Alas! my journey, rugged and uneven,
Through prickly moors or dusty ways must wind;
But hearing thee, or others of thy kind,
As full of gladness and as free of heaven,
I, with my fate contented, will plod on,
And hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.
To A Skylark by William Wordsworth 1805
“Stella didn’t make it.”
The matter of fact way it was said annoyed her but there was no time to address it. Prescot was in his element; surrounded by the remains of the ship, she could see his mind working furiously.
“Do we have a link yet?” he asked Jon as he crouched beside him.
“Static… nothing. I’ll keep-”
A shower of sparks and cursing told them both it was probably a futile exercise.
“I’m not an engineer,” Jon replied modestly. “But I’d say it’s hopeless. We have no power now anyway. There wasn’t much, to begin with.”
The main console was smouldering and Jon doused it with the extinguisher. He sat back on the twisted seat, only too aware that Stella had occupied it just before him.
Prescot rested his beefy hand on Jon’s shoulder and gave it an encouraging squeeze. Any harder and it would have been painful. Then, Jon was too wiry to be healthy, Prescot felt.
“Right, I’m going to take a look… see where we are. Maybe there’s a village nearby but the jungle looks pretty dense,” Prescot informed them, standing on tiptoe and trying to peer out of the mud-encrusted window.
“You have no idea who is out there,” Kathy protested. “We should wait here… they should be able to locate us easily enough, even without any comms. There’s the radio…”
Jon pulled it out from under the bent compartment, cradling it with his long fingers. They gathered around as he turned the handset on.
As if she needed to be told that but then Jon had a habit of saying out loud what others only thought. It had been endearing at first, but after their training, it was far from it.
“What’s out there is jungle, probably the Congo and the worst thing there is me,” Prescot replied, grinning with exaggerated menace. “Guys, see if you can get some supplies together. As you say, they’re probably already looking for us but it will be easier if we can get clear. Bring the phone and whatever else we can carry. The signal might be better further out. Don’t bring too much; we can come back for the rest of the provisions later.”
Kathy sighed and pulled a rucksack from one of the lockers. She began to fill it with provisions and listened to the two men talking behind her. Prescot saw the challenge and rose to it and Jon was just glad to be alive. Kathy pushed thoughts of Stella to the back of her mind as she continued to pack. The moment was surreal and she found herself pushing the bags into her pack without even watching what she was doing. It was when her thoughts turned back to Stella that she felt the sound around her fade, becoming muffled. Dizziness soon followed and she leant against the side of the locker to steady herself. Her vision blurred as she looked down and the colour of the food packets faded then became intense and vibrant, the colour so bright it was almost painful to look at. Then, without warning, a feeling of such sadness washed over her that she caught her breath and felt tears well up. It was not sadness at the loss of Stella. It seemed to concentrate in her as if it came from her surroundings as if it had found a way to exist because of her. Kathy was not afraid, which surprised her. A part of her felt she should be but curiosity overcame any fear she felt.
It was a tangible thing and she looked around her, trying to see where it came from. As quickly as it had come, it faded, leaving her drained.
She knelt back and breathed deeply, feeling the sensation pass. The sounds of Jon and Prescot’s banter returned. All at once the feeling was gone, leaving her wondering if it had even been real. She smiled weakly at the men as they debated the best course of action. The familiarity of it and the memories it brought to her pushed the last vestiges of the feelings from her mind.
She had hated basic training and did not relish a hike through the jungle. The first civilian to join Skylark, Kathy Johnston had always felt she didn’t quite belong. Stella was the only one who had given her any respect. Stella hailed from a military family and had chosen to study bioscience, despite her family’s disapproval. The sadness at Stella’s loss threatened to overwhelm her and she felt the sensation returning. Kathy looked over at the seat she was meant to have occupied, at once glad to be alive. It was supposed to have been routine although, there was always an element of risk. The thought that any one of them, or all of them could have died was never far from her mind. Thoughts of her own family preoccupied her as she packed what little remaining supplies she could find.
