The Planet by Jeff Mahoney by Jeff Mahoney - Read Online

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The Planet - Jeff Mahoney

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1

Discovery

The day began on the hill to the southwest of the initial landing site. It had been a long and arduous journey to reach this seemingly impossible location. The landscape was unforgiving under the mid-afternoon sun and the expedition team was weary, their nerves tested. This was new territory for the team since their arrival on this planet. The sand moved with the wind in a way that seemed unnatural. Swirls of sand, slightly red, danced in the wind against the hot waves of sunlight. The plant life here stood as a threat, and many of these strange plants moved as if they were intelligent beings. The expedition had already suffered the loss of a comrade from the barbs of one of these plants. Three days prior to arriving at their first outpost point, the team’s biologist, Nancy, was investigating a plant that appeared to be walking. She was a highly knowledgeable scientist and Captain Stands admired her fascination with all living things. The plant stood four feet tall and was a myriad of colours, from the base of its shaft to the leaves that stretched upwards towards the four suns that washed the planet in sunlight. Nancy was immediately excited at discovering this wonderful and majestic plant.

The expedition had begun three months prior, and this was the first time that the team had come across this type of plant life. Nancy rushed forward, exclaiming: Look, a new species! Before the Captain could react, Nancy was already within two metres of the creature. As she ran towards it, the Captain saw it sit back on its roots and raise two long tentacles from its sides. Nancy! Come back! the Captain exclaimed, in desperation, but it was too late. The creature lunged forward with lightning speed and agility. The tentacles wrapped around Nancy’s body and the base of her skull, and she was pulled towards the creature with the strength of three men. The Captain watched in horror as long spikes from the flowers at the end of the tentacles pierced her flesh. The creature released a high-pitched scream as it delivered venom into its victim. Nancy fell limp, and within moments her body swelled to twice its body weight. The creature released Nancy and stood stationary over its prey, its tentacles sailing through the air in a deadly defensive stance. This was the first time that the expedition had come across a creature such as this, and they had determined that it was an incredibly rare life form. Nancy seemed to be breathing ever so slightly, as the crew observed from a distance.

Stand back! the Captain exclaimed, to the men approaching the creature with their rifles raised. These were unique weapons, partially designed by Stands, and they had incredible features and many different settings. This kind of technology was suitable for new planets such as this one; the colony had learned that older technology had little effect on some of the newly-discovered targets. As Stands did not fully understand the creature that stood before them, he ordered the men to stand down and stand back. We’re at fault here boys, he said, with great remorse. Just let it calm down and move on, as we don’t yet fully understand its capabilities.

The team watched as the creature relaxed its tentacles and resumed walking. It moved with a grace and deadly beauty that Stands had never seen before. He had grown wise from his years encountering new planets and could only watch as the creature sauntered away.

Captain, we should send that thing into the oblivion, Corporal Marks stated, with anger.

I ordered you to stand down, Marks, now do as I say. Marks started in defiance, then looked up and saw the steely gaze of Stands upon him. Marks bowed his head slightly, lowered his rifle and moved back.

The expedition team, now reduced to seven members, stood gazing at the scene that surrounded them. They stood motionless in a remorseful solitude. The sounds of the sand shifting and the distant cries of the creatures of the planet serenaded them as they considered what had just occurred. Nancy lay in the sand, motionless and swollen, a grim reminder of the callous and mysterious nature of this planet. Everything here was a mystery, and the team all felt great anxiety. The four suns were beginning to set and the temperature was dropping by the second. The wind was approaching from the east and the team felt the bitter cold cut through them like a bayonet. The extreme nature of this planet reminded Stands of other planets in the same system. With the suns setting, the two moons appeared high in the sky. They were very close to the planet, and a sight to behold. The suns’ radiant light reflected off of the moons, keeping the area surprisingly light. The moons cast an ominous glow that was predominately red and yellow. Darkness surrounded the team, but the light from the moons was certainly enough to help them negotiate their footing.

