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Inspired by the 20th Century Fox film franchise

(Completed Aug 24, 2019)

 

Deep Space

Fiercely black. Eerily deep. Scattered with glittering pin-pricks of crystalline star-light, a veil of blue nebula splashed across.

The Planet 

DESIGNATION: BP(02)-S2A aka Amargosa

Weyland-Yutani developed ‘world-in-progress’ terraforming project

Terrabioforming Development Protocol

79% Environmental Targets achieved

Board Certified – SUCCESS

Amargosa drifted through the void, locked in it’s 279 Earth-day orbit around the nearby G-Type Main Sequence star. Vast sections of arid desert landscape gave the small world a pale hue, standing out sharply against the all-encompassing darkness of space. The manufactured atmosphere of the young world was still thin…but quite deadly, should the math of an entry burn be off by so much as a decimal point.

The ship, a company-chartered medical frigate named the Salvator, recently placed in orbit under a CLASSIFIED Weyland-Yutani work bond, was explosively torn apart a week ago when, vague evidence suggests, a coolant mixture in the reactor core experienced a damage-related blow-back through one of the main drive cells, the cause never determined.

There was an uncontained ignition event.

The drifting debris field was vast, scattered over miles of open space around the small, but dense planet. The fore-section, white/blue Medical scheme still luminescent in the unfiltered sunlight, corkscrewed in, caught in a rapidly decaying orbit, blindly falling into the shadow of night as it began to burn.

The thickening atmosphere screamed as the twisting remains blazed through, a flickering trail of molten debris marking the crippled passage across miles of night sky, before plunging into the murky fog hanging over the landscape. The thick silky vapor, a key element of the advanced terraforming process, billowed, abruptly yawning open to unleash the massive piece of stricken starship. The wide barren landscape was punctuated by misshapen columns of rock; eons-old volcanic activity. The Salvator struck a towering mass, shattering the hull and spraying twisted pieces of itself in all directions. The ship impacted among the rocks, the flash blinding the area, the thick fog snuffed away.  A long arcing splash of fiery wreckage blossomed across the desert, a hellish rain of sparks and embers left to cascade down through the darkness as the blast echoed away. Moments later, it was over…all fell still again, save for the flicker and crackles of flame and the long curtain of ugly smoke rising over the devastation. The fog crept back in, gently claiming the trail of wreckage slashed across the terrain, a new scar on it’s already pock-marked and craggy hide.

The far horizon began to show in the coming light of morning…

In the silence of space, a small orbiting probe drifted on an assigned path; a path that took it over the new blemish on the darkened landscape below. Sensors and lenses realigned and refocused, rapidly gridding and cataloguing the passing desert, giving reads on the multitude of heat blooms and metal signatures marking the crash site through the long smears of ground fog.

After a moment of calibrating, a stubby transmitter activated, beaming its message to a waiting sensor.

The sun broke over the horizon, the burning crescent wavering in the first pulses of heat, bathing all in a red-tinged glow as the blanket of night fog obediently disappeared. Away from cultivated land, this hue fell over the orderly rows of colonial structure modules nestled in the miles-wide tectonic canyon; bulky, conduit-connected blocks color-coded to their individual purposes, the hard tones long faded under Amargosa’s relentless onslaught of sun and sand. Beyond, where the ancient chasm tapered in the distance, the massive upside-down funnel shape of the long-shuttered Atmosphere Processing Station stood frozen; a darkened monument to earlier, rougher days in the terraforming process. Vehicle service-ways ran among the rugged structures, morphing into packed trails and spreading like veins out into the harsh world beyond The Wine, as the locals had fondly dubbed the growing settlement.

A tall sensor mast stood at attention on the solar-paneled roof of the Operations Tower standing watch over the spread of tough, low buildings that made up the Brandywine Station Environment Control Hub.

Inside the cramped Operations Room, a young tech, the name ‘Grissom’ on the key-card clipped to her faded black T-shirt, yawned, stretching back in her seat…

“I am so…fucking…bored.”

Winslow, the Duty Officer on shift, poked his prematurely balding head around a nearby bank of monitors, narrowing his already beady eyes…

“So, what else is new…I’m guessing that means our uninvited guest still has yet to arrive?”

Grissom threw a look suggesting impatience and scorn, though with not a lot of effort. She tucked an errant strand of strawberry blond hair up under her backwards cap, turning to her console. A Notification suddenly blinked frantically into existence. She leaned in, clucking her tongue and muttering…

“Well, well…speak of the goddamn Devil…there you are, my pretty.”

Hearing this, Winslow leaped up, a work-book clenched in a clammy hand, it’s screen coldly aglow. Sensing his quick approach, Grissom pushed aside, rolling back on her chair as her supervisor leaned in. After a moment, he nodded, his jaw tight…

“She’s down. That much we have confirmed. Bout damn time too.”

It wasn’t unheard of for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, or other space-faring conglomerates, to ‘rent’ orbital real estate around colonized planets for product experimentation, ‘research’, or storage. One of the stipulations of such an arrangement was the disclosure of cargoes and activities, without trade secret infringement, to select personnel overseeing colony or industry operations on whatever world may reside below, in the event of a mishap bringing a sensitive platform down, possibly affecting the precious revenue stream.

But such a disclosure hadn’t come to pass when the USMS Salvator was quietly placed into high orbit weeks ago. There had been no filing submitted. No communication beyond the FLASH order notifying Brandywine Command that all Salvator communications would be piggy-backing the colony server, relaying powerfully encrypted transmissions back to Network through the modest but effective satellite system in place around Amargosa. When questioned, Weyland-Yutani skittishly put forth that the mundane-but-classified research onboard was highly proprietary, and it was of utmost importance the none of the smaller but aggressively competitive companies get their hands on the coveted findings. When pressed further…directives were added, threats were uttered, and bonuses were removed.

The pursuance was dropped.

Several days ago, a panicked transmission came through, in the clear. Murky data-stream details were monitored and after some cryptic, static-choked radio messages…

*“…thing’s loose…!”*

*“…dead and wound…!”*

…the transmission had been severed.

The colony’s small Orbital Observer research platform, straddling a cliff overlooking The Wine, was able to record the break-up an hour later, minutes after sundown. The single point of bright light the colonists had accepted passing overhead, gleamed unexpectedly, silently forming a scatter of smaller versions of itself streaking across the star-dotted sky. After tracking the drifting wreckage, they were able to conclude that a substantial part of the ship was still intact…but no longer broadcasting. It was also large enough to possibly survive an uncontrolled entry-burn to the point of terrestrial impact…and that could be catastrophic.

But where?

And when?

The most accurate predictions, based on all available data, suggested that critical burn would most likely occur within a specific 8-hour window, with the projected impact likely to occur far in the desert wastes, away from colony operations. It had been 17 hours since that period had passed, and concern was showing in the population, with several colonists having to explain to their children that there was nothing to be afraid of…all the while themselves wondering if they were lying. It could come down anywhere…at any time. The onsite Accounting rep was losing precious sleep over the dire possibility of a serious fiscal set-back resulting from damage to, or destruction of, company property, should the wreck impact a populated, or worse, developed sector.

It hadn’t.

That’s what Grissom’s console was dutifully reporting.

Winslow reached forward, keying a quick command. The data blinked, switching to another stream from the probe. The image froze, the computer abruptly re-sectioning the scar into sectors for further reference and enhancement, highlighting solid pieces strewn about. Watching past Winslow’s bony elbow, Grissom uttered a low whistle, before adding…

“Holy shit.”

Eyes locked onscreen, Winslow nodded…

Well put, kid. Very eloquent…as usual.”

He didn’t see the middle finger that shot up behind him. Enhancing the image, they both studied the damage, searching for usable details. After a moment, Winslow straightened up, nodding…

“I think we’re clear. It came close but none of that mess touches Development or Structure.”

Pushing past, Grissom went to work, opening another Search window, keying in her own query. The answer was immediate. Without looking up…

“It’s a surveyed region, Class B, and we listed it as Potential two years ago… but it looks like the substrate was weak…located in a tremor zone, which wouldn’t support module whatevers…”

She waved her hand lazily, dismissing the rest of the displayed information as she turned, looking up…

“Well, what’s the tackle, chief?”

Winslow didn’t answer, instead stepping away to key a command into the work-book’s screen. Manipulating the display, he murmured, bathed in sunlight streaming through the half-open storm shutter across the room…

“Who do we have…? Who do we have…hmmm?”

His finger froze in place, his attention arrested. With a curt nod, he said…

“The Kilpatricks. They’re in the neighborhood, aren’t they?”

Grissom nodded, remembering the family name from the Active roster she had glanced at when her shift began hours ago…

“Yeppers. They checked in from A47 last night, so they should be about an hour or so out from the North edge of that damage path…if they take Lowry.”

Winslow pursed his lips, pondering. It didn’t last long. Nodding, more to himself than Grissom, he met her expectant gaze…

“Get on the horn, wake em up, task em over. We need eyes on and any assessment they can get us, especially where radioactivity is concerned. I…we…need to know what might be leaking into the drift pattern! What’s in the wind!?”

There was an edge of hysteria in his last sentence…and Grissom noticed. Nervously clutching the work-book to his chest, Winslow stepped away and turned, walking hastily toward the Exit hatch, worriedly exclaiming…

“I’m going to let Townsend know.”

Inwardly, Grissom pondered as Winslow’s slight frame vanished through the hatchway. Given how little was disclosed about the Salvator and its mission, they had every right for concern. Entire colonies had been quarantined and shuttered when introduced to unexpected microbes, compounds and substances against which they weren’t prepared. Brandywine Command had bonuses to get back, lives to look out for, so any possible hindrance was of the utmost concern.

Grissom keyed over to a select frequency, adjusting her narrow headset mic before transmitting…

Near Marker A47

The once-yellow Levinson Prowler 4 land-crawler in no way resembled the whimsical namesake spray-painted along its armoured flank – Buggy, in messy red scrawl.  The bulky vehicle was inert, squatting at ground level in its Rest configuration, its cruising struts retracted and cold, the human-sized tires beaded with cold dew. Both flanks were extended in Stay mode; the Earth-based camper influence clear to see. A stone’s throw to the rear, the guideline-anchored marker tower for this corner of the sector, number A47, was staked. The slow pulse of the beacon softly glowed in the fog shrouding the plain of artificially nourished foliage around the tiny mobile settlement.

The irrigation / filtration system, feeding into the ancient briny springs flowing beneath the outcroppings of rock nearby, tirelessly continued its cycle. Miles upon miles of rugged, pressurized piping, shipped at great expense across vast reaches of space, ran through the fog; calibrated spray emitters forming thick, hanging vapors in the Amargosan night, feeding the oxygen-spewing lab-designed foliage for the 7-hour period of darkness, weather permitting. The man-made atmosphere was building steadily year by year, pushing back at the cruel coldness of space, reinforced by this simple-but-delicate manipulation of air and terrain. The vital gases at ground-level, over huge regions, were light…but still openly breathable. As time wore on, older colonists liked to remark – ‘back when I was just a wee duct kid, I had to O2 it all…day…long.’, instantly marking themselves as ‘Earthers’ who hadn’t bio-formed to Amargosa like the younger generation had, where Environment and Human met to form the necessary symbiotic relationship to succeed in this remote corner of the cosmos. Now, the steadily-expanding population of humans (602, and counting) could comfortably go several hours in the open with no respiratory assistance…more, for those born on-world.

Progress.

As with everything, there was a price, however. The ever-evolving eco-system still had to contend with a population of small indigenous insects in certain regions, originally deemed ‘safe’ when the final survey reports before colonization were filed decades ago. As time went on, the small, unassuming bugs became exposed to select nutrient combinations, genetically developing a taste for certain crops being used for Atmosphere Development. The edge of this sector showed botanical distress characteristic of such a blight; leaf colors quickly fading from healthy shades of green to an ugly, dying brown, in a measurably expanding patch near the zone perimeter. A bank of oxygen sensors had panicked at a sharp drop in readings, sending word back of a problem in the sector.  There had been a satellite survey a week ago, confirmed via drone a day ago. The region was part of the Kilpatrick family’s assigned patrol zone, and sampling and tests were added to their duty roster when the infestation was first reported.

Up until last night, all 5 members of the family had been quietly grateful for their various tasks and responsibilities, as it cast aside morbid thoughts of impending doom crashing down upon them from the stars above.

But that had changed just before sun-up…

Quinn, mother and wife, had awakened in the early hours, simmering unease cutting into her sleep, leaving her restless beside her husband’s lightly snoring form. After stealthily dressing, she’d quietly stole up the maintenance ladder behind the crew cabin and out the narrow hatch in the crawler’s ceiling, quickly embraced by the murky solitude and near complete silence outside. Settling into a collapsible work chair next to the antenna array, she’d snuggled down into her worn survival jacket, hood up; the Weyland-Yutani logo on the breast nearly rubbed away. Though in her early 40s, there was still a girlish quality to her ruggedly attractive features, cast in the icy light of the work-book in her lap, enveloped in the silence of the damp murk all around. After 20 quiet minutes of cataloging and adding to her trip summary for Townsend back at Control, Quinn’s head, her eyes growing heavy, abruptly snapped up, alert.

Something…

A terrible sound cut through the stillness like the shriek of a banshee, crackling far-off…rising quickly in volume and intensity. The work-book clattered to her feet as she leaped up, peering wide-eyed into the cloak of fog, up at the twinkling stars that penetrated the gloom, anxiously searching for the approaching maelstrom. The fog abruptly ignited, pulling her piercing blue eyes eastward. A fiery shape sliced into the pale vapor, details blotted out as it was swallowed abruptly from view. The flash that followed was brilliant, cutting silently through the gloom. Instinctively dropping low, she put the sensor mast between her and the blast, pressing in close to the thick housing, covering her ears as…

*BOOM!*

The shock-wave jolted the crawler; the echo fading quickly into the distance…

“What the fuck?!”

This startled curse, a man’s voice, was immediately followed by a child’s giggle from below. Sounded like Tobe, the youngest boy at 11. There was a clumsy racket…another round of swearing. Dale poked his disheveled head up, blinking in confusion, coughing as the cold, moist air reached him. Wiping an eye, her husband hoarsely asked…

“What the…?!…Shit!…Was that…?”

Another cough cut off the sentence and Quinn leaned over, finishing it for him…

Salvator? Had to be. Whatever it was, my dear, we’re talking serious displacement. Came in hot…went down hard.”

Another voice, a young girl’s this time, cheekily piped up from below…

“That’s what she said!”

All three kids cracked up laughing down in the warm darkness at that old joke they ‘d acquired from one of the more…colorful…mechanics back at the Vehicle Shop.

Ignoring her roused offspring, Quinn glanced back over her shoulder, jabbing a quick thumb toward the crash site. Nodding, Dale craned his neck, glaring into the fog beyond her, searching in vain. There was nothing to see through the murk and he settled back, disappointed, running a hand though his spiky mess of salt and pepper hair. Shirtless, he shivered in the cold damp, looking up at his wife…

“What are you thinking, babe?”

Quinn stood, towering over him, lit red in the pulsing glow of the nearby beacon, pondering…

“I’m thinking we should be expecting a call.”

 

 

The fog was dissipating in the first rays of morning sunlight when that radio call announced itself with an insistent crackle of static. Quinn, her parka now crumpled next to her on the chair, strained through her binoculars to scan the multiple points of black smoke rising in the distance, subconsciously noting her husband’s voice answering the transmission below. Hearing the thick slab that was the main cargo door slide open along the crawler’s rear right flank, Quinn lowered the binoculars and glanced over the edge. Tobe, adjusting his pilot rig, the bulky goggles strapped over his messy brown hair, trudged down the access ladder, a half-eaten protein bar clenched in a small fist. The scratched and dented control box, strapped in place over his T-shirt, hung across his small torso as he glanced around…

“Mom?”

