rocks and boulders last night. It’s pretty impassable.”
Stan shrugged noncommittally. “Maybe not completely. I can probably climb down, but getting back up…?” He spread his hands. “Difficult at best without climbing tools. Impossible with wood, or that bucket. If only we had a rope.”
“So that’s it then,” Piter said. “We’re stuck.”
Stan nodded. “Afraid so.”
Piter looked at Shaunee’s despairing face and shared the sentiment. But He managed a smile anyway. “Don’t worry, babe. The rescue would be along soon. I’m sure that’s what that incoming message said.”
She returned the smile and kissed him on the cheek. He could tell she didn’t believe him.
There was nothing else to do but wait, hope, and conserve their strength. As morning turned to noon and then afternoon, they talked of their previous lives and their plans and hopes for the future. Or rather, Shaunee and Stan did. Piter nodded off frequently, so he only caught bits and pieces.
When he awoke in the mid-afternoon, he found himself shivering from chills, despite the fact that it was still warm out. Shaunee was seated next to him, wiping his brow with a wet scrap of cloth. What was she doing? They needed to conserve every drop! He tried to tell her that, but for some reason had trouble getting the words out. So instead he pushed the cloth away, earning a look of reproach from her.
“You’ve got a fever,” she said, and lifted a small bottle lid, the cap to something from the first aid kit most likely to his lips. The lid was filled with water. He drank greedily, then tried to sit up, but a renewed pain in his abdomen when he flexed those muscles brought him up short, and he collapsed back onto the ground, breathing heavily.
Shaunee frowned with worry and touched his belly, sending another burst of pain running up his spine.
“His belly’s hard as a rock,” he heard her say to Stan, whose face turned grim.
“…Internal bleeding…” was all Piter could make out of Stan’s reply before he faded out again.
It was dark when he awoke next. His vision was blurry, and it was hard to make out what was going on. There was a flickering light off to the side: the campfire most likely. Shapes moved near the fire, and he heard voices, so he knew he wasn’t alone. But he couldn’t manage to turn to look at them more closely, so instead he gazed up at the stars.
As he lay there, he began to get that feeling of being light again. The stars seemed to beckon, and it was almost as though they were drifting nearer to him. He felt peace, and a growing sense of joy, as one in particular grew larger and slowly began to fill his vision. Vaguely he recalled hearing about the tunnel and light that people reported from Near Death Experiences, and it occurred to him that he was dying. Strangely, he felt no fear, just a lingering sadness that he’d be leaving Shaunee alone. He tried to call out to her to say goodbye, but he couldn’t hear himself speak; a growing rumble in his ears cancelled out other sounds.
But wait. There she was, standing above him, looking up at the light, and waving both of her hands over her head. You don’t have to get God’s attention, babe. He knows where you are. Then she looked away from the light and down at him, and he saw that she wore a joyful expression, one of relief. Seeing him awake again, she knelt down next to him and gathered him into a warm embrace.
“It’s the rescue ship,” she said into his ear.
He managed to return the embrace, however weakly, and smiled.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: