Melanie Ifield (Macquarie University, Australia)
Crash landing on a virtually deserted planet outside the appointed sector, low on rations, electronics fried, was not addressed in my mission pack. I just had to play hero and scope out an electrical flare off course. A flare which turned out to be a massive electrical storm that sautéed my spaceship’s AI and just about everything else. Initially I was delighted not to have Hekken yabbering at me over every little infraction, after a week I was starting to talk to the plants. All that silence really does do your head in. No wonder they insist on AI ships for deep space recon.
“No, no, let me do it,” I muttered under my breath, slipping out of my hiding place and following the hoof prints of the beastie I was tracking. I’d been lying under dense scrub for half an hour, hoping I was the only one tracking this particular creature. Looked like I was. “I’ll go play recon solider for the month. Why not? Looks good on my record. Works well in teams and as a solo. Bah! Not so great now are you, hey, hotshot?”
Two weeks out: two weeks back. That was the deal. Rations accordingly. Drop onto any planet in my sector, gather soil, water and vegetation samples and readings on the atmosphere, then come back. We were expanding past the capacity of our current system, so Recon Force was out in full strength. Planets deemed acceptable had science teams complete with full Marine squads for protection. Silly buggers like me had a weaponised ship, personal blaster and orders to ‘not engage’ with any life forms. Pfft. I was pretty sure there was no indigenous life of a humanoid form, just loads of wildlife. Kind of a Jurassic Era playpen.
So, with rations low, I was off hunting my dinner. I was out of communications with Base, Hekken was fried and I quite literally had no one to talk to. It was get out, fix things, and find food or die; of boredom, if not from the clawed beasties. The trees shivered as something passed close by.
I shifted position and looked up at the sun and its attendant three moons. From the information I could gather, I was at a pole of my new home planet. God, I hoped it wasn’t to be my home for long. It was summer temperatures, no ice caps here, twenty hours of sunlight and five hours of dark.
It had taken me three hours to get down the mountain where Hekken and I had crashed, because, even a week after, I was still recovering. I’d given myself half rations as soon as I worked out how dire things were, and I stitched up the worse cuts, spraying the scrapes with ice and disinfectant from my medic supplies. I still moved with a noticeable limp, and huffed and puffed after an hour’s walk, but I didn’t have the luxury to heal properly. I had to see what was available to eat and drink around here.
I was missing Hekken’s safe, quiet, shell already. For the first time in weeks, my ship was silent. I’d spent the recovery week putting as much of him back together as possible, but so far, all I could get from him was garbled messages in several different languages, not all of them human. I couldn’t make out anything because he was my translator.
“Caution is the operative word here, soldier,” I muttered to my canteen, as I took a sip. As I had pressed through the forest, I’d see large carcasses with the flesh ripped right off. Whatever could bring them down could do the same to me.
Creatures, resembling elk, but far larger, walked through clearings and disappeared into the greenery. I’d brought out all my quiet weaponry. The only firepower I had was a laser rifle with very few shots in its clip. It had been packed away in a rubberised compartment, sealed from the storm. I had it strapped to my back, but I hoped not to use it. When in doubt as to the numbers of your enemies, don’t waste ammo on prey.
Tracking a lone elk-like beastie for a few hours had led me away from my mountain and I could now hear water. I had three deflated canteens, my skinning knife and throwing knives, and a spear that extended when I pushed its button. They were my only hope for survival long term. If this became long term. Oh God.
I also had my hover board. It couldn’t hover anymore, but was a sled-like carrier. Half an hour later I hunkered down behind a rock, staring at a massive waterfall. The noise was indescribable. There was no way my elk beastie was going to hear me coming. He was kind of like me – no team member for back up. Teams had been pissing me off because there was always someone who didn’t pull their weight. But now, without them, I felt exposed and vulnerable. Maybe the Major had allowed me this duty so I would learn to appreciate my squad more. Cheeky bastard. It was exactly the sort of sneaky lesson he loved to deliver.
I activated my spear, sending its contracted shaft out. Six feet of extended metal attached to a foot of hardened blade. I padded forward and hefted the spear like a javelin. One, two, three – I heaved it into the beastie’s flank, hoping that it would sever its hind leg muscles or, at least, embed somewhere arterial; having it stuck in bone would be disastrous. The beastie reared up, screaming, but with the waterfall thundering nearby I couldn’t hear him. He landed on all fours and his hind leg gave out momentarily. Goodo – he was obviously not feeling too healthy. He settled down, and swung his head to look at his attacker. That’s me, I thought, pulling out my knife. I liked its heft now I was faced with two tonne of enraged wild beastie.
