Mission Leader Oliver Strachan frowned, his fingers tapping on the arm of his command chair. Leader Trainee Gerri Reznik stood at his left shoulder, also frowning. The viewscreen showed Randarma spinning peacefully in its orbit around its sun. The communication satellites had chirruped in response to test messages. Signals had been sent all the way to the planet's surface. Acknowledgement beeps had been sent back to the King Hussein. No one had replied in person anywhere.
Leader Strachan looked over his shoulder at Trainee Reznik. "Well," he said. "It looks like we'll have to go down and look this over in person. I want you to put a team together, Reznik. We're going to put down in the center of the colony. Your group will take the school, see what's going on there. It's where most of the communication terminals are. Make sure they're working--send a test message back here. I'm also sending teams to the main public areas. I don't know what's wrong down there, but people do tend to congregate when things go awry. Now--go put your team together; no more than five counting yourself, sidearms are probably not necessary, but get used to them anyway. We'll be touching down in about half an hour. Be at the hatch and ready to deploy."
Reznik saluted and took her leave of the command post, running names through her mind of those she wanted on her team. Andra Hartwick, if she were allowed to leave the ship. Even though she was studying to be a pilot, she would probably be granted permission for this excursion. The Recruits were big on their members being well rounded in their experiences. Rapsim would be going with the group going to the meeting hall or whatever. Who else would be good to have along?
She made her decisions, stopped at a comm-panel and told the ship's computer who should meet her at he armory. The computer contacted the team members and instructed them to meet their new Leader immediately. When Reznik reached the armory, the others were already waiting.
"What's up?" asked Hartwick. "What are we doing here?"
"Landing party," said Reznik. She looked over her group, trying to hide the sudden butterflies in her stomach. "Leader Strachan said to wear sidearms, just to get used to 'em." She shrugged to show it was no big deal. Rek Tiso grinned. She had chosen him for his size and ability to shoot. They might be carrying weapons 'just in case', but 'just in case' they needed to use them, she wanted the best of the best. That was Rek. His bulk made a comforting wall at your side and his speed and accuracy with a wide variety of weapons made an even more comforting presence in the face of danger. Beside him, Mian tan Chuy seemed fragile and nervous. Her slender build and habit of nibbling at her fingers earned her an undeserved reputation of being a liability in a crisis. People tended to think her too nervous and weak, but Reznik knew better. Chuy's eyes were the sharpest, her reflexes unbelievably quick. There was nothing important she would miss. The last member of the team was one of the non-human races. He had thick scaly skin, belying his reptilian ancestors and a slowness of movement that suggested a laziness of thought behind it. Another deceptive Recruit. Arko Keldrik--the long version of his name was unpronounceable to most human species--had a nimble mind and logical way of thinking that Reznik was sure would be of use.
They requisitioned their weapons and hurried to the seats by the hatch. Other teams had formed and were likewise preparing. The King Hussein drifted down through the atmosphere, spiraling to the planet's surface, seeking the wide open space at the middle of the colony to land and send out the teams to explore. The communicators remained stubbornly silent.
The ship set down.
The King Hussein set down gently in the colony center; a wide open space of dirt with scatterings of hardy grasses trying to get a foothold. The hatch opened and the teams deployed. They had studied maps of the colony and each team headed out for its target without hesitation. Eyes scanned the surroundings for signs of danger or anything out of the ordinary. Except for the utter silence, the lack of anyone moving about, everything seemed normal.
Reznik's team fanned out and ran for the schoolhouse. Tan Chuy's eyes were busily darting here and there and a frown was forming between her delicate eyebrows. Something was not right. Keldrik's nostrils flared and he almost stumbled. He caught Reznik's arm before she could open the door to the schoolhouse. She looked at him with raised brows.
"What?" she said in a near whisper.
"Blood," he replied. "And something I have never smelled before. Dry. Nasty. Hungry. Dead."
"Well if it's dead, we don't need to worry about it being hungry, do we?"
"More than one." He looked at her meaningfully. She glanced at the others and took the safety off her weapon, feeling stupid as she did so. This was going to be fun, bursting in on a schoolroom of young children and scaring them half to death with drawn and ready weapons. Still, Keldrik was not one for playing practical jokes.