As the team stood in the approaching cold wind, Marks screamed, Oh my God, where the hell is Nancy? His voice was filled with stress and panic as he stood over the site where her body once lay. Stands and Marks noticed strange tracks leading away from the site. Upon closer observation it appeared to be one set of tracks, walking away to the north towards a dense jungle that the team had been hoping to avoid. At night, the jungle was filled with strange, moving lights that the team felt could be a threat and so best avoided.

As Stands followed the tracks, the lights in the jungle became very active, more than they ever had before. The lights gave off a soft amber glow and moved erratically between the trees and surrounding plants. The two moons, now high in the sky, provided ample light, and the team was grateful for it. Looking up, Stands marveled at the beauty of the moons and the millions of stars that graced the sky. He loved this, and always took the time to admire the beauty and vastness of this new region.

At the forest perimeter, the team stood anxiously behind their captain. The lights in the forest grew more active with every step the team took. In some strange way, the lights seemed to be communicating with each other while maintaining an erratic and almost confused pattern of movement. Stands signalled his team to maintain a holding pattern and observed the lights floating and swaying between the large trees. Stands was watching closely for a pattern in the way they moved, but none was apparent. The only pattern he could detect was that of a dull humming pulse off in the distance. There seemed to be a slight correlation between the erratic movement of the lights and the sound, which seemed to be coming from deeper in the jungle, somewhere behind the position of the lights. With every pulse, the lights sped up and moved in various directions. Stands somehow knew that the humming sound and the lights were connected, his battle and tracking experience had taught him to look for such things, and something deep in his gut told him to approach with caution. Guys, there is a subtle pattern to these things. Stay right here, I’m going in first. Turn your communications down, we don’t want to attract any more attention.

As Stands stepped into the jungle, the team remaining on the outskirts dropped to seven members. Stands was the leader that every team dreamed of, and his experience had saved many lives over the years. Early in his career, Stands had found himself working aboard a cargo ship that travelled the trade routes of the inner galaxies. He had apprenticed under the captain of this ship and learned everything from him. He was a short, gruff man who always loved to arm wrestle. No man could defeat this stout captain, he had the arms and shoulders of a gorilla. He was a reliable pilot and also an experienced mechanic, so his appearance was always dirty and rough. His father had been a tracker on the planets in the Outer Reach, this was a family skill passed down through the generations. The planets in the Outer Reach were cold, desolate and extremely hazardous, and the trackers would assess various regions of the ones that were of interest to mining corporations. Their duty was to track any animal or alien life and determine the level of threat they could impose upon a mining camp. The recording and documentation of new alien and animal life on the Outer Reach planets usually came at the cost of lives. The best trackers were the ones who could still draw breath. Stands learned as much as he could from this captain, who had seemed to take a special interest in his development. As years passed, they developed a father-and-son bond that helped with the lonely times, when they would descend into deep space for months at a time.

Stands felt the dense air enter his lungs as he stepped into the forest. He glanced back at the team and saw that they were standing at attention, assuring Stands that even though they would not be with him, he would not be alone. The forest floor was thick with mud and hard to negotiate. The activity of the lights before him seemed to increase even more as he entered this daunting jungle. The sound that was once off in the distance was now surrounding him. He maintained his footing and took long, slow, deep breaths. Stands understood the concept of fear and how it tends to promote irrational thought and actions. He studied this subject for many years and developed a sound stress management system that had yet to fail him. Exploration had taught him that the sanctity of meditation could never falter as long as he followed his training.