He lowered his head, topped with an impressive horn, and pawed the ground.
“Yes, well, let’s not skewer me with that, sunshine,” I muttered as I waited for him to move. Closer, I could see he was an old beast, with sunken flanks and grey fur. Perhaps that’s why he was on his own.
“Aged out of the procreation stakes, hey? I get that. Too old and they shuffle you off.”
I self-consciously patted my own grey hairs. I was the oldest squad leader in the Force. I knew they wanted me to retire out, but to do what? Sit and knit? I was a killer. A soldier. I was going to die with my boots on or not at all. The beastie moved.
Boots on it was.
I couldn’t hear him coming, but I could feel it. The thudding of his hooves travelled along the ground and up the soles of my battle boots. I was weaker than I had anticipated, my hands shaking. It may have been fear, but I closed my eyes to that.
I balanced on the balls of my feet as the elk beast ploughed towards me. Mud and slush churned in his wake, the fine mist from the waterfall having turned the ground soft. It was all going to come down to the timing. I could see a great patch of discoloured fur. He was slowing. The spear was doing its job.
As the monster elk rushed at me, I stepped aside at the last moment. I felt his breath, hot and angry. My heart pounded in my fingertips, clutched hard around the knife handle. With an almighty lunge, I swept my blade, across his throat. This close I could hear him – a deep throat-catching grunt as he tried to run. I fell to my knees, shaken. Half a dozen or so steps past me, the beastie collapsed and with a spatter of red, sank to his side. His flanks heaved with exertion, then slowed to a stop.
Trembling, I rose and tottered to his side. The one eye I could see was glazed and the blood had already lessened to a trickle. I knew it was now a race against time. Even with the mist in the air, the scent of blood was likely to attract other predators. I needed to strip the flesh down quickly. I had sealable packs that would limit the scent trail, and the hover board to carry what I could not. Working fast, I stripped fur off as much of the carcass as I could hope to package. I’d wash, drain and cure what I could when I was safely back with Hekken.
Carrying my haul was harder than anticipated. Firstly, it was uphill. Secondly, close to such a lot of water, the ground was damp for a ways and I struggled with the extra weight on the board. Filling my water canteens and rinsing off the blood, had brought me in close to the fall. I was wet, tired, hungry and sore. Muscles had been torn, bruised and pulled by the crash. My stitches pulled and needed new waterproof dressings.
I hit another bump, jarring my aching muscles.
“Bugger it!” Damn, so much for the quiet hunter. “Pull yourself together. You have to get away from the kill site and back to the ship.”
If anywhere was going to have other beasties turn up, it was a watering hole with a nice fresh kill laid out like an all you can eat buffet. Getting back to Hekken unscathed would only work if I didn’t attract unwanted attention.
There was no way I would make it back without having to camp. It was hours to the base of the mountain, and three more to climb to my ship. I didn’t want to follow my own path back, in case I came face to face with something hunting me, but I didn’t have a choice. Getting lost in the forest wouldn’t help my situation and I was navigating by skill, not instrument.
Eventually, I could walk no further. There was no chance of having a fire, so I threw a rope up a tree, dragged the hover board up so it was dangling in mid-air. Then, I climbed up and out onto the smallest branch that could sustain my weight. Anything with claws would climb, I wagered, so I needed to be where something heavy couldn’t go. There, I roped myself into a spot where multiple branches fanned out. Not highly comfortable, but then, neither was being eaten alive.
Six miserable hours of broken sleep later, I gave up. The sun was waking and I had miles to go and all that. So off I set, sucking down rations and some water, trying not to think of all that wonderful meat in its sealed packs. I couldn’t risk it raw and I couldn’t risk a fire.
“Just … one … more … mile, Janna,” I huffed to myself. There were many more miles, but if I could convince my legs they only had one to go, perhaps we’d get through them all.
I stopped. Something behind me snorted in a very, I’m a large and brutal predator, kind of way. I pushed the hover board under some bushes and retrieved my spear and knives. I hesitated for a moment, then collected the rifle. I cocked it open and checked its pulse magazine. Not exactly firing on all cylinders, but it would do. I was a crack shot.
