A Short Story
by Andrew Greenfield Lockhart
[I originally wrote this for a session at my writers’ group.]
‘We’re safe for now. They can’t get in.’
I risked a glance at Jude out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t, I daren’t allow my attention to be diverted from the window. She was statuesque, her face drawn in a rigid mask, her eyes staring, her arms crossed and her hands tightly gripping her shoulders. Somehow she had lost a glove and her knuckles were bruised and red.
‘And we can’t get out! We can’t take off!’ She laughed hysterically. Then the sharp intake and rapid exhalation of her breathing were the only sounds I could hear in the dimly-lit module. Jude was a brilliant theorist, but she was a lab scientist, a computer kid. She was of no use in a crisis.
‘We have to concentrate on fixing the engine,’ I snapped. ‘Kathy?’
‘Working on it!’
‘Ben . . .’ Jude was moaning now, her body shaken by gigantic sobs. ‘Snakes . . . We have to do something.’
‘He’s beyond help now,’ I said with as much sympathy as I could muster; there was no time for it. They had been an item, Jude and Ben, since we began training for the expedition three years ago. ‘We can do our mourning later.’
I had no confidence in the plate glass of the window. Two inches thick and built to contain our atmosphere, it was still vulnerable to attack from outside. We had all seen the creatures in action and knew what they were capable of. Those enormous jowls with their hideous serrated teeth could snap a man or woman in half. I had watched them, sick to my stomach and retching, as they opened and closed again over the mangled remains of one of the team. Gerard, our biochemist, thirty years old with a wife and kids back on Earth.
I had gasped in horror as the swinging tail of a female snake caught Ben, our navigator, off balance, felling him to the alien dust and shattering his helmet. Jude had calculated that we could survive eight minutes in the Horus atmosphere, but it hadn’t been proved and never would be now. Ben had lasted barely ten seconds before the creature sank her teeth in his arm and struck him with her poisonous tail. I had heard the snapping of his bones and the creaking of his skin as he changed, growing before my eyes into one of the monstrosities that now paraded hungrily outside in the blue, moonlit terrain.
I’d hesitated no more than a second before running. Jude had stopped to help her boyfriend but it was too late. Kathy pulled her away. There was nothing any of us could do. The three of us, Jude, Kathy and I had only just made it back inside.
The first inhabited exoplanet and its dominant life-form were deadly serpents!
The window shuddered as the head of the alpha male, by far the largest of the creatures, thudded against it. The glass held. Jude screamed.
‘It’ll be OK.’ I tried to reassure her but feeling all the while that our situation was hopeless. Kathy was working frantically at the engine, trying to start it again, but in the minutes since we slammed the module door on the monster snakes, it’d done no more than stutter and die. And that was what the three of us who were left would do if she didn’t fix it soon.
There were four monster snakes now, the original three and the one that had once been Ben. We still couldn’t be sure what he had become – male or female. It really didn’t matter. Only the alpha was carnivorous but the females carried the virus that apparently destroyed human DNA and replaced it with their own. Going outside in our suits to collect soil and rock samples hadn’t been the smartest thing we’d done. Unless Kathy could restart that engine soon and take us into orbit and back to the ship, we were done for.
The alpha’s head connected with the window – twice. The glass shuddered again, the module door too as an armoured tail crashed against the steel. The choice was not one I wanted to make: slow death by poisoned air; swallowed whole, turned into a shapeless mass of blood, flesh and bone in the alpha’s intestine; or become one of the creatures myself.
We had no weapons capable of defeating them. Guns were useless. Gerard and Ben had tried. The seconds taken to shoot had cost them their lives. Even if we had a knife or sword sharp enough to pierce their scaly hides, how could any of us get close enough? How could we avoid those sharp, tissue-tearing fangs or those scything tails with their deadly sting?
Outside, the landscape was darkening. The three blue moons of Horus were sinking to the horizon. The largest, so clear that I could see clouds moving across its surface, was already only a half disc at the edge of the desert. Any hope that the snakes would dislike the darkness was fading. If anything, the night seemed to vitalise their efforts to reach us.
‘Help me here,’ Kathy yelled and I backed up, still keeping my eye on the window. Jude was a helpless, cringing wreck in the pilot’s seat. ‘I’m going to count to five then I want you to kick that lever. Hard!’
She pulled a switch and fiddled with an electro-spanner at the back of the motor casing. ‘ . . . four, five . . . now!’
I struck the lever as hard as I could with my right foot. The motor growled but didn’t start.
The window shuddered once more as the alpha creature butted it with his head, its jaws wide, its dripping tongue drawing a band of bloody slime across the pane. I saw its eyes, pale green and frighteningly intelligent, peer into the glass. Hesitating between brute strength and strategy. It knew we were running out of oxygen. I could almost read its mind; it wouldn’t give up. Better to wait?
‘Fuck! Again,’ screeched Kathy. She pulled the switch again and I kicked with all the strength I could muster. An excruciating pain shot up my leg and I guessed my foot was broken.
The motor stuttered twice, coughed and roared into life. Kathy gave a triumphant whoop. Jude still seemed paralysed with terror
‘Ten seconds more and you take it,’ Kathy said to me.
I bundled Jude into a passenger seat and settled myself into the pilot’s chair. Kathy took her position next to me. The engine noise became an expectant and familiar whine as I eased the module into the air. The large moon had almost set but there were two others. One gibbous, one full. I could still see the huge snakes writhing below and snapping at our vapour trail. Time slowed as we gained height. The seconds seemed like minutes. With all my concentration on the controls, there was no time for conversation. If only the repair held until we reached escape velocity.
The module soared into the upper atmosphere. The snakes of Horus were tiny fading specks on the moonlit desert. In a few moments we would make ship orbit. I sighed with relief and turned to grin at my two companions.
‘We made it!’
Kathy stared back at me. Her expression was one of abject terror.
‘Look at Jude,’ she hissed.
I looked but there was really no need. I heard the sound of ripping nylon, the scrunch of pulverising skeleton, the creak of sinew and muscle that already was no longer human. None of us had been stung; that I knew with certainty. But we had no way of knowing the snakes had other, slower means of infecting us, of transferring their genes. A cold tremor of fear crawled along my spine. I remembered Jude’s bruised, swollen hand. She had touched Ben. She must have; the venom was in her system.
We would not make it back safely. None of us would ever see Earth again.
Jude was already changing.