LOST COLONY CH. 01-1

Noise and fear. Fragments of urgent conversations pressed in, swelling and receding. Flashes of light intruded, even through closed lids. Lids that refused to open.

Alain Sparr fought for consciousness. His dream-mind fought to make sense of the disturbance around him, the voices, lights, alarms, and chaos that lay just outside his awareness. He almost broke through. Though immobilized, the fog of sleep thinned long enough for him to pick up on a sense of movement. He was being transported, bumped repeatedly as something beneath him jarred his… what, stretcher? A familiar face hovered above him.

“I’m so sorry, Alain.”

He faded again into dream.

It was the unexpected sensation of weightlessness that at last dragged Sparr awake. He came to, immobile and disoriented, strapped into a form-fitting chair. Dim lighting greeted his eyes, still thick with cryo-sleep. Sparr recognized the nausea and weakness that accompanied a return from hibernation. There was no point in movement yet. Instead he took in the scene around him.

He appeared, curiously, to be the only occupant of one of the ship’s escape pods. The Odysseus had four of the smaller pods such as the one Sparr found himself in, and two larger. He remembered the clamor and chaos that had almost awoken him earlier. If the ship had experienced some sort of damage, it would have been foolish to send forth a pod with just one occupant, especially an advisor such as himself. Non-Alliance crew and passengers were usually an afterthought.

Through the pod’s ports, Sparr had a generous view of space. Before he could wonder where he was, the vessel’s rotation brought into view the planet below. K2-136-b was immediately recognizable. Not only was the planet’s atmosphere distinctive, its image had featured prominently in every pre-launch briefing leading up to the mission. The Odysseus had reached its destination.

“Commencing atmospheric entry.”

The pod’s safety systems had activated. The AI by now must have evaluated whatever had transpired aboard the Odysseus and decided that a surface landing was the safest option for its inhabitant. There was no overriding it, at least not without military credentials. Whatever had happened, it must be near catastrophic. Sparr thought back to his friends aboard the ship, to Calista. How many had survived?

“Landing site identified.”

The pod lurched and shook, signs it had begun its descent. Sparr, hoping for a glimpse of the Odysseus, kept his face pressed against the glass of the viewport. He spotted something which might have been the ship, but it was too distant to be sure, much less make out any damage. Instead, he watched as the planet’s atmosphere first approached, then enveloped, the pod. For a time he could make out nothing but the grey mass of clouds.

After what seemed like an unbearable delay, the pod emerged into a clear sky. Sparr caught a glimpse of the planet’s surface, brown and orange under the influence of a spreading dawn. Quickly, he scanned the horizon, hoping for some landmark, anything that might guide him once grounded. Initially he found nothing of interest, just a series of ridges like fingers clawing into a wide forest. Beyond lay a dusty plain. If there was any sign of human habitation it was too small or too distant. Then, just before the pod again dropped into the clouds, he made out a city. Mostly sprawling and flat, it changed character toward the center with a cluster of improbable spires.

That would be his destination. If the Odysseus was still intact, Sparr’s best chances for establishing contact would be found in a thriving city. And if the ship had been destroyed? Sparr didn’t dwell on the prospect.

The pod managed its descent with care. Lacking other guidance, it would identify a location in the planet’s temperate zone, with terrain suitable not just for the pod’s safety but which also would accommodate the landing of a larger rescue vessel. Secondary priority would be placed upon proximity to fresh water and plant life.

“Winds moderate.” The pod’s announcements were intended to allow passengers to remain informed without leaving their safety harnesses. “Approach selected.”

Only in the final moments did things go awry. An ominous scraping sound rang out as the pod’s nose struck the branch of a tree which it could not detect, or could not avoid. With a lurch, the tail swung madly, then sagged. The pod’s flight came to an ungraceful conclusion. It fell.

Sparr gasped in pain as the impact threw him first against his harness then hard to the side. The scene through the viewport shifted rapidly from sky, to tree, to soil, then sky again. When the pod flipped for the last time, Sparr found himself laying sideways. A poorly-stowed survival kit had come loose, strewing the cabin with its contents. He began to wriggle free.

“Atmospheric sensors blocked.”

