by: Chris Thompson
The dripping of waters and the pouring of rains, what power it wields when it never fades…..
The rains were perpetual. Infinite. An unwelcome visitor that came at you with jarring fists and a thundering roar. Only the fists weren’t hands, they were dense, swollen droplets that harassed you from above, drenching your frame in endless barrages of tepid moisture. Its saturating presence tugging at your limbs and toying with your mind, weighing you down as you hacked your way blindly through the dense, sweltering jungle. Such was the nature of Dawn, a hazy-blue moon orbiting lazily above a swollen gas giant, and all who made planetfall felt its watery sting.
To set foot upon Dawn was to realize that the rains weren’t alone in their persecution, for the jungle was alive as well. Its dull, pulpy vegetation writhing like a fistfull of snakes as it propagated amidst the endless showers of slanting rain. From every direction snaked dense cordons of bruised-looking tendrils, flitting treacherously between your feet and harassing you as you trekked. One had to be mindful of where they stepped on Dawn, for the jungle creepers quickly grabbed hold, overwhelming anything that paused long enough for them to take notice.
Life amid the jungle was harsh, the competition for its meager resources intense. Lifespans were measured in terms of hours, not years, and that concept became glaringly evident as we slashed our way through its dense, suffocating lands, searching frantically for our salvation.
It was on the third day out from our smoldering crash site, as we followed the banks of a swollen, effervescent river, its purple-grey waters hissing as they released their gaseous cargo, that the first member of our party fell ill.
Jenkins had seemed no worse off than the rest of us in the days leading up to his death. We had become by then a damp and sullen assemblage of men, simplistic notions of dry clothing and blue, cloudless skies consuming our thoughts as we walked in silence, the pummeling cadence of the rains echoing endlessly inside our heads.
“I…I…I…need to stop!” Jenkins had exclaimed suddenly as we stood huddled together, our arms interlocked. We were navigating a particularly slick stretch of the gray, muddy riverbank, the loose ground falling away in large swaths around us, and were depending on each other for support. “I need to stop now!” Jenkins repeated adamantly, trying to wrest his arms back from our collective grasp.
“Okay! Okay! But not here dammit,” Wilkers, our ships commander, shouted over his shoulder, the roaring hiss of the river muffling the frustration in his words. “It’s not safe here…the ground could give way at any moment.” And as he spoke a large mass of muddy earth slid down the embankment behind us, dissolving with a plume of mist into the frothy waters below.
“Yesss…here,” Jenkins sputtered, the words spilling forth from his ragged lips in strained, torturous gasps. “It…hasss…to…beeeee…here.”
We were powerless to stop him, lest we all tumbled into the charging river, so we unlocked our arms, freeing ourselves from his grip and inched ourselves cautiously up the slippery bank. We had barely reached the edge of the jungle, the pulsating fronds of the creepers vibrating with our approach, before a series of small tremors wracked Jenkins frame, turning his pale, waterlogged flesh from white to black to blue.
Reflexively, I reached out my arm, anxious to help him. Desperate to grab hold of his rain-soaked jumpsuit and pull him in close, but our bodies seemed miles away. I wiped the dripping rain from my bleary eyes and watched in shock as he quickly went rigid, his face frozen in a glassy expression of terror. A moment later his limbs seized violently and Jenkins spine arched fatally backwards, a loud popping sound announcing each dislocated vertebrae.
Purcell, our ship’s first officer and Jenkins closest thing to a friend, called out loudly as we watched him collapse to his knees, his actions seeming more mechanical than natural, like he was being steered from afar. His hands landed heavily in the soft mud behind him with a sickening plop, sinking up to his wrists and anchoring him to the riverbank. We became aware of a low, moaning sound drifting in on the rains as Jenkins spine arched further, driving his head back to stare wildly into the rain-choked sky.
I became a cowering mass of defeated optimism in that moment, a silent witness to Dawn’s primal ferocity. Intense waves of helplessness washed over me, further eroding my weakening resolve. My tenacity to continue, to seek rescue, to escape the confines of this watery prison was fading fast, flowing away with the pummeling rains. The more I realized Jenkins was beyond our aid the more I became aware of my own mortality. That we could all meet similar fates.
