Volume 1.1: 'Five Stones'
It's moving again.
Round and round in the jungle darkness it moves, heavy and huge. The sweet smell of the swathes of crushed grass it's leaving in its wake makes me feel sick. My own scent on the night wind agitates it, making it aggressive and wild.
I sit cross-legged on the wet, hot grass and keep my eyes shut. Whenever I try to see it, the glimpses of sharp bone and twitching tendrils I get are enough to construct a nightmare in my mind.
Who am I kidding? The thing really is a nightmare, except one physical enough to kill the Captain.
Dawn is coming. I have to stay calm and think through my options, the few I have.
Kappa's panicked yelling drowns out the awful soft sliding sound for a while.
“We need to go, Jackson! We need to leave!” he shouts again.
Kappa's always high-strung when we land on an unexplored planet. He knows as well as I do what's keeping us alive and it all hinges on staying put. Just thinking about our molecule-thin protection makes me nervous, but terror is tipping Kappa over the edge and he needs reassurance before he does anything stupid.
“Listen!” I call back. He can't be more than a few metres away from me, but he may as well still be in space for all I can reach him. “Look at your feet Kappa. Tell me what you see!”
It's so dark that I can just about see his silhouette against the jungle, but I think he tilts his head and looks down at the grass like I ask.
“Five glowing lights,” he stammered.
“And what does that mean?” I asked. For a moment, a huge bulk blots out the stars to the west of me and I nearly cry out with fear. In a flash of reflected moonlight, I see dense scales and a wickedly sharp bone crest. “What do the lights on the Stones mean, Kappa?”
“It means I'm safe.”
“No: it means you're safe as long as you stay between them. Don’t move.”
Kappa falls silent again.
I check my own lights: all five Stones glow brightly through the long grass, though perhaps not as intensely as before. The batteries are running down, but the defensive field is still up. I'm safe for a while longer.
Unconsciously, I look at where I think Captain Courtenay's body probably is. There've been some gristly, splintering cracks from that direction that I don't want to speculate about. A Five Stones malfunction is damn rare, but it does occasionally happen. It's always tragic when they fail.
I think Kappa is crying. I wish that that thing had killed him instead of the Captain. At least I’d have someone useful here. Courtenay was handsome, clever and resourceful and terribly, terribly unlucky.
I remember Courtenay throwing his Five Stones into the air with a textbook snap of his wrist, then the look of astonishment on his striking face as they pattered to the ground: dark and inactive. He had just enough time to look confused before the creature that had chased us through the twilight jungle pounced and the screaming began.
It went on and on, way past the point where I thought Courtenay must’ve have died. God only knows what happened. I'm trying not to think about it but whenever the creature comes close, there’s a copper smell on the wind.
The captain's blood.
I'm safe, though. It won't happen to me.
The field projected by my Five Stones is only a molecule thick and protects just enough area to sit in, but it’s impenetrable from the outside for as long as the batteries last. That’s why it’s the favourite of unmasked adulterers and planetary survey teams the galaxy over. Usually, it protects teams against sudden hurricanes or volcanic eruptions – unexplored worlds like this are damn dangerous – but I'm sure we're the first to use them against a creature this size. There'll be a mention in the record books if we ever get to the scout ship and back home again.
I scream in shock as something small crashes hard against the barrier, but the Five Stones field repels it easily in a shower of sparks and the object slithers down the invisible barrier to the ground. What was that?
The sparks, fizzling pathetically in the damp grass, illuminate a nose and mouth before they go out.
“What was that?” yells Kappa, terrified.
“Nothing,” I reply loudly, voice quavering. “Just a quick short circuit.”
There's a sense of an enormous mass moving away; the creature was prowling around Kappa now with great breathy exhalations.
“Don’t panic,” I call. “The ship’s less than a mile away. When the sun comes up, this thing will leave...probably...and we’ll run back to the ship. By the end of the day, we’ll be a million miles away and never ever come back to this damn planet. Just hold on.”
Kappa whimpers. He's so weak: physically and emotionally. Even if terror doesn't make him do something dumb, is he physically strong enough to survive this?
I mean, could we run back safely? That thing is fast. We could cover that mile in maybe seven minutes, with the creature right by us when we started running.
Kappa's field sparks violently: a tree branch was just thrown against it. The whole branch bursts into flame and illuminates the great sinewy mass circling by. There is a terrible glimpse of dense muscle sliding over the grass like a gigantic snake, but with two wickedly-taloned limbs tucked tightly up against its flanks. Kappa starts crying.
“Pull yourself together!” I yell irritably. “We'll be safe until help arrives!”
Kappa sobs harder but manages to gulp out a reply.
“From where? The nearest scout ship is weeks away! It's just us!”
Annoyingly, he had a point. There was no help coming.
There was another crash against my field: something long, thin and terminating in five digits. A band of gold around one of the digits provoked a blinding crescendo of blinding sparks as it grated slowly downwards against the barrier. There was more than enough illumination to appreciate the grisly projectile as the sparks singed the short brown hair lightly covering it.
What was it doing? What...
The five lights on the Stones around me dimmed ominously.
Oh. That was what it was doing. Was it really that smart?
We wouldn't survive until help arrived; we wouldn't survive until daybreak if it kept this up.
There was the sound of bone clacking drily against bone. The creature thrummed as it smelt my renewed fear; it knew exactly what it was forcing me to do. We'd have to run. It was the only choice.
“Kappa...” I call. “It's deliberately depleting the fields. We're going to have to chance running back to the scout ship.”
“I can't do it, Ruth,” he gasps. “I can't do it.”
“We have to, Max,” I beg. “It's the only way. If we're quick, we'll make it.”
Quick across dark, undulating ground, littered with protruding roots and potholes: he must know it's madness. There's no way it would work and he knew it. He must do.
“Okay,” he says in a small, defeated voice.
The creature's off to my left now, devouring us with its terrible, unceasing scrutiny. I think it knows something is up. The second we step out through the Field, it'll pounce and once we step through, we can't go back.
We count down from ten together; I reach 'one' with a pounding heart and a dry mouth. Kappa springs out of his Field with a defiant yell and turns to run. The three steps he manages were all spent looking at me in complete disbelief as I stayed safely within my Five Stones zone.
The monstrous typhoon hit him so hard that I heard his ribs crack and the momentum carries them both away into the undergrowth. I glimpsed wicked teeth ringing a bottomless mouth.
The screaming started. Now, they were both busy.
Here we go.