“Fuck the sensors,” Sparr groaned. It hardly mattered, he thought, whether the outside air was breathable. Long range spectrographic scans had suggested that the air on K2-136-b was Earth equivalent. Of more immediate concern, the viewport had cracked. Even if help was on the way, which he doubted, he was already beginning to breathe the planet’s atmosphere. Sparr gathered himself, opened the hatch, and crawled free.

K2-136-b, or Kaybe, had first been detected more than 500 years earlier. At .94 Earth’s mass, it had immediately drawn attention as a potential second home for mankind. The improvements over the following decades in exoplanet imaging had only fueled interest, suggesting favorable atmospheric composition as well as the presence of liquid water. The planet appeared to have a narrow temperate zone, but one large enough to support substantial colonization.

Standing on the surface, Sparr found he had lost interest in the detailed analysis that had been presented at the beginning of the mission. The air was sweet, if disconcertingly humid after almost two years aboard the Odysseus. The soil was firm. He was alive.

Was anyone else?

Sparr checked his communicator. The damaged pod shared its diagnostics but there was nothing from the Odysseus. Even drugged for cryo-sleep, the chaos aboard the ship had been evident. Sparr recalled snatches of conversation, fearful expressions, and the sound of alarms. Someone had stuffed him aboard the escape pod in such haste they hadn’t had time to waken him first. The Odysseus might still be operational, but Sparr would have to proceed on the assumption that no rescue was likely. He would make his way toward the city.

Having been the only occupant of the escape pod granted Sparr a surplus of certain supplies. He stuffed his pack with extra ammunition, two spare water pouches, and as many nutrient snacks as would fit. On impulse he threw in a second medical kit. The bulging pack was almost unmanageable, but Sparr comforted himself with the thought that due to Kaybe’s lower gravity the pack weighed perhaps a kilo less than it would have on Earth. He took off.

“Mark location as pod impact site,” Sparr said. Advisors, as well as most Alliance personnel, had voice-activated implants located just beneath their ears. As Sparr began his journey he issued a series of commands.

“Secure pod.”

“Pod secured.” The response rang in his head, inaudible to anyone, or anything, else that might be listening. “Hull integrity compromised.”

No shit, Sparr thought, still aching. Not that it truly mattered. The pod was intended as an escape vessel only. Even an undamaged pod lacked the ability to resume flight.

“Scan for radio transmissions.”

“None found,” the implant informed him.

Sparr strode through a landscape at once familiar and alien. Trees unlike any he knew grew in erratic clusters. Bulbous trunks gave way to wispy branches, dripping with sap. Sparr quickly learned to avoid the sticky substance, which seemed to attract swarms of insects. Between the thickets, a banded grass grew heavy. Less frequently, Sparr came upon what he later named sentinel trees. These solo behemoths rose to improbable heights before breaking into a flat cluster of branches. If, thought Sparr, the planet was home to pterodactyls, these would certainly be their nesting sites.

His conjecture was more than idle thought; life on Kaybe was Sparr’s mission. K2-136 Genetics, his employer, held limited rights to all forms of life native to the planet. Advisors such as Sparr were tasked with documenting and formalizing a claim before the rights expired. Everything Sparr needed for his work was still aboard the Odysseus, but that didn’t dampen his interest in the abundance of plant and animal life about him.

The city he had spotted from the pod lay to the east. Scale had been difficult to determine from space, but the journey wouldn’t be a short one. Sparr lengthened his stride. At well over six feet in height he covered ground quickly, weaving between the clusters of trees and leaping over exposed roots. Long periods of cryo-sleep generally left subjects sluggish, but aboard the Odysseus all occupants had been awoken at least twice to exercise, be briefed on mission progress, and visit with other members of the crew. Even during sleep, the ship’s advanced cryo-beds provided neural stimulation of muscle tissues, keeping them as toned as possible. Sparr wasn’t yet fully recovered, but would be before day’s end.

“Check for radio traffic every hour.”

By dusk, Sparr found that he had made excellent progress, slowed only when he had to backtrack to get past a particularly tangled or swampy section of the wood. Though his energy was still good, he would have to camp soon. The roots were becoming increasingly difficult to see, and he couldn’t afford to twist an ankle. Sparr slowed and opened a nutrient snack. He chewed happily while looking about for a place to rest.