Like a waterlogged statue I stood, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding before me, watching through exhausted eyes as Jenkins mouth opened wide, a muffled crack echoing out as his jaw sharply dislocated. The intensity of the rain suddenly picked-up, narrowing my vision only to him, to that muddy section of the riverbank to which he clung. I imagined Jenkins mouth gradually filling with water, the warm liquid trickling down his throat and into his lungs, slowly drowning him alive. I wished for a gun, a weapon, anything I could use to end his suffering.
Jamming my hand into my pocket, my fingers alighted upon the sharp point of my fountain pen, a gift from my wife that I had forgotten about. My thoughts instantly rushed back to her, to her kind face and warm smile. I pulled the pen out quickly, my fear lessened somewhat by the remembrance of her face, but I was unsure of my actions. For a brief moment I stood, looking down at the silvery cylinder, fingering the contours of its smooth, rounded shape and wondering if I could use it to hasten Jenkins end.
Another shout from Purcell brought me back. But before I could act, the stalk of an orange-red plant burst forth from Jenkins gaping mouth, deep-colored shoots spilling outwards in a fountain of fleshy leaves. Its fronds were splitting rapidly, subdividing at a frantic pace, climbing over one another as they towered wildly into the air. Seconds later the plant climaxed in a brilliant bloom of pale, waxen flowers. It had all happened so fast.
I took a step towards Jenkins, to where he was anchored to the ground, cemented in place by the actions of the deadly plant, but Wilkers threw out his arm and shook his head. As we continued to watch, a phalanx of transparent sacs below the flowers burst, releasing into the air a dense spray of ghost-like spores. They coated the ground and drifted off on the breeze, settling over the water and heading downstream with its powerful flow.
“Water-seeking Banyan Vine,” Wilkers shouted, seemingly unaffected by what had transpired. “Jenkins must’ve inhaled some of its spores when we crash-landed. Poor bastard. Nuthin’ we can do for him now. He’s a goner for sure, more plant on the inside now than man.”
Jesus I thought, terrified by the prospect of what I could have just walked into. This place is fucking insane. How the hell are we going to make it out alive? I looked over to Purcell, to gauge how he was handling the loss of his friend, but his red, watery eyes were wide with terror. Turning back to the riverbank I stared in disbelief as the Banyan vine dissolved, turning from a soft, grayish pulp to a thin, watery film that washed away effortlessly in the pouring rain.
Jenkins body was slowly relaxing, the tension in his muscles gradually lessening as the Banyan vines control over him diminished. But the jungle wasn’t finished with him yet. Snaking through the soft mud came the fleshy tendrils of the jungle creepers, their bruised-looking limbs sliding out to encompass him, wrapping themselves probingly around thighs and ankles, furious blooms of feathery shoots erupting forth from coils of vegetation as thick as my arm.
“Isn’t there anything we can do Wilkers?” our ships engineer Torres, fresh out of the Academy and green as hell, hollered, his hand clutched to his forehead in disbelief “Like, shouldn’t we try and bury him at least or something?”
“Nah, the jungles got him now kid. There’ll be nothing left but the tattered remains of his jumpsuit in an hour or so. Best to keep on moving and flush this from your thoughts. We’ve got enough to worry about. You see that ridge up there, the one peeking through the clouds? We gotta be up and over that before nightfall if we have any chance of making it to the Sun-Dome today. I doubt we could survive another sleepless night out here in this goddamn jungle so we best get moving.”
As we trudged along, leaving the fragmented shores of the iridescent river for the unease of the crowded jungle, my thoughts drifted once more to the Sun-Domes. They were our sanctuary. Our oasis in the desert. Only the deserts on Dawn weren’t made of sand, they were made of water. Endless, choking water that fell unremittingly from cloud-filled skies. There were six Sun-Domes spread across the moon’s surface, and our ship had crash landed less than a weeks trek from one. Each dome was fully independent and well-stocked, enough supplies to last for months within its steely walls. Food, beds, showers, dry clothing…it was all there. Plus long-range comm’s and medical supplies. But despite all those comforts and excess, the most attractive feature of the Sun-Domes were their artificial suns.
