A crew has landed on a new planet hoping to find sanctuary, but what they find is a monstrosity beyond all earthly imagination.
The Faithful by David O'Hanlon
Music by Ray Mattis http://raymattispresents.bandcamp.com
Produced by Daniel Wilder
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“How long has it been since the gods answered a prayer?” Rayburn Halsey checked his watch.
It was still on Mars time and had been for thirty-seven years since the flight began. “More than six hours, that’s for sure. For thousands of years, every culture on Earth reported interactions with gods. And then one day, they just stopped talking to us. Go to your room, Creation. You’re grounded. Maybe we had it coming.”
Halsey sipped the juice packet and stared at the planet on his monitor. Swirling clouds obstructed any view of the surface, just as they had since their arrival. He tapped his fingers nervously on the console.
“Pilot Amber Mitchell deployed to the surface of Baron-117 exactly five-hours ago. According to our most recent calculations, we have less than twenty-six weeks of supplies. There are nineteen planets and thirty-seven moons in the quarantine zone. That’s not counting four outlying planetoids. Historical records are shady, to say the least. Five-hundred years will do that. We must take the chance that whatever our forebears were afraid of didn’t cover the entire system. It’s illogical to even think it could.”
The door dilated behind him and Mike Delaine leaned in. “Any word from Mitchell?”
Halsey flicked off the flight recorder. “Preliminary numbers look good. It’s cold, but above freezing. The atmosphere is breathable for the most part. Helium levels are a little higher, oxygen a little lower, so I want helmets on. I’m adjusting the ship’s gravity slowly to match surface numbers. I don’t want anyone face planting as soon as we hit the ground.”
“Does that mean we’re going?” Delaine’s question was stained with uncertainty.
“Got any other ideas? We’re still thirteen months from our destination. We have a hold full of colonists that need to properly defrost. If we wait any longer, we’re not going to have the supplies to do that. I’m not murdering two-thousand people because something went wrong out here during the Dark Age of Space. Records show three planets and two moons were affected by the incident, but that’s about all we’ve got to go on. It literally says ‘the incident’ with no further information.”
“A lot of records were lost during the War. People rushed to save our history and our art and forgot about things like NASA communication records.” Delaine shook his head and sighed. “Kind of wish that were the other way around right about now. I mean, whatever it was made them quarantine an entire solar system and we’re smackdab in the middle of it all. But hey,” Delaine clapped his hands together, “at least I saw that Warhol painting of some soup cans.”
“Yeah.” Halsey stretched in his seat. “I’m going to start waking the rest of the crew. Prep the dropship, we’re going down to help Amber establish a landing zone.”
“We’re not even waiting for them to wake up?” “You want to sit here for another thirty-six hours babysitting popsicles? We need to get down there and make sure we have a place to set down. The Eden module flies a little better than a dog in a jetpack, so I want to make sure we have a very wide margin for error.”
“Sure thing.” Delaine walked outside into the corridor and turned back. “Hey, Rayburn.”
“Do you think anyone will ever find us?”
The automated door closed before Halsey could tell him no. Maybe gods did still answer prayers.
The dropship rocked on its landing struts.
Halsey and Delaine watched through the viewscreen as the orange-brown dust settled and gave them their first clear view of the planet. There were tall, wide, coniferous trees spaced hundreds of yards apart. Yellow, egg-shaped cones sprouted from branches high above in nests of feathery, chartreuse leaves. Great, tentacle-like roots tore up the ground around them and joined together like a massive web. Each of the thick roots stood out of the dirt, two feet wide at their narrowest point and ten closest to the trunks.
“Well, looks like we have plenty of room to put the Eden down. No way we’re using rovers with those roots though.” Delaine looked over his shoulder at the six-wheeler. “I was really looking forward to something going smoothly.”
Halsey unclipped his harness and laughed softly. “Del, has it occurred to you that being stranded on a deserted planet is things going smoothly?”
“That’s depressing.” Delaine removed his restraints and crawled into the cargo hold with the rover.
Halsey squeezed through after him. “That was a reentry vehicle that struck us. I played back the recording thirty times. Just some antique space junk that drifted into our lane. That kind of thing shouldn’t happen, especially out here. The odds of surviving it are even slimmer.”
“I know, Rayburn. We’re alive and we shouldn’t be. Maybe I should count us lucky, but I’m having a real hard time with that right about now. You know what I’m saying?”
“I do. Helmet on, we’re burning daylight.”