It was obvious from the meagre provisions that they were not expected to be alone for long. Every eventuality would have been planned for. She could almost imagine the retrieval team speeding towards them. There would be the medical team to reassure and then there would be the debriefing to attend. She wondered how Stella’s family would react to her death. In a few short hours, they would hear the news. The Skylark had crashed and a search was underway for survivors. It never occurred to her that her own family would be with Ellis at the Command centre, rigid with worry, waiting for news. Any news.
She supposed the media would be kept at bay for as long as possible but eventually, questions would have to be answered.
What had gone wrong?
Who was to blame?
She thought of Ellis, of the team waiting for them… hoping.
Her attention returned to Stella.
They had sealed Stella’s body in the stasis pod with little ceremony, each as silent as the other. They had hoped it might do some good and watched the casing frost eating away at their reflections, listening for the stasis pod’s recording of her vital signs. After a few minutes, Jon realised it was hopeless. Kathy followed him back to the console but Prescot stayed by her side and waited for a little longer. That he felt the need to announce her passing was, Kathy felt, typical of him. They were quite capable of recognising that she was dead but Prescot, like Jon, felt duty bound to state the obvious.
That was exactly what she expected of them. What made no sense to Kathy was that Stella was not inside her pod when they found her. Then, Kathy mused, it was not the only thing she could not understand.
“It’s odd. There’s nothing… there should be something…,” Jon protested, walking the length of the ship, navigating the cross beams.
The satellite feed was down.
Jon had tried to restore the communications as soon as he climbed from his bunk. He was the first to wake but only by a few minutes. Then Kathy followed Prescot, each feeling as sick as the other. The battery had been hit by a strut and Jon had set about replacing it. It had occupied their thoughts completely until they saw Stella sitting in the Captain’s chair. At first, Kathy thought she had woken before them, that she was simply trying the control panels.
The moments of silence which followed urged Prescot to scramble to her. Kathy was right beside him. Jon hung back, waiting.
She looked like she was asleep; she looked almost frozen in time and peaceful. The tight ponytail she always wore had been undone, softening her porcelain features and her eyes were closed.
It had brought back memories of her grandmother, lying peacefully in the bed and she remembered the shock at the illusion of peace. Her Grandmother’s last moments were pain-wracked and gasping. It had astonished Kathy that the pale serene woman her mother ushered her in to see was the same person she had clung to the day before. Kathy wondered if Stella had suffered when she felt Prescot’s hand on her shoulder.
Prescot seemed to sense her sadness and said more gently than was his custom, “Hey, we can deal with this later. Right now, it’s time to leave.”
She had nodded slowly.
Stella had been the Mission Commander and it angered Kathy that Prescot had taken charge so readily. It was his place to do so but still, she could not shake the feeling that he had taken to it far too easily. Jon did not seem to share her views and so she let it go.
Not that the past seemed to be hampering Prescot.
Prescot pulled on the emergency opening and the door cracked, then he pushed it open with a grunt. His stocky frame was briefly silhouetted against the door and then, he disappeared. Jon followed him, muttering something about protocols.
Kathy watched his tall lanky frame slip out of the door and then took her place. She peered out tentatively. The first thing she noticed was the silence. She had travelled widely and remembered being unable to sleep as the jungle sounds pressed in. The noise should have assailed them; millions of creatures clinging to life in the last remnants of the rainforest. The only sounds were Prescot and Jon sliding down the muddy bank the ship had lodged itself on. Then there was the smell. She struggled to identify it.
The air was heavy with the scent, musky and almost overpowering. She coughed as she slid down beside them. The men seemed completely unaware of the smell. As the men busied themselves examining their ship, she took in their surroundings.
The ship had left a huge gash in the landscape, like a scar through the deep red and green. The forest had all but engulfed it, creating a tunnel above them. Sheer rock sides gave way to a canopy of dark vines. A few branches smouldered around them. She was expecting the sounds of the jungle to creep back as the creatures they must have startled returned. All she could hear was the plink of cooling metal as the ship died.
She began to study the plants above her. They seemed to form a mat over the ship casting a reddish hue. She shuddered, without really knowing why and instinctively joined the men a little further along the ship.
“Well, we’re walking,” Prescot announced. “Once we get clear of these vines we should be able to get our bearings.”