At its center, each Sun-Dome had a vast, cavernous room. A great hall with soaring transepts and polished, metallic walls that supported a convex roof tiled in mirrors. And at its apex hung a fiery orb, a miniature sun awash in familiar ochre light. Light that calmed an anxious heart and warmed rain-weary bones. Obediently it shone, a radiating sentinel chasing away the rains, dutifully laboring to reset the body’s rhythms so easily disrupted by Dawn’s perpetual grays. It was a promise, a small piece of manufactured hope that we clung to fervently and we had to find it soon if we had any hopes of survival.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get to the Sun-Dome Wilkers?” I asked, hoping to lighten the mood as we slogged our way through the suffocating jungle. A limb had just reached out to grab me and I brushed it away quickly with my hand, the thick stalk emitting a shrill cry as it recoiled. “Me, I’m going tear off my clothes, grab a pair of sunshades, and plant myself squarely below that miniature sun. Hell, I might even turn it up full blast, until the air starts to ripple and my skin begins to tingle. You know what I mean Wilkers?”
“I don’t give a rats-ass about your plans Doc,” Wilkers growled.
He was becoming increasingly abrasive, the changes in his attitude troubling me. Determined to get an answer from him I continued on.
“C’mon now old friend. No need to spoil the mood. Humor me…doctors orders.”
“You wanna know what I’m gonna do? Huh Doc? Well here it is. The second we get there I’m gonna change outta these goddamn waterlogged clothes, that’s for damn sure. Then I’m gonna get me a proper pair of boots, some of that new Dri-fit gear and raid the commissary for whiskey and smokes. After that I’ll find a nice, comfortable chair, far away from the likes of you fools and sit back and wait for the cavalry to arrive.”
Fools? I thought. The rains were definitely starting to take their toll on Wilkers usually stoic disposition. I’d never known him to be so abrasive in all the years we’d served together. “How long do you think that’ll take?” I asked.
“I figure we could raise Kells Deep on the dish and get a rescue bird out here in two or three weeks if we’re lucky.”
“Two or three weeks? That long?” Torres whined, pausing to wipe the moisture from his face with a rain-soaked sleeve. “What about raising a ship out of Geyser or Beta-Tau? They could be here in a week at most if they left right away.”
“Nah, Geyser’s mining season is done with kid. Anyone with a ship has moved on already. And Beta-Tau? That outpost’s been abandoned for years. Haven’t you been paying attention to the news feeds? Problem with the native species. Some kinda’ uprising that scared away all the colonists. No, Kells Deep is the closest planet. Course it all depends on whether the Sun-Dome’s dish is up and running when we get there.”
“I’ll get it running!” Torres replied aggressively, his youth and untested enthusiasm coming off as arrogance.
“How about you Purcell?” You’ve been awfully quiet since we left the river. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we get to the Sun-Dome?” I asked, looking over my shoulder, struggling to make him out though the flitting shadows of the late afternoon rains.
“I’m going call Jenkins wife and tell her that he died,” he said somberly, stopping before me and putting his hand upon my shoulder so that he could rest. The memories of Jenkins loss flooded once more into my mind and I fought hard to push them back down.
“They’ve got a kid now, you know? A little girl, Nora’s her name. She should know what happened to her father while it’s still fresh in our minds.”
“Oh bullshit Purcell!” Wilkers yelled suddenly, wheeling to face us, his enormous fists clenched threateningly before him. He had a wild, far-off look in his eyes that radiated savagery and I quickly turned my back to Purcell, stepping in front of Wilkers to stop his advances.
“You always have to be the one that takes the moral high ground, dontcha’ Purcell? I never liked ya’ all that much you know that? Always prancing around like you’re better than us! Questioning my command! Thinking your highborn status means sumthin’ out here in the darkness of space!” Fat, swollen droplets of moisture fell off his face, splashing heavily across mine, as he hollered through the rains. His thick, towering frame, waterlogged and dense, began to steadily push up against mine, driving me slowly backward in the mud as I tried to hold him still.
“Easy now Wilkers. Where’s this coming from buddy? Purcell meant you no harm.” I shouted in his ear.
“The hell he did Doc.”
“He’s not like that at all Wilkers. Hey, c’mon now, you know that. This is Purcell we’re talking about. The three of us, we go back a long time.”
Wilkers ignored my words, trying stubbornly to elbow his way past me, but a creeper took hold of his ankle in the struggle and slowed him down.
