An excerpt from a new novel by TEARAWAY Maverick MORGAN PROBERT.
Commander Emily Crowe clambered out of the big jeep as they arrived at the fourth site. Channing and Williams, punctual as always, were already unpacking the equipment. The two wrestled the Unmanned Construction Vehicle out of the trailer and set it up, and then Channing went about setting up her holo-screens. Williams hefted the base of the relay up and onto his shoulder, heading over to the site where he was to set up. He whistled after the UCV and, beeping, it followed after him. Harper appeared beside Emily, holding his assault-rifle aimed at the ground.
“Am I the only one getting the creeps right now?” the soldier murmured, half to himself. This made Emily uneasy; she knew that Harper was ex-special forces, among the best battlefield soldiers of the age. She knew as well as any that they had unerring combat instinct.
“Well, you’ve kinda given us the creeps now, sir,” Channing said suddenly, and they all laughed uneasily. Channing already sat surrounded by her holo-screens, tapping commands as Williams set up the base of the relay.
“Alright,” Williams said, “Let’s get to work... and then let’s get the hell out of here.”
“That sounds like a plan to me,” Emily agreed, genuinely serious. As the engineers got to work, Harper stood dead silent beside her, immobile in his jet black combat-armour. He may as well have been a statue, but for the steady rise and fall of his chest. Nobody could stand still quite like special forces soldiers could. Emily began to ask him what was up, but Harper quickly told her to be quiet.
“Listening,” he said simply. So Emily stood there in silence, leaning back against the LRV with her arms crossed in front of her chest, and she watched the two engineers do their thing with the fourth relay. She thought about talking to Channing, but their conversation had left a bad taste in Emily’s mouth. Emily knew that it was definitely hypocritical to condemn Channing for military matters, being ex-military herself... but what if she had contributed to all that had happened?
Emily wondered if Channing had had family or friends in New York, as was the case with so many of the colonists who had joined them in the Transfer.
Harper reached into one of the satchels around his waist, retrieving four objects which were roughly the size of golf-balls. Try as she might, Emily didn’t recognise the technology.
“What are those?” she asked, curious.
“Scanners.” Harper tossed the objects into the dense forest, one in every direction. There would be a faint flash of light after each object disappeared from view. Harper glanced at his holo-screen, frowning, but then he raised his assault rifle. “I think we’re being followed.”
“What did the scanners see?” Emily gasped.
“Nothing,” Harper told her, his voice cold. He yanked the charging lever of his assault rifle, chambering a round. “But there’s something watching us; of that I have no doubt... it's like a prickle at the back of my mind.”
The bang of Williams’ rivet gun stopped, as the engineer had turned to watch them curiously. An expression of concern crossed his face.
“Well, we all heard him,” Williams said, the unease in his voice clear. “Let’s get a move on.” Though the engineers got stuck back into their work pretty quickly, Emily grew suddenly aware of the apprehension and underlying nervousness that the two were undoubtedly feeling. Heck, she felt it herself. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, as did her heartbeat.
She moved out from the LRV and scanned the depths of the forest in all directions. Was there something watching them? Her fingers closed around the handle of her sidearm and her heartbeat slowed. The calming feel of a gun in your hands working its magic again, she reflected; but the feeling of unease never went away. She saw Harper in the corner of her eye; the soldier was crouching on top of the LRV for a better vantage point, and he was peering through the scope of his assault rifle into the dense undergrowth. Harper was immaculately still, a statue in total concentration. Emily frowned; she found it disconcerting that the soldier looked so calm yet, not ten minutes earlier, had claimed to be nervous. It was something about people like that which got to her.
“So how long have you guys been here?” Emily asked the engineers, in an attempt to break the tense atmosphere.
“Williams got here first,” Channing told her without meeting Emily’s eyes, and she pointed at the engineer.
Williams turned away from what he was doing, looking at Emily. UCV beeped inquisitively, nudging him with its robotic arm, and Williams shooed it away.