Quinn answered…

“Still up here, sweetie.”

Tobe glanced up squinting, holding the bulky rig to his head as he angled back, speaking around a half-hearted yawn…

“What did you want me to do again.”

Gesturing toward the pillars of smoke in the distance, she explained…

“I want you to fire Tweety up, send her high…max ceiling…and take a look over there.”

Tobe shrugged, taking a bite of his breakfast bar and looking down at the control box, flipping a switch as he chewed, mouth open; a trait that consistently grated on Quinn’s nerves and patience. She chose not to say anything.

Tweety, the crawler’s rugged survey drone, whirred to life in its low, boxy housing on the crawler’s roof, the 4 propellers spinning up in the blink of an eye. Another switch flipped and the Caution-striped cage unlocked, drawing open with a pneumatic hiss to reveal the insect-like drone, housed in a tough polymer body the same industrial shade of yellow the crawler had once been. Stepping forward and glancing in, Quinn threw an unnecessary thumbs-up down to her youngest son. He nodded as he took another bite, pulling the goggles down and throwing the RELEASE toggle. The drone suddenly shot away, vanishing skyward. Quinn cursed under her breath as the wind of its passage buffeted her. Down below, Tobe snickered to himself as he tossed the last bite into his mouth, always amused when he sent Tweety ballistic at crawler level, rocketing the flying robot away at dangerous speeds, much to his mother’s chagrin. Watching the climbing view being beamed back to him, he could feel Mom’s scornful glare…but didn’t acknowledge it, concentrating on the image in the goggles and sauntering casually out of her line of sight. Quinn shook the annoyance away, shielding her eyes as she looked up, taking in the drone’s hasty ascent.

Tobe watched the altimeter read in the corner of his view as it sped toward its maximum height before signal loss. Spread out below, he could see acres of sectioned vegetation spreading off, punctuated by the faded tans, yellows and reds of the rocky hills and shallow desert canyons in the hazy distance. He could also see the long line of destruction marking the landscape, oily columns of smoke rising from pin-points of flame splashed across the open desert floor, and in among the tall lava columns. Metallic pieces gleamed in the morning sunlight. A Warning flashed, signalling the approach of max ceiling. Tobe’s small fingers worked the controls, slowing the flying robot to a hover, where the signal still had strength. The compact camera / sensor package fixed to the drone’s underside went to work as Tobe rapidly sequenced through his viewing options.

Quinn pulled the work-book out from under her coat, tapping into the drone’s transmission. The image was rapidly shifting – spectrum to spectrum, filter to filter. Before she could hassle Tobe about his lack of decision, Dale, appearing suddenly behind her with two steaming cups of instant coffee and noting the frantic imagery shifting past on her screen, did it for her, yelling toward the unseen boy…

“Hey bud! Wanna pick a view and stick with it? You’re gonna give your mom a migraine…and none of us need that!”

Tobe’s small voice filtered back, a touch of boyish defiance in his yell…

“Fine!”

The image on Quinn’s screen snapped back to Standard HD, and she leaned in, trying to pick out details as she accepted a coffee without looking up. Taking a sip of his own brew, Dale cleared his throat, saying…

“As your witchy powers eerily predicted, that was Control. Winslow tasked us to the crash site for a Damage Assessment and they want reads ASAP. Grissom says Winslow’s shitting a brick over rad counts…which…I mean…yeah, the guy’s an idiot, but he does have a valid point on this one…”

Taking a sip, Quinn nodded, both to Winslow being an idiot and to the idea that his fear of errant radioactive material was founded. With a quick key stroke, she asked a question of the data stream, but the answer disappointed…

“Shit. I was hoping we could get a read but we’re still just too far out. And the winds not happening for a scan, though that’ll help our approach…IF there’s anything adrift that should concern us.”

Looking up, she said…

“Cross-country is out, as Field 8 is right in our path…I’m thinking Lowry.”

The Lowry Dedication Service Conduit, or as it was more commonly known, Lowry Road, was named for the pioneering family of surveyors who had traveled and mapped the first reaches in the early colony days, while plotting foundation points for the strategically-placed Atmosphere Processing Stations, and it was Amargosa’s version of a main highway. It was a vehicle trail that wound across the rough landscape; through sun-baked canyons and along craggy cliffsides, haphazardly marked every few miles by small, solar-powered light rods and ragged, home-made signs of scrap material suggesting safe speeds or distance to whatever destination lay beyond. It snaked its way among the vast acres of the Botanical Oxygen Farms and around the clusters of pillar-like rock columns that punctuated the harsh terrain.

“We’re taking Lowry? Can I drive?!”

Both of the Kilpatrick parent’s heads swiveled in unison to see the tousle-haired head of Dev, their oldest son, poking up through the open hatch.  At 16, he was old enough to qualify for a Colony Vehicle Operator-Trainee License and loved the idea of bouncing around the desert wastes in a crawler of his own one day. He didn’t have the license…yet, but ever since Dale had let him take the wheel on a far-flung service-way between two fields, away from the prying eyes of Colony Regulation Enforcement, the hook was in. Any chance to ask…he did, no matter how unlikely the odds. The parents shared a quick, knowing glance before Dale broke the bad news…

“Sorry, bud. Not this trip. This dime’s on Company Time…so that’s a no-go.”

Dev’s hopeful features dropped, crestfallen. Quinn turned back to the screen, not seeing Dale mouth the word ‘Later’ to the boy, punctuated with a sly wink. He compromised with…

“What you CAN do, my man…is bring the drive cells back on-line, warm em up to…let’s say, a high Yellow, and set the idle.”

Dev grinned, loving the tiny dose of adult responsibility bestowed upon him, winking in return before ducking back inside to wake Buggy up. Dale watched him go, sipped his coffee, then good-naturedly yelled…

“Reen! Front and centre, princess!”

Like a jackrabbit, their 13 year old tomboy of a daughter, Mireen, popped up; a blond burst of barely contained energy, a loose pony-tail draped over a shoulder from under her cap, her goggles, still dusty from yesterday’s work, sitting askew over the curved brim.

“What’s shakin, pops?!”

Dale raised a fist with exaggerated menace, growling…

“This here knuckle sandwich…if you don’t mind them P’s and Q’s, kiddo.”

As he tried not to smirk at his own tongue-in-cheek pantomime of child abuse, Reen did that thing she does, turning one eye inward, a half cross-eye, as she stared defiantly up at her dad. As usual, it unnerved the hell out of him, and he got back to business with another clearing of the throat…

“As Dev is warming the drive, be a dear and collapse the HAB, and don’t forget…”

She cut in, her wayward green eye snapping back into place, sarcastically finishing the sentence for him in a pinched, nasally voice…

“…take the CPU out of Stay Mode and blah blah blah.”

Her ‘blah blah blah’ trailed off as she vanished back down below. Without looking up from the work-book, Quinn yelled after the girl, with just enough maternal authority creeping in…

“And eat something! Both of you!”

Dale squeezed his wife’s shoulder, glancing at the screen again.

“How are we lookin now, babe?”

Quinn stood, stealing another sip of coffee, the work-book dropping to her side, the screen brushing against her cargo pants. Meeting her husband’s questioning gaze, she nodded, saying…

“The Kilpatrick’s are going on a road trip, my dear.”

There was a muffled thump of hidden locks giving way nearby, followed by the soft whir of the HAB assembly patiently folding back into the armoured hull of the crawler beneath them. Quinn leaned over the edge again…

“Tobe! Bring Tweety home. We’re leaving.”

She slumbered, her massive, skeletal body tucked safely away beneath layers of sand and rock, molded into the crags and angles of a low rock-face, consciousness extending beyond, receiving stimuli from all around; a sensation that competed with the pain that shot through her from multiple points; the burns, the gouges, the projectile wounds and, in the case of an appendage and part of her majestic crown, traumatic amputations. The wounds had since sealed under a tough yellow crust, but the pain remained, clouding her thoughts and filling her with a quiet rage. Reaching out, with no physical movement, she could feel the others nearby. Her three surviving adult offspring were also secreted away, under cover among the rocks and the smoking debris that they had crawled from, frozen in place, hidden from sight and nursing their own wounds as they patiently slept. Another sensation reached her, from tight beneath her armoured body, the Little One stirring, it’s multiple fingers lightly flexing under the cover of sand as it held fast beneath the coil of her long, powerful tail by a fleshy, muscular tail of its own. Directing her reach, She urged calm, and the Little One, the last of her lost brood, relaxed, falling motionless again. Pulling back, more dislodged sand cascaded down around her, further concealing her bulk as She retreated into the dark, complex recesses of her mind, biding her time.

Then…a vibration…and there was a new sound, still faint, rising over the low desert wind and the crackle of fire…

Buggy’s tough, synthetic tires crunched in the gravel as the crawler came to a quick halt, the smouldering debris field extending out before it. Strapped into the driver’s seat, Quinn leaned in, pulling off her mirrored sunglasses, studying the sight with a studious intensity. In the co-pilot seat, Dale settled back with a low whistle of amazement as he worriedly ran fingers over his unshaven jawline…

“Oh my god. Now THIS…is fucked up. There is no surviving this bullshit.”

Quinn threw a disapproving glare at her husband for the language and he mouthed the word Sorry, reaching for the nearby binoculars on the dashboard as he did so. Quinn addressed her mic…

Control, this is Buggy. We’ve just arrived onsite and it does not look promising. We’re seeing an extended debris field and multiple fires still burning. On the plus side…still no Rad Count in the red. The reads we picked up on approach were negligible and well enough within the safety parameters. Probably just trace heat blooms spreading with the smoke or even open-space residuals off the hull lining…or what’s left of it. Over.”

After a pause, Grissom’s tinny voice crackled back…

“Roger that, Buggy. Sorry, Quinn, but Town wants boots on the ground, since you’re first onsite. We can’t file the report with Network till we have a better idea of what the hell we’re dealing with…and you know his stance on covering ass. And video…he definitely wants footage for the write-up so if you can work that angle too, do so. Over.”

Quinn cursed under her breath…

Shit. Lucky us.”

before answering…

 “Ok, Control, we’ll make it happen and will report when done. Buggy out.”

The click of releasing safety buckles and a flurry of rustling behind them announced the kids’ clustered push toward the cab. Three young faces appeared between Husband and Wife, a mixture of apprehension and excitement animating their features as they took in the ominous sight through the thick windscreen. The youngsters had gone strangely quiet when Quinn had pulled Buggy off that curving stretch of Lowry Road a few miles back to ‘cross-country’ it toward the head of the damage path. Their instincts, honed on a life-time of rough colony living, had bubbled to the surface; an effect most colonists consciously experienced when away from Structure or Development, that ancient fear of the unknown showing itself, even after all the millennia of human evolution and experience. Despite the years of terraforming and infra-structure expansion, most folks, even those born on Amargosan soil, were keenly aware of the world’s still-alien status and the dangers that they did not yet know about, possibly lurking out in the expansive wastelands…or buried beneath. This was an unspoken reason for the roving patrols and the equipment they carried, including the weapons – to act as an early warning should uncatalogued life be found, life that could also pose a threat. The potential for danger was always there…though so far, not a pressing concern in day-to-day operations as nothing larger than the minuscule indigenous insects had been found in nearly 4 decades of colonization.

But the kids felt that apprehension now.

Sensing this, Quinn craned back, addressing all three with authority, distracting them from their own overactive imaginations…

“All right, you monkeys. This is it. We’ve got a job to do and we’re going to kick its butt…right?”

There were no smirks, no sarcastic comebacks, no cheeky remarks. All three nodded in response, with Dev swallowing audibly before resetting his Big Kid Brave Face. He spoke first…

“What do you need, Mom?”

Quinn turned back to the windscreen and the devastation beyond as she spoke, while Dale continued to scan the area through the binoculars, his mouth hanging open in amazement. Tightening her jaw, she made a cautious decision…

“Dev, I want you on overwatch, from upstairs.”

Handing over a bright red key-card, she continued…

“Open the Arms Locker, get the rifle. Make sure you scope it and dial it in. No iron sights this time. I need your eyes peeled as we move in, with as wide a field of fire as you can set. It’s probably nothing but we don’t know what the Salvator had onboard and I’m not taking the risk, despite this mess we’re seeing.”

Dev swallowed again as he took the card, not expecting this assignment at all. Aside from some plinking in the hills outside one of the farms, he couldn’t remember the last time they NEEDED to pull the Darius LR8 or it’s powerful ammo out of storage. Despite this lack of use…he’d proven to be surprisingly good shot, so this task kind of made sense. Nodding, Dev headed back toward the crimson, warning-emblazoned locker. Without pulling the binoculars away, Dale addressed the retreating form of his eldest as the teenager picked his way through the cramped interior…

“Leave it open, bud. Gonna need the others too.”

In his mind, Dale already saw the boxy black handgun strapped to his waist, with the crawler’s pump-action shotgun undoubtedly ending up in Quinn’s sure-handed grip. Lowering the binoculars, he turned to watch his wife carry on with her orders, happy that she was taking the reins…as usual. Quinn continued, addressing their daughter next…

“Reen, you and I are going to check over there…”

She gestured ahead, to the left, where several fires burned in a cluster, painting the sky above a smudgy black.

“…with you on the cam, while I get a solid read on that smoke for a particle analysis.”

Mireen’s blond head bobbed quickly in acknowledgement, dashing away to suit up, not waiting to see if her Mom had anything else to add. Tobe remained, eyes wide as he waited for his assignment.

“And you, Mr. Roboto…are going to take your father over that way…”

She pointed past Dale, off to the right, where several mangled-but-recognizable pieces of blackened ship hull lay smashed among the scattered islands of rust colored rock, the long shadows of the nearby columns streaking the landscape.

“…and he’s going to sweep those pieces on the Geiger…”

She glanced over at Dale, who nodded absently.

“…while you run Tweety over the area and plot as much of the debris field as her range will allow. Cool?”

The boy grinned, never one to bore of Drone Duty, nodding as he excitedly responded…

“Cool, Mom! I’m on it!”

Quinn’s heart melted a little, warmed by his enthusiasm and that child-like sense of whimsy that allowed kids his age to remain blissfully unaware of how dangerous a situation could actually be. Part of her was envious of her offspring. Another part feared deeply for them. She gestured with a finger…

“Give your Momma a kiss, young man.”

Tobe leaned in and gave her a furtive, almost embarrassed peck on the cheek. Quinn scowled with mock hurt, saying…

“Well…that’ll have to do, I guess. Now get your little butt outta here and suit up.”

The boy whirled around, bounding toward the rear of the crawler, where his brother and sister were snickering at some new joke as they prepped their gear. Quinn, raising her voice to be heard, said…

“I want rebreather units double checked before we egress, ok? No open breathing out there if we can help it, yes?!”

She was marginally satisfied with the grunts and murmurs to the affirmative that drifted back. Looking over at Dale, she sighed heavily, saying…

“Well, my dear. Shall we?”

Dale nodded, unbuckling his 5-point harness as he responded…

“We shall. Let’s do it to it, babe.”

Quinn grabbed her own restraints, releasing the straps with a click.