The humming was growing more intense, and drawing closer to Stands with every step. He set his tracking module so that the team could trace his movement. He whispered into his L-Sat communication piece: Hold your position and track my route. The team engaged their trackers. I have located the same kind of tracks that we saw near Nancy, and intend to follow them. The tracks were of the same nature as the ones he had seen in the sand and seemed to be impressed into the mud with a sense of purpose. This was going to be a long night. As he walked further into the dark forest, the lights grew brighter, and seemed to move with every step he made. The forest canopy was teeming with the lights, they were still moving strangely but now they seemed to be following Stands. It was as if the lights were focused on his energy and intentions, and they seemed to move just moments before he would make his next step. The forest floor was covered in a thin layer of mud and a strange mossy plant. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be glowing; Stands marveled at it. The light was a very faint purple that extended up past his ankles. This was a blessing too good to be true, and he used it to plan his footing. The tracks had a very definite sense of purpose and direction. The tracks were definitely the very same that he had seen back at Nancy’s site, but now they indicated that whatever made them was moving with greater speed and heading in the direction of the humming sound. The strides were much larger than the earlier ones and appeared to be moving at about twice the walking speed of an average human. Stands paused for thought, then said into his L-Sat: Guys, whatever these tracks are, they’re moving towards that humming sound. And it sure is in a fucking hurry to get to whatever is making it. The radios remained silent.

Stands looked to the radio battery on his belt and saw it was at a nearly full charge. He tried again. Guys, can you hear me? I am on the low-altitude channel.

The low-altitude channel was a new technology. Several years ago, Stands was on a mining exploration mission, using regular frequencies on their L-Sat devices. He became separated from his team by bad weather, and they were forced to use the radios. Radios were always the last resort before low-altitude technology arrived on the scene. Stands was with a young scientist; the remaining six team members were lost over a ridge. The sandstorm they were experiencing was strong and the team could not obtain any visuals. Stands yelled into the radio to try to pinpoint their location. Through the storm, Stands and the young scientist could hear terrible screams off in the distance, and raced toward them. When they finally made it over the ridge they found their team in pieces. In the investigation that followed it was determined that the radio frequency had been picked up by a strange flying creature, a large bat-like beast that had targeted the team upon hearing the signal. Low-altitude technology was introduced to keep the transmissions out of the atmosphere where any such creature or ship would be able to acquire their position. Like most things in deep space, it had been invented out of necessity and—as it does in some cases—tragedy.

Stands adjusted the L-Sat’s settings and increased the range of his radio. Guys, I am following the tracks in here and they are leading to that humming sound.

Corporal Marks was peering into the forest when he heard Stands reassuring voice over the radio. Copy that, Marks said, with relief. What are your orders, Captain?

Before you enter the forest, I need you to set up the homing beacon module just outside the perimeter, Stands stated. Set the pulses on low and on long range. If we get lost in here, we need the crew of the Starlander to be able to pinpoint our location.

The Starlander was a small exploration vessel under Stands’ command. The crew consisted of the exploration team, two pilots and one navigator. It was a fairly humble ship, but very sturdy. It was the vessel of choice for Stands; he had learned long ago that less is usually more when it comes to spacecraft technology. Many ships were designed for speed and made with alloys that could not survive asteroid collisions. An asteroid the size of a peanut can destroy a ship if the hull is not reinforced. The Starlander was not only heavy but designed to travel through some of the hardest lanes that the void of space had to offer. The hull was reinforced with tempered steel and iron, a combination that always passed the simulation trials, where ships would be pummelled with tiny asteroids at extreme velocities. Stands could never understand a captain that would choose a lighter ship just to save money on the fuel and operating costs. Stands always felt that without a crew, you don’t operate at all, so the crew should be protected. Stands also felt very strongly that the crew is a family. It was the same with every crew that he had led through the stars. The bow thrusters on the ship never failed and the only issue that Stands struggled with was atmosphere drag: when entering the atmosphere of a planet, the tail of the ship would pull down and to the left. The thicker the atmosphere, the harder the bird would pull. The pilots in the crew understood how to compensate for this drag, but it was of great concern to Stands every time they entered a new atmosphere.

