An excerpt from a science fiction novella in progress.


AL-WOLA

     The day started uneventfully for Daniel Winot. He woke to the sharp crackle of frost breaking up on the ground outside the steadfast, the brittle shards shattering under the boots of men already up and about although the sun had yet to show an arc above the horizon. In a few hours, as that red orb climbed into the sky, all the frozen moisture trapped in the soil would disappear as if it had never been, cold and damp giving way to a blinding scorching heat that would last until the red sun sank below the horizon again. Getting ready was easy. He was already completely dressed except for his boots. They were the only thing he removed before sleep, a habit he had picked up from the others here at Al-Wola. He glanced at the vacuumshower then decided against it, knuckling his eyes free of residual sleep as he grabbed his footgear. Sliding into them with the ease of long practice he walked over to a small chest on the floor of his envirocube and filled his pockets with charge packs for his laser, another habituated part of his daily ritual. Then he activated the door seal and stepped outside, making his way to the central mess for a meal and the list of his day’s chores.

He hated this place. So many extremes. Nothing was just normal. After four months on Almanir, he still wasn’t used to the dizzyingly short days, everything foreshortened as the planet rotated madly about the K Type star that dominated its sky. During the day, the bulk of the red giant Theta Doradus loomed overhead like a gigantic fireball, its enormous disc covering a major portion of the sky and tinting everything on the surface of the planet below. Its bulk and radiance defined Almanir’s day, making for disconcertingly abrupt transitions from shivering cold to numbing heat in the space of just ten standard hours.

He wondered how the Manticora adapted to the accelerated day/night cycle of the planet. Their attacks were often timed for the end of Almanir’s daylight cycle but not predictably enough to defend against it. In retrospect it seemed that the Manticora always appeared when the steadfast was busiest, and no one was expecting them. In the endless documentaries he had watched both before and after deploying here, Nimrod troops always battled aliens from the safety of shielded redoubts and mostly from the comfort of flatskimmers, whose armored hulls were partially impervious to alien weapons. All gung-ho and light-years of safety away. He never thought about actually fighting any aliens face to face until Parker’s malice. Until this posting.

It took only a week at Al-Wola for Daniel to realize that Parker never actually meant for him to come back from this trip. Why else send him away for six months to this forlorn outpost on the edge of a god forsaken interstellar blight? Thinking of Parker made him think of Elvira and his head ached. Parker was the commanding officer on Terminus, the company’s advance base on Gliese 163 C and Elvira was Parker’s woman. No, had been, and he was partially responsible for that. Although Daniel tried to avoid getting mixed up in domestic company intrigues, Elvira’s charms proved irresistible. Apparently the attraction was mutual. Things escalated rapidly and soon all his noble intentions scattered like chaff in the wind. His standing with the station commander suffered similarly.

Parker was livid. No, that was an understatement. He was totally pissed off. Sexual mores being what they were on Terminus, he couldn’t say or do anything when Elvira moved out of his cube and into Daniel’s, but his eyes followed them around malevolently whenever he encountered them on the base, and Daniel soon found his progress reports all mysteriously downgraded. Parker regarded him with such hatred that Daniel made sure to give him a wide berth whenever possible. Murder was uncommon on outworld bases but “accidents” were not and he had no intention of ending up a statistic in Nimrod’s logs. It was sheer misfortune that Parker was in charge of the duty roster when news of the Manticora raids on Almanir reached Terminus Station some months later. The Nimrod Mining Corporation did not approve of disruptions to its offworld operations and reaction was swift and predictable. A special operations team, formed from existing personnel on Terminus deployed via lightship to Almanir to end the nuisance as soon as possible. Daniel was shocked but not really surprised to find his name on the list of officers slated to accompany a brigade of men and equipment to Al-Wola.

Al-Wola. Nothing could have prepared Daniel for the bleak misery of the steadfast, or the sullen restiveness of the men assigned to his detail. The vagaries of Almanir’s revolution around Theta Doradus dictated that only a narrow band, about forty kilometers wide surrounding the southern pole, was truly habitable, if it could even be called that. Within that “comfort” zone, grasslands grew, and forests after a fashion. Trees with multiple barrel trunks and boughs that spread out in umbrella fashion from disc shaped caps grew in wild confusion, interspersed with creeping vines as thick as a man’s thigh. The grass reached up to waist height and more, the blades sharp enough to draw blood if handled incautiously. Random and bizarre, the vegetation seemed more nightmarish than hospitable, a fitting cover to the flinty ochre breccias that made up Almanir’s crust.

Almanir itself tilted so far on its axis that the light of the red sun baked the northern hemisphere to a crisp. Nothing grew there, not even stunted grasses, and the land was cracked and thrown up in fantastic shapes by the heat driven pressures. Drones had surveyed that landscape of course, but all that land was baked dry, a patchwork of mottled browns and yellows, wearying to the eye and the soul in equal measure, and completely inhospitable. Nothing survived in the waste. Nothing human that is. In terrifying dribs and drabs, all those involved in the mining operations on Almanir became aware that things did actually live in that terrifying land, things that belonged in the realm of myth. Shockingly bestial life forms, as alien as any monster in an entertainment vid, yet still vaguely humanoid enough to be fodder for nightmares.