“Well, whaddya’ gonna’ do Purcell? Since you think you’re so much better than the rest of us.” Wilkers yelled as he fought to kick his ankle free of the creeper. “Tell me, how you gonna tell her? You gonna reach through the holo-screen, give Jenkins wife a hug? Her little girl too? Hold their hands? Maybe lie to them a little bit and say it’s all gonna be okay? That he died fighting? The he was brave? Hell, we’re millions of miles…billions of miles away from Earth man! Look all around you, nothing but rainfall and death! What’s the rush? A few months ain’t gonna do nuthin’ to change the fact that she’s back there on Earth alive and Jenkins is here on this moon…dead. His body fertilizing some fucked up plant. Why not tell her when we get back to Earth, when we’ve dried out from this godforsaken shithole, and when we’re all in our right minds? Shhhhhit man, I’ll even go with ya’!”
“Because I made a promise to Jenkins when we crash-landed you brute, as we were walking away from the wreckage. And I always keep my word.”
“Yeah, well, I know a good place where you can stuff your word Purcell. The whole lot of ya’ actually,” Wilkers snarled accusingly, pointing his finger at us all as he kicked his ankle free of the winding creeper. “And I know what y’all are thinking. I can see it in your eyes Doc. Your’s too Torres. Old Wilkers is off his rocker. Starting to lose his shit. Well, maybe I am fellas, but I feel sorry for the person who tries to do sumthin’ about it.”
“Easy Wilkers. Here, take my last Calmer, it’ll help settle you down.”
“Fuck off Torres! I don’t need no pill. What I need is to get off this fucking moon! Now! I’ve had enough of this fantasizing about what we’ll do when we get to the Sun-Dome so lets get movin’, that ridgeline ain’t gonna climb itself!”
As Wilkers stormed off, his wide frame crashing erratically through the dense jungle growth, I tried to compare the man I knew with what had just occurred. His erratic behavior was an obvious reaction to our predicament; to too many hours without sleep under the continual bombardment of the rains. And we’d been through rough experiences in our past. Frightful, hair-raising moments that you kept to yourself, never spoke of, played over in your mind as you laid awake at night, but I’d never seen him act this way before.
In all the years we’d known each other, since we’d come up through Academy, cutting our teeth aboard the same aging freighter and moving up through the ranks, he had always been calm, steady Wilkers. The man was dependable as hell, as solid as they came, comfortable inside a tornado, which was all the more reason why his reaction was so troubling. Jenkins death could have easily been the tipping point for Wilkers. He was the kind of man who’d rather die than show any hint of an emotion, choosing to keep it bottled all up inside. It was his ship after all and these were his men. If Wilkers could lose it, we all could. And for me that was a troubling thought.
We made it up and over the cloud-choked ridge with a few hours of daylight to spare, the sun’s thin, filtered light slowly lessening as it drifted towards the horizon. Wilkers unease with the world had set for us a blistering pace and as we descended swiftly down the backside of the hill the thickness of the jungle faded out. We came upon a clearing and paused to catch our breaths, grateful to be free of the close-pressed jungle but feeling anxious as we gazed upon the mist-filled valley below.
I went over to Purcell, to where he was squatting low to the ground, struggling to get a heading on the Sun-Dome’s beacon. The thin dials of his handheld Finder searched probingly for the signal, running through wide spectrums of energy as it zeroed in on the repetitive tone. From where we crouched I could keep an eye on Wilkers as he stood off by himself, kicking the toe of his boot mindlessly into the soft, muddy ground. He would look up from time to time to glare suspiciously in our direction, his cold eyes silently weighing the risks of me and Purcell’s interaction.
“What’s it say Purcell?” I spoke softly by his side, keeping my eyes locked on Wilkers.
“We’re close Doc, shouldn’t be long now. But I’m not entirely sure that I’m reading this correctly, what with all the interference from that gas giant up above.”
“Then your best guess will have to do. We’re running out of daylight.”
“It should be down there in the valley, where this stream here bends to the left.”
Looking out over valley I could barely make out a treetop let alone a stream. The vapor hung low and dense, moving slowly over the jungle, its haze deceiving and thick. The Finder clearly showed the stream and the Sun-Dome’s blinking location upon its shore, the phosphorescent glow of the devices multiple screens showing us the way.
“Then we’ll follow the stream down into the valley until we reach that bend,” I said, tracing my finger across the Finders rain-covered screen. “From there the high walls of the Sun-Dome should be within our sights. And then it’ll be nothing but dry clothes and soft sheets for us all Perkins. What do you think of that old friend?”
