Awake (Chapter 18)
The view, if Siris had noticed it, was spectacular. The ridge was almost a cliff, and from the height that he surveyed the valley below, he could see as far as the distant mountains would allow. But what had monopolized his attention since cresting the summit was the large mound this side of the wide river that bisected the valley.
The mound was covered in grass and shrubs, but the larger twisted trees that proliferated this area of Ross 128-b weren’t in evidence. That would make sense if the mound was formed by an ancient earth colonial spaceship. Maybe a thousand years of wind blown soil and decaying detritus wasn’t enough to form sufficient topsoil for the larger trees.
As he examined the outline of the mound through the scope on his UTS 15, he began to notice lines and contours to the mound that further ensured him that he’d found the back half of the Samsara. He smiled down at Cato.
“At least it wasn’t too hard to find,” The dog just rolled onto his side and closed his eyes, completely unimpressed by the discovery.
Siris looked through the scope again, deciding to give the dog a little more time to rest, besides, he needed to find the easiest way down from this ridge. He was surprised when he noticed a kind of trail that wound down the nearly sheer slope. He traced it back up to the very game trail that he and Cato had been following for the last day.
Just a game trail, he told himself, but as he scanned the base of the ridge he began to notice areas in the trees that seemed to have been cleared away. Indeed, when he zoomed the scope back out, a kind of pattern presented itself to him.
A chill swept through him as his mind flashed with the image of the skull he’d found. He was suddenly aware of just how exposed he was, standing atop the ridge as he was, and he crouched down. Siris continued to survey the area below with the help of the monocular. He kept sweeping the thing back and forth between the mound he’d assumed was the Samsara and what could only be a type of village, and then, movement in the scope made him slide to the ground. He lay there for a few seconds, the sweat suddenly too cold on his forehead. His curiosity won out eventually and he crawled slowly forward until he could see over the crest once more.
Siris caught a glimpse of a flood of humanoids exiting a shadowy edge of the mound. He zoomed in and saw indistinct visages. Faces made of large flat foreheads and jutting jaws with teeth that could not all be contained by the folds of skin there. Frightening to be sure, but the worst part was the eyes. The sockets receded as far back into the skull as the teeth jutted forward and so the eyes themselves were hidden in shadow, or they would have been if they didn’t glow red.
From what he could see given the constraints of distance and the bouncing cadence of the creatures as they walked, the red eyes were tiny. At least the parts that glowed were, but being as the red was all he could see of the eyes, they looked too small and beady, but even more intimidating because of it.
Siris was wondering what he should do when he heard something behind him. He pulled his eye from the monocular to glance behind him, sure that the noise came from Cato. The dog had obviously had his rest and was studying the area…but no. Behind him one of them stood looking at him.
Siris gasped and rolled, bringing the gun around, but the creature was on him before he could bring the barrel to bear. His finger pulled the trigger anyway and a blast of Dragon’s Breath flashed and startled the thing atop him, but it wasn’t enough. It was strong and its teeth snapped and drool dripped. Siris was sure he was done for, but then Cato crashed into the large alien, toppling it momentarily, but it was as fast as it was strong and with a swipe of its too-long arms Cato was sent out and over the edge of the cliff.
“No!” Siris yelled. He followed the dog’s fall but Cato’s limp body disappeared among the trees and shrubs below. Siris lifted the gun again, but the alien gripped it and tore it free of his sling, nearly taking his head off in the process. The thing looked at the shotgun for a second then smashed it into the rocks next to Siris’ head. A piece of composite plastic struck his cheek and he felt heat and blood there.
The alien placed a clawed foot on Siris’ chest and bent double, its face inches from his face. Its breath was horrible, and globules of drool splashed his cheeks when the thing screamed at him. War cry maybe. Yes, it was definitely a war cry. Its face pulled away a little, but only so that it could place a clawed hand against Siris’ throat.
But then it stopped. The glowing red pinpoints shifted to his chest next to its foot. There was a patch there. It was a colonial patch distinctly designed for the Samsara. The colonial council must have been especially proud of the symbol because they’d plastered it on everything. His dad said that it was so that the colonists had a sense of community, but Siris had seen the symbol so much in his time before launch that it had all but disappeared to him. Now the thing that had been about to kill him, hesitated at the sight of the patch.
It seemed to think for half a second. That was a good sign, anything that could think logically could be reasoned with, but then it struck, and blackness took over.
Siris awoke to pain. His head throbbed in time to his swaying, bouncing body. He was being carried. A musky smell invaded his nostrils and he nearly sneezed but held it away, hoping that the incredibly strong thing that carried him would think that he was still passed out. Maybe it thought he was dead and carried his carcass back to its people for dinner.
He still wore his backpack. That, at least, was a blessing.
The thing…he supposed they would be Rossians? Rosses?
