Johan did his best to keep the container balanced between his legs as Diz wound the Cassiopeia’s rugged all terrain vehicle through the dense amaranthine jungle. The creature within fluttered and protested with every jolt, but remained generally placid as the team proceeded. The rover that conveyed them was little more than a half-dozen wheels strapped to an over-powered engine. Few comforts were afforded to its passengers. It cabin was little more than a titanium roll cage with a transparent acrylic windscreen.
“What do you think we should call these things?” He asked, his voice augmented above the engine noise by his radio.
“Noisy jerks.” Diz offered.
Stiles, in the front passenger seat, cast a glance over his shoulder. “Well, it doesn’t have feathers so much as wool. Kinda looks like an owl, too.”
“A what?” Johan asked.
“Yeah, what?” Diz joined.
“Sheesh, I’m old.” Stiles muttered. “Anyway, I’m going with a ‘Woowl’.”
“Woah-ll.” Johan repeated, sounding out the awkward syllable. “I kinda like it.”
“Suck up.” Diz quipped.
“Sir,” Johan persisted, “can I ask you a question?”
“I encourage you to ask as many as possible.”
“When can we expect rescue… I mean, assuming its coming?”
“Well, statistically, if something is going to go seriously wrong with a job; it happens within the first fifty hours about eighty percent of the time. So a chase ship was launched about two days after us.”
“So help’s only a day and a half away?” Johan asked hopefully.
“Probably not. See, there’s only so many resources aboard that ship; a few extra engineers, a doctor, maybe a rent-a-gun. If they can’t make contact with us, they’re going to turn right around and go home. That’s a ten day jump. At that point the company will put out a rescue contract based on what information the chase ship was able to gather. A few mercenary organizations will bid for it for the next couple days and if any of those bids come in under half a million –our combined AMRAD accounts- they’ll get sent. So that’s another ten day jump.”
“W-wait!” Johan sputtered in shock. “If help’s coming at all, we’re going to have to hold out for a month!?”
“Seems that way.”
“So… what are the chances that half a million will be the bid?”
“It’s a solid… maybe.”
“Remember how you told me I’d hate every second of this?” Johan growled. Stiles only chuckled in reply.
Suddenly, something sparked against the rover’s hull. “What was that?” Diz wondered. She was answered by a volley of tracer rounds ripping through the violet foliage. “Someone’s shooting at us!” Johan cried as he cast himself to the floor of the cab. “Yeah, thanks!” Diz remarked dryly, weaving defensively through the ancient trunks.
“No one’s supposed to be out here!” Stiles shouted.
“Do either of you have anything useful to say to me or–” Diz suddenly yelped in pain and surprise as a round impacted into her shoulder armor. It failed to penetrate, but its impetus was enough to get her to jerk the wheel; careening the rover side-long into a tree. Fortunately, the trunk rested between them and their yet-unseen opponents.
“Diz!” Stiles cried with concern.
“I’m fine,” she grunted, “let’s get these guys.”
“Is she crazy!?” Johan asked in alarm. His compatriots did not reply; instead they clambered out of the vehicle, seeking cover and concealment from their attackers. Johan followed suit, wincing as rounds snapped and impacted around him. He rolled to the mossy ground between Diz and Stiles with the rover at their backs. His captain glanced at him incredulously. “What’d you bring that for?”
Johan looked down and discovered he had never lost hold of the Woowl’s container. The animal within, of course, was not in the slightest bit pleased with events. “Well it’s not like you guys have given me anything more useful to hang onto… like a weapon.” Johan spat back in recrimination.
“Don’t worry, Fungi,” Diz replied as she pried a device from the rover’s storage compartment and fitted it against her back, “you’ve got better.” She winked, readied her net gun, and suddenly rocketed upward; leaving twin ionizing trails in her wake. Johan stared up in amazement before breaking his fugue to ask “How long has she been waiting for an excuse to use that thing?”
“Long time.” Stiles replied, nonplussed.
* * *
The jump pack thrummed on her back. Wind whipped against her face. A clearing in the otherwise impenetrable jungle yawned below and her prey waited. Diz keyed the scope over her eyes, and virtual boxes began to overlay against the heat signatures of the handful of individuals who had dared to attack her friends.
With her targets identified, she cut the jets on her pack and began plummeting for the clearing. Diz’ heart raced as the ground rose to meet her, and she could not help but let crack a wide, toothy grin. She had been craving a distraction from the bone chilling implications of being stranded on an alien world. Knocking a few heads around, she decided, would do nicely.
