Castaway Planet – Chapter 01
Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor
Sakura Kimei lay as still as possible on the set of pipes, listening for the creature’s approach. It could be very near. She gripped the weapon in her right hand and steadied herself with her left, trying to breathe as quietly as possible.
Not for the first time, she was grateful that she was still “skinny as a rail,” as her mother Laura often put it. The pipes had minimal clearance between them and the ceiling. No one with even a tiny bit more weight could have fit.
And that would have meant she had nowhere to hide.
The corridor wasn’t terribly narrow and was pretty high — for Sakura, at least, since it was meant for adults to use, not just fourteen-year-old girls who hadn’t quite hit their last growth spurt — but though only dimly — lit it was straight and without feature or doorway for a fair distance.
She tried to calm her beating heart. If it beat faster, she’d be breathing faster, and that could give her away.
The pipes under her felt both warm and cool, and she was doubly grateful for the advanced aerogel insulation that was able to keep them from being either scorching or freezing without huge, thick coatings — which would have made this hiding place impossible.
It had already been several minutes. Maybe she’d lost him completely.
But then a faint sound reached her ears, and she froze, holding herself as still as the walls around her.
That was not the sound of a human being walking. It sounded vaguely like a leather bag being dragged over the deck, but it was not a constant sound. It was the sound of something moving rhythmically, slowly, and as stealthily as it could. Straining her ears, holding her own breath, Sakura could just make out the faint whistling of the thing’s breath.
Shadows moved, coming from behind her, but Sakura dared not move, not even to get a good look. The creature’s senses were very, very good and might pick up on any movement, especially if it was still behind her and might look up for an instant.
Focused as she was on being perfectly still, naturally every tiny complaint or discomfort was magnified. That tiny itch in her calf was suddenly almost unbearable, demanding she move, reach down, scratch; the vague irritation in her nose was now trying to burgeon into a full-fledged sneeze. She clamped down with iron will. No! Can’t screw up now! It’s probably my only chance!
Slowly, below her, something came into view; waving tendrils, curling and grasping at the air like corpses’ fingers, sharp black hooks showing themselves as the digits worked back and forth. The tendrils moved forward, showing there were actually three groups of them, attached to three powerful forelimbs which bent in the center to provide a sort of elbow. The creature was dragging itself along with two of these. One group of tendrils grasped a tubular affair something like a crutch; the thing’s equivalent of a gun.
The body was generally triangular in cross-section, with the arms she saw at the front. She knew that between those arms and not visible from her vantage point, was a tripartite beaklike mouth equipped with a ripping, tearing tongue. At the rear, three stubby appendages similar to the arms splayed out, gripped, and pushed. Overall, the thing was several meters long and probably weighed five times what she did.
The thing could also go much faster than it was now, even taking into account the fact that it obviously wasn’t built for this kind of terrain. But it was moving quietly, trying to find her without alerting her to its presence. The front tendrils and rear “legs” were trying to keep as much of the creature as possible off the ground entirely. She was actually a little astounded. She knew the thing was strong, but this was way beyond what she’d expected.
Still… right now she was hidden. There was no sign he’d seen her.
She focused on timing now. The creature was almost past her position. She’d have to strike it right behind the eye socket and drive her blade down and back to hit the brain.
The ship’s “gravity” came from spin; she had to guess just how much that would make her curve during the drop, because curve she would. Not much, but when centimeters counted you couldn’t afford any slop.
Now came the most dangerous part. His eyes were passing below her; he’d have to turn now to see her. But she had to ease herself sideways so she could drop off the pipes and onto the alien’s back.
And that meant moving, and moving meant noise.
She exhaled silently as much as she could, lowering her height by a centimeter or less, but just enough to make sure nothing touched her back. Slowly she eased to her right. Over one pipe. Over two. Once she’d gotten past three pipes she could —
The creature suddenly halted. Maybe it had heard her, maybe it just realized it had come an awfully long way without seeing its quarry, but either way, it was now suspicious.