The cargo door slid open, spilling bright sunlight into the crawler. The feet of the squat ladder settled and Dale leaned out, rebreather mask and safety goggles hiding his grimace as he scanned the area…before carefully stepping down. He wore a thick pocket-festooned Environment Protection coverall in light grey, black utility belt and holster in place, cylindrical rebreather at his side on a canvas sling. Strapped across his back was a pack of supplies, under which he could already feel fresh sweat beading. He turned to watch Reen hop down excitedly, her eyes bright above the artfully vandalized mask covering her lower face, all of it tucked in under the shadow of her frayed cap. Wearing an E-suit coverall similar to her father’s, only in a shade of light green, the girl held the small but tough Field Analysis CamPuter tight to her body, knowing its outrageous dollar value to the Company. As Tobe stepped to the hatch’s edge to follow his sister outside, Dale saw Dev, the shadow of his wide boonie hat hiding the teen’s features, pop up through the service hatch, stepping carefully onto the vehicles roof. Seconds later, the matte-black shape of the Darius was handed up and he took it, pulling a box magazine from a coverall pocket and carefully slipping it into place with a sharp click. Without acknowledging his family below, he extended the rifle’s squat bipod and raised the activated scope to his eye, scanning the view and adjusting the sight picture, reacquainting himself with the options.

The two pairs cautiously ventured out into the debris field, branching away from the inert crawler in opposing directions. From his perch, Dev watched Quinn and Reen move off toward a scattering of craggy rocks over the rifle’s long barrel, his mom holding the pump-action shotgun easily at her side as his sister followed, playing the camera lens over the destruction, recording her mom’s tense but detailed observations. As he turned his attention in the direction of his dad and little brother, Tweety’s rotors fired up behind him. Peering into the scope, but careful not to centre the cross-hairs on the small head that stared back, Dev watched as Tobe guided the humming drone overhead by eye, it’s insectile shadow strobing the brilliant late-morning sun, a faint draft from the prop-wash ruffling the wide-brim of his sweat-stained hat. It buzzed out over the arid terrain, gliding toward its small operator, whose cherubic features were hidden behind the rebreather and the bulbous remote pilot rig riding atop his Size – CHILD work-cap. His gloved hands deftly worked the controls strapped across his small chest, guiding the flying robot toward himself. Beyond Tobe, Dale moved on, cautiously waving the sensor wand of the Geiger counter over a scatter of debris. Looked like heat shielding. Dev pulled back from the scope, licking his already-dry lips, scanning the area beyond; the grandeur of the catastrophic back-drop dwarfing his family pulsing through him again. There was something ominous in the smear of oily smoke that hung over the destruction, the way the diffused beams of sunlight cut through, casting a dull red hue. Despite the desert heat…Dev shivered. Shaking the sensation away, he paused to take a sip from the canteen beside him before glaring back through the scope.

Tweety drifted to a stop next to Tobe, hovering in place, awaiting commands. Turning, the boy addressed his dad, the small mic fixed inside the rebreather making his voice small and tinny in his father’s ear…

“Hey Dad! What direction do you want her to go?”

Dale straightened up, glancing away from the rad count to note the industrial-grade survey drone hovering dangerously close to his young son’s head. Tobe doesn’t seem to notice the propeller housings hanging mere inches from his hat, the brim bobbing in the prop wash. Dale glanced around, seeing the destroyed remains of a lava column pushing skyward nearby, blocking the vista. A column of dark smoke rose from behind, the ugly plume joining the miles-long drifting stain marring the skies overhead. Something they couldn’t see…was burning. Pointing, Dale responded…

“Send her up n over, bud. Let’s see what’s waiting on the other side.”

Tobe pulled the goggle rig down. He stepped aside, noting the image of himself slipping out of the small camera’s peripherals as he keyed a toggle and entered a quick command on the control box’s small keypad. Tweety’s motors revved, kicking up sand below, and the drone drifted forward, climbing gently in altitude. Dale ignored its passage, already trotting on to scan the next piece of blackened wreckage, wanting this job done as soon as possible. Tobe, engrossed in the image beaming back, paused, leaning back against a low rockface, ignoring the sharp points gently pressing into the tough back of his coveralls as he tapped and adjusted the controls, seeing the world through the robot’s binocular ‘eyes’. Tweety hummed through the hot, smoky air, passing over the rocks; the camera package swirling around in it’s mount, taking in the sight below. Tobe whistled as he brought the drone to a hover. Dale, jolted by the shrill whistle over Comms (and being instantly annoyed by it), gruffly asked…

“Hey! What was that in my ear, pal?!”

Noting the irritation in his father’s voice, but choosing to ignore it, Tobe responded…

“There’s a piece.”

Up ahead, Dale drew up, looking back at the small figure as the boy lazily pushed away from where he was leaning, shoving the goggles up and blinking against the sun as he sought his dad out. Dale, inwardly finding his patience already wearing thin with the whole scenario, yelled back…

“Tobe, what do you mean ‘a piece’? Details, bud…help me out here!”

The small boy sauntered up, pulling his mask down to speak openly…

“Of the ship…it looks like. On the other side of these rocks.”

There was a crackle in both of their earpieces and Quinn’s voice popped in, joining the conversation…

“That’s my boy. I’m tapped into Tweety’s feed, and you’re right. It’s a chunk of the Salvator.”

Reen peered around her mother’s arm, trying to see the image but having little luck. Quinn didn’t notice as she scrutinized the data. A couple quick key strokes, and she had an answer…

“Looks like a module. Some heavy Medical-class unit, from what I can see. Mobile lab, maybe?”

Dale, glancing in the direction of the wreckage, added…

“Maybe a high cap surgical theatre? Or triage ward? Hell, maybe even a bio-hazard containment vessel. I mean, those suckers are built to last, so it could be anything.”

Quinn’s voice crackled back in response…

“Whatever it is, it’s the largest intact piece in the area…that I can see. Guaranteed, Town is going to want to know about it. Dale, my dear, head on over. Reeny and I will meet you boys there in a few.”

Dale, unseen, shook his head in mild dismay. He just wanted this shit to be done and over with. He was already envisioning a dip into the newest home-brew potently conjured up by the mechanics back at The Wine, especially since it was rumored that they had figured out a fruit infusion of some intriguing variety for their newest batch. Mucking about in the smouldering debris field of some mysteriously doomed starship was not his idea of a good time.

But, as usual, Mother knows best.

He sighed heavily, defeated. Holstering the detection wand and gesturing wordlessly to his offspring, he turned, making for the new target area.

She was awake, her reach extended, honed in. Prey was near…and steadily approaching. Beneath her concealing coat of dust and rock, she hunkered, directing calm to her restless young, as they too sensed the nearing creatures. Soon…she assured them. Soon. A new vibration found her. Her reach focused on the source, a flying object gliding over the towering ruin of the rock column nearby, its shadow sliding smoothly over the hot sand as it lost altitude. Sensing a tethered connection from the strange airborne mechanism to the prey, she remained motionless and concealed as it approached…

Tobe, again tucked in behind the goggles as he slowly and carefully sauntered along, cocked his small head to the side, curious. Laid out below him, in binocular HD, was a long, bulky ship module, once crisp shades of white and blue but now blackened and partially dug into the sandy crater it had left on impact. The hull was smashed and twisted, but largely still intact. Dark smoke billowed from several cracks along the wounded surface. Tweety’s robot brain rapidly sectioned the site, gridding it and identifying shapes for investigation. One grid stood out. Tobe’s fingers danced instinctively across the keypad, highlighting the area and zooming.

What was that?

The crash site was nestled in among a spread of jagged ridges of rock that ran up to the foot of the nearby lava columns reaching skyward around them. The nearest of these boasted what looked like a single curving spire of some dark, opaque material, sweeping down from the nasty-looking point and broadening into a curving plate of what must be rock or mineral, the edges of which were lost in the dusty haze and smoke that blew over the area. He estimated it stood roughly 20 feet tall, from the desert floor.

Ship debris? Natural formation? Maybe lava?

Tobe shrugged without realizing. He’d just have to take a look when he got there. Tweety’s computer also selected 3 smaller cylindrical shapes protruding from the terrain nearby…but he ignored them, fixed on the larger, more interesting shape. The concept of Discovery Claims had recently been impressed upon him and, remembering several adventure stories from Earth involving lost pirate treasure, he was secretly on the look-out for nifty items of value that he could perhaps lay claim to (he didn’t know about age restrictions yet)…and, most importantly, not share with Dev and Reen!  His booted foot caught on a twisted piece of debris dug into the sand, stumbling him and pulling his attention away from the image. Yanking the googles up, he launched an irritated kick at the debris, muttering to himself as a light burst of pain shot up his ankle. Seeing his father vanish around the nearest boulder, Tobe trotted after, keying Tweety over to Hover Mode as he went.

“Holy shit!”

Dale stood with his gloved hands on his hips as he muttered absent-mindedly into his rebreather, taking in the sight that had revealed itself from around the corner of the shattered lava column, just as Tobe pulled up beside him. The boy’s eyes went wide. It was one thing to scrutinize the area with the drone, but the sight of the massive piece of spacecraft looming before them now could only be described as awesome. The module was on its side; the fore section smashed, buried in sand and crumbled rock at the far side of the partial crater. The site was punctuated by black chunks of petrified magma, sprayed out among the wreckage from where the ship had struck in the first impact. At a glance, Dale estimated the length of the visible portion at around 80 feet long, standing maybe 40 feet tall, with another 20 or so dug in below the surface. This was a big bastard. Dale found himself appreciating how large the Salvator must’ve been in its prime, to have carried this module among several others. It’s one thing to read ship specs onscreen…it’s another thing to witness the grandeur of the craft with his own two eyes.

Tweety hung in place nearby, the camera package still trained on the odd, dust-coated spire jutting up from the rocks.

She could feel the mechanism’s cold scrutiny as it hovered before her, her senses attuned to it’s scan. Still, she held her ground. The prey was near, unobstructed. She sensed two pulmonary systems, the psychic glimmer of two intelligent minds, from the two bipeds. Good hosts. The Little One sensed it too, and beneath the deadly coil of her long, spiked tail, a pale, multi-segmented leg twitched excitedly. Calm, she directed. The sinewy appendage fell still again. 

There was a faint crackle in their earpieces…

“Boys, we’re nearly there. Little Man, get Tweety on a fly-by. We need to map the integrity of whatever may be left. Be there in two.”

Father and son nodded in unison. Dale turned, glancing down at Tobe…

“Ok, bud. Do your thing. I’m gonna start sweeping the hull.”

Without answering, the boy nodded, looking past the hovering robot at the unsettling spire shape visible through the drifting smoke.

Dale watched for a moment as Tobe sauntered away, moving toward the humming drone, before unsheathing the detector and resetting the calibration as he trudged toward the looming wreckage.

The smaller of the prey approached, his invisible tether to the flying mechanism clear in her senses. She studied the undersized male, sensing his confused interest in her as he neared. The other three were also alert to his presence, but they held their ground, motionless beneath their coats of sand and dust, pushed into the shadows and crags of the low rock face close by, easily lost in the uneven contours. She narrowed her focus.

Tobe pulled up short, a shiver washing over, chilling him in the hot morning sun. Something under the surface…an icy jolt, deep in his subconscious. Something…alien. It washed over quickly, and was gone. That spire…that shape…something. He felt…drawn. Not realizing, he’d taken two full steps when Dale’s exasperated voice in his ear implored…

“Bud, you’re killin me here! Get Tweety going.”

With an impatient sigh, Tobe pulled the goggles down, plotting a quick solution for Search Mode, loading new parameters in a blur of key strokes. Tweety’s hum intensified and the drone maneuvered, gliding toward the stricken module and rising in altitude. It headed smoothly for the bow, where the structure was smashed and twisted into the barren landscape. Small cameras and sensors automatically swiveled and focused as it hummed along.

Dale glanced up as the drone cruised overhead to disappear over the ruined edge of the hull above. As his eyes drifted back down over the blackened surface, something arrested his search. The pinpoint of red light was almost lost in the sun’s glare, the bulky lines and shadowed contours of the module, but it held that artificial ruby shade commonly found on ship instrumentation. Noting the scorched rectangle nearby, Dale nodded knowingly. Without looking away, he addressed his mic…

“Hey babe! You close? We’ve got a pressure door, and it still looks sealed.”

Her reply came from immediately behind…

“It’ll be a bitch…”

Quinn, her rebreather pulled down, strode up to her husband as he spun around, with Reen trotting behind, still brandishing the camera.

“…but I think it’s doable.”

Dale gulped behind his own mask, startled, before answering with just a hint of weary sarcasm…

“Great.”

There were more now. Two females, one a juvenile, came around a far boulder and approached the elder male at the structure, where they were communicating. The young male was closest still, tethered to the flying mechanism. She could feel it, in her reach to him. His scent found her on the wind, and hunger announced itself within her monstrous frame. But the Little One also sensed the small male. She could feel its anticipation, it’s instinctive excitement, from where it was tucked in, buried in sand and rock. She would only be able to contain her eager young for so long. The others were targeting the farther prey, still motionless in their hiding places, but ready to launch forward at her signal.

The small male creature was approaching…

Tobe pushed the goggles back up onto his cap, freed from his piloting duties by the automated search program that was carefully guiding Tweety over the length of the ruined module. It would signal him when complete, but for now it was sectioning and cataloging everything that it saw and sensed. Noting his family clustered in discussion next to the hull, Tobe turned back. The dark spire loomed and he slowly moved toward it, his curiosity driving every cautious step as he sought details and edges in the downward sweep of dark, dusty material. Whatever it was, he couldn’t tell where it ended and the low rock-face began. He’d have to get closer.

The Little One twitched and a pair of legs flexed, unseen. She could feel the constriction of the muscular tail loosen where it held on as it targeted the young male. He was staring up at the still-majestic remains of her crown. Again, she urged calm to her offspring, a menacing undercurrent invading her tone…

Tobe had never seen anything like it. It had to be an errant lava formation, that cooled ages ago into this uncanny shape, perhaps exposed to the elements in the fury of the crash? Or maybe something that had escaped scrutiny during the initial survey of the zone…or simply hadn’t been there to be discovered at the time? But whatever and however it was…it was here now.

Standing before it, Tobe let his gaze drift from the dangerous-looking point above, down over the dust-choked surface to the smooth overhang at eye level before him. Particles of dust, mixed with the acrid smoke, stung his eyes for a moment and he winced, pulled away from his close inspection of the shadows beneath the overhangs curving edge. Muttering, he knuckled the itch and blinked the irritation away. When his vision cleared, he was again taken in by the smooth lines and angles that emerged in his sight. Reaching forward, Tobe placed a small gloved hand on the dusty surface, noting a smoothness as his fingers slowly ran across, clearing tracks that emerged from the dust like black glass.

Inwardly, she trembled at the young male’s touch, his appendage resting on her hard snout, which she kept drawn back, the thick coat of dust adding subterfuge. Knowing it was still too soon, she held her ground as his digits wiped at her tough hide. Her hunger prodded again and her saliva glands, running along her two rows of long, sharp teeth, quivered and swelled, leaking a thick, pale lubricant. The Little One shivered, it’s tail loosening in the dark of its hiding place. It could sense a host and instinct was rapidly awakening…

*Beep*

Tobe pulled his hand away, the control box signaling an interruption in the search pattern. After a quick glance at the read-out, he turned away, returning his attention to the image in the goggles as he pulled them back into position. He didn’t see the long string of slime that drooled out of the dusty shadows, pooling in a sandy footprint as he sauntered back toward his family.

