Hello! I’m still here. We’re finally closing in on that Thing we saw fall in chapter 1.
More radio conversations in this bit – sorry? Reading spelled-out static interference may be annoying. I’ve lost perspective and will have to look at this again in the morning, and then a million more times, likely as not. But I’ll take any and all critique, on the static issue and anything else at all.
And pardon the cliffhanger. 🙂 It has less to do with perverse glee and more to do with the fact that I haven’t completed enough of the scene to post the whole thing yet. Soon. Soon.
1.3K words following.
“You don’t have to come further,” Ghavan said. “If you feel safer in the truck, wait here. You can send Andar on to me.”
“Oh, no. That’s not fair,” Tedis said. Once she was far enough in, not knowing was worse than knowing. She ducked through the shotgun strap and signaled her resolve with a tap of fist to chin.
Ghavan looked a bit relieved. Only a bit — nobody but Tedis would’ve noticed it.
They turned their backs on the Gully and side by side left the bridge behind. The ground was rough enough that they didn’t so much walk as climb, but the process was much expedited by having a hand to hold, and so they made good time. Fifteen minutes of quiet earnest hurry saw them without incident to the pillars Billa had described.
Huge stones stood in silent file atop weather-carved narrow pedestals, looming overhead as though about to topple. It was uncomfortable to stand underneath them. Tedis and Ghavan paused only a moment to catch their breath and bearings, then skated down onto the sand pit, getting sand into their boots and not bothering to mind very much because ahead of them lay the crater.
Black rays of scorched sand fanned out a hundred feet wide; blasted twiggy remains of bushes cast inverse shadows of untouched white between them. At the center of the burst, a glossy basin of hot glass crackled into the cold breeze the remnants of whatever immense heat had burned it into being. The air around it rippled and shimmered.
And tipped over into the sand beside it, spindly legs splayed out, was Something.
It was something distinctly otherworldly. It must have once been a rocket, or part of one, to have made such a landing — but it suggested to Tedis’ mind nothing so much as the vacated cocoon of some colossal insect. It was all cylindrical sections so thin and white they looked like eggshell, certainly like nothing that should have survived such a fall and fire. The split pieces were empty and their smooth hollows were gathering blown sand. Billa was right: there wasn’t enough of the thing. It was no more than burst mechanical skin, loosely strung together by wiring like entrails. Something had cast it aside and struggled off elsewhere.
It would have been frivolous speculation if not for the tracks. They’d softened somewhat but still looked bright and obvious against the black. They meandered in muddled loops around the crater, then wandered off towards the crest of the dune and disappeared.
Tedis realized she had still been treasuring a tiny hope that all of this was a big silly misunderstanding. Now that hope disintegrated like a flake of ash under a breath. She checked over her shoulder. The pillars behind her hummed in a chorus of deep insistent purplish yellows. She blinked through them and looked up at her father.
Ghavan squinted at the crater and the wreckage, then turned on the spot and scrutinized the whole horizon — what he could see of it, between the dune and the row of sentinel stones. He tugged down his scarf.
“Billa,” he said calmly over the radio, “it’s mobile. Probably quadruped. Probably no bigger than a person. I need to know what you can see.”
But instead of Billa, a voice with a clipped Kaiasfil accent barked a reply.
“This is Kilo-aerlig-two-six-hundred. Hornet delta-victor-five-niner has been ordered to vacate airspace to minimize radio interference. Who is this? -Kzzt- parked vehicle by the bridge landing?”
“I hear you, two-six-hundred. This is Ghavan konn-Hendrick and yes, that’s my truck.”
“Remain in your vehicle and do not engage, Ghavan,” said the voice. “-Bxxpt- targeting it from the air.” The static was getting worse.
“We’re not in the truck,” Ghavan said. “We’re at the crater. Do I understand you can see the intruder? Where is it?”
“Not necessary. Pahja Andar -kzzt- bridge inbound -pzzt- -bxxdxxt- backup. Stay in your vehicle.”
“What’s not nec —? I said we’re not in the truck, two-six-hundred. Where is the —”
An irritable stream of gibberish followed, in which Tedis distinguished only the alarming word “blast radius”.
“Damn!” Ghavan cycled through channels, asking for Andar now and getting nothing but white noise. He pulled off his glasses and watched the capitol planes swooping high overhead like scavenger birds.
“So, we go back to the truck?” Tedis asked, in what she hoped was a steady, nonchalant tone.
Ghavan grunted assent. Motioning for her to follow, he started quickly across the sand pit, heading for the humming pillars. “Idiots,” he groused. “Keep your eyes open, Tedis, and let’s just hope our head start wasn’t wasted.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She skipped after him.
“They’re going to blow it up.”
“And that’s good, right? As long as we’re in the truck at what’s presumably a safe distance?”
“Not necessarily. Not if they don’t wait for Lillie to be in range. And even if they have the sense to wait — Andar wastes even less time than I do, so we don’t have long.”
Tedis stopped short. “Oh, no. Don’t have long to do what?” she asked, daring him to say the thing she knew he was going to say.
“To have a look at it first,” he said.
“Daddy! For heaven’s sake, why?” She gestured up at the circling planes. “They’ve got it. We can go home!”
“They can’t see anything worth seeing from that high up.”
“I am not as fascinated by this as you are,” she said. “I am going back to the truck!”
She started down from the dune with such vehemence that her dignity slipped along with her feet and she had to catch herself against a pillar. She regained her composure — what little remained, given the circumstances — and strode off, not looking back quite yet. She knew her father wouldn’t actually let her walk off alone. She also knew she would never actually drive away without him. But striding off was the easiest way to force him to move, short of actually tugging on his arm.
Behind her, insistent static suddenly bloomed over the radio.
“Say again?” Ghavan said.
“Hurry!” Billa said. His voice struggled out in short loud burts, half of which were understandable. “-Dvt- -bzzgh-! Not a sick -bzzt-! Not a beast!”
“It’s -gkkz- but they’re ordering me to -vxxpx- so I can’t — oh, for the love of -kzzt-,” Billa said. Tedis looked up. Her brother’s little plane was turning tightly and dropping, one wing down and one skyward.
“Billa, what are you doing?” asked Ghavan.
“-Bzzp- -bftng-.” Static ate up Billa’s reply.
Tedis finally looked back. Ghavan was watching his son’s plane, rather than looking ahead as he turned to step down from underneath a pillar.
And on the other side of the pillar was something big and glistening, which Tedis looked at for three long bemused seconds before it suddenly moved and her mind connected the dots.
It was the insect free of its cocoon. And it was reaching for Ghavan.
Tedis watched her father recoil with shock. He dropped the radio but didn’t run. The thing spasmed forward on spindly legs until he was entirely in its shadow. He still didn’t move.
Tedis’ body reacted before her brain did. Her shaking arm lifted the shotgun she’d forgotten she was holding. Gripping as hard as her suddenly weak and sweaty hands could, she pumped it and fired into the air.
Her head was buzzing. The blast sounded strangely muffled as though her ears were stuffed with wool. But the monster heard it clearly enough. It stopped. A couple of articulated knobs on what she took for its head swiveled and twitched in her direction.
Then it came straight for her.
She turned and ran.