“Whatever Doc. Let’s just get there okay? No need to start putting the cart before the horse. We need to make it there first, right?” And as Purcell spoke, he lifted his head to Wilkers, to where he stood off to the side, staring at us with wide, unblinking eyes.
“What are you two conspiring about!” Wilkers shouted, his hands clenching into fists again.
“Easy Wilkers,” I said as we both stood up, “Purcell and I were just trying to get a bearing on the Sun-Dome. We found its signal. It’s down there…in the valley below.”
“I think I see it!” Torres shouted suddenly, his finger pointing off into the distance. “The image is weak, but I think it’s there.” He had managed to salvage an infra-red scope from the ship’s wreckage and was looking through it, piercing the valley’s thick mists as he searched for the signature of the Sun-Dome’s heat.
“Where?” Wilkers shouted, charging over to Torres and wrenching the scope from out his hands. He elbowed Torres roughly out of the way and put the glass piece to his eye, scanning the landscape, swinging his head from side-to-side in swift moving arcs.
“There she is!” Wilkers shouted, lowering the scope from his eye and tossing it at Torres. Immediately he took off in a sprint, his feet splashing heavily in the mud as he charged down the steep, open hillside.
“Wilkers, wait!” I shouted, chasing after him. “We don’t know what’s down there!”
“Fuck off Doc. We know exactly what’s down there. Sanctuary!” he yelled “See you fools later!” And with that he was gone, swallowed up once more by the mists and rain. Torres, Purcell and I continued on, armed with the Finder and infra-red scope, choosing our route more carefully through the fine, roiling mists, fully aware of the unforgiving nature of Dawn’s tremendous might.
It was an hour later, on the frothy banks of the gurgling stream, that we came upon the soaring outer walls of the Sun-Dome. Relief quickly turned to frustration and then despair as we circled the walls searching for its entrance. Everywhere we looked the fortifications were in disrepair, thick curls of spongy vegetation clinging abundantly to the crumbling cement. In places we found the walls entirely breached, blackened scorch marks from violence and flames concentrated around its edges. Thick tendrils of vegetation snaked heavily through the gaps, plunging into the sanctuary within, and spreading out to cover all.
Eventually we came upon the massive front gate, all twisted and bent by some unknown force, its enormous bulk pulled down and thrown chaotically aside, partially blocking the entrance to the Sun-Dome. Squeezing our way past its distorted frame we crossed into the cool darkness of the entrances tunnel, its smooth, curved walls plunging straight as an arrow into the Sun-Domes heart. As we made our way cautiously forward, strange noises vibrated above us, echoing off the moist tunnel walls, the sources of the clamor lost in the darkness of its length.
The jungle’s light was fading fast as the sun dipped below the ridge, and Torres lit the last of our phosphorescent flares, the harsh, purple light saturating the world around us. We passed guardedly from the tunnel into the ring of courtyard’s surrounding the Sun-Dome’s frame, looking on in fearful shock at the destruction that lay within. The Sun-Dome was shattered and cracked, its outer walls and facade blown out by some explosive force. No longer able to hold back the destructive nature of the jungle’s life, everything inside was gone, covered in a thick layer of vegetation and mold. Tables, chairs, food, equipment and supplies, all was lost. None could be told from the other. Everywhere we looked was an endless spectrum of blues and greys. Disordered fragments of metal mixed with writhing flora to create for us a chaotic world of gloom and decay. Even the sunroom was gone, the tiny ember of flame that we had been counting on reduced to nothing but an empty hulk of twisted metal and bundles of charred, fraying wires.
“It’s all gone.” Wilkers voice came up from behind us coldly, startling our already reeling minds.
“I checked, went through everything. There’s nothing here. And what’s here is shit. Either rotten, or so completely covered by all this fucking jungle that we could never do anything with it. We’re goners fellas…..The End.”
“Jesus Wilkers!” Purcell turned and yelled, his face appearing ghost-like in the glow of the phosphorescent flame. “Do you have to be so goddamn dramatic! We’re not goners man. Get ahold of yourself.”
“If I say we’re done for, we’re done for Purcell, and there’s nothing you can do about it ya’ got me!” Wilkers screamed, jabbing his bony finger into Purcells chest as his face hovered inches away. His voice was echoing loudly out, ricocheting down the tunnel and deep into the quickly approaching night.