"Rek: to me," she said and opened the door.
The building was one of the few made of prefabricated materials brought by transports. The walls were of a form of plastisteel--very tough and resilient. They stepped into the vestibule. Something had gouged grooves through the inner door. The Recruits glanced at each other. They spread out as much as possible in the limited space. Reznik nodded to Keldrik. He opened the inner door, grimacing with distaste at the heavy coppery smell in his nostrils overlaid with the smell of meat gone bad.
The door swung on silent hinges toward them. Something inside snarled. A sudden movement in the schoolroom--tan Chuy pointed, Tiso stepped forward, dropped to one knee and fired twice. Something shrieked and was still. The group moved into the room, unconsciously neglecting their training and closing ranks. Reznik wanted to tell them they should spread out, make multiple targets, but the flood of saliva into the back of her mouth, preparing her mouth for the rapid passing through of everything she had ever eaten, kept her from speaking. Her stomach roiled and protested. Tan Chuy gulped. Tiso paled, his dark skin turning an ugly grey. Keldrik bared his teeth. Hartwick swallowed hard.
"What did you shoot, Rek?" asked Reznik, trying not to understand the scene before her. The bits of bone and scattered lumps of meat, some with hair on it were too gruesome. She tried to forget this had been the schoolhouse. That these torn and tattered shreds were likely all that was left of the teacher and children. Tiso moved across the room, eyes wary, glancing from time to time at tan Chuy for warning in case he himself missed something.
"I have to get out of here," hissed Keldrik. Reznik flicked a look at him, saw the distress in his eyes and nodded.
"Guard the door, Arko," she said. He tossed her a quick salute and fled. His sense of smell was vastly superior to that of the humans and he was in incredible distress. Rek bent over the creature he had shot. Two small burn holes marred its black fur. An open mouth revealed rows of sharp teeth, reminiscent of a shark's jaws. He reached to touch it.
"NO!" Tan Chuy's voice rang out sharply. Tiso looked at her. "The claws, Rek. Be careful."
He looked more closely at the dead thing at his feet. He crouched and studied it. Mian had been right. The claws were razor edged all along their inner curve. He preferred examining the creature to seeing what was in the room.
"Andra," said Reznik. "Check the terminals. Leader Strachan wants a message from here. Tell him there are no survivors and that we killed one of whatever might be responsible."
Hartwick stepped carefully to the nearest terminal. Reznik and tan Chuy stared about, unwilling to admit the reality of what was before their eyes, but another part of their minds declaring that whoever had died here so horribly deserved to be remembered, their humanity recognized. Slowly, slowly they realized that not all the bits were unrecognizable--a small hand, disembodied, lay on the floor beneath a desk, part of a foot, still wearing its portion of a shoe sat in a puddle of congealed blood.
"This isn't right, Gerri," said Mian. "One creature could not possibly have done all this! The teacher should have been able to get the children out with only minor injuries. Maybe a few serious cuts. But this is beyond reason."
"Team Leader," Andra Hartwick called out. "Mission Leader Strachan wants us back on board ASAP. Right now, he says. No delays."
"You heard the order, people," said Reznik. "Move out. Rek, let it go for now. Go! Go!" She herded her team members out of the building, covering their backs. Once outside, she included Arko Keldrik in her orders. They ran back across the colony, peripherally aware of a few other teams doing the same. In the middle distance they heard shouting. "To the ship!" Reznik yelled at them, her head turning toward the sound, her instinct to aid the team in distress. But she was grateful to be back in the shelter of the King Hussein.
The teams of Trainees gathered in the belly of the King Hussein, trying bravely to hide their trembling. None of them had found survivors in any of the buildings they had investigated. Here behind the plastisteel walls they could no longer hear the screams coming from down the dusty street. They carefully avoided each other's eyes, each young Recruit trying to process the horror, or to deny it altogether--whatever it took to remain as sane as they could. Nothing in their training had prepared them for this.
The sound of the hatch opening startled them and more than one jumped and cowered. Gerri Reznik rose to her feet, gesturing to her team to prepare for the worst. Weapons at the ready, they arranged themselves near the opening hatch, unseen from outside. The other Trainees looked at them with dull eyes. A few made as if to join them, but Reznik waved them back. She was almost comfortable commanding her own chosen team but was not ready to take on more.