Prescot forged ahead, following the natural track they had created, muttering something about a bar and she followed, thankful that most of the vegetation had been cleared for them by the ship as it crashed. They walked down the gully the ship had gouged out towards the far end.
Still, there was silence. It was beginning to make her uneasy. She found herself imagining movement above her. When she looked, all was still. It seemed, just out of the corner of her eye, she would catch a glimpse of what she could not say. The men were talking though she was not really following their conversation. Their voices seemed impossibly loud in the gloom and all the while she felt as though she was being watched. She turned to look back the way they had come. There was the ship, wedged into the bank, its grey hull dented and seared. She could not imagine how they had survived the impact.
Her foot slipped on the wet ground and she stumbled, catching her fall against the vine-covered wall. She grappled at the vines to break her fall and they gave slightly.
Prescot’s voice faded and she felt the same sensation she had in the ship. The colour leached out of the blackened vine. The movements of Prescot and Jon just ahead of her seemed jerky and disjointed. She found herself at once looking at the world as though it was monochrome and then the colour invaded her vision, seeming garish and bright. This time, it was not sadness she felt. Instead, she was assailed with a feeling of such terror that she had to clasp her hand over her mouth to avoid screaming uncontrollably. Then, it passed as quickly as it had come, leaving her once more feeling weak and drained.
The scent... it was almost sweet and yet…
“We need to get out of here,” she said, pushing past Prescot.
“Whoa…” he held her arm and she span around.
She was terrified. “We have to get out now!”
“Calm down!” Jon smiled.
“Can’t you feel it?” she asked wide-eyed.
They looked at each other completely bewildered and shrugged. Seeing their bemused expressions, she came to her senses.
“I…” She began, looking back at them at once feeling foolish. “I… just think we should go.”
The panic rising in her was almost impossible to control but she struggled to explain why she felt as she did. There was no rational explanation but she was certain they were in danger.
Jon put his hand on her arm gently, “What?”
“I’m sorry... I just have a…,” she struggled to put into words what she felt, “a bad feeling about this place. I know it sounds crazy but can we pick up the pace?”
“Sure,” Prescot gestured to her to go ahead.
She stepped around him quickly and followed the ruts in the mud. Kathy was used to his reaction. She had the same sense of foreboding as the pod was closed around her and the same feeling when she awoke, coughing violently to the acrid smoke curling around her. Jon at least was sympathetic but Prescot never understood.
Kathy tried to concentrate on the ground. It was slippery and she lost her footing constantly but eventually, it gave way to grey slate. She looked ahead and the vines seemed to fall down to the slate in a solid wall. It was a dead end. Prescot pulled at the vines experimentally.
“It seems solid enough,” Prescot declared.
He pulled himself up the vine, digging his toes into the wall behind it for extra purchase, sending tiny pebbles cascading to the floor. Kathy followed Prescot. She did not want to be the last to leave. After only a few moments, she was gasping for breath. She had always thought that she was fit, but found the climb exhausting. With one last effort, she pulled herself up and through the vines, scrabbling for a handhold. Prescot reached for her and pulled her through completely.
They knelt on the soft moss catching their breath, looking through the vines, waiting for Jon to emerge. Kathy resisted the temptation to call out to him. He had been right behind her but she became increasingly worried as the moments passed with no sign of him. His hand emerged suddenly from the mass. She jumped despite herself and Prescot grabbed his hand as he scrabbled at the edge, hauling him through.
“It’s a little cool for the Congo, don’t you think?’ Kathy said. “More like the …”
The ship was lying in a bowl of thick forest, beneath a deep carpet of mossy red tendrils. Almost web-like, they cocooned the vessel. It’s scorched nose was just visible through the vegetation.
“Have you ever seen…” Her voice trailed off as she looked up.
Rainbow colour filled the sky, silently streaking across. She thought of the aurora borealis. It would describe the colour but not the feeling. Her skin tingled and she felt the crackle of static between her fingers as she reached up. More surprising were what seemed like two pale suns just visible through it.
No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity. All three stood up slowly, staring at the sky. It was impossible to tell its true colour. It was all at once beautiful and terrifying.
Prescot was the first to speak. His voice was calm and level. She doubted that was how he felt.
“We’re heading back to the ship,” Prescot ordered. “We need to figure this out.”
