Authors: Dan Worth
By Dan Worth
Over and over he had the same dream. He dreamt that he was falling from the sky - plunging like a meteor to the ground far below. The wind screamed in his ears as he fell and that scream was mixed with other sounds, human sounds, urgent voices and shouts of terror. The green land below him was heavily forested and threaded with the bright ribbons of rivers and the silvered patches of lakes. Wispy cloud moved across it as it rushed closer.
The dream always ended the same way: with a gut wrenching jolt as he was yanked fiercely backwards by unseen hands, then moments later a crashing impact that threw him forwards, and then another and another until the dream ended in pain and darkness and no other sounds save those of his own breathing and the beating of the blood in his ears.
He woke. His vision was unfocused. A patch of dappled green moved unsteadily in front of him at the end of a dark tunnel clogged with angular shapes. He mumbled something, reached to touch the pain in his face and winced.
He was being held. Cradled.
He blacked out again and was falling once more.
There were sounds all around him: whoops and screeches, buzzing and chirruping calls and low, echoing booms. Where there had been green before there was now a patch of lesser darkness than that which surrounded him, it was speckled with glowing lights like little yellow stars. He watched them as they danced complex patterns amidst the shadows: a hypnotic ballet of light.
Dizziness and drowsiness overtook him. He just wanted to hang there and sleep. He drifted off again. He fell.
There was light again. That patch of green had re-appeared. Things began to focus at last. There was something in front of his face. It was grey and padded and speckled with dried blood. His blood. He raised one hand to his nose and, touching it long enough to feel the blood encrusted there, cried out with the sudden shock of the pain.
His nose was broken, had to be. He felt nauseous. He wondered how the hell that had happened as he was still fully strapped in. Gradually he began to get his bearings. He was seated, that much was clear, but the seat was tipped forward at a crazy angle. Fumbling with unfeeling hands he realised that there were broad, padded straps across his shoulders, chest and lap that were keeping him from falling out. The woman next to him was hanging oddly. In her panic she didn’t appear to have properly secured her own restraints. Her broken body was slack in death. Her face looked familiar. Perhaps the arm of the woman seated next him had flailed out during the crash and caught him and broken his nose? He didn’t know.
He looked around himself. There were other chairs like the one he sat in and the one whose backrest he had spattered with blood from his broken nose. They were arranged in rows up the tilted cabin. Each row had two pairs of seats either side of the central aisle. There were three rows, and then there was another pair of seats at the front in front of the patch of green.
He looked across the aisle. A man in a blue uniform was slumped there. His head was angled wrongly, his broken neck hanging slackly against the restraints, his limbs dangling like a puppet whose strings had been cut. There was a woman next to him whose restraints had snapped. Her bloody face was a ruin pressed against the back of the seat in front. There were others too in the other seats, all contorted and broken. All dead. There was a sickly smell in the air too: stale cooked meat and emptied bowels.
The disastrous re-entry and the shock of the impact had killed them, he realised that. He didn’t know how on Earth he’d survived. He’d always been a lucky bastard.
He undid the clasps that he held him and, bracing himself, fell forward against the seat in front with a grunt. Gripping the chair back he swung himself out of his seat then began to climb down the ladder formed from the angled chairs where they were bolted to the floor by heavy, steel stanchions.
He was still woozy. His vision was still not completely clear and the going was difficult. His right foot slipped against the smooth metal and, panicking, he threw one arm out to steady himself. Instead of grabbing metal or a chair arm or back he had grabbed the right arm of Ensign Douglas, pulling the man’s body forwards until it started to slide beneath his restraints. The young ensign’s head lolled forward and the corpse groaned horribly as air was expelled from its lungs as it was forced against the straps.
Swearing, he released his grip on the dead man and grabbed the back of the chair in front of him then, rotating himself so that his back was against the tilted, thinly carpeted floor, he carefully slid his way down to the front of the escape pod.
The cockpit of the escape pod was a mess. Debris had struck a glancing blow against the armoured cockpit windscreen and had cracked it before they had even begun their descent. The glass had held out until the violence of re-entry had finally shattered it, admitting a jet of superheated atmospheric gases into the cabin and directly into the faces of the two crewmen who had filled the pilot and co-pilot positions. Their headless corpses hung forward towards partially melted instrument consoles scattered with the crisped remains of flesh and skull fragments. Looking upwards he now saw that those sitting in the front row of passenger seats were also horribly burned almost beyond recognition. They grinned back at him from blackened skulls, each person now identifiable only by the name-tags sewn into the breasts of their uniforms. He could remember all of their faces. They had been young and eager, loyal and devoted. All dead now. Such a waste of youth. But he didn’t have time to mourn. He would do that later. Right now he needed to get out of this place.
Underneath the raised cockpit positions was a compartment containing survival equipment. He grabbed the handles of the panel covering the compartment and pulled it free with a dull thud, then reached inside. There were emergency rations, first aid equipment, signal flares and short range comms gear along with rucksacks, all weather clothing and enough flimsy environment suits to equip the escape pod’s maximum passenger capacity. There was also a sturdy plastic crate with a padded interior containing a number of side-arms and another full of ammunition. He left the suits – the air here was breathable or else he’d be dead by now – but he grabbed one of the rucksacks and stuffed it with as much of the food and first aid supplies as he could fit inside along with one of the comm. units and one of the pistols which he strapped to his belt. He filled his pockets and the side pockets of the rucksack with ammo.