Running footsteps outside heralded the arrival of the one Team that was not made of Trainees. The older and more experienced Recruits thundered up the ramp into the landing room. Their Team Leader hit the panel to the side of the door that raised the ramp, closed and locked the hatch. They stood panting from their run, heads down, faces pale. Among them, scarcely breathing hard, stood the Counselor, Rapsim ba Sharaval.
He glanced around the room, noting with satisfaction that Gerri Reznik's Team was in place and ready to defend the ship. He also noted which of the Trainees would be most in need of counseling later on. Some of them would likely not make it past this mission and would be asked to leave the Recruits altogether, probably to their great relief.
He nudged his own Team Leader, who stared at him for a moment before gathering his wits enough to address the assembled Teams.
"Team Leaders, Counselor ba Sharaval, please come with me to report to Leader Strachan." He led the way across the room to the inner corridors which would take them to the command post of the ship and its attached meeting room. "We have to tell him what we found."
Reznik found herself walking beside Rapsim. She spoke to him in a low voice, "Any survivors?"
He shook his head. "Not yet," he replied. "Perhaps in a place we haven't looked, but I wouldn't guarantee it." He looked up at her with compassion in his emerald eyes. "I'm sorry you got the school," he said. "It must have been horrific."
She swallowed hard. "It was pretty grim," she said in a wild display of understatement.
"I'll find out soon enough," he said. "And I have a good idea what must have happened to the Hrrgrharr." They fell silent and made their thoughtful way to the Leader's meeting room.
The various Team Leaders took their places at the oval table in the Mission Leader's meeting room. Leader Strachan looked at the haunted, horrified eyes of the people gathered before him and was glad that he had not been out there. Even Counselor ba Sharaval had a grim set to his mouth and an unsettled look to his eyes. Everyone avoided looking at anyone else. Oliver Strachan cleared his throat.
"We will learn nothing if no one speaks," he said. He glanced at Rapsim ba Sharaval who flicked his eyes toward Team Leader Geraldine Reznik. "Reznik. What did you find?"
Her head snapped up and she half-rose from her seat, but Strachan waved her back. "Just tell us, Reznik. No need to be too formal."
She took a deep and bracing breath, letting it out slowly before she spoke. Her voice trembled the tiniest bit and then settled. Rapsim's eyes narrowed in approval at her control. "My team approached the schoolhouse in formation. We heard nothing from the building, saw nothing out of the ordinary until we had opened the outer door. Trainee Keldrik said he could smell blood and death and something unknown to him. He said there were more than one, some dead. There were scratches in the bottom of the inner door that had been made from the other side--vertical grooves about fifteen centimetres in length. We had drawn our weapons just in case." She wet her lips and glanced at Rapsim. He nodded a tiny amount to encourage her.
"When the door was opened, trainee tan Chuy spotted something moving and pointed it out. Trainee Tiso shot whatever it was twice. There was no other movement in the room and we entered." Her face flushed. "We broke training, then, Sir. Instead of staying spread out, I am afraid we kind of clustered. I know it's wrong, but..."
"It's fine, Reznik. Go on," said Strachan with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Thank you, Sir. There was blood all over the floor, the desks, the terminals. Everywhere. And bits of--well, meat and bone and skin and hair." She swallowed with difficulty. "Tiso examined the dead creature. It had very long claws with razor sharp edges along the inner curve. We did not look too closely. I know we should have examined the room more in depth, Sir, but it was hard to find a clear place to step. Trainee Hartwick reached the nearest terminal to report back and relayed the information we were to return to the ship. Keldrik was on guard duty outside. The smell, you see, was too much for his Smanderian senses. We saw no living humans there."
She stopped. The other Team Leaders around the table nodded. Leader Strachan looked from one to the next. "I take it you all found essentially the same thing?" Heads bobbed in agreement. "What about you?" Strachan looked at the Leader of the group Rapsim had been in. He shook his head.
"It was like that at the store," he said. "Only there were probably fewer people. We found more of the things alive, though and had to run for it. Biltie had his boot clawed through. If the Counselor there hadn't been so quick with his weapon, Biltie would have lost his foot, I'm sure. The things were all over, Sir. But sluggish. We got through a bunch that were between us and the door, but a few of us sustained bites and scratches."