The terror she had felt had vanished. “It’s beautiful!”
“This can’t be real. What is that?” Jon stared at the sky, mesmerised. It seemed as though a myriad of flaming ribbons streamed across it. “This is some kind of trick!”
“As long as it wasn’t our fault, I don’t care,” said Prescot matter of factly. “Try the phone”
“Haven’t you noticed the moons, as in plural? We’re not on Earth! We’re actually not on Earth. Can you believe this? How is this possible?” Jon looked terrified.
“We could be delusional, oxygen starved. The air’s pretty thin here. I’ve seen this kind of thing happen. We need to go back down, get acclimatised,” Prescot decided.
“So, we’re all deluded? That’s your explanation?” Kathy was too angry with him to be afraid. “Jon, try the phone.”
They gathered around it expectantly. Jon tried various combinations all of which had the same result.
“Right… our first order of business is survival,” Prescot stated. “We need to head back down to the ship and get supplies. Water... we need to find a water source. This plant life must need water…”
Kathy looked around and shrugged, “We have no idea what anything here needs to survive!”
“We know what we need... let’s focus on that,” he said more gently. “We need to take stock of the remaining supplies.”
Kathy’s gaze snapped back to the tendrils stretched over the ship. It seemed even more menacing from above than it had from below. She tried to take a step towards the ship and stopped, shrinking back. The feeling was so intense that she could go no further.
“I can’t go back down there. And I don’t think you should either,” she said, folding her arms across her chest as if chilled.
He scanned the red vines, trying to see what she found so distressing. Nothing alarmed him.
Prescot shrugged and shot her a sideways glance, more bemused than unkind.
“Stay here with the bags if you like… we’ll be back soon.”
She held onto his arm, “Please just listen for once. I know we have to leave… Don’t ask me how… just don’t go back down there.”
“Maybe she’s right,” Jon said, shrugging. “She usually is.”
Prescot sighed. He studied the ship again. It seemed harmless to him. Nothing stirred and all was quiet. There was no sign of any animal life. The silence was unnerving but they were probably responsible for that, he mused. They must have made enough noise to scare away anything nearby. That left a narrow window of opportunity which needed to be exploited.
“We need our supplies,” he said at last. “This may be our only chance to get them.”
Jon joined the discussion, taking Kathy’s side as he said, “We don’t know what we’re up against. Kathy’s very perceptive.”
Prescot shrugged again and said, “I’m going back. For all we know, the food we have is all we have or are likely to get for some time. You can both wait here if you like.”
Before they could protest, he had disappeared beneath the vines. They climbed further up the incline to catch a better view of him. The hull of the ship was all but invisible beneath the mat but she fancied she caught a glimpse of him as he scrambled in through the emergency hatch. She scanned the scenery around them. The crash site was nestled on the edge of what appeared to be a deep valley. High mountains surrounded the farthest side and behind her, she could see the mossy ground rise upwards, until thick vegetation met it.
What would Stella have made of this, she wondered? She was the biologist. No one would appreciate the plant life or see it through her eyes. She wiped away a tear and Jon touched her arm gently.
“Hey, come on…” he reassured.
She pulled away annoyed at seeming so vulnerable. “I’m fine. It’s just, Stella would have loved this.”
“Maybe she had a lucky escape,” Jon replied. “I’m reminded of a conversation you and I had before we were all tucked up ready to go. Remember?”
She shook her head, mystified and tucked a wayward blonde curl behind her ear. Then, with an impatient sigh, she pulled the band from her hair and gathered the honey curls back into a perfunctory ponytail.
“I said why send us? Anyone can lie in a stasis pod and almost anyone can put up with the psych profiling and not die of boredom along the way. Why us? We are an unusual crew. Paul… fair enough… he’s ex-military… Stella… biologist… doctor… me? Why would they contact me? Sure, I worked for one of your Uncle’s companies but he wasn’t interested in my qualifications. He was interested in my hobby. Then there’s you… You said, ‘I’m all out of conspiracy theories... you’re the alien hunter, you tell me.’ Alien hunter? Mmmm… yes, that is exactly what you said. Still think I’m crazy?” he asked, pointing to the sky.
