They were in the walls. Oh, God, they were in the WALLS!
Fredrik jerked away from the sculpted grey surface where he had leaned to catch his breath. He wanted to deny what he had heard. He wanted to believe he had gotten away, to feel safe, to permit himself time to rest. His jangled nerves refused to be deceived.
His temples throbbed with his pulse. His ears strained past that noise, demanding to hear more. They insisted that the noise was real. His lower brain could not ignore such warnings of danger.
The things were small. They could easily be behind the walls. How thick were those surfaces? He did not know. He did not even know what the grey substance was. It was warmer than stone should be in this chill, damp air. The stuff was almost smooth, but not quite, with an irregular roughness that teased the eye and hand with hints of a pattern. It had no joints or corners, but flowed smoothly into bends and arches, pits and pockets, branching off in every direction into corridors of every size.
Fredrik was lost here. His flight through this maze, with its round unmarked paths, had been like the tumbling of a lone blood cell through a dying artery. Now the microbes were closing in all around him. They could hear him, maybe smell him, even if neither he nor they could see one another.
He could hear them. Their many legs scratched on the strange surface. Were they in another tunnel, close by but separate? Were they, indeed, in some interstice just behind a thin divider? Might they burst through like ants piercing the skin of a hollowed fruit? Spiders pouring from an egg sac?
They ran like insects, but they were not insects. Fredrik had not had time to look at them closely. He had only an impression of multiple hard, gleaming limbs, colored maybe red or black. It had been difficult to tell in the red light of Thompson’s lamp.
There were a lot of them. He had seen the way they swarmed, legs almost clicking together as they headed for that light. They had overrun Thompson, grabbed the lamp out of his hand, and extinguished it.
Had that been intentional? Did they know their prey was helpless in the dark? Did they recognize the switch and know how to operate it? Or did they act on animal instincts, sensing that the bright spot was a target or otherwise somehow important? Perhaps the light had antagonized them. They might have simply attacked it and switched it off entirely by accident. It didn’t matter now.
When it went dark, they took Thompson with them. Fredrik tried not to hear his partner’s screams again. He had heard panic, rising to terror as the creatures swarmed up and smothered the man. Fredrik could imagine it from the way Thompson’s voice had been stifled.
Then he felt their touch himself. Cold, hard appendages, bristling with sharp points and oddly soft hairs. They had clicked and whistled to one another as they sought him out in the dark. Fredrik had not waited. He had not tried to fight. He knew there were too many. If he tried to fight, blind and afraid, they would catch him. They might take his lamp, too, and then it would not matter if he ran away. So, he fled.
Harley had held their weapons. She was supposed to be their guard, her and Braddock. Braddock had died in the crash, along with Stone. Had that been an accident? Fredrik wasn’t an engineer and hadn’t been navigating, so he had no way to know. Thompson said something got into the intake vents. They assumed it was debris kicked up by the storm. Maybe it had been a little, hard, multi-legged body, trying to climb into the shuttle. Maybe it was debris... thrown into the vents as sabotage.
Fredrik fought down the surge of paranoid panic. He had to assume there was a way out. The shuttle was down but the ship was still up there, in orbit. His comm wasn’t working… maybe due to the depth, maybe because of something about these tunnels? No way to know. If he could find a path to the surface, he could call for help. The ship should already be searching. Maybe they were. He had to get above ground and warn them. If these things were intelligent, they might attack the backup landing team.
He had to fight despair. He had to assume he was smarter than this enemy. He was definitely bigger. Stronger. Was he stronger? They had grabbed Harley, and she was a big, strong woman. They had caught her standing under an opening, reached down, and hauled her away before she could fire a shot. They took her and her weapon. Thank goodness they couldn’t use it. Otherwise, he might already be dead.
The swarm had nearly caught up with Fredrik twice now. If they could shoot, they would have had an easy shot both times. After he fled, he found and illuminated his own lamp. He switched it from red to full spectrum. It didn’t matter if it drew their attention, not now. He needed to see. He could run fast, faster than them… for a time. As he grew tired, their scuttling speed was starting to match his jogging gait. He only had a few more sprints left. Resting here might buy him a few more escapes.