“Shhh Wilkers!” Keep it down for Christ’s sake. We don’t know what’s out there or who did this. You want to let the whole jungle know we’re here?”
“Back off Doc. I don’t give a fuck who hears what. Especially Purcell here. Now, where was I? Oh yeah…Purcell, I believe once again, you had something to say?”
“What Purcell? You want to undermine me again? Contradict me in front of my men or disrespect my authority? Tell me again to get ahold of myself. I dare ya!”
Before I knew what happened Purcell snapped, grabbing the flare from Torres and swinging it madly towards Wilkers head, the firm lightstick plowing powerfully into his temple, sending embers of light flying. Wilkers staggered backwards, stunned by Purcell’s attack, reeling from its force and grasped his head between his hands. Purcell was back upon him in a flash, the flare falling heavily from his hand as he pummelled Wilkers heavy frame with a flurry of well placed blows. He had boxed in the Academy, winning several lightweight titles, and Wilkers was feeling the full fury of his skills.
“You punch like a girl!” Wilkers roared, recovering enough to throw Purcell from his back. They tumbled across the courtyard, the flares purple light throwing chaotic shadows around the walls. It was like a badger attacking a bear, two evenly matched fighters battling for survival amongst the ruins of their salvation.
Torres and I pushed on into the rubble-strewn Sun-Dome, to the safety of the comm-room. There were banks of machinery pulled down from the walls, their dented hulks littering the floor, and we crouched down behind one of the columns of twisted steel, my back up against a machine. We were powerless to stop the two, exhausted from a lack of sleep and overcome with despair.
“You have to do something Doc!” Torres kept repeating over and over in a worried, anxious tone as he peeked his head out from behind the debris. “They’re going to kill each other!”
“What do you want me to do kid? Huh?” I snarled ferociously. “I can barely stand. I’m soaked, broken and defeated. What, should I just waltz on up and ask for them to stop? That’s its scaring poor little Torres? Toughen up soldier! This is the real world. This is life. This is happening for real. The sooner you come to terms with that, and the fact that you’re probably already dead, the easier this is going to be for all of us when the end finally comes!”
A look of sorrow flashed across Torres’s face, like I had just stolen something from him, smothered out the last remnants of his innocence and replaced it with pain. He glared at me intently, the long seconds passing slowly by in the pouring rain.
“Well someone has to do something!” he shouted at me before he finally stood and walked away. I watched through remorse-filled eyes as he stopped to crouch down amid the debris, his young, uncalloused hands alighting on a jagged shard of steel. He held it awkwardly within his hands, shifting the weight of his thin frame to support its bulk as he marched off through the pouring rain in the direction of Purcell and Wilkers.
“Wait…Torres! Stop!” I shouted, upset with myself for being so cold. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it like that!” He had been a good kid, a model soldier, keeping his mouth shut and taking the beating Dawn had laid out for him. He had held up better than some of the strongest soldiers I’d ever known, never crumpling under the overwhelming stresses of this moon. And I, in a moment of weakness that I would forever hate myself for, had gone and destroyed the last vestiges of what had made him truly himself. He was forever changed. A soldier reborn. The innocence of his youth replaced in one fell swoop by the harsh realities of life.
Torres didn’t make it very far, only five or six paces into the courtyard, to stand besides the harsh fluorescence of the burning flare, when suddenly there came from the tunnel a piercing cry. It shattered the silence of the approaching night, instantly ending Purcell and Wilkers fight, their bloodied fists dropping mid-blow to their sides. Wide-eyed with fear, the color drained from their expressions, they turned to face the approaching sound. Again came the cry, but this time much closer, its harsh resonance echoing violently off the tunnel’s walls, multiplying its frequency and strength.
It was a sound unlike anything I had ever heard before, more hollow than full, its shrillness resonating straight through me. I could feel it vibrations at my very core, every inch of my frame suddenly knowing I was in the presence of true power. It was the sound of raw violence, instantly evoking primal emotions and fear. It was a boundless and dominating call, one which screamed I’m the boss of this environment and challenged all to say otherwise.
Torres had stopped in his tracks, frozen to the spot by the terrible sound. He fell into a defensive posture, legs bent, arms raised, the sharp point of jagged steel pointing outward towards the sound.