Sakura shoved off, dropping down, even as the thing tried to pivot around in a corridor much narrower than it was long. The girl twisted her body, stretching out, weapon held tight in her fist, reaching, even as one of the cruel taloned arms lashed around towards her —
And her hand drove perfectly into the gap between the right-hand eye and the thick, armored hide.
Instantly the arm froze, then collapsed to the ground.
“Oh, stagnation,” the creature vibrated. “I almost got you!”
She laughed and jumped off, putting the play dagger away. “You caught me the last three times, it was about my turn to get you!” She hugged as much of him as she could reach. He was warm and leathery, something like she imagined an elephant might be, but smoother. The latter wasn’t surprising. The Bemmies had been entirely aquatic when humanity first met them on Europa, and using genetic engineering to give them full amphibious capabilities hadn’t given them any hair. “That was a good chase, though, wasn’t it, Whips?”
Whips (more formally named “Harratrer”) burbled agreement with a chuckle. “Half an hour, and you still caught me. I should remember you’re thin as a bladefish.”
“Want to do another round?”
“We don’t have another half-hour,” the big alien pointed out. “You’ve got pilot apprentice training and I’ve got my engineering apprenticeship work in fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, blah. You’re right, that’s not long enough. Maybe we –“
A screaming klaxon ripped the quiet air to shreds, repeating in three sharp tones. “Mandatory Emergency Drill,” a calm electronic voice said. “Mandatory Drill. All personnel, respond as to an actual emergency according to Section 115.2. Mandatory Emergency Drill…”
“Dehydrate that!” Whips said grouchily. “Our lifeboat unit’s all the way over on the other side of Outward Initiative.”
The young Bemmie’s peeved tone hid nervousness — and not very well. Sakura knew the source of that, and gripped her friend’s arm supportively. “Everyone else will be busy going to their lifeboats.”
“But they’ll still be able to … accidentally… impede me in one way or another.” The voice was no longer grouchy; it was sad and hurt. Whips’ flickering colors were muted and brownish.
She couldn’t argue with him; it was true. Her family had grown up around the genetically enhanced creatures, but they were rare even in the home system; in fact, from what her father had said, Whips’ family might be the first one allowed out-system. There were concerns about physical and mental stability, long-term viability, and other things, some of which just boiled down to plain old-fashioned prejudice… on both sides, unfortunately.
The engineered Bemmius novus sapiens looked, to human eyes, pretty much like their non-engineered Europan relatives, which was to say fairly nightmarish to a lot of people, and definitely not comforting to run into in a narrow corridor. To the normal Europan Bemmies, the effect might be worse, a malformed mutant with a flattened bottom and everything squished up much more in one direction. Normal Bemmies did have a sort of up-and-down orientation, but this was much more emphatic — and strange — looking.
Add to that the fact that such extensive redesign on an intelligent creature had never been attempted before. In fact, the techniques had only perfected a few years before the project started. The end result was a perfect recipe for nervous mistrust, prejudice, or sometimes an almost more annoying coddling attitude that treated every twitch as a matter of concern.
Sakura looked down at Whips, but the continued whooping of the alarm klaxon told her she couldn’t stay — or follow him. Then suddenly a thought struck her. “Didn’t you hear that? Respond as to an actual emergency.”
Whips turned two of his three eyes towards her. “Well, yeah, but so what?”
“So in a real emergency you’re supposed to go to the nearest lifeboat, right?” She grinned. “And that happens to be ours.”
Whips’ tendrils curled in with uncertainty. “I don’t know. What if…?”
“Come on. It’ll be a little less boring if you’re there!”
Whips snorted, but immediately started a hopping drag in the direction of the Kimei family boat, his colors rippling swiftly back to brighter, more cheerful patterns. “And I can’t ever complain about it being boring with you around!”