I wiggled my way up a thick, bushy shrub and lied along one of its branches. What concealed me also thwarted my view, but cover was cover. Maybe the beastie would just toddle off.
I lay stiff and cold for an hour as it huffed and grunted around my tracks, creeping ever nearer. A hunter it was, but not silent. Perhaps having no real competition had led to complacency. I grinned to myself. Now I was humanising the thought processors of my beastie. I really needed to get Hekken up and yelling at me again.
Finally, it appeared. My heart and stomach vied for position in my throat. Lordy, it was huge. No wonder if didn’t care about the noise it made. It had four legs, fur, knife-sized claws, and a mouth full of long, curving teeth. Its long spiked tail ended with a club which swept across the ground behind it. What on earth had it been up against in evolution to evolve such weaponry? It didn’t bear thinking about.
I sighed. If it didn’t wander off soon, it was a dead beastie. I didn’t have time to waste. I was getting weaker and colder even as the sun heated up. My clothes were still a bit damp and I needed to take some more painkillers. Most of which would make me sleepy. Not the position of strength required for hunting.
The living nightmare snuffled around the bushes and my shrub. I knew it could smell me, but not having met a human before, it didn’t know what to make of the scent. Luckily for me, he wasn’t naturally aggressive, nor was he hungry. A few moments later, he snuffled off, distracted by whatever message his nose was receiving.
I waited patiently for half an hour more to make sure he was definitely away, then dropped to the ground, stifling a groan as every muscle and bone in my body growled. Slinging the rifle across my shoulders, I unearthed the hover board. Giving it a kick just for being useless, I struggled onwards.
It took the rest of the sunlight hours to make it back to Hekken. My pace became slower the further up the mountain I went. I plucked berries, until the scrub petered out, filling an expandable bag until my shoulders screamed.
I forced the airlock open with a whine of metal and dropped everything inside. “Honey, I’m home!” The door begrudgingly shut behind me. Safe.
I opened my packages and sliced off some beastie, dropping it into one of the Analyser’s cups. I added some berries to the other. Six hours max. Then I’d know.
After stripping, I curled up on the hard bed. Silence enveloped me. My head buzzed and my body ached. I would rest for the night and get busy on unscrambling Hekken. If I could get him voice activated, there was a chance he could tell me what systems needed what sort of repair. Going by books and memory wasn’t getting me far.
I slept long; sheer exhaustion knocking me out for hours. I came to when the Analyser pinged. It took me a while to be able to move. Everything had stiffened up, even with the warm blankets I had buried myself under.
“Yes! Now for a fire and some real food.”
The Analyser had spoken – beastie and berries were perfectly non-toxic to the human digestive system. Not chockfull of every amino acid or vitamin and mineral I needed, but the composition was good enough that I could survive indefinitely. What a ghastly thought.
I built a fire tucked between Hekken’s bulk and some rocks. I didn’t want it to stand out like a beacon, though in a few hours that would be inevitable, as there was no competing light source after dark. Bloody jungles.
Cooking was in no way my forte. I poked at the charred meat and wrinkled my nose. It smelt a hell of a lot better cooked, so that was a blessing. The fire had burned down to a bundle of glowing coals and I was loathe to smother them. They were a comforting reminder of civilisation. I looked around at the shadows. There were no other lights in this place, no sign of habitation.
I finished my bland meal of charcoaled meat and berries, and called it a night. I padded around the small interior, making sure things were settled for the evening. It didn’t take long, but the routine helped my paranoia. Somewhat. Kind of.
I was lying on the hard bedding when I heard a snuffling noise outside.
My eyes snapped back open and my heart thundered in my chest. I turned my head a fraction so I could see the hatch. The languishing pile of coals outside didn’t cast much light, but I could see their glow. It blinked. Something out there had passed by the fire. The ship rocked, as it was given an experimental shove.
Scout ships are not large, designed to transport one or two people from point A to point B. If this creature was anything like all the others I’d seen, its size could become a problem. One hefty shove and ship, Hekken and I, would slide down the mountainside. I shuddered to imagine the damage that might incur. Possibly more than I could fix. I’d be doomed.
I slipped off the mattress and picked up the rifle. If the beastie wasn’t friendly… What if he had brought friends? Shut up, brain. The ship shuddered again.