More than half again as tall as a human, grotesquely wide and multi limbed, the Manticora stood nine to ten feet high and their heavily muscled thighs and long spear pointed tails were reminiscent of ancient pictures of a legendary creature bearing the same name. Bipedal in general and inhumanly fast on their feet, their bodies resembled that of an enormous elongated lion, broad chested with double jointed arms at the shoulder, and eyes large and wide spaced on ill-proportioned humanoid heads, providing a terrifyingly wide field of vision. They had two leathery wings on their backs, which folded to near invisibility when furled but spread out like gossamer capes when spread. Luckily those wings could only bear the weight of those enormous bodies over very short distances. To all intents and purposes, Manticora could not fly.

It took a while before the authorities on Al-Wola understood that the Manticora were sentient. Initially, none came back from any encounters with them. But the increased rate of desertion on Al-Wola alerted the Company, and interrogation of some of the recovered deserters provided enough information to form a fairly detailed picture of the creatures. Their technical development was still eons behind humanity and they had yet to invent mechanical or aerial modes of travel. Their weapons were primitive, javelins that looked like small tree trunks and some form of crossbow whose darts would have served as spears for a mere mortal. They wore no armor and needed none, their nubbed skin being armor enough and resistant to anything but lasers and shock guns. They moved about the waste with surprising ease and speed and they were utterly ruthless.

The Manticora took no prisoners, left no survivors and mutilated both the dead and the dying, ripping apart the rib cages of screaming victims to spread the entrails around them in steaming stinking glistening piles. It was a bad way to die, and a slow one. The company issued projectile weapons and multi-charge lasers to all personnel and fortified their redoubts and steadfasts but still the losses continued. Daniel’s expedition was designed to be one of the first organized resistance efforts on Al-Wola and so far they had seen no action. Everyone was as nervous as hell.

The laser probably saved him. That and the daily routine he had made for himself the first morning after picking up his weapons at the armory. He made it a practice to fill the pockets of his tunic with the little cylindrical laser charge packs before leaving his quarters every morning and followed the practice religiously as the weeks morphed into months and it seemed his luck might hold. Maybe his tour would end with no sign of an encounter.

He palmed the laser on hearing the first hoarse screams, seeing gaping holes in the perimeter and blurring movement in his peripheral vision as the Manticora poured in over the twenty-foot high nano-steel that formed the steadfast barriers.

His last rational thought was that they must have other weapons to breach the perimeter like that.

Sharp bursts of green showed him that others were firing at the intruders now, and his own weapon tracked and fired, tracked and fired like a well-oiled machine. His mind calculating the target ranges as his arm swung and finger squeezed. Thirty loads to a charge. Track and squeeze. Track and squeeze. Eject the spent canister and push in a fresh one. Lock and track and squeeze. Sweat ran into his eyes and made them sting. He could hear himself screaming hoarsely. Or was it the men around him. He didn’t know. Didn’t care. It was every man for himself. To his left, he saw a man take a crossbow bolt in the throat. The force of the impact and the size of the dart literally tore the man’s head off. The headless corpse staggered around for a moment, laser still firing in reflex as the dead man’s finger clenched on the trigger. Green light filled the air, arcing wildly. Men and Manticora dodged together as the corpse fell thrashing to the floor, and he saw more of the creatures come over the barrier straight towards him. All around him, men were screaming and falling and dying. The battle was lost. They had overrun the steadfast. Al-Wola was about to fall. It was only a matter of time before the Manticora destroyed and mutilated every living thing in the camp .