Both men fastened their helmets into place on the aluminum rings of their atmospheric suits and proceeded through the smaller side door of the ship. Halsey stepped out first and let his legs adjust fully to the gravity before taking a few tentative steps forward. Delaine joined him and stretched, shaking his head as he did. The roots of the trees provided a constant obstacle as they advanced forward.
“That cloud coverage is really something.” Halsey watched the citrine sky swirl and then checked his wrist-mounted tablet. “We’re almost a quarter-mile south of Amber’s lander. Strange.”
“Not really. Those clouds could really obscure a signal,” Delaine reassured him.
“Not that. Amber’s moving to the east for some reason.” He swiped a finger across the screen and sent the image over to his partner. A red blip moved across the screen with an ever-growing number above it. “She’s moving at a pretty good clip.”
The navigational officer looked at the screen carefully and then up at the wild expanse of towering trees and rising, sweeping roots. “How’s she moving that fast across this terrain?”
“That’s a damn good question, Del. Want to hear a better one?”
Delaine nodded slowly, hesitantly. “Shoot.”
“Why is she moving that fast across this terrain?” Halsey unhooked the rifle from his air pack and pulled back the charging handle.
“I really just wanted something to go smooth.” Delaine ready his weapon as well.
The two men started to jog, mindful of the difference in gravity. They weaved their way through the roots, looking for the low spots to hurdle whenever they could and boosting each other over the taller places.
They arrived at Mitchell’s lander almost twenty minutes later and were already exhausted.
Their first impression wasn’t a good one.
The lander was a good size smaller than the dropship—they were designed to carry one member of the team to the planet and keep them alive for three days. It looked like an upside-down gemstone, pointed on the top and wide on the bottom. There was a chair that folded into something resembling a bed and around that was boxes fixed to the floor with food, water, basic medical supplies, and a carbine for defense. A big red box served as the base of the chair and contained all the necessary tools for demolishing anything that might hinder the landing of the larger dropship.
A bloody handprint on the polished shell of the lander was their first clue that something was wrong.
Halsey signaled for Delaine to move behind a root and cover him while he crept closer. The door squeaked on a light breeze, rocking softly on its hinge and through the gap Halsey could see brown hair splayed out across the floor. His stomach twisted in knots as he eased the door open with the barrel of his weapon.
The thing on the floor was not Amber Mitchell.
In fact, despite the similar hair it was not even potentially the same species. It had two arms and two legs, but it was hard to tell where the furs it wore ended and its body hair began. A shock of brunette covered its face, or what was left of it. A few teeth and a dislodged eye were the only recognizable features anymore. A bloodied wrench was tossed into the corner. Everything else seemed to be in order.
Delaine popped out from his cover and sprinted to the lander.
He looked inside and made an inarticulate squealing-cough as a word failed to make it past his throat.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Halsey checked the tracking application again and saw the pilot had stopped moving a little over three miles to the east. “We’re not alone on this planet. That thing,” he jerked a thumb towards the corpse, “has friends. She left the water, carbine, and explosives. Amber’s being chased, I’d stake my life on it.” “I had my choice of assignments and this is what I picked?” Delaine waved for Halsey to follow him and walked gingerly up a root until its tallest point. “There’s no way to run over all of this. How was she moving that fast?”
“Maybe she ditched her environmental gear.”
“Rayburn, we need to turn back.”
“Amber’s in trouble.”
“No.” Delaine shook his head violently. “We’re in trouble. There’s no way to move through this mess and when we do, we’re going to be too far behind. Comms aren’t working and we’re up against an indigenous force of unknown size and technology. We need to go back to the drop and rejoin the crew on the Wayfarer.”
“We come back for her later, in greater numbers.” He put a hand on Halsey’s shoulder. “I know what she means to you, but we don’t have another option.”
Halsey walked eastward, shaking his head in disbelief. “We’re not leaving one of ours to a bunch of savages.”
“It was wearing furs.”
Delaine hopped down from the root and worked his way towards his friend. “That means there’s wildlife to consider too. Plus, these damn trees.”
“What about the trees?”
“Why aren’t there any leaves on the ground?” Delaine waved a hand at the treetops. “Where are the birds or bugs or whatever the hell else should be living in them?”
Halsey stopped and looked around.
Despite seemingly endless rows there weren’t any shed leaves. No sounds came from above, either.