The Little One was excited, the pale limbs flexed and shivered beneath it’s shroud of dust and sand. She could sense hormones flooding through her young, driving it to act. Her reach would lose all meaning soon. It will happen…there will be no stopping it…

Tweety hovered in place, it’s cameras and sensors trained on something below, distorted in the soft pulses of heat rising from the sun-baked outer skin of the module. In the goggles, Tobe scanned the image of the large, open Loading Bay door that yawned up at him. Tweety’s computer had dutifully halted the drone in place when the cavernous opening showed itself during the first pass. His mother’s voice intruded…

“Send Tweety in, but…”

Tobe cut in, having heard this before…

“…set the Proximity Alert. Yeah, Mom…I know.”

Quinn allowed a tiny smirk at her youngest son’s sassiness, watching as he keyed in the necessary command to prevent the invaluable robot from smashing into anything unyielding as it searched. The drone had enough dents and scrapes already. She also noted approvingly that he set the V-Gain for RF Ambient, to filter out any ‘repeats’, like errant debris moving in an air current, that might waste time on the motion tracker.

Tobe slapped the Enable key.

Even from where they were clustered at the base of the wreck, the change in engine pitch was audible as the drone smoothly disappeared down into the shadows through the open Loading Bay. Quinn turned to her husband, gesturing up at the hatch he’d spotted earlier…

“What do you think, Tarzan? Think you can make it up there?”

Dale glanced her way, his eyes narrowed suspiciously…

“Probably…but I also probably don’t want to.”

He shrugs grandly as if to humbly apologize, comically averting his gaze. Quinn had looks of her own, and she turned a particularly biting one on her spouse. Catching the unspoken critique, Dale sighed in defeat…

“Shit. Gee…thanks, babe.”

Quinn flashed an exaggerated smile…

“You are SO welcome, my dear!”

The smile vanishes, she’s all business again…

“Now get your pretty ass up there and see if you can get us in.”

Without waiting for his response, Quinn turned to her daughter, who stood off to the side, looking slightly bored…

“Reeny, get that camera rolling. Get as much of this wreckage as you can, and make sure you get vid of any damage that may have been pre-burn or impact…the investigation will want it…and need it.”

Glad to have something to do, Reen pushed away from where she was leaning against the module, scanning the area for where to start. Noticing the odd lava (?) formation over where Tobe had been poking around, she figured that would be a good place as any to get cracking on her new task. As the young girl shuffled away, checking the camera settings as she went, Quinn turned her attention back to her work-book and the images and data Tweety was showing from inside the ruined hulk…

A silky haze of dust and smoke hung in the air, highlighting the twin beams of light that Tweety stabbed into the murk as it dropped smoothly down through the devastated interior. It was clear that, while large sections of the outer hull had held, amazingly, built as it were to withstand the extremes of atmospheric re-entry, much of the inner structure had been destroyed on final impact. Large sections were crushed flat or shattered into twisted pieces. Dust motes swirled as the flying robot drew to a stop a few feet from the lowest reachable point, which looked like the melted remains of a bank of storage lockers. The sensor package panned and tilted with a low whir, capturing and analyzing everything in sight.

Holding the work-book before her, Quinn stepped over to her youngest son, who was monitoring the drone’s video feed in his goggles. Nudging his shoulder gently, she asked…

“Is it just me or does that look like an open service-way at Tweety’s 3 o’clock position?”

Tobe tapped a key and all sensors swiveled to the robot’s starboard side. Without removing the goggle rig, he nodded…

“From what I can make out, Mom…it looks like it. See that…?”

Glancing down at her own screen, it took Quinn only a moment to see the Mapping Radar readout in the corner of the image.

“It opens up, further down that corridor. The signature gets wide. Looks like open space. Unsealed blast door, maybe? Hmmm…”

Pondering for a moment, she made a quick decision, lightly patting her son’s small back…

“Ok, let’s see what we can see. Send her in.”

Tobe entered the new command.

A few meters away, Dale trudged along the side of the module, studying the battered surface, looking for a vaguely climbable route. Stopping, he looked up at the hatch, again noting the glowing indicator showing in the shadow of the module’s scorched bulk. Pulling his backpack around, he quickly rummaged inside, pulling a small but bulky gun-like instrument out into the sunlight. A quick check on the load pressure and the work-head in the chamber, and Dale’s eyes swept the expanse of burned starship, a new immediate purpose driving him. Seeing nothing inviting, he shrugged and raised the instrument, glaring through the mounted Aim-Point at his target. Craning back over his shoulder, as protocol dictated, he shouted…

“Firing!”

Quinn didn’t acknowledge as she stared at her work-book, Reen muttered sarcastically and Tobe nodded…once…unseen.

Back at the crawler, Dev braced for the shot, not sure he’d hear it at this distance, blinking at a stinging bead of sweat that threatened his eye and instinctively craning an ear forward.

Dale turned back to the sight, clicked off the large, yellow safety catch and pulled the trigger. The bang of compressed gas was comparable to a gunshot and the echo cracked off among the rocks…

She started, the Sharp Noise igniting memories of pain, fear and cold rage. The inwardly burnt images of the small, clever bipedal creatures that had captured her, contained her, marked her…and hurt her. When she and her brood had broken free of the White Room, the creatures had responded, with sharp sounds and sharper pains. The cracking reports of their tools came with the rough impacts and stinging punctures that sprayed her yellow blood in all directions, the liquid fiercely burning all it contacted, including her assailants. She could still hear the piercing shrieks of the smoking, melting creatures as she strode past their twitching forms, through the cramped passageways of their space vessel, her brood clambering along, their claws finding purchase in floor, wall and ceiling around her, attacking those creatures they encountered along the way. The screams had calmed her as their rampage carried them toward the vessel’s power source…

The heavy barb, fixed to the tough micro-fibre cable, was solidly dug into the raised Pressure Frame around the hatch. Dale locked the spool and gave a strong pull, eyes fixed in case it suddenly dislodged and fell. It didn’t, the inner teeth having bit in solidly on impact, and he activated the small but powerful electro-magnetic Line Anchor fixed to the Utility Instrument – Climbing Class (Medium). Even through the heavy scorching of the ruined skin, the anchor grabbed onto the metal at sand level and held fast. Another quick rummage and he was connecting one of the Magnetic Safety Clasps to a thick, orange lanyard fixed to the back of his belt. It may not stop a fall, but it could definitely help minimize injury by slowing it. The black coupler dutifully grabbed the vertical line and magnetically locked around it, a small LED showing SECURE. Pulling his work gloves tight, he found his first hand-hold and pulled himself up. The crimson light of the instrument panel patiently glowed in the shadows above him, the Safety Clasp locking and releasing in time with his movements.

Reen finally chased the last particle of sand from the small lens, inwardly hoping there was no scratch. So far…so good. Sweeping her ponytail back over her shoulder, she raised the camera, focusing on a particular rock column in the distance, now just a shattered nub; ship debris still smouldering at its sandy base. Point of impact? Her green eyes narrowed studiously as she composed her shot, gently sweeping the frame over the rocks, sand, and twisted, smoking wreckage strewn around her. And…something else. Her pan froze, the dark sweeping spire centered in frame; Tobe’s Spire. She could make out the four lines of his fingers traced in the fine dust coating the surface. A chill rippled through her, a cold murmur in the back of her mind…seemingly not her own.

Her reach swept over the juvenile female and the scent was good. Maturity was approaching this one. Hormones, metabolism, appetite…all desirable. The Little One flexed, sensing these traits also. Its own bitter flood of hormones seeped from its tissues into its corrosive blood stream, exciting it further. She felt the grip loosen, all fingers sliding free of her body…but the tail holding fast. In the murk of rocks and sand…the Little One began to dig.

Reen blinked…the sensation gone. By the time she had turned her gaze back to the flip-out screen, it was forgotten. Still…it was a weird…object, this thing before her. She didn’t know what else to call it.

Aside from maybe ‘creepy’.

Nudging the zoom out, she noticed something else. 3 vertical shapes, dusty and curved, hidden in the shadows of the next body of rock over, something eerily similar about them all. As she watched, there was a twitch, and a sprinkle of dust shook free into the wind. Reen cocked her head, uncertain.

Did that one just move?

Wind rose around her, drifting particles of smoke tickling her eye, and she glanced away as the air current shifted, threatening more ocular discomfort as she fumbled to get her goggles back into place. A hint of relief warmed her and she hastily concluded that the rising breeze must be the culprit, not some spectral rock shape with nefarious intent. She continued her pan, leaving the odd shapes behind.

Tweety drifted slowly through the half-open blast door and into what had once been a large, circular operating theatre. But even through the destruction, Quinn could see that the room had been altered…modified…strengthened. Industrial-grade supports and reinforcements had helped the large chamber survive the catastrophic chain-of-events that had brought the module to where it now lay dead in the sands of Amargosa. Many of the plasti-crete observation windows held firm in their frames; sprays and spatters of dark liquid burned to the cracked surfaces in abstract patterns, lit in errant streams of sunlight beaming through from unseen damage to the hull. It was only when Tweety’s camera picked up a full, human hand-print smeared across a padded bulkhead, still showing a hint of red, that she realized she was looking at spilled blood. Lots of it. Maternal instinct kicked in and her head snapped up, remembering that she was watching Tobe’s feed. Her son showed no sign of disturbance, no need for censorship, chewing on his lower lip as he worked the drone’s controls, more intent on potential obstacles than on the evidence of horror and mutilation. After a second, Quinn returned to her scan of the drone’s images. As Tobe brought Tweety to another hover and panned again, certain objects began to emerge from the gloom. She was seeing enclosures, harnesses, stasis chambers, all in varying forms of ruin. Many showed burn damage more characteristic of exposure to a caustic substance than the fires of atmospheric re-entry or fiery detonation. Chemical spill maybe? Tobe ended the drone’s spin facing back toward the frozen open blast door and Quinn’s mind again shifted gears.

What is THAT?!

“Tobe, tighten on the back of that door, please.”

The boy didn’t answer, just nudged the Zoom.

The long gouges in the metal and plastic looked like claw marks.

This is what her instincts told Quinn as soon as the image grew and cleared onscreen, the ragged lines deep enough to form shadows in the glare of the drone’s work lamps. Parallel lines of damage criss-crossed the thick door’s surface, hinting at vicious, frenzied energy. A chill ran down her spine as her breath hitched in her throat. Fighting against the instinctive, child-like panic, she breathed out slowly, inwardly rationalizing the damage as due to the less-than-graceful landing, not some impossible nightmare grown in some mysterious company lab over their heads. She knew those were just myths, colony hearsay, and long-passed down rumor. She KNEW it.

But still…

Before she could ponder further, Dale’s voice crackled in her ear…

“Babe, I’m at the hatch and the controls look solid and still have power. Uh, probably emergency reserves still burning away somewhere. Gonna pop it open now… Standby”

Tobe swung the camera around as a broken beam of flickering sunlight suddenly cut across the chamber above, showing clearly through the veil of dust and smoke, gleaming through the twisted wreckage. As Tweety gently rose to meet it, Dale’s voice cut in over the radio again…

“Holy…shit!”

The hatch opened perfectly, unlocking and cycling back with no resistance. Despite his rebreather, Dale had turned away as collected smoke and dust, disturbed by the gust of air, washed out of the shadows, caught on the wind. When it cleared, he’d clambered up onto the pressure collar and crouched at the narrow edge for balance, safety line still connected. The bright sunlight that spilled in around him illuminated far more behind the hatchway than he wanted to see. It had been an Emergency Air-Lock, but it would never function again. Large swathes of the inner bulk-head were deeply pitted and burned through, metal and composite pieces melted and scorched. Crumpled against the inner hatch below was the blackened remains of a zero-G survival suit and in the helmet, behind the shattered face-plate, was a human head. Or what was left of one. Burned away lips revealed a rictus grin and milky white eyes, boiled to opaqueness, staring back at him from a charred mess of bone and sinew. Gender identification was impossible. It was this dead gaze that prompted the curse into his mic. Quinn’s voice came back in quick response…

“Dale, what’s wrong?! Talk to me, honey!”

Composing himself, he responded tensely…

“Um…I have the remains of a passenger staring at me…and it’s not cool!”

After a moment, his wife came back on the line…

“How does it look.”

He said the first thing that came to mind…

“Char-broiled.”

Something else grabbed his attention. The corpse was armed. Or had been. Still clenched in a gloved hand, the pulse rifle would never fire again. Dale could see that parts of the weapon were broken, melted away. Whatever had devoured the inner wall of the air-lock had also had its way with the gun…and the body. He could also make out that one of the survival suits legs was missing, the deck plating below the blackened stump dissolved in a wide spray of ugly holes. Whatever had happened here was bad…really bad. If Dale had been unsure about wanting to leave before…he certainly wanted to go now. Cleaning this shit up was most definitely above his pay-grade. An icy feeling of dread was growing within….and he was having trouble fighting it.

Reen stopped panning along the expanse of the crashed module when she came to her father’s crouched form poised half-way up in the now-open hatchway. Pushing in on the camera’s zoom, she could see that something was…off. She couldn’t make out his rugged features behind the rebreather, but something in his movements signaled alarm. Without taking her eyes from the image, she sauntered back, kicking sand ahead of her as she went.

She didn’t catch the movement behind her…

Sand and rock shifted, dribbling groundward in small, dusty rivulets in the shadow of the rockface masking her mutilated crown. Sensing a weakness from below, the Little One lurched forward through the curtain of dry debris, pushing frantically through toward the sunlight…and the host. She could sense the instinctive excitement in her young, scent it in the warm air. Its tail loosened, falling away from her and coiling under the squat, multi-legged form squirming and hissing in the darkness below, ready to leap.

Something inside Dale snapped, and he pulled back into the sunlight as though stung…

“Babe, I’m so very done with this shit. Sorry…but I’m strongly leaning toward an immediate egress from this fucked up area!”

Under his breath, he muttered…

“This is so, SO not cool.”

Quinn had just reached the same conclusion, with a mild shudder. It was the claw marks, slicing and gouging the metal of that blast door that sounded the alarm, her mind replaying Tweety’s imagery on a sinister loop. Her answer was immediate…

“Yep, that’s it for me too. Let’s shut it down and get going! We’re done here!”

Dropping the work-book to her side, she leaned down, tapping Tobe’s shoulder.

“Bring the little bird home, Big Man.”

Tobe, sensing the tension, swallowed dryly and triggered the Recall solution.

Inside the dark bowels of the ruined space module, the dull yellow work drone gracefully spun on its axis, the beams of the work-lamps flashing over the wreckage as it retraced its path through the darkness, the engine pitch taking on a determined tone as it accelerated.

Reen’s trot ended as her father’s work-boots thudded into the sand. Dale unclipped the safety line and disengaged the electro-magnet, clumsily stuffing the climbing rig back into his pack. The girl glanced around nervously before looking up…

“Dad, what’s going on?!”

Dale glanced back…

“Nothing good, baby girl. Let’s get out of here.”

The camera hung at Reen’s side, clenched in a nervous fist; framing and compositions forgotten. The chaotic footage would later show what it saw behind them…

The Little One emerged, it’s gaggle of jointed limbs pushing and prying at the cloying rocks and sand that sprinkled down upon it with every spastic flex and push. It recoiled from the sun’s sudden heat on its cool skin, drawing back into the shadow of the hole it had burrowed. It froze, its senses probing. Living movement. Organic sound. Not far. The front two legs slowly and deliberately emerged back into the heat of day, probing around the outside for a purchase. Quickly finding one, it pulled itself from the coarse bank of sand, unfurling its squat body and scuttling into the shadow of a nearby rock. Its senses laid out a path, using the sounds in the air and the scents on the wind. With a low hiss, the eyeless creature skittered forward, kicking up dust as it sped to the next outcropping.