Rosses sounded like a family that his mother would put out cake for when they came to visit in an attempt to appear like a quintessential American family from one of those old TV shows his dad liked. They would sit and chat over coffee and gossip about the neighbors.
Rossians sounded like the looming threat of every 80’s movie he’d ever watched and decided that it was more appropriate.
The Rossian beneath him had large corded muscles that almost rippled with every movement. Its skin was mottled and shiny, but Siris didn’t think it was sweat, more like the way a frog was shiny, wet looking.
Siris tried to look around him without lifting his head, unsure if other Rossians watched, but he could only see darkness. No, that wasn’t true, a faint light from somewhere ahead cast a subtle blue hue to his surroundings that only strengthened as they moved. A noise, rhythmic and low, also intensified. As they drew closer to the noise and light, Siris thought he could almost pick out words, but no. This was no language that he recognized, though it was definitely language. It had a cadence to it, however. Chanting.
The Rossian beneath him suddenly shifted his shoulder beneath Siris and he felt himself begin to fall. He tried not to stiffen his body, but it was nearly impossible to convince his instinct driven self to remain entirely dead-looking as he fell. His body hit with a thump and he stiffened to protect his head from thumping the floor, but then he let his body go limp.
He’d closed his eyes and prayed that the Rossian hadn’t noticed his reaction. It didn’t and eventually Siris allowed his eyes to open a crack. A blue hued metal wall revealed that he was inside the Samsara. He breathed as shallow as his panicked heart would allow and even though his lungs starved for the musky air he refused them the luxury.
He wasn’t sure if the Rossian knew he was still alive, but if it had wanted him dead then he wasn’t about to give up the secret just because he was thirsty for air.
He lay there for a while and listened to the hum and chant of what he could only assume were nearby Rossians. Fear almost made him cry out as the chanting built and built until he thought he could feel the vibration of the sound waves on his skin. The situation was almost too much for his fragile emotions to hold back. Then, that familiar lump in his throat formed, and he wanted to cry. No, he wanted to sob. Cato was gone. Everyone was gone. He was alone again.
The chanting suddenly stopped.
Siris risked opening his eyes a little more and he even shifted his head to the left a fraction and through the tiny gap in his eyelids he saw it. The main reactor. It was a marvel that the thing was still operational as evidenced by the blue light spilling through the containment door’s windows. He realized then that he could even hear it. The chants of the Rossians had hidden the hum, but now that they’d stopped he recognized it and, strangely, it comforted him. The human engineers that had designed and built the thing were from earth. This thing. This human creation had survived the millennia, and even now shone in the darkness, undaunted by the hundreds of alien figures cowering before it.
The Rossians silently trembled and shuffled on all fours at the reactor’s feet. Siris was momentarily buoyed by the fact that none of the Rossians in his limited field of vision were even aware of his presence and he risked opening his eyes even more. He hoped that the beady Rossian eyes couldn’t see well in the dark. Still no Rossians looked in his direction. He opened them further and shifted his head.
No red pinpoints appeared in the darkness. He looked around and decided that he had been all but forgotten in the presence of this people’s deity.
A dark doorway, deeper blackness than the black around it, beckoned to him. He scanned his memory of the ship’s schematics and decided that the doorway was probably the corridor to ship’s maintenance. That was an area that he would be most familiar with. His heart lifted as hope flooded in.
Siris shifted slowly and looked back toward the cowering mass of aliens. The blue light reflected off of shiny shoulders and bald heads. No red eyes though.
He rolled to his side and was on his hands and knees, and again looked toward the Rossians. No eyes. He spun, slowly, in the direction of the open doorway then looked back over his shoulder toward the huddled mass of Rossians and the single pair of beady eyes looking at him.
He shot forward like an Olympian off the starting blocks and caught the doorframe with his right hand to help propel him into the corridor. A terrible clicking noise raised an alarm behind him, and suddenly the outer reactor room was filled with a chaotic version of the chants he’d heard earlier.
Once through the doorway he spun and searched the dark wall for the control panel. It was covered in grime and dust, but he located it, and he prayed that it had held up as well as the reactor. He slammed his palm against the screen and hit the emergency override button, but it gave a negative tone. At least there was power to it, his mechanical brain couldn’t help but diagnose. He swiped his hand back and forth over the screen, attempting to clean it of a thousand years of debris, while claws clicked toward him from the far side of the doorway.
He slammed his palm against it again and hit the button a second time…a third.
“Come on you piece of…” the panel chimed and the door slid shut with such speed that it startled Siris.
Siris wasn’t the only one that it had startled, however. From the cacophony that the door couldn’t entirely muffle, the Rossians had reached a fever pitch of excited yelling. His breathing came in great gasps now, his lungs had permission to flood his O2 depleted blood with oxygen and after a full minute, his trembling hands calmed.
He knew there were two other doors to maintenance. He knew that his first priority was to secure his position, but instead he sunk to the floor as angry sobs overwhelmed him.