Reznik stared at him. She hadn't even noticed when they came through the hatch. She must be losing it.
Mission Leader Strachan studied his hands for a moment. "Still, there may be survivors here. We haven't searched every building and we'll have to." A shudder made the rounds of the Team Leaders. Strachan grinned grimly. "Don't worry. I'll be sending out more experienced Leaders. But you will be taking turns in the Teams. We have to help the colonists as much as we can. I will broadcast outside the ship that we are here and that anyone in hearing range should make their way to the hatch. I want it open and guards posted. If those creatures come, kill them. If there are too many, get inside, close the hatch and use the shields. When you go out, full protection suits with force shields are mandatory. I want no more injuries, people. Now go get your Teams, dismiss them and rest for an hour or two while I put the next round of Teams together. Good work."
The Trainees left, glad to be relieved of the responsibility of Leading, but unhappy over what was to come. This was not a Mission any of them would ever forget.
Andy Blackman lifted his head and listened. Was he imagining things? Surely he could not be hearing a voice. Who would be out in the open with those? He strained his ears more. It was a voice. A very loud voice. What was it saying? Who was it? Did he dare open the reinforced metal door of his workshop and find out? He looked for something to use as an amplifier. He found a cup and held it against the wall which faced the centre of town. He pressed his ear against it and put a finger in the other ear.
"This is the GCR ship, the King Hussein, Mission Leader Oliver Strachan. If you can hear this announcement, know that we are attempting to find you. Armed Recruits are patrolling building by building. If you have access to a terminal, send out a distress code to help us find you. If you do not, help us by making rhythmic noises. Stay where you are, if you think there are creatures nearby. If you are near the landing site, the ship's hatch is open, the ramp is down, and armed guards are on duty. This message will repeat in two minutes."
Andy waited. Sure enough, the voice came again. He picked up a steel wrench and banged on the door. Onetwothree, onetwothree, onetwothree. That should be rhythmic enough. He kept it up, over and over for what seemed an eternity. He shouted until he was hoarse. He had just given up all hope when he heard a noise on the other side. His heart leaped into his chest. At first, it sounded like the skittery noise the creatures' claws made and terror gripped his soul. His mouth went dry. Then, on the other side of the door, he could hear thumping--onetwothree, onetwothree. A voice, muffled by the door, called out.
"Is there anyone in there?"
Andy unbolted the door in a frenzy of relief. Tears ran down his cheeks. As the door opened and he saw the alien shapes on the other side, terror welled again, until he realized the two Recruits were dressed in full armor and were bristling with weapons. "It's all right now," said one kindly, taking him by the arm. "Come on. We'll take you back to the ship."
He went willingly, eyes swivelling madly in their sockets as they went. Not until he was safe inside the King Hussein did his fear begin to abate the tiniest amount. He was passed to more Recruits and taken by them to the medical bay. Four other colonists sat there, looking as thin and shell shocked as he himself. He stared at them. They stared listlessly back. He looked at the chief Medico. "This is all that's left?" he asked, horrified.
"So far," said the Medico, pushing him onto a diagnostic bed. "But we still have more buildings to search. Now lie still a moment."
Andy closed his eyes and let himself believe that he was safe. He tried not to think of the hundreds of colonists who had not been so lucky.
Counselor ba Sharaval stood at the observation port, watching the abandoned colony dwindle as the King Hussein lifted from the town square. Three of the eleven survivors stood with him as the planet that had held the culmination of their hopes and dreams fell away beneath them. The other eight were still under sedation in the medical section. A heartfelt sigh made the rounds, and all three had tears running silently down their faces. Rapsim glanced at them and away to allow them their moment of private grieving. He would be talking with them enough in the days to come.
Andy Blackman, one of those at the port, said in a rough voice, "You should have burned it to the ground. What's the point of letting it stand?"
Sedran Chola, a woman whose family had been lost to the creatures, wiped her cheeks with a trembling hand. "They could have buried the remains, at least," she said.