“Yeah, well... at least I think that I was one of the first, Commander,” Williams nodded. “About three months ago I arrived, with nothing but my environment-suit, a weapon and excess rations.”
“And when did you make it to the Colony?” Emily let go of the handgun at her waist, folding her hands behind her back instead. “How did you make it to the Colony?” Williams shrugged absently.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I Transferred within five klicks of the main supply-drop, but I didn’t get there until about seventy odd hours after the Transfer. I was passing in and out of consciousness for a lot of that time... but it really wasn’t all that bad. Sun was nice.” Emily nodded; that was one thing that all of the colonists enjoyed: the feel of this new sun after Earth.
“But wait,” Emily cut in. “In and out of consciousness... for seventy hours?”
“Something like that, yes,” Williams nodded.
“The Transfer has had different effects on everyone,” Channing told Emily. “Case in point: I was picked up not long after I came through, but then I slipped into a coma about ten hours after I was brought back to the Colony. Came to about a week later, so it’s not all bad, but even so...”
“A lot of the ex-soldiers had no real side effects,” Williams mentioned, gesturing to the soldier crouching atop the LRV. Harper had barely moved since Emily had last looked at him, she noticed. “After the Transfer, most of them were raving and good to go.”
“And as you can imagine,” Channing continued, “that made them pretty invaluable in the early days of the Colony.”
“I can imagine,” Emily agreed. The two engineers worked in silence for many moments. Williams was making quick work of the relay, which made Emily quite happy. Even so, she wasn’t settled. She didn’t feel safe where they were: she figured that the sooner that they could finish these relays and get the hell out, the better.
“How do you guys think this will all work out?” Williams asked them all, breaking the silence. “Exodus, the Colony, I mean.” Emily pursed her lips, giving the question some serious thought. She’d imagined that this was a question that was on the minds of every Colonist, such was the nature of the colonisation programme.
“I don’t know, man,” Channing shrugged. “Maybe it’ll survive... and maybe it won’t.”
“Maybe it’ll turn out like Deimos,” Williams suggested. There was another sharp bang as he fastened a component of the relay to the machine. “Now that would be extraordinary. Commander, you were one of the first residents in the Deimos Colony, weren’t you?”
“I was indeed,” Emily nodded, smiling. “I can see it now: ‘Deimos Colony: humanity reaches out to the stars’.”
“You know,” Channing murmured. “I can’t help but wonder what’s become of the Colony there... hell, I hope it’s surviving. Do you guys think it’s surviving?”
“I’d say that Deimos would be doing just fine,” Emily said determinedly. “It’s Luna City that would take most of the strain: no doubt in my mind.”
“Oh yeah, true,” Channing agreed with her. “You’re right, Commander: most of the survivors would probably have been shipped straight there. Luna City is probably at bursting capacity.”
“At least,” Williams added, and everyone murmured in agreement.
Emily stiffened; the hairs on the back of her neck rising again. There was a curious sensation in the back of her mind and, soon after, there was a quiet hum that seemed to reverberate around their little clearing.
“Quiet,” Emily motioned to the engineers, listening. The engineers instantly fell silent, and they listened too.
“What is it?” Williams asked her, his voice barely a whisper. “Commander, what do you hear?” Emily’s brow furrowed.
“Can... can you two hear that?” she asked them. “That... humming.” She imitated the sound in an attempt to see if they were hearing this sound too, and she studied their faces anxiously. The two engineers frowned.
“Can’t hear any hum, Commander,” Channing said, glancing uneasily at Williams. Williams rose to his feet, setting down his tools, and approached Emily cautiously.
“Are you feeling alright?” Williams asked her. Emily shook her head, rubbing the side of it with her hand. The humming was slowly but surely increasing in volume, growing louder and louder and... how are they not hearing this? Williams then began to falter, shaking his head slightly as though he was trying to clear his head. He stumbled back.