Without thinking Daniel turned and sprinted for a tumblercraft parked on the edge of the field and away from the main thrust of the attack. It was unarmored and used for light reconnaissance, but it was his only hope. The tumbler had no doors, and its round ungainly body was nothing more than an egg shape open on both sides, with the interior cavity all but exposed. He had almost reached the opening when an angry whine warned him of imminent danger. He threw himself to the side and a crossbow bolt screamed over his shoulder and stuck the smooth microplaz surface of the tumbler with a sharp “clack”. It ricocheted off the glassy surface and angled up towards him, plowing a furrow along the top of his shoulder. The pain was sudden and intense, flaring down his arm and into his head like hot metal pressed to his flesh. Glancing down, he saw the ripped fabric of his tunic and realized how incredibly lucky he’d been. The shaft had grazed the top of his shoulder instead of burying itself in his flesh. Had it been the latter, he would now be bleeding out next to the tumbler. A knot of Manticora ran in his direction as the shooter began winding a fresh bolt onto his weapon. Ignoring his shoulder, he threw himself into the craft and punched the auto lift, clinging to the control stalk as the tumbler rose in a wobbly arc over the perimeter of the steadfast and headed out over the plain.
Gritting his teeth, Daniel resisted the urge to take the tumbler higher. The little craft was unmaneuverable at altitude and he would be a sitting duck. Dimly, he was aware of the whirring thud of shafts hitting the microplaz skin and gave thanks for the smooth rounded shape that prevented any of those deadly bolts from penetrating. He made a mental promise to himself that he would never again laugh at a tumblercraft and then focused his fading energy on holding the tumbler steady with his feet as he fashioned a makeshift field dressing from the sleeve of his shirt. The effort of stripping off his tunic nearly made him pass out, but once he had the garment off, ripping off the sleeve of his inner shirt proved easier. Tying a knot one-handed proved much harder and he was sweating when he finished. His shoulder ached with a steady drawing pain and he knew that if he didn’t attend to soon, it would become infected. Manticora weapons were definitely not sterile.
As he banked the craft and headed south towards a faint shadow marking a distant tree line, he saw a group of Manticora leave the steadfast and trot out onto the open plain, clearly pursuing him. They must know that the tumbler had a limited range. If the fuel cell had been fully charged he had maybe four hours of flight before the tumbler gave out. He hoped it would get him close enough to the forest that he could make it under the canopy before the Manticora reached him. The red sun was already past zenith and darkness and cover was his best hope if he was to avoid his pursuers.

He made it to within half a kilometer of the trees before the tumbler’s fuel cells ran dry.

The spreading umbrella shapes of the callowleaf forest were clearly distinguishable when the comforting hum of the tumbler drive abruptly cut out and the craft lived up to its name, wallowing in the air like a small boat in a rough sea. His injured shoulder impeded him and he struggled to keep the craft level as it descended rapidly to the plain. Below, the ground was broken and sprinkled with sparse shrub, rising gently towards the trees now looming before him. He could see no clear level surface to put down and at the last moment, he steered the tumbler to a small patch that seemed flatter than the rest, bracing himself as the little craft hit the ground at some velocity and bounced along on the surface towards the trees. He had expected the impact, prepared for it, but the rolling tumbler threw him about the inside like a marble inside a glass jar and mercifully he passed out seconds after the initial impact.

When he came to he found himself lying on his back on coarse grass in probably the only spot around him that wasn’t littered with boulders. Lucky once again, he thought. A few meters away the tumbler lay on its side like an upended beetle. He moved his arm gingerly and screamed as the pain hit him. Finding a twig nearby he clamped his teeth around it and explored the shoulder with his other hand, snorting in pain, tears streaming down his cheeks as he tested the joint. No dislocation, but he had lost a lot of blood. The whole left side of his tunic and the remnants of his left sleeve were damp and in the light of the setting sun, the blood looked black on the pale blue of his uniform. He adjusted the dressing as best he could and still chewing on the twig, he forced himself to his feet and stumbled towards the tumbler. He couldn’t stay out here. The Manticora were surely still on his trail and he needed to get under cover before the light faded. The tumbler’s microplaz exterior was undented but its canopy was shattered. Leaning over the side he managed to secure the emergency supply pack from under the seat. He had lost his laser in the flight from the steadfast but there was another in the pack and he still had plenty of charges. Dragging the pack behind him he hobbled through the grass towards the first trees, keeping a sharp eye on the ground to avoid holes and boulders that might trip him up. If he fell down again, he didn’t think he could get back up.

Theta Doradus had nearly disappeared over the horizon when Daniel reached the welcome sanctuary of the first trees, the tall shadows of the callowleaf sentinels reaching out like fingers to draw him in, cloaking him in cool darkness. The contrast between light and dark left him momentarily blind and he paused just inside the dark shadows, smelling the coppery stink of blood. His blood, slowly seeping out around the clumsy dressing he had tied around his shoulder. His arm felt as if it was on fire, flashes of pain shooting down towards his wrist and across his ribs, blurring his vision as he put out his other hand to steady himself against the trunk of a forest giant. He ought to push on, put as much distance between him and his pursuers, but his limbs refused to follow his brain’s orders, seemingly intent on doing everything possible to slow him down. Gravity allied with his muscles to bring him to his knees and his breath went out in a gasp as his knees hit the mossy floor. His vision went completely dark for an instant, his mind blanking out in sympathy as the pain hit again. Fighting the imminent vertigo that threatened to engulf him he leaned back against the gnarled old wood, his eyes closed, gritting his teeth. The lightheadedness rose in him slowly, seeming to start in his belly and rise up to his throat as he struggled to avoid the inevitable. Then the darkness swallowed him again and he gave in to it, allowing himself to sink into the respite of oblivion.

When he swam back out of the darkness a breath of wind was tickling his face. Somewhere deep in his subconscious he understood that no wind blew down here on the forest floor. With a great effort he cracked his lids open and looked into enormous hooded yellow eyes, pupils dark and flecked with green. Eyes that regarded him without sympathy.

© Bryan Knower 2015

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