I crept to the hatch. I could see it through the narrow slit I’d left for air. Great. It was my nightmare beastie from the forest. It had followed my scent. The heady smell of cooked meat on the wind probably hadn’t helped my cause either. The beastie was snuffling its way around my fire pit and checking out the remains of my barbequed meat. Fabulous.
I clicked the rifle off safety. That small sharp snick brought my beastie’s head up and I looked into its eyes. Front facing eyes of a predator, in case the fangs and claws didn’t give it away. Its clubbed tail swung around and thudded into the ship’s side, rattling my teeth. A warning shot. Well, two could play at that game.
I heaved the hatch open a fraction more to swing my rifle up and take better aim. The metallic screech upset my visitor. Its head jerked back and its tail bashed into the side again. If I didn’t stop this Hekken would never forgive me for the damage it was inflicting. Was the rifle going to be any good against all that slab-like body armour it was sporting?
“Only one way to find out,” I muttered. No point in stealth, it knew I was there. I grabbed the hatch handle and reefed it open, spinning the rifle up into my arms as I stepped forward. I sent a pulse into the front leg of the beast, hoping that would send it packing. It snarled and I could see a bit of burnt flesh. I hadn’t scared it. I’d only pissed it off.
It came straight at me, stepping into the fire-pit. For one moment, it froze, then it let out an almighty shriek. Its tail zoomed around to bash at the fire-pit, spitting coals all over the place. It shrieked again, rearing on it hind legs. When it came crashing back down, it was foaming at the mouth.
I fired again and grazed its neck. My hands were shaking too hard for accuracy. I took a sharp glance down at my magazine. I had three shots left.
The beast came out of the fire-pit, spitting. Blood dripped from its front leg and its neck. There was the sharp smell of freshly sizzled meat and I shuddered to imagine what state its feet were in. Its tail reared up behind it like a scorpion. I leapt to the side, rolling as I came up on my feet, leading it sideways away from the ship.
“Hey! Over here!” I waved at it. It was so large, and in so much pain, it had missed my escape, still too close to my ship. It swung its head to follow the sound of my voice. It was closer to the hatch than I was. “Fabulous choice, Jann.” I raised the rifle, it lowered its head to charge.
I fired again as it charged towards me. It fell mid-run and slid along the ground, knocking me off my feet and grazing me with its fangs. I lay there looking up at the stars. I’d never been so desperate to be up among them. The beast let out a huge sigh, as life left it. I turned my head to where it lay beside me. It was one ugly corpse. I really needed to fix my transportation problem.
I dragged my aching body around the dead creature. A corpse that large was going to attract all kinds of carrion feeders. I couldn’t go through another encounter with the fauna of this planet. It would tear me apart. I was covered in dirt, sweat and the stink of fear. My bruises sang a nasty chorus and a few of my deeper cuts had sprung open again.
I crawled inside my dented ship, heaved the hatch shut and went to bed. Time was running out.
It took another two days. I sat in the cockpit and flicked the switches needed for a reboot. Lights ran up the console.
“Yeah, yeah. I know already, ok? Every system needs immediate attention. And who, may I ask, do you think will be giving that attention? Me. So wait your bloody turn!” I switched a few off.
A moment, a pause, then the sound I’d been waiting for:
“Were you speaking to me, Officer Jannayic?”
I slumped in the pilot’s chair.
“Welcome back, Hekken. We may have a little bit of a problem.”
Lights switched on and off, indicating his progress.
“Define little?” he scoffed.
I grinned and put my feet up on his console. “Take those size ten clompy hooves off my console. You have things to do.”
When didn’t I?
“How long before you’re operational, Hek?” He hated having his name shortened.
“Depends on who is doing the fixing. You? Weeks.”
I huffed a laugh and patted his plating. A few days I could deal with. An uppity ship I could deal with. Then home sweet home. Perhaps my squad really wasn’t the worse thing in the world.
I got to work.
Melanie Ifield writes novels for all ages. Having previously completed a degree in journalism, Melanie now studies a creative writing Masters at Macquarie University. Melanie loves the idea of losing yourself in new worlds or new experiences through books and hopes her stories will provoke that love in others. She has been self publishing since 2013 and her works include a fantasy series, Chronicles of Novarmere; a children’s adventure story, The Chicken Liberation Army; and a romantic thriller for adults, The Age of Corruption.