She performed a half flip, bringing her feet in line with a brigand who had taken a firing position on a large piece of scrap that seemed to be a suspiciously recent addition to the terrain. Diz was not concerned with wayward heaps of metal at the moment, however. She blasted a counter-thrust from her pack just before impacting with the utterly bewildered gunman. It was enough to forestall any injury on her part, but it was more than enough to knock the assailant from his perch and send him sailing head-first into a nearby tree trunk.
Diz did not pause to appreciate the artful dispatch of her opponent. Instead, she turned and shouldered her net gun; casting the meshed fibers at a new target. Grav spheres on the rim of the net hummed to life as it detected an object within the net; pinning the brigand to the ground.
She blasted off again before the foes that remained could bring their weapons to bear. The girl could not suppress her laughter as she flipped into a tight arc. Her opponents were slow, firing in panic, and utterly unprepared for the punishment that awaited them.
Her next victim caught a crushing double-kick to his shoulder-blades. His arms went limp instantly and could provide no cushion as the ground rushed to meet his face. A nearby brigand roared with frustration as he leveled the barrel of his weapon at her. “Die, you-” his snarling epithet was stopped short as a pulse of super-pressurized air carried him into the metallic hull marring the clearing.
Stiles emerged from the thicket, punt gun whining as it recharged for another shot. The brigand, dazed and disoriented, attempted to find his feet but was quickly knocked into obliviousness with a swift kick to the head.
“Two.” Stiles announced.
“Three.” Diz replied. “Shoot,” she gasped, surveying the environment, “we’re missing one.”
A boyish scream emanated from beyond the treeline. Diz activated the jump jet “Hang on Fungi, we’re…” her voice fell away as a silhouette crashed through the trunks into the clearing. “Get it off me! Get it off me!” The final brigand stood before them, towering head and shoulders above Bakur Stiles, shrieking and swatting at the air as an angry blue Woowl assailed him. He finally succeeded in interdicting the creature and casting it upon the ground. He brought his booted foot up to finish the job when he happened to glance up to see Stiles and Diz staring at him, weapons ready.
The brigand froze then brought up his hands to offer peace. “I know what you’re thinking-” he was blasted into the trunks before he could finish his appeal. Stiles offered his punt gun to Diz. “Hold this for me, would you.”
She received it hesitantly, “what’re you…” Diz found she need not finish her query as Stile advanced on the moaning brigand, cracking his knuckles in anticipation. “Oh.”
“Is it over?” Johan called from concealment.
“Yeah, you can come out.” Diz replied. The boy approached, the container still betwixt his palm; although it was now unoccupied.
“That looks personal.” Johan remarked as the two observed Stiles at work.
“That looks like a very good reason never to turn pirate, Fungi.” Diz replied, wincing at the view. “The captain is not a fan of pirates.”
“Wait, these are space pirates?”
“Garish tattoos, ridiculous clothes, and over-compensatory weaponry… yep. Pirates. Guess we know who our saboteurs are.”
“What else would they be doing out in the middle of nowhere?” Diz turned to examine the metal object resting in the clearing and determined it was an escape pod. “Hmm.” She uttered, now suddenly unsure. She crouched, regarding one of the many crates that had been strewn about in its wake. “Hey, skipper! Whenever you reach a natural stopping point…”
The noise of pounded flesh ceased and Stiles approached, discarding his saturated gloves onto the ground. “What?”
“What’s this planet’s registry number?”
“How many colony licenses is it supposed to have?”
“I’m only aware of the one; Triblis.”
Diz stood, revealing a printed registry on the crate. It read YARDRIS: EG-82108. Stiles regarded the text for a moment. “Back in the rover.” He commanded in such a way that invited neither question nor argument. Johan followed behind his seniors but hesitated just before the treeline. The Woowl that had assailed the pirate still lay on the ground. Its curls had hued pink as it cooed pathetically with its left wing bent in an unnatural fashion.
He scooped the chirping creature back into the container, and proceeded to continue for the rover; stepping over the battered, supine form of the pirate as he did so.
* * *
Bigelow the space pirate stood guard as night fell. He and a handful of his comrades had survived their escape pod’s descent into the stone forest. It was a severe, desolate place. Wind constantly moaned and whistled through the stony spires, occasionally sending a cascade of pebbles tumbling to the ground.
The pirate winced and turned with every such patter, unable to shake the feeling that something inscrutable and malevolent watched their camp. Perhaps, he thought, it could be a great many things as he was unable to see beyond the camp’s perimeter for more than a few dozen meters. His compatriots were silent. There was none of the usual boisterous revelry that might usually accompany a gathering of even marooned pirates. All there was to be heard was the interminable moaning of the breeze.