“Torres! Whaddya see kid?” Wilkers half whispered, half shouted as they tried to pick their way through the darkness to the circle of light cast by the flare.
“I can’t see anything! The tunnels nothing but black. What should we do?”
“Stay right there kid! Purcell and I are coming to get you and then we’ll find some cover. Doc! Hey Doc! You still with us?”
“Yeah….I’m still here. Send Purcell over to me. I need help finding us somewhere to hide.”
“Sure thing Doc. Purcell’s on his way.” In the failing light I could barely make-out Wilkers saying something to Purcell before he came limping over to me, the glow from the flare dancing across his frame as he staggered through the debris. The rains had lessened some, being replaced by thick drifts of rolling fog that came in low, spreading out to obscure the Sun-Dome’s grounds.
“Okay kid, I’m here.” I could hear Wilkers say as he stepped from the twilight’s shadows and into the arc of purple light
“Listen, Wilkers, about the Sun-Dome, I think we still have a chance of….” Torres began excitedly, but without warning a thick, fleshy tendril shot out from the darkness of the tunnel, whipping violently across the circle of light cast by the flare. Its entire length was covered in sharp, uneven spikes that glowed in the fading light, cycling through spectrums of orange and red. And where the tendril crossed into the light, it turned a shimmering purple to match the flares phosphorescent glow.
The tendril moved rapidly, crudely feeling out its surroundings, drifting clumsily across the sea of rubble. Another tendril shot out of the darkness and then another one too. In a matter of seconds the courtyard was surrounded, a phalanx of menacing coils thrashing loudly about. Wilkers gave a shout, throwing his weight into Torres as a tendril flicked out, crashing powerfully into the spot they had just vacated. They disappeared for a moment into the low-lying fog before Wilkers arose, reaching into the roiling vapors and pulling Torres quickly to his feet.
“Run you fool!” Wilkers shouted as another tendril came crashing down.
Wilkers and Torres took off, dodging the thick, quivering masses of flesh as they ran, heading for Purcell and I where we crouched in the darkness. Another ear-splitting cry echoed out, this time followed by a thundering roar and I watched with alarm as a second wave of glowing tendrils snaked out of the tunnel and into the light. Wilkers and Torres were halted quickly in their tracks, their way forward suddenly blocked by a preponderance of appendages. These limbs were finer though, more deliberate in their movements, patiently searching every fragment of debris as they made their way probingly towards the flare.
Several of the coils surrounded its base, raising the flare high up into the night. The harsh, purple light flung illumination into the tunnel, offering a glimpse of what lay inside. It was an enormous, fleshy creature with hundreds of glowing red eyes. Tendrils covered its body, the thicker ones concentrated towards its front and the finer ones more focused around what I assumed to be its mouth, a black, gaping maw that glistened with sharp, pointed teeth. Across its body scurried strange, insect like creatures that flitted in and out of gills that ran in parallel down its sides. And where the flare cast its shimmering radiance the creatures skin glowed purple as if it was mimicking the phosphorescent light.
As the creature raised the flare higher, pulling it closer towards the tunnel, I watched Torres make a move. He ran towards the limbs, skillfully avoiding their violence and might. I could hear Wilkers shout out a thundering ‘Nooo….!’, but it was already too late. Torres launched himself up into the air and yanked the flare free, crashing loudly into a tendril as he landed hard on the ground. The creature let out another cry, its limbs searching frantically for the flare. Torres was up and on his feet in no time, wading through the fog, running for a breach in the Sun-Domes wall with the flare held high. We could feel the ground vibrate as the creature followed suit, launching itself from the tunnel to follow the glowing light.
In an instant it was gone, leaving Wilkers alone amongst the silence of the night. Purcell and I stepped out from behind the machinery and walked quickly to Wilkers side. We could see off in the distance the purple glow of the flares phosphorescent light as it danced across the jungle.
“That kids alright.” Wilkers said aloud. “He saved our lives.”
“Should we go after him? Do you think he’s okay?”
“Dunno Doc. I dunno…”
We followed the light of the flare with our eyes until we could see it no more. We had no idea what to do, or where to go next.
“I think we should go after him Wilkers.” Purcell finally said. “He’s powerless against that thing. He needs our help.”
