Castaway Planet – Chapter 17
Whips jolted awake as a loud, strident beep! beep! beep! sounded from somewhere above him. That was the camp alarm! Something was coming through the perimeter!
The night of Lincoln was, by Earthly standards, pitch-black; even if one of Lincoln’s two moons had been up, they were too small to shed very much light.
But Whips’ ancestors were from the utterly lightless sea of Europa, orbiting Jupiter in the farther reaches of the solar system, living beneath kilometers of solid ice cold enough to freeze air. There, the only light came from other creatures or strange natural processes, and any creature that could see at all had eyes that could wring every possible bit of data from every photon they could catch. To Whips, the blazing stars above made the black night nearly as bright as day.
Plowing its way up the gouged scar of LS-5‘s crash was something huge — ten, maybe fifteen meters long. Its hide glistened wetly in the starlight and air hissed from it as it breathed, a round, wormlike thing with rings of serrated white at intervals along the body, crowned with a writhing mass of tentacles surrounding a mouth like a grinder.
It was also headed straight for the shelter, and Whips knew it would be a matter of seconds only before someone came out to see what the alarm was — emerging right into that tentacled mass.
Whips heaved himself up out of his land-nest and simultaneously bellowed loudly, even as he sought around desperately for something to throw or swing with.
The movement and bellow did, at least, accomplish what Whips hoped. The monster slewed around, facing directly towards him, and started flowing in his direction. Whips humped backwards as fast as he could, grabbing with tail grippers, curling his body back and shoving back with the elbow pads on his lower two arms. The tentacles lashed towards him but he wasn’t — quite — in reach yet.
Laura shoved her way out of the tent flap and said something shocked and probably rude, but at that moment the thing gave vent to a howling roar which drowned her out. Despite the insulated walls of the shelter, Whips could hear responding startled screams from inside.
The thing gathered itself and lunged. One thick, velvet-looking tendril brushed Whips and he heard himself let out a steam-whistle shriek of pain. That stung!
With horror he realized he’d slipped in the sand; the thing was about to catch him!
Two sharp reports rang out as Laura fired the SurvivalShot twice. The creature gave a low-pitched bubbling growl and swung about towards her.
“Look out, Laura! It’s like the anemones!” Whips felt a faint numbness radiating from the sting, but his internal nanos and his own self-awareness told him the damage was actually minimal. A human getting stung, however, might be really bad.
Laura dove to the side, the deadly tendrils smacking the shelter and causing it to shudder, but missing their target.
But Whips realized that if it followed Laura, something that size could probably rip the shelter apart, or crush it if the rigidity currents keeping it up failed. He took a breath and then charged forward as fast as he could, synchronizing rear anchor-feet and arms, and threw himself on the monster, arms spread wide.
He felt dozens of his attack barbs sink deep. The creature’s pained, writhing attempt to escape caused the barbs to rip gashes in its hide. But the force of the thing’s twisting motion yanked Whips around, dragging him across the sand, slamming him down like a ball on a string. Two of the tentacles wrapped around him, and it felt like two belts of fire strapped to his body. Grimly, he hung on, dug in, tried to pull himself closer. If he could just bite the thing…
The SurvivalShot popped again, twice, and the other Kimeis were shouting, screaming, out of the shelter, but were they safe? Whips didn’t dare let go, he couldn’t bear the thought that he might let this thing go too soon and get his friends — his adoptive family — killed. At this range he let the agony focus his cry, let go with a stunshout that rippled the creature’s skin as though it were struck. Then he heard half a dozen small impacts. Rocks? Were they throwing rocks?
Another tentacle caught at him, but he pulled as hard as he could, clamped down with beak and let his tongue start ripping into the leathery, bitter-tasting flesh. The venom was starting to work its way through him, his resistance being overcome by volume, but he refused to let go, even though he found his vision becoming distant, his arms trying to become shaky…
Suddenly the monster wrenched itself around, trying to flee. The Kimei family were still pelting it with rocks and debris from the crash, more shots from the hydrogen-powered pistol slamming into it. The thing rammed into the ridge of the crash scar and Whips found he could hold on no longer, scraped from the thing’s side.
But it didn’t take the opportunity to turn on him. It just continued swiftly slithering away, back into the water from whence it had come.
The sounds now were distorted, strange, like they were if your sound membrane was half-in, half-out of the water, and everything was painful and drifting and distant at the same time. “Whips? Oh, God, look, he’s been stung all over!”
“Settle down, Sakura. I’ve got his nano telemetry.” That was Laura’s voice, but somehow Whips couldn’t tell which of the figures over him, shining bright lights, was which.
“Will he –?”