Kathy remembered the conversation, though she had denied it. They were an unusual crew and she had to agree on that point. It amazed her that Jon and Prescot had bonded at all. Prescot’s view of life never went beyond what he could see and Jon was obsessed with the unseen and imagined. At first, she had wondered how he passed through the psych profiling. She soon realised that her Uncle wanted him on the mission and would not hear any objections.
He struggled through the basic training and looked awkward in the Skylark uniform. The media loved his eccentricity. The public identified with him even more. She came to realise that to her uncle, Jon represented an unsung minority.
“I don’t know what to think. Not yet anyway but I never thought you were crazy,” she said kindly.
He nodded his thanks.
“I’m going to ask you again, why us? Prescot-protection, a linguist-someone to talk to, me… well, interesting choice and a biologist.”
“Sounds like the opening for a very bad joke,” Kathy smiled, trying to lighten the mood.
Jon was not interested in banter. He was in earnest and expected Kathy to be as enthralled as he was. He became more focused and intense.
“This is where we were meant to be all along,” he sat back and studied the sky. “You see, you couldn’t tell the team. If you intended to make ‘first contact’ with an alien race, I mean.”
Kathy rolled her eyes, “You’re loving this! Alien race? If we were aliens crashing on Earth, the entire military would be here by now! There’s no one here, Jon! There aren’t even any birds… flying creatures. It’s silent. Maybe the entire place is just full of plants!”
He brushed his tawny matted fringe out of his eyes.
“Maybe… maybe… I doubt it though. We’re probably being watched even now. Come on! You can’t seriously doubt me now. They’ve been contacting us for years!” he sighed as she rolled her eyes again, “Look, just hear me out… you couldn’t choose a team who would be objective. Once they knew, they wouldn’t be objective. If you told anyone before or during the selection process… it could get out. Worldwide panic, etc... We are seeing an alien world with absolutely no agenda. That is the amazing thing… clever… very clever.”
“Oh, there’s an agenda. We just don’t know what it is,” she replied and moved a little way from him.
“Still an unbeliever!” Jon muttered.
“Oh, I’m a believer… I just don’t believe all the stuff you subscribe to,” she said quietly.
Then there was Prescot, she mused. Jon was correct in that, she felt. He made sense. Prescot had trained as a pilot and tried unsuccessfully for years to get into astronaut training. When the Space Agency had finally lost all government funding, his hopes were dashed. Kathy remembered him telling her all about it during their induction, helped by the copious amounts of alcohol being served. He believed his potential had finally been realised and that age was no barrier. He was, she felt, a cliche which the salt and pepper buzz cut did little to help.However, she had to admit he had gone through the basic training and never admitted he was exhausted. He had not fallen into a dreamless sleep every night like Jon and Stella. Like she had pretended to do.
Prescot would never have admitted that every muscle burned and the weighted belts, Ellis insisted they wear, left deep welts in his waist.
Then there was the altitude training. Ellis maintained it was necessary despite Stella pointing out that they would only be in stasis for a short time. He had still persisted and so they had done as he asked.
Kathy studied the sky again, fascinated by the continually changing patterns so far above her. She stretched her hand up towards it once more, feeling the static sensation between her fingers as she did so, watching small eddies of light move through them. Slowly, she pulled her hand away and the static seemed to slide from her fingers, almost like water, before dissipating.
Jon passed the time trying the phone continually. He was too intense for her to want to talk to him and so she looked for a diversion. She began to study the moss they had been sitting on.
She wriggled out of her rucksack and found a small container. Carefully, she pulled up a small piece of the moss and put it in. She had no idea why but felt that Stella would have done so. It seemed a fitting tribute.
A linguist, biologist, soldier and Jon… She knew he was right. This had been the plan all along.
They were exactly where they should be. The question was not why for her, it was where.
“Where do you suppose, we are?” she asked Jon.
He shrugged, “It’s a binary system… unless that’s a moon… or two… It’s hard to tell with the atmospherics… There were several binary systems we were interested in because of what we heard.”
“Heard?” she asked, puzzled.