Corporal Marks removed the beacon module from the case. This unit was very light and set upon a tripod, which was equipped with feet that would dig into the ground beneath it. This ensured that the unit would not be knocked over in high winds or acquired by other beings. Setting this tripod up was extremely dangerous and required many hours of training. The feet of the tripod were filled with a highly pressurized gas which, when released, would blast spikes into the earth, securing it into place. Without proper training someone could easily set this off prematurely, killing themselves or anyone standing within twenty metres. Marks and Stands were the only ones on the team certified to operate the homing beacon apparatus. He set the tripod, engaged the footing and powered up the unit, which began sending out radar-like pulses to the homing beacon installed in the hull of the Starlander.

Connected to the Starlander, Marks advised Stands.

OK guys, file into the jungle single file and keep an eye on the lights. Let me know if you see increased movement or patterns, Stands said.

The team followed Marks as he entered the jungle. Marks noticed immediately that the lights were moving with increasing speed, coming closer to the team as if they were evaluating what was entering the jungle. Marks stopped and gave the team the hold signal. He looked up as the lights descended and began flying all around them.

Captain, he whispered into the radio, the lights have come down from the tree canopy and are starting to circle our position. There seems to be more coming to join the party… Stands could hear in his voice that he was scared and confused. The last thing that he wanted was for the team to open fire on what could be a highly intelligent lifeform.

Stand down and go back to the beacon, Stands commanded. I will be OK here. Just be prepared for me if I need to hightail it out of here.

The team began to walk back the way they came, and with every step they took the lights receded a bit more back toward their original locations. They crossed the perimeter line of the jungle and stood around the homing beacon. Marks looked upon the apparatus with a sense of relief. He crouched down to check the equipment and saw something that sent a rush of fear through him. The outer casing of the unit was made of a very lightweight but strong alloy, said to be tamper-proof. The left side of the beacon had been ripped open and all of the wiring pulled out and damaged beyond repair. The wiring had been melted by some kind of extreme heat source. This was obviously sabotage, and Marks immediately grabbed for his radio. Captain, we made it out of the jungle OK, but we have a situation with the beacon, Marks said, with desperation in his voice. He waited for a response, but the radio remained silent. He checked his battery belt and increased the range. Captain Stands, please respond. Still no response. The crew stood staring at him in bewilderment. Marks was a trained soldier and was fortunate to have learned many things from his captain. He stood looking at the team, carefully forming his words, waiting and hoping for a response from Stands. But the radio was quiet. Marks slowly raised his head and looked at his team. He could tell they were feeling anxious, and he knew that he had to calm them down. Panic kills. He steadied his gaze and said, Hey guys, looks like we have a situation here. But hey, we’ve had worse! The team looked at each other, then let they all let out a hardened chuckle. They certainly had been in some really close calls in the past and this was a minor bump in comparison.

OK, here’s what we know, Marks said, trying to sound like the captain that he always dreamt he would be. He knew that if anything were to happen to Captain Stands that he would be in command. He was trained to provide stability and solid thinking to the crew in the absence of his captain. Even though he was unsure of what to say, the training always helped him find just the right words. Whatever those lights are, they don’t want us in that jungle. We also know that the last order that the captain gave us was to return to this location. He looked each of the team members in the eye and smiled. We will build our camp here and see if we can try and get the beacon online again.

Marks knew that as long as a soldier had a task, his mind would be set upon it and nothing else. The team nodded their approval and began to set up the new camp, which consisted of two radiation-proof tents that also served as camouflage, as the material they were made from acted like a chameleon’s skin. From a distance of ten metres or more, nothing could tell that anything was there; this had saved their lives on countless occasions.

Marks studied the damage to the beacon’s outer casing. This damage was caused by a pulse rifle of some sort, he whispered to himself. This would explain the excessive damage to the wiring and the microboards that were buried amongst the wiring. Fuck me. This is damaged beyond all repair, he thought. He pretended to work on the unit, to provide comfort to his comrades. He knew that the loss of morale in a situation such as this would be disastrous.