The landing team had run into the tunnels, at first. When the shuttle went down and the winds picked up, it seemed like the best course of action. They would take shelter, call to the ship, and wait out the storm until conditions were clear enough to repair their shuttle or to bring down their backup.
The strange, grey-lined openings had beckoned. They were, after all, what the researchers - Fredrik and Thompson and Stone - had come down to see. Orbital surveys had shown several such tunnel mouths, too perfectly shaped and regularly spaced to be natural formations. The surface seemed entirely natural, entirely untouched… but there were these openings. Such reshaping suggested larger, hidden life forms, perhaps even intelligence.
There certainly was some kind of intelligence at work. Rudimentary, sentient, sapient… it didn’t matter now, now that Fredrik knew the natives were dangerous and hostile. The things had reacted badly to their intrusion. Whether out of defense or hunger, they had attacked, and it did not matter why. Fredrik just needed to escape. If he returned, if he ever returned, it would be with a full squad, all carrying plasma throwers, with atomic lanterns ablaze and motion detectors active, each monitored by their personal A.I. and synced to a positioning satellite. Then they'd see who hunted who.
His primate brain was doing its best to organize conflicting lower impulses. Stand and fight! Run away! Hold still! Right now was not the time to fight. Holding still was suicide, too: he was in the creatures’ lair. He had to run. He needed to run soon. When the scratching sound came again, it was time to run now.
Which way? The sounds came from every direction. Was he surrounded? Were some of the noises echoes from tunnels further back? Further forward? Above, below, to the sides? He had climbed up at one point, slid down at another. As best he could remember, he was at about the same depth as the entrance. Its lateral direction was a complete mystery.
Fredrik decided… forward, then right at the next large branch. He tended to assume that larger branches meant a main trunk. The entrance had been three meters wide. He had avoided anything less than a meter across, where he would have to crawl. He was in the two meter range right now. A flash of rationality reminded him that the passages had not shown any specific organization. Branches seemed randomly located and randomly sized, with nothing like a ‘tree’ structure at all.
Certainly, the tunnels were nothing like a Human structure, even an underground facility. No sapient race Fredrik could think of built like this. Did the creatures build it? Excavate it? Extrude it, like termites? Were they parasites infesting a structure built by some previous inhabitant? Had they already expelled… or consumed… that prior tenant? Or worse, were they commensal creatures, guardians, or pets of something worse?
Was Fredrik, even now, descending into the lair of the swarm’s master? As he ran, hearing clicks on every side but seeing none of the pursuers, he realized that he might be being herded.
Still, what could he do otherwise? It seemed that whenever someone stopped to confront the enemy, they were taken. If they would not step into his light, he was safe as long as he kept moving forward and never left his back unguarded. Or his head, or his feet. Assuming they could not, in fact, burst through the walls.
The passage began to widen. Hope surged, chased closely by leery caution. Something ahead reflected Fredrik’s lamp-light. It did not glisten black or red. It shone an opalescent glimmer of blue and green and purple. At first, it seemed like a stack of gems. Then it was the facets of a great multifaceted eye. Fredrik slowed, caught between the need to press forward and the fear of what lay ahead.
He raised his lamp like a weapon. Then he lowered it, fearing it would be snatched from his grasp. Instead, he held both hands high, ready to strike if something lunged. Step by step he advanced. The skittering scraping sound intensified behind him and faded ahead. Was this where he was being led? What worse thing waited for him, watching with a thousand unblinking eyes?
He could only move forward. Now, he saw more clearly what produced the glitter. Soft orbs, each larger than an eyeball, hung in clusters from the wall. Like an eye, they also had a translucent skin filled with fluid. Fredrik could tell that the centers were fluid, because something darker swam within each globe. Dark things, like swimming centipedes, a body with many small legs flailing…
Eggs. They were eggs. The spawn of the crawling swarm, no doubt of it. Thousands of them. He had been goaded to their nest, driven to this chamber when he could not be dragged. The creatures had larvae, hungry young, and he was a self-delivered meal.
