The thought occurred some twenty minutes after he returned from his foray outside. Grubb threw down the ripe, green fruit he had scavenged from the jungle and froze, mouthfuls of mulch filling his cheeks.
It must have been tiredness, a mind devoid of company for six months that allowed him to make this most rudimentary of errors – one never to be made after nightfall.
And it was dark now.
From the cockpit he had watched the sunset ebb through colours of purple to phantom green, before blackness enveloped everything. Only then did he seal the storm shutters on the stricken vessel. That was his ritual. Surprising, then, he had forgotten to close the outside hatch on his return.
His whiskered cheeks twitched – the reflex to chew stronger than the prescient sense of danger that stiffened the rest of his body. He spat out the food, disquieted thoughts arresting his breath momentarily. Silence stagnated the air, and time itself appeared to disintegrate. Turning sharply, he grabbed his laser from the console panel and ran.
His desperate footfall reverberated through the metal corridors; shadows lived and died in the glowing permalights, sourcing their power from the auxiliary cells. At the first hint of cool air seeping in through the hatch he arrested his stride and readied his laser.
The nocturnal world had woken. Harsh sounds issued from the jungle, the calls of a thousand different life-forms aware of his presence there. He heaved the hatch shut and slumped to the floor, shoulders resting against the hull, and remained there, wondering if anything had gotten in. Eventually, he returned to the cockpit to pick at the remaining fruit, his appetite quashed. A red light flashed on the central panel, an SOS transmitting its weak signal, barely penetrating into space.
Six months, he realised, since the failed landing.
He laughed, regretfully.
Keltia IV’s quarantine status ensured there’d be no interference from the galactic authorities. It also meant there’d be little hope of rescue if anything went wrong. And now the three quantaines of Lodianz crystals stashed in the Bronitum’s hold were worthless to him, for anyone picking up his SOS was likely to be a smuggler or drug-runner, and take the haul for themselves.
Of course, Grubb hadn’t been the one to suggest such a harsh alien world to stash their cargo on. That had been Luger, captain of the Brontium, a decision seconded by the remaining member of their tertiary, Carlos Salcido. And they had both failed to return from the jungle before the sun had set on their third day. Still, he was here now… no point in going over the past.
A noise not in keeping with the regular creaking of the hull arrested Grubb’s attention. He held still, straining to hear; it came again, a firm clank and then a dragging noise, repeating itself at short intervals, each time a little louder…a little nearer.
He tightened his grip around the pistol. Something had gotten in.
He retreated behind a collapsed column, part of the ship’s air circulation pumps, and waited, his finger resting on the trigger. He peered down the corridor, into the darkness that had seemingly crept in through the open hatch. One by one the permalights blinked out, overtaken by a creeping gloom that drained the light and energy from the lamps. Clunk – drag; clunk – drag.
Grubb stared into the darkness. The lights dimmed round him – offered up a final flicker – then went out. He brandished his weapon blindly, his head lolling from side to side, trying to locate from where the awful clunking was coming – and then the breath, the hot dank breath of something alien touched his skin, warm and unpleasant, unmistakeably wild.
He rolled away instinctively, unloading several rounds that exploded in bursts of fragmentary energy against the interior hull. The plasma glow that accompanied each blast afforded him enough visibility to mark out the stalking anomaly bearing down on him. His primitive instinct to survive streamed out in a constant flow of protons, his finger held relentlessly on the trigger, until a warning light flashed to indicate his ammunition was almost spent.
And still it came.
He ceased his fire. Sparks of energy flitted capriciously and died. The realisation almost crippled him. There lived on this planet something so terrible that the first men that came here condemned it and left, never to return.
He stood there, fixedly, in a rare moment of calm, and heard his stalking death moving nearer in that same shambolic manner – clunk – drag; clunk – drag. He primed his weapon one last time, pressed the warm barrel to his forehead and pulled the trigger, departing the world in a searing glow of atoms before the darkness could possess him.
Published in Eclectic Flash, 2010
(c) Darren Hawbrook