The team finished setting up the tents and were stacking the food storage units when they saw a very bright flash of light directly overhead. The team all looked up with their rifles raised, but there was nothing there but bright stars and the moons. They looked at each other, all on alert and startled by what they saw. They not only saw the light but felt it as well. The feeling was slightly electric and pulsed through their bodies for a brief moment. This was definitely a threatening intrusion, and their senses went on high alert. Marks knew that this was a probe or an attack of some kind, but he did not want the team to panic.

The night grew increasingly cold, and still there was no word from Stands. The team had the camp set-up down to a science. The tents were all positioned so that each of the members could keep an eye on each other. The perimeter laser warning system had been set up, which always made the team feel relaxed. Outside of the perimeter, the team had set up two high-powered rifles on tripods, calibrated to the defense laser system. If anything foreign crossed the laser barrier, the rifles would target and shine bright lights on it. The computer on board the rifle would then relay the images back to the camp’s surveillance screens, whereupon a voice command could be made to open fire on the target. This system gave the team a sense of comfort and allowed them the sleep that they all needed so very much. The temperature was now -10º Celsius and the wind was picking up fast. The team had made a fire in the middle of the camp and Marks began to distribute the rations. All right guys, now we wait. The Captain is OK out there. The interference must have something to do with those lights or that humming sound, he said. The flash that we all felt definitely had an energy about it and if anyone is feeling strange, be sure to tell someone. We don’t know what that was, and it may be back.

The fire was warm and bright, and the team began to feel the warmth from the blaze. The stars and moons were brilliant in the sky, but they slowly became covered by thick black clouds as the team gazed upwards. The atmosphere on this planet changed quickly and the wind could be incredibly strong. The team was looking upwards into the sky when suddenly there was another brilliant flash of light directly above them. This time the flash was brighter and stronger, and two of the members instantly began to vomit. Jumping up, Marks felt dizzy and found it hard to focus. He looked around at the team as the perimeter warning signal began to sound. He checked the security screen and discovered that it had been destroyed. Whatever had destroyed the apparatus at the jungle had obviously done the same to the security screen. He raised his rifle. Guys, stand in a circle with rifles raised, we are under attack.

Chapter 2

The Crew.

Stands paused for thought. The weather outside the jungle was cold and the wind was picking up from the east, but inside it was strangely temperate, and a warm steam blanketed the jungle floor. The air was close and dense, and at times even hard to breathe. Stands stood in solitude, taking in the beauty of this incredible jungle. The fungus growing on the trees gave off a slight orange glow and illuminated the path ahead of him. He drew in a deep breath and pursued his path towards the humming sound off in the distance. With every step that he made, the lights moved around in the tree canopy as they had before, reflecting his movements. Along with the lights, the chirping of some small, birdlike creatures surrounded him. It was a beautiful sound and Stands found that if he focused on it too much he would begin to fall into a trance-like state. The sound was pure and majestic; however, it seemed to have some kind of power over his mind. Stands, knowing the potential danger of this, focused his thought on his footsteps and what lay ahead of him. Stands thought of Nancy with every step, and he was determined to find out what had happened to her. She was a member of his crew, which meant that she was family. As he moved forward, he continued monitoring the lights above him. There had been no change in their pattern since he entered the jungle. His thoughts were also on his crew, and he wondered why the lights had seemed to attack them. It was almost as if Stands was invited to enter this jungle.

The jungle’s luminescence was truly a sight to behold. The soft glow of the fungus on the trees and the forest floor danced and moved with pulses of orange and soft purple light. The mist that floated all around was mesmerizing, and the sound of the creatures chirping high in the canopy of the trees filled the jungle with a mysterious charm. He looked at his belt and decided to try the low-altitude communication once more. He spoke softly into the device: Stands to crew. Stands to crew. He stopped, knelt and waited. He tried again, Stands to crew, Stands to crew. The device remained silent and the Captain tried to remain calm. He drew in a series of long, deep breaths and tried not to speculate on why there was no response. He understood from experience that there could be a multitude of explanations for this silence. He looked forward and tried to determine what was ahead of him. The tracks that he had been following were now