“Oh, not the noise. Not literal noise. The lack of noise. You see, most stars have a static if you will… a signature sound… Then there’s background noise… the general hum of the universe. Some areas… a few we could see were different. Almost silent, just nothing… almost as if the signal were being dampened somehow. There should have been habitable planets there. There should have been noise and the more I looked into it, the more I was convinced there were. That could only mean one thing; their natural signals were being dampened somehow. That was what I told Dr Ellis about. I wrote to him…tried to publish my work… He naturally came to a different conclusion once he had read it but still, to be acknowledged…”
Kathy asked, “What did he think the reason was?”
Jon shrugged, “He didn’t really say. He just said he thought it unlikely, found some flaws in my calculations and when a man like Ellis thinks your theory is unlikely, no one will listen. I was expecting to have my funding cut and then he offered me a job! In the end, I had to eat so I didn’t ask too many questions. I guess I know why now!”
It was supposed to be a routine mission. One pass round the moon to test the new stasis chambers prior to the Mars colony mission. She remembered the conversation she had had with Ellis just before they left.
They were overnight celebrities. The last few months before the mission were more about the media than any real preparation. Ellis insisted on it. She found it strange that a man who guarded his privacy so fiercely had no issue submitting them to a media circus. Jon loved the exposure and even Prescot tolerated it. Stella hated it as much as she did. Their every move was scrutinised. Ellis convinced them it was necessary and the broadcast aired live despite their reservations.
He had taken her aside after the press conference. Although he was not known for emotional displays, he had squeezed her hand tightly and she knew he wanted to tell her something important. He had been so intense. Then he thought better of it, patted her hand and wished her luck. There were tears in the man’s sea green eyes. Ellis, the man who, in all the years she had known him, never allowed sentiment to cloud his judgement.
His corporation had fully funded the mission. It was hailed a new age of discovery and cooperation between the business community and the cash-starved space agency.
They had known… or at least he had. This had been the plan all along. Why had they not been told?
“So, this is where we are meant to be. We’ve lost our biologist. I assume as I’m a linguist and moss is generally not known for its conversation, as you say, they’re hoping there will be someone to talk to…” she began looking up and her voice fell silent as she did.
As if on cue, Jon stood up and followed her gaze. There standing in the tree line was a young boy. She assumed he was young and a boy but checked herself. She had no idea really. He was staring at them intensely.
Kathy stared back at him before coming to her senses. They were alone and would need any help available to them.
“Hello,” she waved, as Jon gripped her arm.
“For all you know, that’s a threatening gesture. Try to avoid body language…,” Jon advised. “Humanoid… biped… makes sense on this world… oxygen… but thinner atmosphere… Kathy wait!”
She rolled her eyes, wondering where he had read that when the boy waved back and smiled. Kathy could not resist a sideways smug glance at Jon and began to walk up the incline to meet him.
The boy jogged down the incline and stood beside them as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be standing there. At first, he was not afraid at all, merely curious. It soon became apparent that his curiosity was not even directed at them but at the bowl, they had just climbed out of. He crouched down, his whole manner alert and then tense. Kathy found herself doing the same and Jon followed suit though they had no idea why. It afforded her the time to study him.
He was around a meter and a half tall with deep blue hair which hung in tight, glossy curls to his shoulders. Wide violet eyes were rimmed with thick lashes. His skin was blue. She smiled to herself. The little green men are blue. Not the painted monotone blue of the many science fiction shows her older cousin had forced her to endure but multi-tonal, natural. He wore a simple mid-thigh tunic, short sleeved and was barefoot. The stitching was rough and the edges frayed. The garment had a handmade appearance. Around his neck hung a small leather-look pouch with a simple drawstring to keep it closed. She could only guess at what it contained. His shoulder length hair had three small braids, pulling it back from his forehead. There was a green faceted bead at the end of each braid.
His skin was smooth and almost hairless. He hugged his knees with long slender fingers. She smiled at the smattering of freckles across his thin nose. He smiled back, revealing white teeth with sharp double canines, and there was a glint in his eye. She felt she may have been assuming too much but he was curious and friendly. She relaxed beside him despite a growing sense of unease every time she looked at the red vines.
The clothing was hand stitched and he was barefoot, she mused. It suggested natives with no machines and no technology. She imagined that they would be disappointed back home. She realised with a pang that no technology meant no way of getting back. Her thought drifted to her family when she was brought back by a shout from Prescot.