These gusts were not constant, however. Every now and then, they would give way to an oppressive quiet. No chirping insects or calling birds interrupted these silent periods. The air was so still in fact, that the subtle movements and mutters of his comrades around the chemical lights were audible even to Bigelow.
Suddenly, he detected something else. There came a slight scraping and scuffing of a presence moving lightly upon the stony ground. Bigelow listened; attempting to determine its distance and direction, but the wind began again and carried with it the haunting whistling moans as it wound between the trunks.
It petered out again, and Bigelow raised his oversized barrel; tracking it along the horizon. He was not aiming at anything in particular, but when it passed one of the rocky outcrops, the rustling returned as something scurried from view.
“Shh.” Bigelow hissed. Instantly, the low conversation of his fellow pirates ceased. “There’s something out there.” He growled. The wind resumed, crushing any hope of deducing the interloper’s location. Bigelow’s lip twisted, and he loosed a volley from his weapon; shattering a few of the stone towers. The dust they emitted as they fell, further reduced the already poorly visibility, but the veteran pirate was certain he saw something withdraw with a stilted loping gait.
“Two with me.” He commanded. “We aren’t going to sit here and wait for it like a bunch of frightened little girls, are we?” This is how one of Schiz’ famed ‘Fall Boys’ was supposed to act. But it was, indeed, an act. For Bigelow knew in a deep place he’d never admit, that there was something wrong with this planet.
His comrades joined him and the wind’s pitch climbed as they sought their quarry. Dust and pebbles rattled through the forest; rendering hopeless any notion of picking out an individual noise. Bigelow mounted the newly form stump of the fallen spire and surveyed their environment. However, it remained as still as ever. Undifferentiated mineral pillars stretched skyward in their thousands. It would take no time at all, Bigelow reckoned, for anyone to become hopelessly lost. “Stay together.” He cautioned as a hedge against such an event. They nodded and cast glances backward; noting that the soft green glow of the chem-lights would be their only landmark.
Bigelow took a moment to consider his options and selected one of the taller outcrops nearby. “Stay here.” He ordered firmly. “Shoot anything you don’t like.” He then began to climb, his well-used muscles making short work of the meters between the top of the outcrop and the ground.
He waited when his hand found purchase on the meager plateau that marked the terminus of the spire. He waited for the great roaring whistle of the wind to die once again; for his stalker to prepare its next move. As it had before, the gusts abated and Bigelow raised a flare gun; firing a red-hot phosphorous charge into the air. What he had hoped to glimpse was impossible to detect, however. As the charge doused the area with stark light, it cast shadows between each pillar; shadows that danced and turned as the flare spiraled through the air.
Eventually, the charge’s load was spent, and the dark of night reclaimed the forest. Almost simultaneously, the wailing breeze returned. His best ideas exhausted, Bigelow returned to the ground. “Let’s get back to camp, boys.” He grunted.
But no reply came.
He cast a glance to and fro, but his comrades were nowhere to be seen. “If this is your idea of a joke,” Bigelow spat in threat, “I’m about to open a comedy club right here, right…now…” His voice fell away as he noticed a further inconsistency with his surroundings: the green glow from the chem-lights had gone.
“No.” He whispered. “No, no… This isn’t…” he began sprinting for where he had last seen the glow. Rather, where he last thought he had seen the glow. But it was all stone spires and dust for miles around.
Bigelow began to wonder if he had simply selected the wrong direction when his foot found a metallic object upon the ground. He glanced downward to regard a canteen, then widened his gaze to the pre-arranged bedrolls, the hull of the escape pod, and discarded food packets. The only thing missing was the chem-lights. And his comrades, of course.
The wind died again, plunging the valley into all-encompassing quiet once more. Bigelow stood there, a cold sweat forming upon his brow; a frightful heart hammering in his chest.
At once the wind’s wail returned and at great volume, but Bigelow realized after a moment that no gust accompanied the sound. It was just the noise. In fact, it was no longer a disembodied ghostly howl echoing through the trunks, but a localized source.
A source localized just behind him.
He turned, swinging his weapon. But it was caught and cast aside by powerful hands. His eyes widened as he regarded what stood upright and eye-to-eye before him. The dark afforded little more than a silhouette. But there was light enough to see that it had worked its mouth in such a fashion to imitate the exact pitch of the wind.
“You gotta be kidding me.” Bigelow whispered as he took it all in.
When the sun rose on the following day, no signs of human life remained at the crash site. Discarded containers gently swayed as wind swept the stone forest. Dust blew in fitful eddies wherever the gusts carried them.
All there was to be heard was the soft, ghostly moan of the wind.
To Be Continued
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