There was another item inside the compartment too: a heavy, metal briefcase that he hauled from the back of the space and then inspected. It was the escape pod’s emergency hypercom distress beacon. He decided to take that too.
Eventually, grunting under the weight of his fully laden rucksack and with the beacon in its case in his left hand he popped the hatch on the escape pod and made his way outside.
The pod had come to rest in the branches of an immense tree. It was one of many. Looking along the branch that the pod had finally been caught by and upon which he now stood, he saw that it sprouted from a main trunk over two hundred metres in diameter and whose top, presumably kilometres above, was invisible amidst the layers of foliage. Dappled green, shifting light filtered down through the foliage, lending the scene an almost underwater feel, like the bottom of a lake. The air was filled with cries of the local wildlife, providing a background cacophony of buzzing, shrieking and whooping ululations as they attracted mates, fought, declared their territories and alerted one another to the presence of predators.
Looking about he saw that there were many such trees, marching off into the distance all around. They were similarly vast, their branches jutting out at unusually regular intervals, so that the branches from different trees grew together and intertwined and formed layers of growth. The trees in turn had been colonised by vines and moss-like vegetation and countless other plants that fed from the nutrients found in the pockets of moisture that gathered in the crooks and hollows in the branches. The trees were impossibly old, perhaps tens of millennia in age. During that time the various layers of foliage had matted together, decayed, composted into loam and solidified to form a sturdy footing. He trod gingerly at first, but soon realised that the suspended layer of vegetation would easily support him. There were, however, a few gaps here and there and looking down one such hole he could see other, successive layers below him until, hundreds of metres below, he could just see the ground, shrouded in green tinted shadows.
He stopped and turned and looked back at the escape pod, buried nose down in the branches. The boxy, snub nosed craft was scorched from re-entry and dented in a dozen places from the crash landing, not to mention the shattered cockpit. One air-brake jutted upwards from the rear of the craft, like a broken insect’s wing. The others had been torn off during the descent. He looked upwards across the green, cathedral-like space towards the leafy ceiling above and saw the hole that had been punched there by the pod’s fall. One of the pod’s air-brakes was suspended there, wrapped in vines. Through that gap was visible another hole in the layer above and so on and so on until a distant, ragged patch of blue sky could be seen at the top of the tunnel burrowed through the layers of greenery.
Something white fluttered there, the remains of the escape pod’s parachute that had been ripped off as it hit the top layer of branches. It would be visible from the air, of that he had little doubt. He glanced at the date and time on his watch. He had been unconscious in the pod for almost two standard days. Too long. They would be looking for him. He had to get away from this place as soon as possible, far away, to lessen their chances of finding him. Then he had to find a way to get off this moon. First things first, he needed to know where the hell he was.
He pulled the comm. unit off his belt and accessed its built-in mapping function. It produced a detailed map of the moon almost instantly, but the device couldn’t tell him where he actually was and reported that the network of global positioning satellites was currently un-contactable. Probably knocked out during the attack, he concluded grimly. He remembered seeing something about these forests once, some wildlife documentary. That, and the stickily warm climate placed him somewhere in the tropics of this Earth sized moon, but that wasn’t an awful lot of help. He needed to find some sort of landmark and get his bearings, or else he could be wandering forever, or worse still, into the arms of the enemy. He squinted up through the branches and tried to work out the position of the sun. It was almost impossible, but from the angle of the shadows he could estimate its rough position.
He checked the small compass that he had found in the survival kit and stuffed it in his pocket. Well, at least this moon had a magnetic field, though it was a little weaker than that of the Earth’s and he suspected that the fields of the moon’s parent gas giant were confusing his compass. The compass needle kept wobbling as if uncertain about the direction of north. Truth be told, he had no idea if this place’s magnetic north had any correlation with what had been deemed to be its north pole in terms of its axis of rotation. What the hell, at least it would keep him walking in the same direction, he hoped. North was as good a direction as any, just as long as he got away from here.
He adjusted the rucksack’s straps that had already begun to cut into his shoulders with the weight of their contents and then, following his compass, set off walking across the uneven surface, leaving the final resting place of his comrades behind him.
Momentarily blinded, Chen felt the shot strike her. It spun her, knocking her off her feet as she lunged and sent her sprawling on the deck. The photo-chromic layer on the bridge windows finally compensated, blocking the brilliant light from the massive AM warhead detonations taking place outside. Panicking, her vision still occluded by the after-images, she looked up and saw Haldane. He stood with the gun in his hand and was looking down at his chest with a puzzled expression on his face. A dark stain was beginning to spread across his right breast. The gun fell from his limp fingers and he slumped to the deck.
Chen tried to move, and felt burning pain in her left upper arm. Gasping from the sudden pain, she scrambled to her feet and saw Commander Blackman, her chief of security, standing in the entrance to the bridge clad in combat armour, rail rifle gripped firmly in his gloved hands. The rest of her crew were frozen in shock. Blackman rushed forward and aimed the weapon at Haldane’s head for the kill-shot.
‘Wait!’ said Chen, wincing with pain. ‘We need him alive if possible! He claims to be human. Have him examined. If he’s lying, kill him.’