That’s when the hounds found him.

Sparr heard their yelps first, a distant call which shot him through with dread. When less than a minute later he heard the forlorn sound again, but closer, he began to look for cover. With little time to search, Sparr sought a gap in one of the tree clusters. He pulled his pistol. In no time, the pack was upon him.

The creatures had a lupine appearance, with long snouts and heavy jaws. The largest among the pack had particularly shaggy necks and forequarters. Their coats were black, shot through with grey. Only the creatures’ long, sinewy bodies differentiated them from wolves. To Sparr they were beautiful, concrete evidence that mammalian life had evolved independently on Kaybe. If only they weren’t trying to eat him.

The pack stopped to inspect their intended prey. Two of the smaller creatures came forward, sniffing the air and tossing their heads. They yelped several times, after which the pack spread into a half circle around Sparr. They began a curious promenade, pacing in a circle not twenty feet distant. The smaller creatures feinted and leapt back, while the larger held steady, crouched and tense. They grew closer.

The largest among them leapt, a frightfully swift attack to which Sparr barely had time to react. He fired two shots from his pistol, striking the creature’s neck and chest. Its momentum carried it forward, knocking Sparr back. He rolled away, desperate to regain his feet. Sparr grabbed his pistol and sat upright. The creatures should already be upon him.

Except they weren’t.

To Sparr’s astonishment, instead of pressing their attack, the pack fell upon the creature he had shot. Blood and fur erupted in a frenzy as the creatures tore into their fallen pack mate. Sparr watched with relief and horror. The animal, which not a minute earlier had hunted with its pack, now would fill their bellies. Snarling, the beasts tore entrails and limbs from the carcass. Those with the choicest pieces, the strongest among the pack, slunk off to devour them alone. The rest fought over the remains.

Warily, Sparr slid back further into the brush. Unfamiliar plants with thick, unyielding stems pushed at him, their tiny leaves green and grey. He could retreat no further. Those that hunted him had, for the moment, faltered in their pursuit. But how long would his reprieve last? An hour? A minute? Having eaten, would the creatures abandon their pursuit, or was their bloodlust up? Now was as good a time as any, he reasoned.

Sparr loped away, the slaughter behind him unabated.

***

“All right, okay… listen. Shut up!” Captain Fowler shook his head. “You’ve been asleep for six months and all you want to do is jabber?”

The noise in the briefing room subsided. Those present, a mix of Alliance crew, corporate advisors, and scientists turned their attention to the front of the room.

“Great,” muttered Fowler. “You all will have two weeks to catch up with each other, renew acquaintances as it were.”

Sparr and Calista shot each other a sly look.

“Now, in the last six months we’ve gathered considerably more information about Kaybe. Let’s give it a look.”

Several of the Alliance crew and scientists closed their eyes. Their military-grade implants included optical overlays. Sparr, Calista, and the rest of the assembly would watch on a screen. The opening visual was of Kaybe itself, a fuzzy image cobbled together from recent scans. The Odysseus was still too far away for anything higher resolution.

“There’s still no contact with the planet. No transmissions or beacons have been picked up and there has been no response to our communications. And at this range we should know.”

A murmur of conversation crept through the room. Contact had been lost centuries ago, but at least some aboard the Odysseus held out hope that the colonists could be reached prior to arrival.

“On the other hand, atmospherically and geographically, the planet checks out. Liquid water is confirmed, as is Earth-like air. We still don’t know what happened on Kaybe, but it’s unlikely the colonists suffocated. Other atmospheric clues suggest both plant and animal life.” Fowler was staring directly at Sparr.

A spike of excitement shot through him. Although plant life on Kaybe was considered a near certainty, the likelihood of animal life was impossible to estimate. Apart from humans, no living animals had been transported to Kaybe aboard the colony ships. Certain species were carried in embryonic form, but Alliance guidelines allowed for their use only if no native fauna were found. That sufficient biological traces were detectable this far out suggested more than just a few herd of cloned cattle.

