Shade: A Short Story
The soft ping of the environmental alarm had subsided now that she lay beneath this large slab of rock, the black shadow of it a somewhat safe demarkation line between relative safety and the boiling temperatures just beyond. Through her protective visor she could see her ship in the distance, its white painted metal hull in fragments, grey smoke billowing out of large gashes in the bulkheads, a contrast to the onyx shale of the surface. She fought the urge to gasp, to faint, relying on her training and the deep conviction she had for success in this dark void.
For whatever reason, be it exhaustion or the pain of her throbbing knee, Colonel Angela Hall’s blue eyes began to droop, her breathing subsiding, growing deeper, as she fell helplessly to sleep. As she drifted away, her body unable to fight the need to rest, her eyes closed just as something shifted far behind her in the darker reaches of the shade.
Lithely it moved, out of a two meter cave entrance, not reptilian yet with scales of black shale, shifting like black oil along a groove, it settled in another crevice, and four blinking copper eyes flicked in random syncopation. Several serrated knives twitched, and as the Colonel stirred in her sleep it flinched as if someone had dropped a stone into a black pool of tar. Her movement intrigued it, and it skittered closer, the knives flexing and scraping along the shadowed onyx stone. An elongated gray tongue flicked out to reveal a barbed and bifurcated tip, but then an alarm sounded within the Colonel’s suit and it shot back toward the corner of the rock shelf with silent grace like a trap-door spider fleeing a flash flood.
Angela rolled over, a raspy groan escaping her lips, and then fingered the small touch-sensitive switch on her suit. Her eyes slowly opened to see the HUD wink to life, its green letters telling the Colonel that her suit had been compromised and that it was slowly leaking precious oxygen from somewhere near her injury. She looked down, the heavy almond-shaped helmet obstructing her ability to see her booted feet, but she could not see any vapor. No sign of atmospheric loss. She had to trust her instruments.
She lay back, letting her stomach muscles relax, and as she held up a hand to block the glare from outside she noticed that the soft black grit from the ground was covering her thick yellow gloves. The dust, iridescent and glimmering purple from the daylight reflected from outside the shadow of the rock shelf, fell from her glove. It drifted down, sliding along her visor, each particle a little microscopic rainbow. She found the motion somewhat hypnotic, and she would have smiled at its beauty if not for the pain in her knee.
Keep sharp, soldier. Think of your options.
She ran the scenarios through her aching head, wishing she had grabbed the med-kit from the ship before crawling out of it, but knew that the radiation from the core was leaking out death, and the fire was spreading rapidly. She bit her lip when thinking about her crew, the men and women who would never go home, and that she would again have to write letters home to families if she made it home at all.
No life signs.
She could not worry about that now. She had to think about the best way to survive until the rescue ship arrived. She had an injured knee, but she did not know how bad. She couldn’t walk on it, that was for sure. She had crawled nearly forty meters to this shelf, the alarms so loud in her ears from the suit telling her that the radiation from the nearby star would burn away the protective material within minutes. She hated the countdown and the voice of the suit.
“Five minutes until atmospheric failure. Please find shelter from radiation levels.”
She rolled over and put her hand along the control nodes, looking for a certain one. She rubbed her gloved finger across it and the HUD changed to a graph that calculated the approximate time she had left before running out of oxygen. Minutes instead of hours.
Movement registered in her peripheral vision. Her body twitched as her eyes scanned the far back corner of the sheltering rock shelf. She saw something copper, a small dot flick open and shut, and then she could hear her breathing again. She remembered her training, about the oxygen being used up more rapidly by way of hyperventilation. She lay still, trying to keep her breathing steady, but then the two inch copper colored orb flicked open and stayed open, reflecting the light from the baking sun outside, and she could see herself there, inside the orb.
She lay perfectly still, but it moved, slipping along the crevice as if gravity moved it, and she hoped it was only a shifting of the rock, a small avalanche of debris, but it then moved perpendicular to the ground, and she saw a serrated knife flick out of the darkness and then disappear.
Her breathing became erratic, rapidly inhaling and exhaling, and a little grunt escaped her chapped lips as she scooted back away from the thing coiled there in the dark.
It moved again, this time shooting out toward her to swipe at her foot, a warty black tendril with a serrated calcite knife attached, and she moved her leg, feeling the grating of the injury to her knee dig hot claws into her thigh. She screamed, and the thing scurried away, flushing down the gaping hole at the back of the shade, and then it blinked at her from there, its four copper eyes sizing her up, possibly biding its time, knowing that if she rolled out of the shelter of this rock the solar radiation would cook her.
It would eat her slowly.
She felt a shockwave behind her, and as she rolled over, keeping her peripheral vision trained on the hole, she saw flames shooting out of the cracks in the hull of the ship, and now understood that she had even fewer options. She could leave the shelter of the rock, take her chances in the unforgiving sunlight, stay here and try to fight off whatever lurked in the darkness, or remove her helmet and end it all. She was not going to be eaten.