The Little One was free. She sensed its stealthy path over the sand, among the boulders and ship debris. The joyous promise of adding to her fledgling brood flooded her with the deepest love, her children nearby feeling their mother’s anticipation, trembling with the urge to capture or kill for her. Sand and dust shook free under these spasms; a haze rising on the warm wind, unnoticed by the bipedal creatures nearby. The hunt would begin soon. As the Little One would take a host…she and the others would feast. There would be enough to go around. Sand hissed softly as it fell away, black sinew uncoiling as her powerful, skeletal arms began to carefully dig her massive body free from her hiding place.

Tweety rose out of the shadows with a persistent hum, pausing to hover in place over the gaping maw of the Cargo Door as it awaited its next command. Quinn looked up as Dale and Reen hurriedly trotted over, his eyes wide above the rebreather. He only had one word…

“Go?”

Quinn didn’t need to elaborate…

“Go.”

With a curt nod of his head, Dale pulled his daughter around from where she stood worriedly behind him and with a guiding arm, they retraced their footsteps back they way they had come. Quinn glanced down at Tobe…

“Get Tweety moving. Straight back to the crawler.”

The boy didn’t answer, just a quick nod and he stomped after his dad and sister, his hands working the drone’s controls. Quinn heard the robot’s engine whir and its shadow passed over her moments later, moving to take up a position over its diminutive operator. Another chill whispered on her spine then, and she spun, hand abruptly falling to the shotgun slung at her side.

That…feeling.

Something’s not right.

Straining against the glare and smoke, she scanned the site they were hastily abandoning, her wide eyes sweeping the hellish area in alarm. Wind pulled tendrils of sand from the nearby dunes…but there was no other movement. A quick look showed that her family was moving steadily out of the area ahead. Pulling the shotgun up and checking the chambered load, she clenched her jaw and spun to follow.

The Little One, motionless beneath a low outcropping, sensed the adrenaline surge in the adult female as she suddenly moved away. The bunched muscles in the tail relaxed, coiled to leap at the exposed face seconds earlier. Its approach had not been noticed as the creatures clustered, and then moved on. This last one, tall female body mature and healthy, would birth a fine specimen…but she had turned away too soon, making the leaping attack, the element of surprise, impossible.

It would follow instead.

Just as Dev could see the forms of his family rounding the low rock-face at the shorn lava column’s foot in the distance, his mother’s voice crackled in his ear again…

“Devlin, we’re on our way back to Buggy now.”

There was an unfamiliar tone to her voice that sounded suspiciously like fear. Pushing his ear-bud for a better read, he addressed his own mic…

“What’s wrong?! Do I need to spool Buggy up?”

Quinn caught up to Tobe as they rounded the rocky hillside, the crawler coming into view. Catching her breath, she shook her head…

“No, I left the coils on Stand By. She’s good to go.”

Glancing back, she spoke again…

“I…I just need you to cover us till we get there.”

An alarm sounded in Dev, the sudden panic hitching his voice…

“Mom, did you say ‘cover you’? From what?!”

Realizing she didn’t have answer, she kept it simple…

“For anything that doesn’t look right, ok bud? Something bad happened here…”

She hesitated before continuing…

“…and it may not be over.”

This brought Dale to a quick halt and he pivoted around to stare open-mouthed at his wife…

“Say what?!”

Quinn pushed past to approach her husband, tensely whispering…

“It’s just a feeling, but…!”

Dale shrugged, cutting her off…

“Well fuck, since YOU don’t just get ‘feelings’…that’s all I need to hear.”

He spun back, trotting after Reen who had continued on. Quinn followed quickly, leaving Tobe trudging along behind, lost in the goggles as he guided the drone back.

Dev, a coiled ball forming in his stomach, repositioned the rifle, studying the landscape around his family over the barrel, bewildered.

What the hell was he looking for?!

The Little One scuttled along the vertical rock-face, pausing to sense the new surroundings…and the movement ahead. The creatures were now crossing an open plain of hot sand, headed toward a low structure in the distance. A running attack, it instinctively decided. The tail twitched; excited energy at work. The small male was closest, part of its under-developed facial structure covered, but it could smell that his wet breathing orifices were exposed, ready for the small egg to be ejaculated into the small torso when he was taken. It scurried forward, dislodging a small drift of sand as it nimbly dropped to the ground.

Dev swung the rifle’s ported barrel back to the right.

What the hell was that?!

A small…something, had dislodged from the rocks behind his family, a scatter of dust on the wind marking the disturbance. Carefully sweeping the cross-hairs to and fro, Dev couldn’t see anything further. Pulling his gaze away, a thought dawned…

“Tob, can you do a 180 with Tweety’s camera? I thought I saw something behind you.”

Tobe froze in place, his brother’s voice crisp in his ear. Fear locked him where he stood.

Dev couldn’t be messing with him now…could he?

The older boy saw this in the scope and addressed the younger boy again…

“It’s probably nothing. Just a drift on the wind or…something. But I can’t see behind those low rocks you just came through. Spin Tweety to peek for me, cool?”

Fearfully rooted in place, Tobe’s small fingers worked the controls and the drone smoothly reversed direction, humming back over the footprints in the sand. Hitting the throttle and adjusting the pitch, he sent Tweety high, realigning the camera and focal depth as he went. The line of sandy footprints leading to his shadow-casting figure below shrank as the image zoomed out and halted. At first, Tobe couldn’t see anything of concern, just a low cluster of coarse red rocks protruding from the blanket of yellow sand, his family’s prints etched in a serpentine bearing among them. Thumbing a control nub, he re-tightened the image…on the tall, wind-smoothed rock-face behind them this time…

There’s another set of tracks in the sand.

It took the boy a moment of pondering to realize, but when it came to him, his lower lip trembled as he stumbled fearfully back a step. Those weren’t there before.

Something unseen was following.

Raw fear strangled him and he could only utter a dry croak. Quinn heard it in her ear-bud, spinning around…

“ Tobe?!”

The boy swallowed, his vocal cords finding their voice…

“There’s something…”

The Little One felt organic sound, scented living secretions in the hot air, and fresh hormone again clouded its blood, driving instinct forward. Excited, it hissed quietly as it raised its pale, front legs over the rock that concealed it, into the hot sunlight.

‘It looks like a reaching hand down there, creeping from the shadows…’

For a fleeting moment, that shot through Tobe’s panicked mind; an image plucked from a long-forgotten nightmare playing out in the suddenly claustrophobic confines of the pilot goggles. His mouth dropped open as the ‘hand’ flexed, the two front ‘fingers’ probing along the summit of a large rock. The control box hung idle on its straps as his hands sprang, shoving the sweaty headset up, leaving him frantically blinking away spots as the sun’s glare reached his eyes. His vision cleared as the faceless organism crested the low rock nearby, crouching obscenely in the seductive shimmer of the heat, its segmented tail rising up behind it; the tapered barb casting a threatening shadow across the thing’s pale, ribbed back. Yelling frantically over his shoulder, Tobe pointed, his finger jabbing forward as though attacking…

“There’s something there!! It’s right there!! Mom, help!!”

Quinn, almost at Buggy, broke back in a desperate sprint, a fearful growl in her throat; sand kicking up as she pounded toward her exposed son. Her gloved hand found the shotgun’s pistol grip and she thumbed the Safety off. As his wife raced past, Dale shoved Reen forward, toward the crawler’s open Cargo Door, shouting…

“Go, girl!..Go!!…GO!!!”

Father and daughter launched for the ladder; gloved hands outstretched. Getting a grip, Reen went first, as Dale yanked the handgun from its holster, racking the slide with a sharp click. He followed seconds later, cursing with every panicked step.

Dev ignored the commotion of his family members clambering aboard below as he glared through the scope at the…thing, that had shown itself. Tobe’s petrified form was a blurry mass in the sight picture’s corner, the pale obscenity focused in the enhanced image over his brother’s shoulder, poised on that craggy rock on all those long, narrow fingers. The scope’s filters automatically adjusted for the distortion of the heat…but the organism still wavered, small details lost. He centered the glowing cross-hair…

“I think I have a shot, Mom. Should I…?!”

Quinn shouted into her mic, her breath hot and desperate inside the rebreather…

“Shoot that fucking thing, Dev! Take the shot!! Now!!”

It had been seen. The Little One, its senses locked on the young male, leaped forward.

As he squeezed the trigger, Dev knew he was a second too late. The rifle kicked, the crack of the shot echoing away.

Quinn heard the *pop* of the passing flechette before the crackling rifle report reached her. To her horror, the squat, menacing shape suddenly sprang, the round striking in its place with a loud *snap* as the creature landed heavily in the soft sand below. There was no reaction to the sudden burst of dust and splinters of stone that sprinkled down. The creature launched itself forward, it’s legs a blur as it raced across the open sand toward the boy.

Quinn shouted…

“No!”

…as she reached Tobe, wrenching him aside, forcing herself between the oncoming beast and the youngest of her brood. He tumbled into the sand, hauled off balance. Without aiming, Quinn raised the shotgun and fired. The heavy slug went wide, punching a sandy crater behind the scuttling obscenity. Undeterred it came, the long tail excitedly whipping and snapping.

She cursed behind her mask.

The high *pop* of the second flechette was lost in the metallic racket of the shotgun as she chambered another shell.

Dev’s aim was better this time.

As Quinn brought the 12 gauge back up, part of the scuttling creature exploded. Two of the legs splattered free in a yellow spray as the squat body slammed forward, tumbling in a burst of dust, the remaining appendages still kicking.

From where she was breathlessly poised, Quinn could hear a shrill hiss.

*Pain*

She felt it, in the Little One, and her massive frame, moving along a low rock face, drew to a halt; a low scream forming deep inside. She instinctively hunkered down among the shadows, her reach zeroing in on her stricken young ahead. The other 3, all blending into the landscape under their drab, grey coats of dust, protectively took up positions around her, eager strings of thick saliva from sharp, lip-less grins streaming away on the wind. Maternal panic cut through as she felt the injury, felt her young’s confusion, it’s frustrated drive…and knew the wound it had sustained was mortal. But it wasn’t too late, it still lived, and could still spread its seed…with help. In silence, she rose majestically back into the sunlight, the others rising in unison as she strode forward, navigating her towering, nightmarish form among the rocks and debris, toward her ailing offspring.

It was still alive!

Quinn sprang, her mind locked on Tobe sprawled defencelessly behind her. Rushing forward, she straight-armed the shotgun as she reached the creature flailing in the sand, the vulgar hiss taking on a vicious edge, the tail thrashing violently. There was no hesitation as she jerked the trigger, the muzzle inches from the pale hide. The organism’s crab-like body ruptured in a blast of sand and pale meat; viscous yellow spraying in all directions as the gunshot echoed away. Quinn sprang back as something spattered across her rebreather, spinning away to hunker protectively next to her boy.

She suddenly felt the Little One die, a sharp cold slicing through the warm love within.  Already wounded and weak, the abrupt void that appeared in her reach, in the young one’s place, overcame her with physical force and she stumbled, a long, armoured arm lashing out to regain balance for her massive, hunched frame, striking a cluster of rocks in a burst of dust.

Tobe looked up, fearfully pointing…at her. Before Quinn could ask, a sharp sting flared, the world blurred, and a tear suddenly escaped from her eye before she could react. Then she heard it. Something close was hissing…burning. Blinking frantically, her vision cleared in time for her to see the wisps of smoke dancing before her eyes. Her hand flashed to the mask’s buckle, releasing it with a frantic yank and throwing it aside. It hit the sand with a thud. Quinn’s glare widened into shock as she watched the heavy synthetic rubber of the rebreather unit collapse, mercilessly pitted and smoking where the drops had impacted. Realization hit and she hurriedly scanned her hands and E-suit for any errant splashes of what had to be some kind of molecular acid. Whirling around, she gestured to herself, quickly asking…

“Well…?!”

Tobe’s saucer-shaped eyes played rapidly over his mother’s face and gear. Seeing nothing, he shook his head…

“No. I think you’re good, Mom.”

Quinn breathed out, relieved. Mother and son cautiously looked over at the destroyed creature, Tobe’s lower lip quivering. The shredded remains of the ribbed body were punched into a crude bowl in the sand, the lewdly-segmented tail limp behind it. It twitched once, and was still. White smoke billowed around the new depression as the organism’s caustic fluids ate at the sand in abstract splash patterns, the aggressive hiss competing with the desert wind. Dev’s tense voice crackled in her ear…

“Did we get it?!”

Though her earbud was securely in place, her mic had been wrenched free when she’d frantically pulled the mask away. Instead, she turned, raising the shotgun triumphantly above her head, pumping it in the air…

Seeing this through the scope, Dev’s shoulders dropped; tension releasing as he let her oddly savage gesture bring a quick smile. His next question came a moment later, as Quinn was hauling Tobe back to his feet…

“Tob, what was it?”

There was no change in the mutilated creature. From what the younger boy could make out through the smoke, it was still very dead. He shrugged, his jaw tense, answering…

“How am I supposed to know?!  But…it seemed mean.”

Dev smirked…

“No shit, dumbass! Am I the only one who saw that thing rushing you guys?!”

Quinn looked down at her son, who was brushing sand from his coverall. Leaning in, while fighting to regain her composure, she said…

“Tell your brother…watch that language!”

With that, she gave the boy a gentle shove toward the waiting crawler, an urgency in the gesture. Dev, having heard the words over the mic, just muttered…

“Yeah, yeah.”

As he sat up, collapsing the rifle’s bipod, he pondered a moment before speaking again…

“Does Mom think there could be more?”

Marching beside Tobe, Quinn glanced down…

“Tell him I certainly hope not.”

Tobe didn’t get the chance to pass the message on, as a new noise ominously cut in over the wind, from somewhere unseen in the debris field. A ferocious, hissing shriek that rose up…only to die away with merciful speed a moment later.

Her anguish was pierced by a cold, familiar rage and, against her conscious will, her sharp, translucent fangs snapped open and a furious cry roared out. The broken spire of her sheared crown, thick yellow crust marking the disfiguring wound’s edges, towered over her offspring as they also threw their eye-less, cylindrical skulls skyward, hissing in sympathy around her, glistening inner mouths menacingly snapping in anticipation. Silent again, she strode forward, prowling; lethal purpose in her cadence. The others moved silently along with her, eager for the chase.

“What the fuck was that?!”

Dale, crouched in the crawler’s open Cargo Door, handgun clenched before him in nervous fingers, noted the shrill pitch of his own voice as frosty whispers of fear inched down his spine, sidelining any embarrassment…

‘That…howl, or whatever the hell that was, could NOT be good. And there was no fucking way that was just the wind!’

Reen crouched beside as this thought flashed through her dad’s mind, camera back in position, zoomed in on the figures of her brother and mom as they broke into a panicked sprint, sand splashing as they pounded along. She could see Tweety’s control box bouncing against Tobe’s shallow chest, beneath the wide eyes over the rebreather mask, as he charged as fast as his short legs would go. Quinn kept pace, at times guiding him along with a persistent hand to the back, shotgun still clenched in her other fist. Tweety hung overhead, motionless, its program paused.

They were nearly there.

There was a clatter nearby and she looked up in time to see Dev clamber quickly down the service ladder, the rifle grasped in one hand. Dale’s head snapped over…

“Hey bud, get your ass in that driver’s seat and get Buggy ready to haul outta here!”

Dev froze in place, not sure he’d heard correctly. Dale nodded quickly…

“Yes! Driver’s seat! Now!!”