He knelt next to a tangle of roots and examined them closely for the first time. He pushed against one with a shiny, gloved finger. It gave slightly to his touch, almost like rubber or thick leather. He turned his head up to the cones above. They were ovals, but with flatter sides and rows of finger-thick hairs lining them on four sides. The hairs blew gently in the wind and a small hole pulsated on the very bottom of each. One of the cones opened from the bottom, then its neighbors did the same. They seemed to swell and deflate, over and over. Each time they expanded, Halsey could see the masses of gelatinous orbs clinging inside the hard shells. There was a slight crackling as each one of the cones opened and then a chorus of them followed as the surrounding trees repeated the process. Halsey stood and backed away from the tree slowly.
“I think we should start running.” Halsey sprinted as fast as he could.
He clamored over tall roots and hurdled the short ones in a desperate attempt to outrun a feeling. He couldn’t explain it and he wasn’t about to waste time trying to either. There was something wrong—down to the very basic core of his understanding something was just wrong and he wanted away from it.
He didn’t even realize he dropped his rifle until he heard the scream behind him.
Halsey slid to a stop and braced his hands on his knees.
He dared himself to look over his shoulder and when that didn’t work, he stood upright and closed his eyes as tight as he could. He pictured the worst possible thing he could imagine and spun on his heel. He decided to count to ten before opening his eyes and on the second attempt that worked.
Only there was no horror.
There was also no Delaine.
A rifle lay on the earth and then a boot joined it with a dramatic plummet from somewhere above.
He turned to run and then everything spun wildly.
His stomach lurched and everything distorted. The sudden jostling threatened to purge his stomach and he reached for the helmet latches.
Before he could flip them, something smashed against his head. The helmet spread the impact out and a second blow turned off the lights.
Rayburn Halsey awoke without his environmental suit, or anything else, covering him.
Goosebumps prickled across his naked body as much from fear as from the frigid air. He stared up at the sky, but the ever-present clouds prevented any stars from shining through their burnt-yellow fog. He could feel the dead earth rubbing against his bare back, but oddly didn’t feel any sort of restraints holding him in place.
A bizarre sound emanated around him like music, if only in its simplest form—rattling, whistling, and something like bamboo windchimes.
He swallowed hard and forced his head to the left, where he found Delaine.
The navigational officer was equally naked and sobbing softly. Halsey rolled away from him, turning over to see Amber on the right. His hands clamped over his face and he screamed into his palms.
Halsey curled up into a fetal position, hyperventilating.
The team’s pilot had been opened up and emptied. Her lifeless face was turned towards Halsey and her organs were laid out across a decorative animal hide. Bowls made from stone, or possibly bone, held smoldering balls of herbs that sent lazy smoke trails into the night sky. Someone walked past Halsey and he forced himself to look.
It was one of the creatures that Amber killed in the lander.
It pulled its long hair back out of its face and knelt beside Delaine. Halsey couldn’t see it’s face clearly, but caught a glimpse of a hard, reflective exoskeleton. Pale, veiny hands reached out from a fur robe and stroked Delaine’s face.
“Soon, you will enter into the spirit realm so that you may be reborn.”
Halsey sat upright and waited for the voice again.
The thing spoke his language?
It turned and walked closer, sliding the bug-like mask away from a bearded, human face. The man prodded Halsey’s forehead with his fingertip.
“You came from the Beyond just as our ancestors did.”
“How?” Getting the word out was like regurgitating shards of glass. “How is this possible?”
The roots of a nearby tree moved up and out of the soil, poking around until it found Amber’s spleen and wrapped its delicate, spindly tip around the organ. A soft suckling sound resonated from it.
“They’re not trees.” Halsey sidled away from the man like a frightened crab. “Those aren’t trees at all.”
The man smiled at him and signaled with his hands. Two more people came from behind and seized his arms.
Others moved around them and went to Delaine, who screamed and squirmed as they stretched his legs and arms out and held him spread-eagled. The man in charge pointed at Delaine.
“He is scared and I appreciate that. Your female companion was as well, but this is the only way they can become a part of the world. Once they are consumed, we will consummate their joining with the Divine Ones. We bring them into the world as fruit is delivered from the vine.”
“This is insane. Please, you have to let me go.”
“I am sorry you do not understand yet.” The man smiled at him genuinely. “You will. When our people came from the Beyond, they were lost here. They had no hope of survival, but were too scared to admit it. Their supplies dwindled until there was only enough for a few, so they took to killing one another to reduce the need and it was then that they realized they were doomed. And so, they prayed.”
The man held his hands into the sky and the trees opened their cones above him. The leaves shuddered and a fog rose from their tops with a bugling roar. He smiled brightly and a single tear rolled down his cheek, getting lost in the tangles of his beard. He approached Halsey and stroked his face.
“Our gods answered their prayers.”
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