“Hey… Give me a hand!” He grunted as he pushed a large bag through the vines.
Jon went down and pulled the other end and Prescot heaved himself through. He saw the boy.
“Holy shit... what the…”
Before anyone could explain, he had pulled out the handgun tucked into his jacket and pointed it at the child. The child did not seem to care. He had already taken hold of Kathy’s hand and was gently pulling at her to follow him up the hill, never once taking his eyes off the ship.
“Hang on, he’s OK,” Jon put a hand on the gun, standing between the boy and Prescot.
“You know that for sure, do you?” Prescot was not about to back down.
Jon walked back down to him and Prescot continued to argue with him over the child.
Kathy listened for a few minutes before she called,“He just wants us to follow him.”
Kathy said, as was already halfway up the incline, led by the boy. His grip was strong and he
had no intention of letting go of her hand. “I think we should… Maybe there’s a village nearby?”
Prescot was not convinced and he began looking around then knelt down and cut one of the vines in the hope of tying him up, just in case. The vine recoiled from his knife before he was able to cut completely through it, snaking back into a hole in the side of the bowl. As it recoiled, it struck his wrist, and the knife was thrown out of his hand. It fell between the vines to the hole below.
Prescot would ask himself later why he had not reacted more quickly and would never forgive himself for dropping his knife.
“What the…?” It was the last thing Jon said before he was screaming and being dragged towards the mat by the vines which silent and undetected had coiled themselves around his ankle. He was pulled slowly back onto the mat, along which the creatures were now swarming. They scuttled out from the sides of the bowl. They were almost silent as they moved, insectoid. It was difficult to see their features clearly as they tumbled over each other but Prescot was able to make out red shiny bodies and wide purple mouths punctuated with four scythe-like fangs. It was all the information he needed.
Prescot grabbed Jon’s wrists, pulling hard and succeeded in dragging him back a little way. This seemed to confuse the creatures and they stopped. They began to sway and chitter. Jon kicked frantically and clawed at the vines, his hands covered in the slimy sap which had begun to ooze from them. It was impossible to get a purchase on them. He was sitting up now watching the edges of the mat as he furiously tried to loosen the grip the vine had on his leg. He let go of Prescot’s hands as he tried desperately to break free. Prescot reached instinctively for his gun, hoping the sound might distract the creatures, only to remember that it has slipped out onto the bank. As he moved towards it, releasing his grip, Jon was pulled further from the edge. He dropped to his knees again, holding Jon with one arm and pulling at the vines around Jon’s legs with his free hand, but it was hopeless. Prescot felt the sap burning his hands and let go again with a cry, wiping it away on his flight jacket. He threw the jacket around his hands and pulled. As soon as he was able to prize one coil away, another would tighten its grip, burning into his skin. Jon cried out in pain as the sap ate through his trouser fabric and Prescot saw the panic in his eyes. Prescot caught more tendrils moving towards them both.
“Go!” Jon insisted, his face contorted.
“Shut up and pull!” Prescot replied, refusing to leave him.
He was aware that the noise had stopped. Prescot looked up. A larger creature had emerged from the nest and was edging its way, crab-like, towards them slowly, as if uncertain of its prey. Diamond plates covered its back and ended in a short, barbed tail. It moved cautiously but that did not trouble Prescot. The look in its multifaceted eyes did. It was weighing him up as an opponent with a malevolent intelligence far more insightful than he expected.
It circled them deliberately, hissing as it did so. He could feel the fear in Jon, he could smell it and the creature seemed to sense that. It was toying with him, enjoying the hunt.
Prescot tried to kick it away and it hissed menacingly but continued to circle Jon. Suddenly, it leapt onto his leg and sank its fangs in. Jon screamed but even before his scream ended, Prescot watched him go limp, his eyes glazed, staring. There was nothing else he could do. He pulled himself away from the creatures as the vines continued to drag Jon’s now lifeless body towards the mass.