She rolled out toward the light, crawling across the dark dirt, listening to the sound of her helmet bumping against the ground, her gloved hands clawing for purchase as she dragged her injured leg out into the radiant heat of the daylight. As she left the shade of the rock, the alarms began to sound in her headset, and then the annoying female voice reminded her of her impending doom.
“Please seek shelter immediately. Radiation levels at 10 rads per second and climbing. Outer protective barrier will fail in ten minutes. Oxygen levels are at five percent. Please refill oxygen at nearest convenience.”
She wished she could shut it off.
She looked across the midnight black rock and dust before her and in the blazing light of the nearby star that sought her death, she saw the ship, the fires subsiding in this strange atmosphere, and try as she might she could not block the tears from rolling down her face, the tears for her lost crew. She had trained all of them, and they were so young, now gone. Out of her control.
No way to stop it. No way to bring them back.
She sat up, the deadly sunlight beating down on her suit, (“Outer protective barrier…eight minutes”) and she attempted to stand, placing one gloved hand on the harsh black rock, steadying herself, and she looked at her feet before pushing up with one arm and one leg. The onyx sand beneath her boot, a slippery pumice, caused her to lose her balance and down she went, hearing the violent thud of her helmet striking the hard ground. She grunted, rolled over on her back, squinting and holding one gloved hand up to shield her eyes from the welding arc that was the sky.
She lay inches from the shade.
It crouched in the dark, its outline visible in the ambient light, a dark warty thing, lithe and nimble like a horrific non-aquatic octopus. She stared at it, wondering why it didn’t just finish her off. She would not go quietly. She would give it indigestion. Fighting everything sane, she sat up again, used the rock shelf to aide her as she stood, and with alarms sounding within her suit she hopped up on one leg again, and now she could see the jagged surface around her. For endless miles the landscape stretched around her, no shelter in sight, and she realized that she would have to get beneath the rock again with that thing, hope that it didn’t see her as food and was only curious. Perhaps it was benevolent after all and didn’t want to eat her. It had not attacked her yet.
Madness overtook her and she started hobbling away, walking toward her smoking ship, wondering if there was something obscured by the smoke that could possibly be a better shelter, somewhere away from the bizarre creature. She had to know. She fell several times, relying on her Marine Corps force of will to stand each time, to skirt the ship, and to wind up falling finally and wrenching her knee in the process. She tried to fight through the pain, but it overtook her, washing a gulf of endorphins over her brain as she realized that she was indeed alone, without shelter, and that she had used valuable energy and oxygen to exert herself on a fool’s errand. She rolled over on her back again, the steady oppressive light from the sky pressing her to the dark earth, and she allowed the blackness to take her again.
She woke to alarms, this time sounding greater, louder than before. The annoying female voice was running on very little battery power.
“Please seek she- shel-ter. Oxy- Oxy-gen one percent… Inner protective barrier breached. Radiation levels at critical…”
Amazingly, inexplicably, she began to crawl across the jagged dark ground, her yellow gloves pawing for purchase, trying to drag herself to the shade which looked miles away. The alarms in her suit sounded fatigued and full of static, warning her to get to shelter immediately, the radiation levels too great to bear, and she ignored them, dragging herself forward toward the shade. What seemed like hours later she approached the rock shelf, wary of the creature she had seen there, and in a moment of clarity she used the chrome plating on the control panel attached to her wrist to reflect the light of the demon sun into the darkness.
It had moved back into the hole at the blackest pit of the shade, or at least she thought it had. She couldn’t see clearly with the light invading her vision, causing her to see red whenever she blinked her eyes. She rolled over into the coolness of the shade again, and that is when it moved, lashing out at her from the black hole in the darkness and wrapping tendrils around her arms and legs, squeezing her injured knee until she screamed. The sound of her raspy voice caused it to shudder, but it forced one jagged claw through her visor, piercing the high density polymer like butter, the tip of it dripping some type of fluid only inches from her nose. She struggled, using every ounce of strength, her oxygen alarms flaring, and pulled herself toward the light.
I will not die here.
She moved, pulled herself along, hearing her drill instructor so many years ago on Titan screaming in her ear…or was that the computer voice…she couldn’t tell. She pulled, strained, wrenched her body out into the light, and the thing let go, its flesh searing and smoking in the light of the radiation. Precious air escaped from her helmet through the punctured plastic, and she rolled free of the shade and decided as a final thought to pull her helmet free and accept her fate. She took a final breath and popped the seal on her helmet.
And breathed fresh air.
The sunlight warmed her skin, and a soft breeze blew across the jagged black rocks and stirred the onyx dust, the iridescent particles settling around her. She sat up and looked toward the shade to see the remains of the creature, half of its bulk turned to ash, the rest of it quivering, trying to stay conscious as it struggled to slip back toward the hole at the back of the shade. She could smell smoke, and as she looked down at her control panel attached to her chest, she saw the word “error” blinking repeatedly and the gash in the metal housing that contained her environmental suit’s external sensor nodule.
She heard a noise now, a deep rumble and then the whine of engines as the rescue shuttle landed a few dozen meters away, stirring the dark dust of this strange planet. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and prepared herself for the job ahead.