“Quiet, all of you!” Akira’s usually quiet voice was raised, worried, but filled with iron authority. The others went silent. Wow, Whips thought disjointedly, he bellows like an Old One…
“Neurotoxin,” a voice muttered, wavering in and out. “But there’s natural resistance… similar to other poisons…”
Vaguely, Whips realized he was losing consciousness, finding himself unable to understand the noises around him. He couldn’t feel more than the most distant jab of fear, though. The numbness had spread to his brain and even thought, fragmented already, was fading.
Light faded, dwindled, became gray fog.
But then the gray brightened, and sound began to come back, at first just incomprehensible murmurs, and then faint, almost random words: “… responding… hope that … killed…”
His eyes finally began to respond. He felt shaky, sick as he had ever been, but his mind was slowly clearing. He turned one eye, saw Laura kneeling next to him. Pain like fire burned across most of his skin, but it seemed to be fading now. “Everyone… okay?” he managed to ask.
“Okay?” Laura repeated, and then shook her head; a pair of tears suddenly rolled down her face. “Whips, you were the one hurt!”
“Knew… if it got any of you… probably kill you,” he managed. It still hurt a lot.
“You were right,” she said, voice and eyes back in control. “Your people have a higher resistance to some toxins, of which this was fortunately one. Even so, closing in on it and letting it sting you –”
“Didn’t have much choice,” he said. The sickness was rising inside, like something coming to a boil. Oh-oh. “Um, excuse me…”
His shaking body tried to betray him, but he somehow kept control until he reached the waste pit and voided everything he’d eaten into it. He lay there, gasping and shuddering, letting his tail hang over the edge in case another fit hit him. So much for dinner.
Sakura had suddenly reached him, and her fierce embrace made him feel a tiny bit better. “Whips, are you okay?”
“Feeling a little better, maybe.”
“It’ll take a while. I had to use what was on hand, which wasn’t ideal,” Laura said apologetically. “Your nanos and your natural resistance kept things under control long enough for me to fake up something like an antidote, but it’s not perfect.”
“As long as I’m going to recover, that’s good.”
“What was that?” Melody’s question was somewhat rhetorical — it wasn’t like anyone had any better answer than she did — but she was terrified, and Whips couldn’t blame her. “Why did it attack us?”
“That’s a good question, Melody,” Akira said, his calm voice making even Whips’ pained, sick mind feel a little steadier. “Why would it attack us? It crawled a long way out of the water to get here. How could it have sensed us?”
Something about the question nagged at Whips. “I don’t think it did sense us. Not out there, anyway,” he said slowly.
“Hm? But then why come here? Do you think this is just the way it normally hunts — comes up on land and looks for things that are sleeping?”
Whips concentrated, trying to force his brain to work. “No. Well, maybe… but it has to have some way of choosing where it comes up.”
Melody suddenly froze. “Oh. Oh, I think I know, Dad.” She pointed over to the now-tumbled tables and chairs. “The block-crab –”
Now he heard Akira Kimei swear. After a moment, he shook his head. “Baka. We gutted it and then dragged it up to camp, leaving a perfect trail of blood straight here.”
Whips waved his hands affirmatively. “That was just what I was trying to think of. Predators like that in Europa will follow scent-trail.”
“Well,” Laura said, “no real harm done. We’ve learned that lesson and won’t do it again.”
“But that’s only a temporary fix, Mom,” said Sakura. Now that she was sure that Whips wasn’t dying, she was hugging a still scared and crying Hitomi and getting her to settle down.
“I know it,” Laura said. She knelt down and hugged Whips. Even though touching the stung areas hurt, it was still comforting… and the pain was fading. “First… thank you, thank you so very much, Whips. If you hadn’t distracted it, it would have grabbed me when I stepped out. And without you fighting it, I don’t think we could have stopped it.”
“I second that,” Akira said gravely. “Our pistol — and throwing rocks — stung it and infuriated it, but I really don’t think we did enough damage by ourselves to drive it off, or that we could have without someone getting killed. You risked –”
“Nothing, sir,” Whips interrupted, feeling so embarrassed that the pain and sickness were secondary. “I’m not going to survive without you either. You’re my family now, right? And we always fight for our family. Together.”
The two Kimei parents were quiet for a moment, Akira in particular wearing an expression that looked oddly like vindication, and then they simply nodded. “You are our family, yes,” Laura said unsteadily, and he could see the tears again. “And we will fight for you. Together.”
“Always,” agreed Akira and Sakura, and the others echoed it — even little Hitomi, who reached out and patted him gently.
Then Laura looked out into the dark, where the thing had fled. “But we don’t want to do fighting we don’t have to, and now we know we are in danger here. We have to find somewhere else to live — and do it soon.”
“But that,” Akira said, “will be something for later.”
Whips nodded, and finally felt himself relaxing, the sickness starting to ebb… and exhaustion coming close behind. “Later,” he repeated, and closed his eyes.