Quickly laying the rifle across two net-backed seats as he went, Dev threw his damp hat aside, bolting for the cockpit. Dale turned back as his wife and son reached the crawler, both breathless and slick with sweat. Holstering the pistol, he gestured with a gloved hand for the boy, who reached up. Reen hit Record again, filming her little brother being hauled into the crawler before tilting up and widening the shot of the landscape they were fleeing. Her mouth dropped open…

She strode around the corner, into the open, the flat plain spreading wide before her as she slowed to a halt, the long, sharp claws of her armoured feet sinking into the hot sand as she scanned the area. Her reach found the creature’s structure seconds later, and could make out the creatures themselves milling about in its shadow. Even at this distance…she could sense their fear on the wind. The flood of panicked juices in their systems would make the meat all the more savory. Then, something else arrested her focus, something between her and the fleeing creatures…

Quinn’s hand was on the first, rubber-coated rung when she noticed Reen’s awe-struck expression; the girl’s green eyes fixed on the camera’s viewfinder, mouth struck open as though dumbfounded as she crouched at the edge of the doorway.

The camera was pointed back the way they had come.

Quinn spun and saw the looming, misshapen behemoth standing astride their line of sandy footprints at the rock-face in the near distance. Patches of hide, like black glass, glinted in the sunlight through the heavy coat of dust adorning a towering skeletal frame; a frame that suggested raw power at its core. Quinn’s inner surveyor automatically estimated this new organism’s height, from the clawed feet to the top of what she imagined to be a crown, to be about 18 feet tall. The large, curving skull ended in a sinister grin of long, sharp fangs, a couple of which she could see were broken off. Though she made out no eyes, Quinn could sense a cold scrutiny washing over her. As she reached for the shotgun at her side, three more forms silently crested the rocks around the towering beast, climbing stealthily to crouch, like gargoyles beyond what even Hell could imagine. They were all smaller in height and mass, but clearly shared the same sinister alien lineage. All sported injuries crusted yellow, wisps of smoke escaping in the wind. Somewhere, her cataloging mind dubbed them ‘Dent’, so named for the large section of its skull that had been crushed in somewhere, ‘Jaw’, the smallest one, named for the section of lower face it appeared to be missing, and ‘Fingers’, as she could see it was holding a clawed hand in tight to its skeletal ribcage; severed digits evident, yellow crust bright in the sun. Drools of saliva glistened, tugged by the wind.

She’s their Queentheir Mother.

Quinn would never know where this deduction came from…but instinctively, she felt it. Words spilled out beyond her control…

“Oh my god!”

Dale, unstrapping the control box from across Tobe’s torso, whirled around….and froze. Tobe fell equally motionless as he too saw the terrible, looming form, the curved heads of the smaller ones bobbing excitedly around it. As they watched, the massive creature stepped forward, approaching the still-smoking crater in the sand; angry wisps whirling in the wind. Quinn gritted her teeth as she realized what she was witnessing…

The Little One’s body was maimed and lifeless. Ignoring the watching creatures, she closed in on her dead young; her cold rage growing with every step. Her long shadow fell over the smouldering depression and she leaned down, her reach probing the damage. The empty void inside her held fast, as there was no longer young life to fill it. Reaching down, she ran a claw under the limp tail, gently lifting it from the sand; sadness intruding. The adults lingered protectively behind her, giving space for grief, all the while fiercely locked on the warm bipeds ahead, unwavering. The Little One’s tail flopped back down and her long, clawed fingers clenched; steel-tight coils of black sinew growing warm and taut. The rage returned, hot and full of pain, and her heavy skull snapped up, seeking those responsible. Locking on the adult female crouched in the shadows below the elevated structure, she rose, her jaws yawning open to unleash a hellish scream…

A primal instinct, the instinct to survive, lanced through Quinn with icy precision…and she reacted. The shotgun came up as of its own accord, the 3-dot sight falling on the howling skull of the monster, the teeth like murky icicles parting to reveal the second, clustered set behind, yawning open in time with gaping maw…

 *click*

The hammer fell on an empty chamber, and Quinn’s heart leaped into her throat, fearful sweat beading across her forehead. A panicked mental count swore there were four shells left in the magazine…so what the hell?!

The adult female abruptly raised a familiar object, and memories of sudden pain ignited all over her body, the unfamiliar panic that had rushed through her, the flash and sting of the creatures’ tools still fresh in her dark mind. This flash brought physical pain to her many crusted wounds, to the broken crest of her magnificent crown, and her jaws snapped shut, choking off her shrieking howl as she reared back, cautious.

“Holy shit!”

There was no mistaking what had just happened. It reacted…to the gun. The zoological whimsy of the moment was slammed aside as Quinn watched the long, dark claws curl into misshapen fists, a smaller set protruding from the chest clenching back in unison. It hit her…she hadn’t cleared the last shell! She grabbed the slide as Dale took his first shot, startling her…

‘Fuck this! Fuck this!! FUCK THIS!!!’

burned through Dale’s mind as he squeezed the trigger, ignoring the sharp kick as he fought to line the pistol up with the beast’s fiercely grinning visage. Reen yelped, startled, and ducked away as Tobe, pulled off balance by the dangling control box, fell into a seat behind them. The spent shell clinked, bouncing away. The round popped toward the horizon, wide of target. Dale yelled down to his wife…

“Goddamn it, get up here!!”

…before leveling the muzzle again, his body pressed against the edge of the Cargo Door for stability, glaring down the barrel….

Please…please…please…

He squeezed the trigger, exhaling as he did so, keeping the shot level.

A stinging flash of pain rang through her skull and she ducked away, splashing dust over the lifeless body of the Little One as her long shadow pivoted across the hot sand with her.

The round sparked as it ricocheted off the smooth down-curve of the beast’s vast head, and it ducked back, turning away with a sharp hiss.

As she spun, she spat a message to her offspring, a message they received immediately. With excited burbles, the three adults pivoted, their attention shifting from their mother…to their mother’s enemy.

‘Dent’ charged first.

The spent shell hit the sand and Quinn jacked a fresh one into the chamber, just as the creature sprang, bolting away from the retreating behemoth of its mother. The other two were mere seconds behind as they lit across the sand, hell-bent for the crawler.

“Dev!!! Get us outta here!! NOW!”

…Quinn shouted at the top of her lungs, raising the gun again. The beasts were fast, bounding across the sand, closing quickly. The shotgun bucked, the report loud beneath the crawler. There was a burst of yellow, and ‘Dent’ crashed to the ground with a frenzied shriek, the dusty impact hidden by a large rock. Buggy rumbled to life above her and she grabbed the ladder, launching herself up. Through the glare, the other two creatures sprinted, hunched low, heads angled and locked on their fleeing target. They leaped among the rocks and over the sand with predatory intent, hissing fiercely as they came.

Quinn threw the shotgun up and in, crashing down beside it seconds later as she came over the Cargo Door’s threshold. There was a jarring impact and the ladder abruptly smashed away in a shower of sparks, inches from her boots; a victim of Dev’s untested driving skills, and a boulder. The twisted remains bounced away, lost in the twin rooster-tails of churned sand behind the accelerating vehicle.

The structure moved quickly, but ‘Fingers’ and ‘Jaw’ weren’t far behind. Inwardly, both adults heard a sharp call reach them and they slowed, impatient over the enemy fading into the rising haze that cloaked their pursuit, but obedient to the order. From out of the sandy murk, ‘Dent’ raced, sharp mouth gaping open in rage, a section of black, sinewy thigh mauled by the shotgun blast, yellow blood drooling from the wound to melt all it touched. He sprinted across the sand, punching between the two younger adults, locked on. There was no hesitation. They too sprang into the chase, quickly falling in.

As the structure’s sound fell low in the distance and the dust cleared, she strode into view astride the tracks it left dug into the sand. Those of her pursuing offspring ran alongside. There was something ahead, twisted and bent…a piece of metal, striped yellow and black. She could smell the creature’s smell as she lifted it, and her hunger reared again. She snarled. She was falling behind. Her offspring would need her. The piece of debris, cast aside, clanged as it landed among a scattering of rocks.  She strode forward, gaining speed with every angered step.

Sand and rock blurred beyond the open Cargo Door as Quinn pushed past Dale, pressing the shotgun and shells to him as she pulled the pistol from his grasp, racing for the cockpit. Steadying himself as Dev swerved to miss something ahead, Dale checked the weapon’s load, then slid more shells in as he pushed past his two youngest, to crouch at the open door’s edge. Tobe watched his cursing father sidle past where he sprawled across the seat, the weight of the control box hanging off one small shoulder. Over whistling din of the wind, the aggressive clatter of pebbles against the underside and the powerful hum of the engine, Tobe heard a sharp beep and looked over to see a flash of red from inside the pilot goggles beside him. Leaning in, he remembered Tweety, still holding in its overwatch position above the body of that dead thing Mom had killed, dangerously close to being out of range. Muscle memory acted and his thumb flicked the Master Recall.

The drone, hanging patiently in the hot air, surged forward on a slanted trajectory downward, the engines whirring as it shot toward the rising dust in the distance, honing in on the crawler’s retreating transponder signal.

Dev’s knuckles were white, clenched tight over the steering wheel as he glared through the thick windscreen, nervous sweat glistening on his peach-fuzzed upper lip. Quinn appeared, quickly sliding into the co-pilot seat beside him, practiced eyes scanning over the gauges and instruments. Aside from one less service ladder, they were looking good. Grasping her own steering column and switching the Control Input, she glanced over, saying…

“Ok, bud! I have control!”

As though stung, Dev’s hands pulled away from the wheel, a tremble evident in his fingers and for a moment, he stared ahead, unbelieving. Seeing the stress in the boy’s eyes, Quinn softened her tone, fighting her own panic…

“Nice driving, my boy.”

He nodded, swallowing heavily and allowing a quick grin. Quinn’s expression hardened again…

“Now get back there with your father and watch our 6! I think they’ll be coming!”

Confusion danced over Dev’s sweat-slickened features and he opened his mouth, abruptly cut off before his question emerged…

“I don’t know what they are…but there’s 4 of them! And one’s…big! So, eyes peeled!”

With that, she turned her attention back to navigating across the sand, winding among the low clusters of rock strewn over the terrain. Dev knew that look, and didn’t pursue it further, hurriedly swinging out of the pilot seat and heading for the rear. As he passed, he grabbed the rifle from where it lay.

Alone in the cockpit, Quinn risked a fast look at the GPS display and noted that she needed to adjust her course to reach her destination, which showed as a serpentine white line stretching over and through the landscape ahead on the overhead image, identified onscreen in glowing letters – Lowry Road.

She yelled back…

“Hold on! We’re turning!”

…before pushing the wheel over. Her family scrambled for handholds as the crawler veered up a shallow incline toward a clearing through the rocks, sand spraying into the wind. The sharp angle dug the large tires into the talcum-fine particles and the crawler’s grip faltered, the tires spinning uselessly for a moment, losing precious momentum. A cold knot formed in Quinn’s belly and she mashed down on the accelerator, willing the heavy machine up and over the low ridge. The vehicle’s inertia carried it through…but only barely. Dale and Dev crouched on either side of the open door, hanging on tightly as churned sand shot past. Dale methodically chanted…

“Go baby, go!…Go, baby go!”

The thick tires dug into something solid and the crawler lurched over the top with a growl, onto an open plain; a wide field of long-cold lava columns running along side and a wide spread of green atmosphere development land on the other, defining the horizon. NavCom showed another long stretch of Oxygen Farm fast approaching across their nose, skirting it would be necessary to reach to the road, the road back to The Wine, back to safety. Ignoring the headset bouncing in its bracket beside her head, she reached for the hand mic above, the coiled cable swaying with the crawler’s swerves…

Grissom stifled another yawn and glanced at her monitor’s chronometer. Shift change was imminent…

Thank…fucking…God!

After the splash-down and the tasking of available units to the crash site, things had quickly settled back into a familiar rhythm, with a hint of urgency beneath it all. So far, only the Kilpatricks had reported on-site, but they’d been quiet since they’d disembarked to search the debris field, over an hour ago. Didn’t matter to her…so far, no alarms had sounded, no S.O.S., so all seemed as it should. She pulled her headset off, stretching back to yawn, already imagining her narrow but comfortable bed and how it would feel after a shot of Mechanic’s Brew and a quiet smoke. The door to Operations slid open, and Raj, her shift replacement, shuffled in, already pinning his headset to his faded, blue turban. He saw her and after shooting her with his cheesy finger-guns, mimed sipping from a cup, before heading over to the coffee machine in the corner. No surprise there, it was the young Sikh’s usual routine. He NEEDED his ‘cup o joe’, as he always insisted. Given how lifeless this shift usually left her feeling anyway…she fully understood.

There was a crackle, and a tiny voice abruptly shouted at her from the headset draped loosely around her neck. There was panic in the words.

“Brandywine Station, come in!! This is Buggy! We’re in trouble out here!”

Grissom blinked, for a moment not sure of what she just heard, despite copying every word. Leaning in, her monitor showed the Kilpatrick’s transponder code as a minuscule alpha-numeric careening across the landscape, headed across undeveloped land for the Lowry Road. As she noted the vehicle’s dangerously high speed, Quinn’s static-choked voice crackled in her ear again…

“…something in the debris field…pursuing us…we need help!”

An icicle tickled Grissom’s spine and duty snapped her awake. Pushing into her workstation, she glanced up to see Raj standing frozen in place, mid-sip, eyes wide through the steam, as she said…

“We have a situation! Supe!! Buggy’s in trouble!”

Winslow scurried over, sudden tension written all over as he pushed past Raj, drenching the shift replacement’s beard in hot coffee.

“What?! What’s going on? Is it nuclear?!”

Ignoring the question, Grissom tersely addressed her mic…

“Quinn…what’s happening?! What do you need?!”

Pausing to swerve around a large rock, Quinn clenched the mic, drawing it in close again as she shouted…

“Organisms! Definitely hostile!”

There was a pause…

 “I think we’re being tracked!”

Hearing her through his own headset, Winslow’s mouth dropped open in shock. Radioactive contamination immediately ceased to be his primary concern and he straightened up, reflexively keying his radio frequency over…

“Chief, copy, chief. We’re gonna need you in Operations ASAP. We have a situation.”

Townsend’s reply was almost immediate…

“Copy that. On my way.”

The crawler swerved as Quinn readjusted their course again, aiming for the open end of the rapidly approaching O2 farm; the expanse of stubby, green foliage leading to the steep but shallow canyon of ancient layered rock beyond that hosted the home stretch of the Lowry Service Conduit.

Slamming the CB mic back, she shouted over her shoulder…

“How are we looking, guys?!! Any sign?!”

Dale rose, grabbing a nearby support as the crawler swayed and shifted around them. Dev watched his father questioningly from where he crouched. Dale caught his son’s look and motioned with an open palm – stay there. With that, he turned to the Emergency Exit at the crawler’s rear and depressurized the lock-collar, before throwing the heavy Release lever and swinging the hatch in, hastily locking it to the bulkhead. Shotgun held firmly before him, Dale inched up to the open hatchway, blinking in the sunlight and dust, grabbing for a purchase as Buggy bucked over something unseen, threatening to throw him out. There was very little to observe beyond the plume of sand the racing vehicle was kicking up, everything behind them lost in a dusty yellow haze.

“I honestly can’t see shit back here, babe!”

Dev followed with…

“I’ve got nothing to our right, Mom. Just the O2 patch!”

Over the high whistle of the wind, Quinn only heard indistinct shouts and craned her head around, yelling….

“Say again, guys!!”