Time slowed and he was vaguely aware of Kathy shouting Jon’s name until the child held her hand again. Something screamed in the back of Prescot’s mind and he realised he would be the next victim if he did not move. He leapt up from the place he was standing, balancing on the mat and throwing himself forward. Prescot sprang over the vines as they whipped at his legs and landed on the bank. He turned back slowly. Jon was covered with the insects now
and the larger one sat astride her trophy, eying him hungrily. Prescot picked up a stone and hurled it at the largest creature, still hissing and guarding the mound that contained Jon’s body, striking it hard. It shrieked. To his horror, the creature leapt after him with such a speed, he had to sprint for all he was worth to outrun it.
It gave up chase by the time he caught up with Kathy, who was pale and wide-eyed standing beside the boy. He gasped, holding his knees as he caught his breath, every lungful of air burned. The boy’s eyes were closed and he was muttering something quietly, clutching the small drawstring pouch hanging from his neck.
When Prescot looked back, still panting hard to catch his breath, the entire canopy was writhing, the tendrils alive with movement. He looked for his backpack, hoping to get a closer look with his binoculars, only to realise that it was beside the bank and within easy reach of the creatures. He thought for a moment of going back for it but the creatures had begun to fan out from the nest towards it and, he realised, towards them.
“I guess there are worse things here than me!” he spat.
He was angry now and someone would pay. Although they had little in common outside of the mission, Jon was one of them and now he was gone. First Stella, now Jon… he wondered how long he would survive. He looked over at Kathy. She was transfixed and ashen, mouthing Jon’s name silently. There were no tears; she was too shocked for that. He was not used to feeling vulnerable. These were his people and slowly they were being taken. He vowed to himself then that she would survive and he would get her home.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, turning away.
He had little choice but to trust the boy as he led them up to the tree line and then walked along it. They followed him, rising even higher above the nest but did not look back at it. Eventually, they picked up what appeared to be a well-worn trail through the trees. Prescot looked at the patterns in the mud and realised that the path had not been worn by footsteps. Tiny imprints gouged in the mud had worn the path down. The boy’s bare footprints were visible on occasion, going in the other direction so he knew this was the path he had already taken to the nest. He also guessed it was a path used by the creatures.
He rubbed his hands on his trousers. The itching was worse than the burning sensation and his hands were beginning to swell.
“Your hands!” Kathy exclaimed, noticing the red staining.
“Least of my problems right now,” Prescot replied, despite the pain.
He wondered if he had said it to reassure her or himself.
They walked in silence and the path led them through smooth stems which towered above them. The light from the sky seemed to reflect from each stem and Kathy looked more closely, watching the light dance across them. It seemed to concentrate in the stem and pulse downwards, with ever-increasing speed and the smooth surface invited her to touch it. She was reaching out to the stem but the boy shot her a warning glance. She stopped abruptly, blinking hard. The light had gone and the stems had a milky sheen to them instead.
Holding up his hand and walking backwards away from them, the boy took the lead again.
The boy was just ahead of them and they watched him pick up a stick, throwing it at a tall stem. He stood back and waited, swaying from side to side gently. Kathy shrugged when Prescot looked at her for an explanation.
Without warning, a large bulbous pod lowered from the plant above and engulfed him. They ran towards him, yelling, but the pod had completely closed.
The pod was smooth and the seams tight. Prescot tried to prize it open and pulled his painful fingers away. Kathy joined him to no avail. Then, as suddenly as it had dropped, the pod gently opened and lifted back into the canopy, leaving the boy standing where he was, unharmed and holding an orange stem. Prescot tried to protest as he rubbed the runny sap oozing from the stem onto his stained hands. The pain ebbed away in an instant and his relief was obvious.
“Thank you,” he said.
The boy smiled as if he understood but Prescot doubted he did. Carefully, the boy made a small trough in the soft earth and buried the stem, patting it gently into place. He carried on along the path and they followed but not without trepidation.
Finally, the smooth stems gave way to rough bark and almost familiar leafy plants. Prescot noticed the path change to shingle and any trace of the creatures seemed to be far behind them. He leant on a nearby tree, catching his breath again.
“Trees,” Prescot mused. “They have those at least.”
He had rested his hand on what seemed to be rough bark. It gave way leaving a moist impression of his palm and was warm to the touch.
He pulled his hand away. “Maybe not.”