Prologue - Xenophid
Aellyn shrugs aside the bitter wind. Her parents are here. They’ve been here many days, well over a week. Here in Flower to Tree.
Flower to Tree.
Beware its honour guard of wired fencing tangled into thickets of mesh, held tight by the serrated tears to its fabric; a deadly trap of tangled wire. Razor edged. Not to be approached.
Look at the control tower. Gaping sections makes the edifice ragged. Three stories high – topped by a mast that droops at a doleful angle.
The sound echoes dully through fresh ruins. The little still standing hasn’t had time to fall down.
A recent depredation. No new signs. Yet.
In places partly fallen masonry gives the illusion of shelter. A bitter comfort in these left over shreds of a former settlement.
Flower to Tree is become ruin.
Beyond this ruin, fields already show signs of returning to their native biology. Alien biology. No longer kept at bay.
And at the edges of those fields, a mile or so distant, are the static forms that constitute life on this planet. Immobile. Twisted strangely. Weirdly shaped.
That sound from before. But what?
Grounded wires? Unlikely.
Rustling tatters of plastic? Possible.
Or the wind rattling goodness knows what. You could never be sure really.
The house. Collapsed and broken. Smashed beyond repair. Tomb to her parents. Long since dead. But still she comes.
Back to this place of destruction and death.
Where else is there?
There it is again. What is that sound?
Whatever it is, it is getting closer.
Hide your hurt. Hide your pain.
Those many days ago, she’d run out. Full of frustration and anger; puffed up with annoyance; wanting her way. Creeping through the eerie alien forest beyond field and fence. Ignoring the desperate calls of parents and the search party. Something had happened while she was away and on her return, all was in ruins.
What is that sound?
* * *
“Bobby? Bobby! Where are you?”
Bobby must be sulking. Not a child; too young to be really independent. Where was he? In that cave again. As usual.
“Coming mom.” A reluctant response, wavering and drawn out.
She knew that tone. He was up to no good again.
They stood at the entrance to Bobby’s den. Its opening was so small that neither could easily fit through. Bobby, being Bobby, was hiding or doing whatever he did in the small cave system that led from the entrance.
“It’s just that…” She watched Bobby’s father intently, to be certain he was paying attention. “…just that he keeps to himself. It’s about time he had interests to bring him out a bit. He’s old enough for an introduction now, don’t you think?”
Bobby’s father sighed. Bobby’s Name Day. Come all too soon.
“Oh, come on,” she continued, “he has to grow up. It’s not beyond our wit to make appropriate arrangements, is it?”
“Well, when you put it like that…”
She smiled inwardly. Sorted. Simple as that. He knew when not to argue which made him a good dad.
* * *
What had happened to Flower to Tree? Aellyn didn’t know.
Her anger had gone stone cold when she found what had been her home; torn as if by a maelstrom. And what was left of her parents, she buried as best she could; eventually.
Some from the colony had been hacked to pieces in the fields. She’d have to bury those remains too. And soon.
She supposed that something had crept in and attacked them. But the electrified fencing was supposed to keep out anything big and nasty, wasn’t it?
She’d searched for the generator, to turn it back on, but all she found was a mangled mess. Aellyn had no idea how to fix it, and anyway the little that remained of the fence protected nothing and was likely ruined.
When was the next starship? Days? Weeks? Months? Years? She’d no idea. Not the kind of thing she was interested in. So she lived from day to day, waiting hopelessly for rescue.
She sometimes felt she was being watched, so she crept about and hid when possible. Her clothes itched badly. Torn and ragged clothes. She’d wish for a change and a shower, if she wasn’t so hungry.
* * *
Bobby’s dad racked his brains. The kid should be allowed to grow up at his own pace. But the thought circled in his mind bring him out a bit. He stalked, ready to pounce on the right idea.
Wait! That was it!
Most were gone. But maybe one was left. It might help bring him out and it would defer the pointless ritual of setting up an introduction.
It was a good idea, one with which he was sure Bobby’s mother would concur. Already he was making good time; a rendezvous marked out in his head.
Stalk. Stiffly stalk. Upper femoral segment of each hind leg jutting back. At an angle. Attached to a carapaced thorax. Powerful. Efficient at propulsion. Forelegs. Two pairs. Sturdy. Mass distributive. Sufficient to balance and carry the weight of head, thorax and abdomen. Add feelers, mandibles and raptor forelimbs to make a predator from hell.
Plastic streamers; ripped and torn from earlier sport, lie tangled on the ground. Stalk, stiffly stalk past. Yet some streamers snag and are torn. Plastic that would tear soft human flesh, shreds and snaps.
Closer to prey. And sport.
Stop. Listen. A soft ragged sound. A fleshy creature lies near. Easily punctured. Will it cry as its life fluid dribbles away?
Forward. Stride forward.
Above Aellyn looms a shadow. Fifteen feet of lean menace. A raptor limb raised high. Ready.
Down it plunges. Razor sharp.
A shriek. She sprawls backwards, losing her footing.
By accident or design it plunges through soft soil, disturbing the grave of her parents.
Soft putrescent liquid spurts from that shallow grave.
And Aellyn? Unconscious; a thin trail of blood oozes from a shallow cut on her right arm.
* * *
It was growing dark. Bobby’s mother waited impatiently outside Bobby’s den. What was he up to in there?
“Bobby. I know you’re there.”
“You’ve been skulking in your den long enough.”
“It is your Name Day and I’ve brought a surprise for you.”
“Look mom. I’m really busy.”
“Aren’t going to come out and open it in front of me?”
“It’s not girl stuff is it?”
“You won’t know unless you come and look.”
“Okay. Leave it there. I’ll come out real soon. Promise.”
Bobby’s mum wanted to say, Look at you, assuming you had the decency to actually show your face; how can I make you see the right way to be? Instead she said, “Bobby, if only you’d tidy yourself up. Girls would be falling over themselves for you.”
“Mom, you know I can’t be bothered with girl-stuff.”
“Just open your surprise. It’s a treat. For you. You’ll know what to do. There. It’s all wrapped up. I’ve pushed it into your den. I’ll go now.”
Bobby’s mother retreated from the entrance to his den. But not far. Just within hearing distance. She waited quietly and knew what was coming.
A pity, for in a way she’d have liked the treat for herself.
‘Still’, she thought, ‘this should get him going.’
* * *
As soon as he was sure his mother was out of hearing. Bobby scooted to the cave entrance. A bag lay there, neatly wrapped as only his mother could manage. That must contain his surprise. Doubtless his mother was still close by, as if by chance. So he’d surprise her by hauling it in. It was surprisingly awkward to drag, so he lifted it.
* * *
Dark wrapping and the stench of Aellyn’s fear was overlaid by a complex scent. The swathe of strange fabric that had bound her was pulled away. She tumbled landing awkwardly. On all fours in the underground gloom, she looked around. Something was there. Watching her. Waiting.
The shallow cut in her arm throbbed.
* * *
Bobby’s mother knew this would do him good. The creature raised her predation instinct to just the right level. She waited for the screams.