Grissom, intently watching her screen as she tracked the Kilpatricks’s erratic path, suddenly keyed her Talk switch, startling Raj, who was hovering nearby, coffee still in hand…

“Buggy!! Eyes forward!!”

The voice in her ear came like a slap in the face and Quinn whipped around, eyes widening as the low rectangle of the Water Treatment Hub servicing the field loomed into view across her vision, its grid of piping leading off over the foliage…

“Oh shit!! Hold on!!”

…as she slammed on the brakes.

The fat tires dug in, spraying sand as the vehicle slid toward the structure’s girder-reinforced side. Dev was thrown to the grated floor, rifle instinctively held close, as Reen hit the bulkhead outside the driver compartment with a yelp, knocking the wind from her, leaving her dazed. Dale tumbled to the deck beside Tobe’s seat, the shotgun spinning from his grip, coming to a stop at the door’s edge. The crawler ground to a halt, swallowed a heartbeat later by its own billowing dust. Quinn could read the red NO STEP warning on the protective beams criss-crossing the hub’s factory-molded skin, seemingly inches from Buggy’s acrylic windscreen, seconds before the dust poured over, and through, blanking out everything. Dale coughed, numbly shaking sand from his hair as he struggled to his knees. Eyes squinted against the stinging murk, he fumbled his way across the deck, fingers feeling along till they reached the rubber grip of the 12 gauge. Sunlight streamed through the thinning dust and their surroundings revealed themselves again. Leaning out the side door, Dale stared in awe, taking in the long, squat structure stretched across Buggy’s nose, inches from contact. With a low whistle, Dale smirked cynically, saying…

“Jesus fucking Christ, lady! Cutting it a little close, huh?”

Quinn fell back in her seat, relief flooding through. Grabbing the headset from which her husband’s tiny voice had emerged, Quinn nodded as she moved it into place…

“Yeah. Just a little. Are we clear to reverse?”

Dale turned his attention to the rear of the crawler, leaning out, looking intently for obstructions. There was movement and he glanced up, noting a marker tower nearby…

The structure stopped suddenly ahead, enveloped in its own dust. The three adults had followed along a natural path, through the scatter of rocks and boulders running parallel to the tracks of their prey, relentlessly keeping pace despite their wounds. They were closing distance and they had sensed the disturbed particles in the air, the ozone charge of the structure’s power source, the outgassing of a reactive compound on the wind and, most notably, the scent of the soft bipedal creatures inside, even when it was out of what some species might know as sight. With a curt bob of the head, ‘Dent’ issued a low hiss where they huddled among the rocks. The other two sprang into action, with ‘Jaw’ slithering into the field nearby, moving unseen through the foliage while ‘Fingers’ darted away in the other direction, using the rocks for cover, quickly out of sight. Left alone, ‘Dent’ scuttled up to the base of the tall structure standing between him and their prey…and nimbly proceeded to climb.

The creature with the wounded skull brazenly slunk its way up the marker tower, effortlessly ascending to where the pulse of the aerial beacon in its crown competed in vain with Amargosa’s mid-day glare. Contorting the sinew and rib of its body with more grace than Nature should allow, the creature fell motionless at the top of Tower C23. Dale couldn’t make out any eyes…but he was certain it was watching him.

In that moment…his nerve broke.

Quinn jumped as the shotgun blast roared and she craned around, eyes wide again…

“What’s happening?!”

Dale racked the slide, sending the spent shell clattering away. The creature merely twitched as the slug popped harmlessly past. Near hysterical, Dale yelled…

“Go, babe, GO! They found us!! Holy shit!”

Quinn didn’t answer, hands already flying over the controls as she set the large crawler in motion. The repetitive warning beep of the reverse siren was loud as Buggy backed away from the hub and its delicate irrigation network, draped over the fields like a spider’s web.

Tobe’s ears rang. He’d watched the shotgun suddenly come up, firing out the Cargo Door at something he couldn’t see. Unstrapping the control box, he leaned forward, unburdened by the weight, fearfully staring down the long axis to the open Emergency door. Framed was the marker tower, and at the top was one of the creatures, watching them, undeterred by his dad’s failed attack. Then Tobe saw the creature angle it’s eyeless, grinning face at…something, away from Buggy. As the crawler ground to a quick stop, shifting gears, fast movement beyond his father’s form suddenly caught the boy’s eye and he quickly turned from the monster on the tower…to the monster launching from the foliage. It sprang over the low fencing in silence, landing at a dead run, charging as the crawler lurched forward. Tobe let out a desperate croak as he jammed a pointing finger at the new threat. Dale heard, looking over; concern momentarily overriding panic. He saw the rigid finger, the direction…and spun back. The beast leaped, the reaching hands impacting with a sharp bang at Dale’s feet, the claws digging into the lower door frame as the obscenely lithe body curled up into the elevated chassis, the long, sinewy limbs finding purchase. Dale stumbled back with a yell, firing blindly out the open door as the creature vanished, disappearing out of sight somewhere beneath them, unharmed.

Quinn jammed her booted foot down and she twisted the wheel over, guiding the large vehicle around the obstructing structure and back on to open ground. There was a sudden impact, Cargo side, and another gunshot boomed as the crawler gained speed. Something wasn’t right. Buggy’s weight distribution was off. Suspicion and fear competed for her attention.

Dev roughly pulled Reen up, tears glistening on her dusty cheeks, and pushed her into a seat behind the cab as he shoved past, rifle clenched in his hands, yelling…

“Dad! I’m coming to you!”

The girl sat motionless, a stricken look overtaking her as the crawler swayed and lurched.

Grissom noted Townsend’s entrance into Operations without averting her scrutiny of Buggy’s panicked flight across the landscape. The small alpha-numeric was moving again, the collision with the Treatment Hub averted by seconds. She only looked up when the colony commander’s barrel-chested form loomed in her peripherals, Townsend’s large, bearded head leaning down to intently study her display. She met his questioning gaze as he spoke, natural authority in his baritone question…

“What’s the Sit-Rep, Gris? Quinn and Dale in something hot?”

Turning back to the screen, Grissom gestured at the display…

“Quinn radioed that…something…had pursued them out of the Salvator debris field…and may be tracking them still. No description. They’re egressing now.”

Townsend’s brow furrowed…

“’Something’?”

Grissom nodded…

“That’s all she said. They’re headed to Lowry, RTBing fast.”

Townsend straightened, towering over the tech as he pondered this information. He reached a decision seconds later and unclipped the small black radio from his belt. Switching to the company-wide frequency, he thumbed the Talk key, his weighty tone echoing over the colony’s PA system…

“Attention, Brandywine Station. We have a Yellow Alert situation. One of our crawlers is on emergency return to base now. We have very little information at this time, but they need our help. MedBay, prep for possible admissions, with Quarantine protocol standing by. Sook, contact me on 4 to coordinate S+R. Let’s help our people, people. Let’s get it done!”

Bulletin over, he switched to Channel 4, as Captain Sook, the Search and Rescue lead, checked in. Grissom watched as Townsend strode over to Winslow, his voice low as he issued commands into the radio. As Grissom turned back, a siren began to wail out over the colony, the low canyon walls returning a dirge-like echo. Hitting her Talk key again, she addressed the alpha-numeric on her screen…

“Quinn, S+R is on the way, scrambling now. Get to Lowry and stay on it. They’ll meet you for escort.”

Relief washed over Quinn and she grinned a tense grin, in spite of herself.

“Roger that, Grissom! Loud n clear! We are nearly there and will most definitely be staying on it! We’ll see you soon!”

The reply in her ear was lost as Quinn remembered Buggy’s abrupt weight differential, her grin vanishing. They weren’t out of this yet. She could see the upcoming turn onto the Lowry Road up ahead and she swerved around another outcropping of rock.

Something glinted in the distance, at altitude. Tobe glimpsed it, through the rising dust behind them. For a moment, the haze cleared, and the shape spoke to him. Tweety! Inbound! He pumped a small fist in the air excitedly…

“Yes!”

Reaching over, he grabbed the pilot’s rig and pushed up from the seat, fighting the sway of the crawler. Dragging the control box across the grated floor by a loose strap, he hurried past his dad and brother, poised fearfully at the Cargo Door, overhearing…

“Is it still under there?!”-“How the hell should I know, Dev?!”-“We have to do something!!”-“I know!! I’m workin on…!”

…as he passed, bracing against the bulkhead, inching his small frame up to the open Emergency Exit door, bathed in sunlight that glittering with swirling dust motes. Crouching, he slipped a small arm through a square of heavy cargo netting bolted to the wall, squinting against the wind and the glare as he tugged on it, to be sure. Confident it would hold, he hauled the control box over, bracing it between his knees as he slipped the goggles into place, tapping back into the drone’s feed with a habitual key stroke. The Weyland-Yutani screen-saver blinked away, replaced by a flash of static…and then he could suddenly see the hazy rising plume marking the vehicle’s swerving path. Buggy was locked in the crosshairs, distance rapidly counting down in the corner, details clearing and growing. Tweety hummed along, zeroing in on the homing sensor in the cage, still locked Open on the crawler’s roof. Tobe thumbed the camera toggle and the view shifted smoothly left as the drone fell in on the crawler’s 6 o’clock position, swirling wispy shapes in the dust as it passed. The craggy outcroppings that swept past below were growing in size on the approach to the canyon…but Tobe still saw the shadow move among them.

A shape, a dark blur, flashed between a pair of low boulders, a spray of dust marking the passage. He swung the camera quickly back and forth, searching. Clucking his tongue nervously, he realized he was still zoomed in, restricted in his coverage. Quickly adjusting, the landscape below widened, again revealing the crawler careening across the landscape, his small form still visible in the narrow doorway as the bulky vehicle slowed, turning onto the wide, hard-packed, cliff-side trail that was Lowry Road, before quickly accelerating again.

There!

The shape, hunched low, tore from the rocks at the roadside, scrambling up a sloped outcropping and bounding as the crawler straightened, picking up speed. There was a loud thump and the sun falling on the boy darkened, cooling suddenly as an alien shadow filled the doorway with a wet hiss. Reen cut loose with a blood-curdling scream, aghast as the silhouetted creature loomed over her sibling, the goggles still fixed over the boy’s eyes. Dev looked up as Tobe scrambled blindly away from the door, seeing the creature’s shape poised menacingly, the bladed tail whipping back and forth in the closing distance in the goggles. He saw it abruptly snatch at something in the crawler…and felt an iron grip, like cold steel, grasp his ankle…and pull. Acting reflexively as fear punched him in the gut, he mashed his finger into the control box’s Throttle, barely hearing his brother shout over the panicked pulse of blood in his ears…

“Tobe, stay down!!”

Dev pushed away from the door, quickly bringing the rifle up to his shoulder. As the creature ruthlessly dragged Tobe away, Dev found the trigger, squeezing. The shot battered the inside of the crawler, the muzzle flash bright. The flechette punched through the shoulder, jerking the creature back with a high shriek. Still clutched in its grasp, the small boy abruptly disappeared out the door, his form violently wrenched away, lost instantly in the crawler’s dust cloud as he vanished from sight, dropping from the alien’s wounded, two-fingered grip.

‘Fingers’ trembled with frustration…shrieked in pain. The prey had been in his grasp, he’d felt the warmth of the flesh, the bone and muscle in his grip. But that grip had been weak…digits missing…the wounds painful. But gone now, was the prey. Lost. There was now more pain. Yellow blood ran from the crater in the shoulder, caustic drops yanked away by the wind as the dark creature clung to the structure, pressed close to the sun-warmed skin as it sped down a shallow incline, cold instinct rising dangerously again. He calculated…and moved, climbing toward the structure’s roof, around the exposed entrance way, his blood aggressively pitting and burning the metal skin where it made contact.

Tobe had been there…right there.

Now…gone.

In shock, Dev stared at the empty Emergency Exit as the crawler sped down into the canyon; craggy rock face on one side, sheer drop-off to the canyon floor on the other. The billowing dust beyond the doorway had swallowed his little brother as the boy tumbled away, yanked from safety by a star beast formed of nightmares.

His little brother was gone.

Anguish clouded his mind, confusion and guilt intermingling. Shaking these away and raising the rifle again, Dev allowed rage to take over.

There was a scrambling sound, from outside, and a sinister shadow danced over door frame, slipping roof-ward. With a growl, Dev lurched forward, fury rolling over his fear like a thunderclap, readying for the next squeeze of the trigger.

The one that kills that fucking thing!

Dale, eyes wide and glistening, shook his head angrily as grief flared within. He knew they couldn’t stop, even if they were able to. The sand was soft, it was cool in the shadows…Tobe was a tough little kid and just over the next rise, they would be able to see home. They were close and he could take a good knock. There could…be a chance. Once they reach the S+R crew, they would turn back…find him. Bring him home.

Couldn’t they?

Dev slammed into the Emergency Exit’s edge, grabbing for the cargo net, a manic grimace etched across his face. There was a thud, outside, and he realized the creature had reached Buggy’s roof, clambering up and over the edge. The rage-fueled teenager boldly thrust his face out into the sunlight, in time to see the creature’s segmented tail slipping away, the blade-like tip quivering with excitement. Awkwardly brandishing the rifle in one hand, Dev took a sharp breath and leaned out, hastily bringing the muzzle up, the heavy net straining in his grip. As the roadway blurred beneath him, he could see the alien creature again, hunched over the open drone cage, facing away into the buffeting wind. The rifle’s barrel danced over the ribbed torso and the Dev pulled the trigger, growling a vengeful…

“Fuck you!”

The flechette impacted with a *snap*, digging deep. The creature reared up with a fearsome cry, arching it’s back as it whirled around, the tail aggressively whipping back and forth. Dev’s quick sneer of triumph vanished – it was going to attack!

The jaws parted, the teeth glinting.

Tweety returned home then.

The drone impacted from above, instantly silencing the creature’s fearsome hiss; the long, curved skull rupturing under the 320 lb impact, mutilated chunks grotesquely spraying free. The thick, yellow liquid violently splashed across the roof, and burst into the wind as the body was mercilessly smashed down into the drone’s storage cage, Tweety dutifully obeying it’s Recall program. The spray enveloped the exposed boy…and the rifle skipped away, dropped as Dev’s hand flew to his face, where something was burning. The irritation blossomed into agony and acrid smoke wisped through his clutching fingers, torn by the wind. The taste of dust filled his senses, confusing him. He would never realize the flesh of his cheek was gone, burned through in seconds, exposing bloody, gritted teeth through the mess. Panic clouded his mind as he fought to understand, to act.

It was in vain.

Moments later the acidic blood pierced his skull, a violent spasm kicking through his body as brain tissue was mercilessly devoured, his grip on the straining cargo net faltering. The body tumbled away, cart-wheeling like a ragdoll and soaring over the cliffside, gracefully arcing toward the rocky canyon floor below.

Dale was frozen in place, head locked over his shoulder, unwatched shotgun still trained at the vehicle’s underside, where the other creature hid. His mind fracturing, he’d now seen Buggy’s Emergency Exit claim both his sons. He still hoped for Tobe…but he knew Dev was gone.

Tobe’s small form was crumpled at the road’s edge, blood on the rocks around him, veiled in dust. He was motionless, sprawled, the pilot goggles smashed beside him; delicate, broken pieces glinting in the sun as the dust cleared, the sound of the chase fading along the canyon walls. His small chest suddenly heaved and he coughed – dust…and blood-flecked saliva. Blinking weakly, he struggled to breath, coughing again. The sun was painfully brilliant, but it was indistinct and murky in the boy’s struggling sight. Absently noting a grating sensation in his neck, Tobe weakly turned away, blinking, his vision not clearing. Nothing felt right. Thoughts came out of sequence, seemingly not his own. There was no pain…only a numbness, a tingle. Nothing made sense. Fading…he was fading. The piercing indistinctness of the sun was abruptly eclipsed by a vast, misshapen shadow and Tobe, still blinking, haltingly looked back…there were no details he could make out through the fog of brain damage, but he felt…comfort, as the dark shape loomed over him, filling his failing view. A quiet word slipped from his red-smeared lips…

“Mom?”