“In response to what we’ve learned, we’re structuring our mission to focus on colonist relief. The corporate teams,” here Fowler nodded toward Sparr and Calista, “of course have their own missions. These will go on as planned. Now, here are the latest team pairings…”

The two corporate advisors excused themselves. As non-Alliance, they were effectively excluded from any but their own business, both professional and personal.

“I didn’t hear anything about rocks,” Sparr said, grinning. He was still racing with adrenaline from the concise, but encouraging, briefing. “Just flora, and, mmmmmmm fauna!”

“Lichen and bacteria,” said Calista, feigning boredom. “I mean, if that’s what turns you on.”

“Yeah, nothing about mica. Or schist. I hear schist is big or… oh, oh crap! I almost forgot about basalt!”

“Shut up!” Calista punched Sparr in the shoulder. Six months of cryo-sleep hadn’t dulled her speed.

“Hey, don’t basalt me!” Sparr said, backing away. He was practically giggling.

Calista rolled her eyes. “The rocks are in your head.”

“Hey, I wanted to ask you,” Sparr said, changing topics. “The mini-sub you brought. Any chance you can give me a peek?”

“What?” Calista’s guard was instantly up. “Why?”

“Well, mostly because I just want to see the thing. I can’t imagine how much K2 Minerals had to bribe the Alliance to freight it here.” That part was true. From what Sparr had seen of the crated sub, it must be fantastically heavy. “Also, I thought we might fuck in it.”

“And I thought we might fuck in the zero G training room. I’ve got it booked in one hour.”

Sparr’s jaw practically dropped. The sub was forgotten.

***

The night ended much as it had begun. Sparr, pursued by the relentless, slinking creatures again found himself cornered, this time against a sheer bluff. Pre-dawn warmed the sky, sending hopeful tendrils of purple and pink across the thin clouds. The creatures, wolf-like in their hunting strategies, circled him intently. Sparr sought to steady his pistol for a shot, but fatigue and hunger worked against him. To kill one of the swiftly moving hounds, he would have to wait until it was dangerously close. He steadied his breath, waiting.

Having cornered their prey, the pack wasted no time. They pressed close, feinting and leaping back. There was a pattern. One animal, the largest, remained crouched low, its legs tensed. It was this one that would attack. Not waiting, Sparr shot it, the pellet piercing the creature’s hindquarters. It howled in pain. Sparr cursed himself. The animal was injured, but lived.

Nonetheless, he had earned a reprieve. Two of the creatures stayed back to sniff at their injured pack mate, the others tentatively resumed the hunt. Sparr eased away from the confused pack. He kept the bluff to his back, hoping to find a crack or cave he could defend more easily. None presented itself. He would have to hope for a lucky shot.

Then, to Sparr’s astonishment, the pack abandoned the chase. Raising their shaggy heads to sniff the dawn air, they exchanged yelps and growls. With what might have been rueful glances toward Sparr, the pack slunk away. The injured animal dragged itself behind them. Was it the arrival of dawn that discouraged them, or something else? No matter. For now he lived.

Hunger tormented him. After nearly twenty-four hours without sleep, mostly spent exploring or in flight, Sparr was depleted. The survival pack contained a handful of nutrient snacks. If necessary he would eat one, but the uncertainty of his journey weighed upon him. Better to conserve them. He would need to hunt if he was to survive. But hunt what?

The blood trail from the injured creature led back the way he had come. Following it, Sparr came upon the animal sooner than expected. It lay panting by the bank of a stream, regarding him with dim eyes. Sparr killed it with a plunge of his knife and quickly butchered the sad creature. The entrails stank horribly, but the flesh appeared edible. Sparr gathered wood and, using the energy concentrator, started a fire.

Sparr’s medical kit included several strips which, when applied to organic matter, could detect poison, bacteria, and most parasites. He used one now, pressing it against the creature’s flesh. The green circle told Sparr everything he needed to know. His last meal had been a nutrient drip during cryo-sleep, probably weeks earlier. This one, the flesh of an alien carnivore which less than an hour earlier had sought Sparr’s life, would be a feast in comparison. He tore in, roasting chunks of the gamey meat on his knife.

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