The third colonist was Jonas Little, who had once dreamed of courting the school teacher, Maire Shanahan. "Bury what?" he said with a bark of bitter laughter. "How would they gather what was left?" He folded his arms on his chest, staring at the wide curve of Randarma as the ship moved deeper into space. "What will happen now, Counselor?"
Rapsim looked up at the bigger man. "A team of scientists will probably meet us on our way back to Headquarters. They will take and examine the bodies of the creatures we brought along. They will probably want to talk to as many of you as they can, which I may or may not allow, and then they will go to Randarma to piece together what happened."
"And when they are done?" asked Sedran. "Tears continued to flow down her cheeks, her husband's dying screams to her to get into their prefab shelter and lock the door echoing in her ears. They had chosen their property but had not yet built a house. They had been living in a six metre square cabin made of sheets of metal fitted together, until it was their turn to have the rest of the colony come and have a house-building party. Then their shelter would be dismantled and used to make something else. She had run, wishing she were brave enough to stop and help him, but the image of the creatures devouring his legs drove her to hiding. The metal door had slammed shut behind her with a satisfying clunk. Lorne's screams had suddenly stopped. Sedran had looked out the window once, and then ducked quickly back at the sight of her love being reduced to shreds. She had avoided the windows after that. She had no way of knowing this action had saved her life; that the creatures sensed infra-red. Behind the metal walls she was essentially invisible to them. Her children had been at school. Not until the Recruits found her in her home did she learn of their fate. Now, all she wanted was some sense that the right thing would be done.
"When they are finished, and they know all they want, they will destroy the colony buildings and the remains by fire. Probably from low orbit. They will also likely hold a service for those who were lost."
"Lost!" Jonas snorted. "Lost." A bit softer. "They're not lost, Counselor. We know where they are." He smiled angrily. "They're not lost. They're dead. Devoured. Chewed up and spewed out." His lips drew down in a grimace of disgust. "It shouldn't happen to my worst enemy."
Rapsim acknowledged Jonas with a nod and looked out at the ball of the planet sliding past the port. The King Hussein was on its return journey to Headquarters.
In the meantime, the Tiyalstar had recovered the Poltari who had survived the hatching of the eggs aboard their ship. They were only moderately wounded, but in the skirmishes with the incredibly fast raveners, several ship's systems, including communications, had been lost. The creatures' bodies were given to the Science Officer. He found it difficult to dissect them, having lost two fingers on one hand and one on the other to them, but his Poltari stubbornness kept him from giving up. The information he gathered would be shared with the Science Team going to Randarma. He himself had had quite enough of the creatures, and only wanted to get his hands into a regeneration tank as soon as possible.
"Geez, Louise, Rez, that was some first mission." Andra Hartwick lay sprawled across her bunk in the King Hussein, gazing at the ceiling and trying not to see things best forgotten.
"Yuh huh," said Gerri Reznik from across the room. She was writing in her journal, trying to capture her feelings before time had dulled the memory, although she doubted time would dull anything about her experiences on Randarma.
"You think we'll ever see anything worse?" asked Hartwick.
Reznik looked up at her friend. "Oh, man. I hope not!" She managed a grin. "Still, with that behind us, our next Mission has to be better, right?"
"I'll tell you right now, Rez. If our next Mission is worse, I'm outta the Recruits!" Hartwick laughed and Reznik joined her. "You hear that some of the others are leaving?"
Reznik nodded. "Yeah. One of the Team Leaders, too. Bet his Recruiter is feeling let down."
"Anyone in our Team?" asked Hartwick, sitting up and stretching.
"No." Reznik grinned widely. "I picked a group of winners, Andy. You guys made me look so good."
"Maybe so, Rez. But you handled us pretty well, too. You did good. I know Rapsim must be glowing over you. I heard Leader Strachan saying he was impressed by your utter coolth under stress."
"Yeah?" Reznik smiled, pleased. "Thanks for telling me."
Their conversation was interrupted by an announcement asking for all the Trainees to report to the main assembly room. This would be where Leader Strachan would address them and tell them where to report when they returned to Headquarters. "That's us, Andy. Let's roll."
Reznik signed off her terminal and as it slid back into the wall, she was already striding across the room to the door. "Wonder what's up next?" She said. "Let's go find out."
They left their room and strode toward their future.