No! Fredrik had not lived well in his brief, spacefaring life, but he would die well. There would be a thousand fewer monstrosities growing to threaten his successors. They wanted to fatten on his corpse? Let them die beneath his boot!
Fredrik raised his foot to crush the first bunch of eggs. That threat drew a response. The swarm was emboldened. A wave of crawling creatures raced forward, flowing across the floor, then up the walls and over the ceiling. Red and black. Reddish-black, like blood in the dim light. Fredrik lashed out, with his feet, with his fist, finally even with the lamp. He felt carapaces crack and even a few eggs burst.
Then he felt spines puncture his suit and his skin. He tore away from the first grasp, but more of the creatures clambered up his supporting leg. Their segmented bodies wrapped over his lamp and its tightly clenched hand. Then they were on his back, around his neck, on top of his head, and finally, over his face. He could not brush one off without a new horror taking its place.
They did not drag him down, as they had Thompson. Nor did they pull him away, as they had Harley. Of course not. They were holding him in place. They held him still, so that he could not harm their young. They kept him where they wanted him, until the eggs were ready to hatch. They would not even give him the mercy of death to spare him the pain of being devoured alive.
Then, one of the creatures shoved something soft and wet against his nostrils. A foul chemical odor flowed down his throat, making Fredrik gag. A poison? No, a paralytic. He tried to cough and could not. He could not turn his head to avoid the secretion. Blessedly, his vision began to blur. Unconsciousness. Thank the stars. As he fell, Fredrik prayed only that he would die before the anesthetic wore off.
Special Defense Leader Sshtknnn.tph.rrrssK crawled out from beneath the collapsed beast. Three of her/her/his legs had been crushed in the battle, but the other nine still held her/her/his weight.
“Any casualties?” she/she/he whistled to the gathered troops.
“Kkktwww.ttt.kchssR is paralyzed!” came one report. That was the worst of it among the soldiers. A few offspring had died, but losses before hatching were sadly common. It could have been worse. It should have gone better. They had been forced into melee. When the monster went after the nursery, they had no choice.
Curses on Defense Primary! Her/his/her demands to capture the beasts without injury had made this operation more dangerous than necessary. The invaders were large, aggressive, and armed. Sshtknnn.tph.rrrssK had been right to request a double squad. She/She/He had also been right to request armament, a request that Primary had denied. That point of error would come up next gathering, it certainly would.
“Triad teams, tend to those who can’t move. The rest of you, take positions around this captive.” Sshtknn.tph.rrrssK almost hissed the orders in her/her/his fury. When the squads were in position, she/she/he whistled in a more carefully modulated scale, “Carry it/it/it to the holding chamber with the others. Wounded to the infirmary. All legs, march!”
It was the lack of communication that made things really difficult. The intruding creatures were clearly intelligent. The separate covering over their softer, exposed flesh was evidence: synthetic skin for protection. They had tools: light sources and weapons. Sshtknn.tph.rrrssK had to assume that the slow, rumbling noises these horrors emitted was a language. Maybe the scientists could decode it. Then, they could interrogate the captives.
Talk to the captives, if Primary had anything to do with it. Sshtknn.tph.rrrrssK whined in exasperation. Well, Primary was just relaying the wishes of Himself/Herself/Herself. They would try to 'understand' the invaders first.
Then, when Sshtknn.tph.rrrssK was proven right, when the beasts were revealed as the vicious marauders they clearly were... then, the nest could launch a real offensive. These things had come from somewhere on the surface, beyond the tunnels. There could be more of them coming. They could be massing up there, waiting for word from their scouts. Life existed beyond the storms, and it was intelligent and hostile.
The nest couldn’t just hold still and wait until they were overrun by alien things!
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