“How the hell do you propose we help him Purcell? That was the last of our flares, we have no lights. I have no idea where he’s gone off to and that creatures still out there in the night.”
“I’m just sayin….” and with that Purcells words trailed off as he realized that Torres was on his own.
We went back into the comm-room to get away from the falling rains. We sat there in silence, amongst the darkness and debris. There was nothing more to do and nothing more to say.
I think I must have dozed off because the jungle was a lot darker when I came too. The nocturnal life was buzzing all around us, bizarre calls and strange vibrations echoing throughout the night. I had been leaning against a wall, passing in and out of slumber as thoughts of my wife and home ran circles around my head. A sharp noise had startled me, like the sound of metal scraping across stone and my eyes snapped open, searching frantically about the dark. It came again, this time closer and I could see that Purcell and Wilkers were awake now too. They both slowly rose, Wilkers to crouch behind a column of steel while Purcell crept off to my left.
“Over there,” Purcell whispered sharply, pointing in the direction of a heap of ruined chairs. “There’s something moving by that pile.”
I saw it too, a hunched and shadowed form, coming slowly across the rubble.
“I got this…” Wilkers whispered, reaching down to pick up a fragment of pipe. As he held it before him like a bat, he charged across the ground, covering the distance quickly, ready to connect with a swing when we heard a voice sharply call out.
“Wilkers! It’s me….Torres. Help.”
Wilkers dropped the pipe and ran to his side, Torres collapsing into his arms.
“Hey kid.” Wilkers whispered, as Purcell and I came up beside him. “That was a crazy thing you did back there. What took you so long to get back?”
“Ran into a cute native on the way,” Torres croaked “had to stop and give her my number.”
I kneeled down besides Torres, running my hands over his tattered frame. His jumpsuit was torn away in several places and the material felt warm and thick. “Purcell, turn on your Finder. I need some light.” I whispered in the dark.
Purcell was besides me quickly, the green glow of the Finders screens shining brightly in the night. “Over here Purcell, where my hand is on his side. Shine it here.”
Purcell brought the light over to Torres’s side, to where his jumpsuit had the biggest hole. There was something sharp amongst the folds of the fabric and the illumination confirmed my fears. Sticking from his side was a fragment of the creatures spike, the skin all around it ragged and black. I looked up to Wilkers and shook my head.
“Is it bad Doc? Because it burns like hell. It feels like my insides are on fire.”
“No Torres, you’re going to be just fine. Purcell here is going to stay with you while I go and talk to Wilkers.”
I pulled Wilkers aside and talked to him amongst the swirling fog. “He’s not going to make it. That spike has pierced his liver. The liver’s full of blood vessels that don’t clot very well so it’s only a matter of time before he bleeds out internally and dies. There nothing I can do. I have no tools, no supplies, no bandages. Plus I’m pretty sure that spike is poisonous, did you see the blackness of his skin?
“Yeah I saw it. So what do we do?”
“The only thing we can do. We make him comfortable and stay with him until the end.”
“I’ll be the one to tell him Doc. It’s my crew and he’s my man.”
“You sure you’re up to this? You nearly killed Purcell back there.”
“I’m fine Doc. Me and Purcell will work things out. Right now we need to focus on Torres.”
It was several hours before Torres finally passed. They were dark, agonizing moments that seemed to last forever as he slowly faded away. He kept trying to speak as he wrestled with the pain but the words came out in scattered fragments. “Comm’s” he would mutter, than minutes later he would say “Sun-Dome” or “roof” or “dish”
That got me thinking and I quietly wandered away. As the sun began to rise I stumbled into the comm room, the dull glow of the morning light shining in through the ruined walls of the Sun-Dome’s frame. I went to the banks of comm’s, the ones that were still bolted against the wall, staring at each once until I noticed a faintly blinking light. It was easy to miss but hadn’t escaped Torres’s sharp eye. I was pretty confident that I had been leaning up against that machine as I had scolded Torres about real life. He must have glimpsed the blinking diode, and understood its implications, but had chosen instead to charge out and break-up the fight.
I ran back to Torres and kneeled by his side. “Do the comm’s still work Torres? Is that what you’re trying to say? Tell me son, can we get a message out to our people?”
Torres, his face ashen and gray, turned to look at me and a smile spread warmly across his face.
“Comm’s okay….” he spoke quietly before he finally drifted away.