“What... what is that?” he murmured. “Oh my god, I can hear it.” Channing had stopped her work, getting to her feet and drawing her sidearm. Channing slowly moved towards the centre of the clearing, holding the trembling handgun in both hands. She was shaking her head too – Emily knew that she could hear the hum as well. She turned towards Harper, who was still atop the LRV.
“Are you hearing that, Lieutenant?” she asked the soldier. Harper didn’t reply, but Emily did see him slowly nod his head.
Then Emily saw it. The tall and ghostly humanoid silhouette stood in the depths of the forest, its eyes glowing. It was watching them. Emily blinked, and then the silhouette was suddenly standing right in front of her. Harper turned to fire at the creature. An invisible force smashed into the soldier, sending him flying from the top of the LRV and tumbling into the deep undergrowth. The engineers cried out with alarm, raised their weapons. An invisible force slammed into them and they tumbled back, their weapons flying into the undergrowth.
The creature’s hand closed around Emily’s throat and then it lifted her high into the air as though she weighed nothing. Emily gagged, her hands scrabbling at the creature’s vice-like grip. Her vision had begun to throb.
The creature was tall, very tall, and the dark armour that it wore was constantly shifting – yet it was totally solid. There were four inclined slits – two parallel, on either side of its face – that glowed; presumably the creature’s eyes.
The humming filled Emily's mind, her very soul, and it smothered out all of her thoughts with its intensity. As she met the creature’s gaze, she knew in that moment that this creature was the source of the hum. It studied her as she, in turn, studied it. The corners of Emily’s vision were tinted with red – the glowing slits were seared into her mind.
The silhouette dropped Emily, and she collapsed on the ground. She wheezed, clutching at her throat, and then she saw Harper advancing towards the creature with his assault rifle raised. The creature was still as it seemed to analyse the soldier advancing towards it, and then Harper opened fire. Williams and Channing screamed, rolling away from the gunfire.
The creature became little more than a blur, moving much faster that Emily could comprehend with her throbbing vision. The rounds thudded into trees and tore into the undergrowth. Harper strode forward. The creature paused on the opposite side of the clearing as Harper stopped, an expression of alarm on his face, visible for just a second. As Harper fired his weapon the creature was moving again.
Emily knew that not a single one of the multitude of rounds had found its mark. Harper’s assault rifle clicked, and then the creature stopped, with the effect of materialising out of thin air. It regarded them all, unmoving, towering above them. As Harper’s hand shot for his side-arm the air seemed to close around the creature’s body, and it vanished.
Silence, broken only by the sounds of Harper reloading his assault-rifle.
“We need to get out of here,” Harper decided, yanking the charging lever of his rifle and chambered a fresh round.
“You don’t say!” Williams screamed hoarsely at the soldier, and the engineer sounded on the verge of total panic. “Now what the hell WAS that thing? You couldn’t even hit it – how did it DO that?” Channing hurried over to Emily, crouching down by her. Emily hadn’t moved, her hand still at her throat. She was immobilised with terror, staring at the last spot that the dark creature stood in.
“Commander, are you okay?” Channing asked her. Emily nodded stiffly. “I’m fine,” Emily breathed, her voice little more than a whisper. When she closed her eyes, she could still see the glowing slits that had constituted the creature’s eyes. Channing rose to her feet, turning towards Harper.
“We need to go. We have to warn the Colony,” Harper nodded, moving straight to the LRV without a word spoken. Channing helped Emily to her feet.
“I’m okay, really,” Emily insisted, attempting a smile but unable to stop herself from wincing visibly. She could feel the mark around her throat.
Channing helped Emily over to the LRV and into the passenger seat, and then moved to tend to Williams. The man still looked traumatised, but the engineers both set about collecting up the equipment. When that was done, the two clambered into the LRV and Harper started the engine. The fusion-coil roared to life, and then they took off into the forest in the direction of home. A shadow remained, and it watched as they left.