She could sense the chase ahead – the vibrations in the rocks whispered to her where she paused among them, her rage giving rise to a steely determination. She could also sense her offspring, two of them on the attack, with ‘Dent’ closing fast through the rocks above. It would be over soon. She strode forward, rounding a cliff-side bend, her senses sweeping over the myriad of tracks deforming the omni-present layer of dust, noting the incline ahead.

Then…

Slowing for a cautious approach, she loomed over the form of the small male creature, helpless in the rocks. She could sense it fading, and felt a moment of pity. This small animal would have birthed a strong example, a loyal offspring, for her and her kind. No longer. For a moment, she mourned. Still…all was not lost. Within, another instinct rumbled, and she cocked her wide head, narrow black lips quivering, pulling away, pale drool stringing in the wind. The diminutive male creature only made one small sound as she leaned in…and took her first bite.

The creature’s relentless fluids ate at the crawler’s body, a thick smoke mingling with the billowing dust as the vehicle’s stern rapidly disintegrated, smouldering pieces falling away. As the drone’s propellers went still, blood from the mangled pulp of the alien corpse pitted the robot’s tough body, chewing at the heavy battery package. Something flared…and Tweety blew apart with a sharp *bang*, tearing into the weakened rooftop and shattering the collapsed sensor mast in a chaotic spray of debris.

Quinn’s focus was rigidly locked ahead, frantically anticipating each turn and dip in the winding road as she pushed the crawler through. The steep drop-off to the left was an omnipresent threat, as was the craggy rock face dominating the right…but she knew rescue was close. There was a sudden disturbance behind her, in the rear cabin…but she mentally shoved it away, survival instinct overtaking her. Accelerating up the road’s next curving slope, she suddenly found herself fighting for control, as a loud concussion shook the crawler.

Dale jumped back as the smouldering, pitted ceiling shattered in at him, exploding in a shower of sparks, the bulkhead wall collapsing in smoking pieces to scatter over the road behind them. The intertwined remains of Tweety and the creature tumbled free a moment later, crashing to the road’s hot surface through the smoke, lost to the dust seconds later. Frantically shielding his face with an arm, he spun toward Reen, moving to shield her.

He never saw the attack.

In a flash, the curled tail snapped up like a spear from the alien’s hiding place under the chassis, lancing into the crawler. Dale stumbled, feeling impact…but no pain. Reen’s small fists flew to her mouth, eyes meeting his from where she sat, a scream brewing. A breath hitched painfully in his chest…words escaped him…and he glanced down in time to see the crimson-smeared blade of the creature’s tail slide away, vanishing back into his E-suit, leaving a ragged tear. Still…no pain. Just a wet shortness in his chest. He weakened suddenly, falling back against the edge of the Cargo Door, a cough spilling a drool of dark red as he fought to stay upright. Reen leaped to her feet, a hand reaching for her father as she stumbled forward. Dale fell to his knees, eyelids heavy, the shotgun clattering away harmlessly as he fought for breath. With an anguished groan, he pushed against the rise and fall of the floor, leaning back, reaching for a nearby Safety bar, ready to pull himself upright. The second attack was equally fast, the tail striking again with uncanny precision. Blood burst into the sunlight, spraying the bulkhead, as the blade-like tip pierced his throat, severing the spine from behind, and puncturing the esophagus in the blink of an eye. Dale’s eyes went dead like a switch was thrown. He slumped forward, expiring with a final, bubbling wheeze, hunched over, the kneeling body swaying with the movement of the crawler, framed in the open doorway. The lethal tail snaked out of sight. Reen stood frozen in place, unaware of the warm spatter across her shoulder, her mind blank…traumatized. There was scuttling beneath her feet, the murderous creature on the move again, deftly slipping among the blur of moving parts, only feet from the rush of sandy road below, as it crept.

With a shaking of the head that grew more pronounced as she stepped away, the young girl backed quickly into the bulkhead, throwing a frantic look to the cockpit; Quinn was fixed to the controls, intently locked on the road ahead, unaware. She sensed movement in her peripherals and stole a quick glance back, meeting the Reen’s stricken gaze, bathed in far more sunlight than Buggy’s bulky body should ever allow. She smelled smoke too…dust…and she grimly noted the iron undertone of blood in the air. The girl’s mouth opened…but no words escaped. A cold lump formed inside, and Quinn knew things would never be the same as she saw the spatter across Reen’s shoulder. Sensing the crest of the hill approaching, she gave the girl a curt nod, teeth clenched beneath pale lips, and turned away as the crawler rumbled over the rise. Hazy with distance, she could abruptly see the vast funnel-shape of the Atmosphere Processing Station dominating the canyon’s far side; the small geometric arrangement of blocks making up Brandywine Station nestled into the canyon floor between her and that cold behemoth of a structure – Home.

Mashing down on the Talk key, Quinn shouted a message the colony would never receive…

“Brandywine Station, I have you in sight!! ETA on link-up?!!”

There was only the fierce crackle of static, the communications transmitter a smoking mess on the remains of the roof, dangling from a frayed cable. As Quinn thumbed Talk again, a shadow flashed overhead, cutting the sunlight as it leaped from the edge of the cliffs above, realization cutting her words off.

There was a heavy thud and Reen spun around, seeing another sinister shape poised in the doorway, rising slowly from its hard landing. She noted the gouge in the skull as the grinning, eyeless face turned her way; a strobe of sunlight and shadow playing over it through ruined walls. Among the debris littering the floor around her, she saw Dad’s large crescent wrench, and grabbed it without thinking, holding it before her like a shield, angry tears stinging her eyes. Dale’s body, the torso now soaked red, swayed at the beast’s side, lifeless in its limp imitation of prayer. Turning away from her, it looked down, a clawed hand sliding though Dale’s fluttering mess of hair, long clawed fingers sliding over the cooling skull, almost gentle, before roughly tightening, pulling the head up as it leaned in to examine the body.

Something in Reen boiled over, and she screamed…

“Don’t touch my dad, you asshole!!”

…hurling the wrench with all her might. The heavy tool struck the alien in the chest and it jerked back, teetering, the curve of the skull glinting as it snapped its attention back to the juvenile female animal that had attacked it.

Reen frantically searched for another weapon…but it was too late. The creature charged as Dale’s limp body fell over, rolling heavily out the door.

There was a frantic commotion behind the cockpit; something thumping violently against the bulkhead, slamming back and forth. Quinn had a quick flash in the corner of her eye of flailing limbs and a dark shape looming, striking. There was one scream, a shrill girl’s scream, and blood burst past, spraying the windscreen…the controls. Grabbing the handgun, Quinn whirled around in her seat as the creature leaped away, Reen’s body clenched tightly to it as it deftly jumped through a large, ragged hole in Buggy’s skin, swallowed by the dust. With a hoarse yell of anguish, Quinn fired blindly…striking nothing. There was a coarse screech and she spun back as another, the jawless creature, slunk out from under the crawler, the toothy inner mouth yawning open beneath the remaining top row of fangs. It clambered over the nose, up the windscreen, the sharp nails scarring the worn acrylic surface, eclipsing her view ahead as it studied the barrier between it and its prey, hastily searching for weaknesses as it was buffeted by the wind. All hope lost, Quinn brought the gun up at point blank range, blasting holes in the screen as she floored the Accelerator, the shots deafening in the tight cab. The rounds punched through the creature, jerking it back as pale fluid sprayed, splashing grotesquely across her view. Keeling forward, ‘Jaw’ thumped down heavily and, with one set of claws relentlessly dug in, slowly slid away, inner mouth weakly snapping as it passed, it’s blood smearing after it, immediately bubbling.

The limp alien creature slipped from the crawler’s blunt nose, bouncing heavily off the thick bumper a mere second before the skeletal body was smashed into the ground, crushed into Oblivion by the blur of Buggy’s thick-tread tires with a loud crunch. Ragged pieces, soggy material fluttering, were thrown through the dusty air, bouncing off the crawler’s underside in splashes of yellow.

The hard skin of the two reserve fuel bladders began to smoke.

Quinn felt a desperate numbness as she watched the swath of hard, clear material before her bubble and melt, smoke billowing from each splash to pour back over the crawler’s ruined body. Her mind and soul were numb, beyond horror.

She could hear the hiss of the acid now, over the scream of the wind through the bullet holes.

The cockpit exploded with sound and fury as the splashes of blood burned through. Quinn instinctively ducked away…but it did no good. She was pelted, splashed by the maelstrom of shards and acid that tore at her like shrapnel, cutting and burning its way through everything it contacted. Seconds before her blood leaked through an eye, blinding her, she saw the monstrous rock fast approaching, framed in the smoking edges of the destroyed windscreen as her vision went dark.

The heavy boulder, dug in for centuries, didn’t yield as the crawler’s front left tire impacted at full speed. The axle instantly shattered, the wheel smashing away from the frame, inertia forcing the vehicle’s mass forward with no mercy. As Buggy slewed out of control, the loose tire assembly was struck hard by its rear counterpart, the impact springing the disintegrating stern up and over, tipping as it barreled over the side of the cliff, continuing in a gentle spin; the cloud of smoke and dust cork-screwing out behind it casting an ominous shadow as it plummeted, the engine roaring…

A moment later…

…Buggy struck the canyon floor on its side with a deafening crash, everything behind the cab twisting and shattering, cloaked in the violent burst of sand and rock that shot skyward. The wreckage skipped and rolled across the terrain before settling in a heap at the bottom of a shallow dune, the echo cracking off the canyon walls rising on both sides…

All fell quiet, punctuated by the mournful whisper of the wind…and the far-off echo of a siren.

The tick of cooling metal competed with the fading hiss of still-burning acid. Smoke  poured from the devastated remains.

There was movement on the road above.

‘Dent’ slunk his way along, roughly dragging his prize; the prey’s limp appendages raising dust as he moved back up the road, leaving the structure smouldering on the canyon floor below. He sensed She was close and paused, head angled expectedly toward the crest of the hill ahead. Through the gaseous waves of rising heat, the shorn crown emerged as She strode into view, ‘Fingers’ lost prey clutched to her chest, pieces wetly missing, her smaller appendages clenching the mauled remains tightly in clawed hands. Her shadow loomed over that of her surviving offspring and she leaned down to affectionately nuzzle his damaged skull before examining his kill. Submissively, he backed away, tail wavering, as she swept her large, grinning face back and forth over the body before her. Strands of the dead animal’s blond hair fluttered in the wind as She grasped the remains, pulling them to her bosom to hold alongside the other felled prey, unmindful of the dark, still-warm fluids messily dribbling over her armoured ribcage to pool in the dust below. Though she mourned for the young she lost, there was hope. The sustenance she held would carry the two of them through…less mouths, more nourishment. Rising to her full height, she cast her reach into the wide expanse of canyon that lay before them. In the distance she sensed more prey, more hosts…she could make out many more domiciles…and beyond them a vast looming structure; the wide cone-shape awakening a genetic memory of sanctuary and nourishment, of a large, loving brood…on a much darker, colder world. Her reach, though weakened by distance, felt no life present within the shape. It was dark and empty.

It was shelter.

It will be…home.

Quinn was alive…only barely. Cruelly embraced by the wreckage around her, she was bleeding, blind, and paralyzed. Unable to see, her tired mind was retreating into itself as she faded away. In the darkness, she saw her family in happier times, felt comfort in the images. What remained of her senses dimly acknowledged the sharp smell of ozone, the violent charge in the dusty air and the sudden vicious crackle.

The crumpled remains of the crawler flashed from within, sharp stabs of blue light spastically strobing through the veil of rising smoke. The vehicle’s power plant, pitted by acid and ruptured in the crushing impact, collapsed; the containment housing crumbling amid blinding arcs of escaping electricity.

Buggy exploded, the stricken remains blowing apart in a sharp crash of sparks and debris that skipped across the sand in all directions. The undercarriage bucked, smashing in half, and in the blink of an eye, ruptured the two acid-weakened reserve fuel bladders running along the crawler’s underside. They splashed open, waxy synthetic petroleum melted to a liquid in the heat. The bursting spray shot through the rain of sparks, igniting with a ferocious *BOOM!*. What remained was abruptly engulfed in a rolling ball of flame that angrily shot skyward, the mangled cab smashed and punched into the sand. The shockwave slammed over the canyon walls like a swinging fist, dislodging sand and rock.

The structure in the canyon below, locked in her sights as she and ‘Dent’ approached along the road above, vanished, instantly replaced by a sudden blast of fire. Hunching down protectively, she shielded her offspring, pushing them both close along the cliff-face as a column of flame and smoke burst past. The shock came a moment later…punching at her exposed back. As the pain registered, her reach sensed something suddenly happening around them.

The canyon walls, brittle in places, yielded to the concussion, crumbling apart and collapsing as the pillar of black smoke billowed out of the canyon, marking the horizon with a tall oily smudge.

With grace her size didn’t suggest, she leaped away as the road cracked beneath them, the dusty surface collapsing as the cliff-face overhead crumbled apart, crashing down in a thick cloud. ’Dent’ sprang away, nimbly leaping from boulder to boulder, making for the shadowy safety of a rocky overhang nearby, with her looming right behind, hunched low, the food clutched protectively.

The rock slide poured into the canyon, the billowing wash of rocks and dust pummeling the flaming mass that had caused its existence, mercilessly blanking the wreckage from sight with a fearsome roar. Caught on the hot wind, the cloud pushed along, dissipating quickly, leaving dozens of dusty rivulets cascading down off the scarred rocks.

In the shadow of the overhang, Mother and Child hunkered, sand raining down around them, particles twinkling in the wind. As the sunlight brightened, she craned her head over, the remains of her crown scraping, again reaching toward the collection of low structures. Through the rising smoke that swirled around them… she sensed activity in the distance.

Had there been human witnesses, they would have seen the two dots rising vertically through the heat over Brandywine Station; colony S+R hoppers lifting off  as a collection of ground vehicles raced through the station’s roads below, hastily heading for the on-ramp to Lowry Road, marking their passage with familiar plumes of dust. The dirge-like cry of the Emergency Siren underscored the desperate race, echoing up the canyon toward the crash site, urging the would-be rescuers along.

Patience, she projected to her surviving offspring…they will come. As ‘Dent’ took heed of her message with a low bow, he pulled back, pushing into his mother’s shadow as she pulled sand and rock down over them, long arms and skeletal fingers dragging rocks and shovel-like scoops of dislodged sand into place, masking them in the dust and shadows of the cliff-side. As the faint sound of engines approached on the wind, the two alien creatures fell still, hellish statues awaiting discovery.

 

Brandywine Station stopped broadcasting 11 days later.

 

The Planet

DESIGNATE: BP(02)-S2A aka Amargosa

Weyland-Yutani developed ‘world-in-progress’ terraforming project

Bio-forming Development Protocol

72% Environmental Targets achieved

Board Certified: Loss

CURRENT STATUS:

*QUARANTINE PROTOCOL ENACTED*

*RESTRICTED ACCESS – LEVEL 1*

*VIABLE SPECIMENS DETECTED, COLLECTION EFFORTS UNDERWAY*

*ALL OTHER CONSIDERATIONS SECONDARY*

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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