SYNOPSIS: A young girl, easily distracted from her duty, discovers how deadly selfish pursuits can be.
“Where was the expedition last seen?” asked Rodney Charleston of his wife, as he tooled the shuttle closer to the planet’s surface.
His wife Lucy bent closer to the sensor board. “On a beach bearing two thirty by one sixty-one. Veer left toward the alluvium, extending into the water.”
Rodney turned the guidestick until the beach, roughly forming a filled-in letter D, drew closer. The choppy lake bordered it on one side, and a deep-green forest marked the other. It loomed larger on the viewer and apparently askew, as Rodney zeroed toward the shore. Hovering over the sand, he let the shuttle settle on airjets from beneath.
Seated behind their parents, Rodney and Lucy’s two daughters craned their necks to see more. “Just looks like an everyday beach to me,” said Nadine grumpily, falling back on her short tan hair with her disappointed arms crossed. “You’d think on an alien planet, it would look a lot different.”
“Not necessarily, sis,” said Vicki. “I think it’s cool God created several planets similarly.”
“This is not a vacation, girls,” said Rodney in mild admonishment. “I know this is your first experience with a landing team, Nadine, but we need to focus on our duty. We’re checking for clues to why we lost contact with Dick’s team. We need to know why they disappeared from our scopes.”
Lucy said, “I’ve double-checked the atmosphere mix, and it still reads breathable. So they didn’t lack atmosphere. I think we should deboard and see what we can find.”
As soon as Rodney opened the hatches on both sides, he and his daughters climbed out into the warm suns’ brightness. The sky was bluish violet with a few yellowish clouds drifting here and there, with the slight scent of rotten eggs in the air. Earlier probes had indicated when it rained here, the water was mixed with 10% sulfur, which incredibly was conducive to native growth.
“Shuttle Two to Orion,” said Lucy into the console. “We have landed where Dick’s party disappeared. We will report every 15 minutes.”
“Acknowledged, Shuttle Two,” came the male voice. “I’ll tell Captain Madison.”
While Lucy joined her husband and searched the sand, her daughters wandered toward the shuttle’s other side, also scanning.
“Hey, look!” cried Nadine. “Look at the size of these clams underneath. We could have a clam bake, right here on the beach.”
“We don’t know if they’re edible,” said Vicki annoyedly. “Will you focus on our work? I think I found something. Nadine, dig here.”
“Why should I have to dig it up?” she cried with a pout. “You found it.”
“Nadine! Why is it that every time we ask you to do a little work, you always want to do something else?”
“This is too boring. Let’s go swimming.”
“No! Too much sulfur in the water. Look, you begged us to let you come, even though we thought you weren’t ready yet. Now that you’re here, all you want to do is play. This is not the time, Nadine!”
With a deep frown, she casually kicked ripples of sand.
“Now come on, we have to work together,” said Vicki. “The least you could do is watch for danger.”
Nadine’s brown eyes grew wide. “What kinda danger?”
“I don’t know, but that’s why we split into pairs. To help each other and stay safe.”
At last Vicki sighed and crouched, shaking her blonde head while her fingers dug into the sand. When her hand came up, she held a man’s bracelet.
“Oh, brilliant,” said Nadine. “You found jewelry. Maybe we can sell it.”
“Don’t you recognize it? This is Dick’s bracelet, the one he got for his 15th anniversary. That means he was here, and I found some blood stains toward the woods. Come on, look for more clues. Something has happened here, and we need to find out what.”
But while Vicki worked toward the forest, following the trail, Nadine threw up her hands and wandered toward her parents. While Lucy held the scanner, Rodney occasionally bent to dig out and examine everything she detected.
“Can we go home now?” cried Nadine, coming up.
“Why aren’t you with your sister?” said Rodney crossly. “You’ve got to take orders better than that! We can’t leave until …”
A sudden scream cut the air. Everyone was shocked to see a deep brown leonine figure with a scaly gray face dragging Vicki into the woods. Its eyes stood out like a frog’s, its nostrils and mouth more like a lizard’s. Its mouth was shaped with three spikes in front, and its mandible formed a matching puzzle piece. Scratch marks on Vicki’s shoulders showed how sharp its claws were. She remained motionless while being dragged; it pulled her back by the collar.
Immediately Rodney and Lucy ran toward the beast, drawing their weapons and directing stunning energy at its head and shoulders. The animal dropped Vicki and reared on its scaly hind legs, attempted to stand its ground. But then it collapsed, trembling, and lay still.
Examining her daughter, Lucy said, “She’s sedated, but still alive. Nadine! How could you leave your sister alone? You know the rules. You and your sister were supposed to watch each other.”
Tears filled Nadine’s eyes as she fell to her knees at Vicki’s side. “I’m sorry, Vicki … I’m so sorry … forgive me. She will be all right, won’t she?”
Glaring at her, Lucy said, “I think so. Don’t ever wander off again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Nadine, sobbing. “I promise.”
“Lucy, see if you can revive her,” said Rodney. “Nadine, let’s find out where the beast came from. Maybe we’ll find Dick’s landing team.”
Stepping past the unconscious monster, father and daughter retraced the path of bent grasses till they came to a valley, lush and green with white, orange, and yellow field flowers. In some places they grouped together like flox, while other places showed them scattered over a wide area.
“Get out your scanner and look for human life,” said Rodney.
Still hurting from her recent error, Nadine unpouched it and did a panoramic search. “Over here. There’s a cave where several human readings show up.” She looked into her father’s face with pleading eyes. “But they’re barely alive. And there’s other animals of the same species nearby. They must take them to their nest for … later …”
She couldn’t bring herself to say “for dinner,” and she felt too frightened to mention only four whole bodies appeared on her scanner. She found pieces of others, but she wasn’t sure if it was one or two separate bodies. Maybe it’s another type of creature besides human, she thought, but she feared the worst.
Rodney regarded her with firmness mixed with compassion. “Don’t cry, Nadine. We’ll rescue them. How many creatures?”
“About … nine. Six of them are smaller, probably babies.”
Heavily he said, “I understand. We need reinforcements.” He raised his communicator. “Shuttle Two to Orion. Captain, we have found some indigenous creatures. Looks like they stun their victims with their venom and take them back to their nest. We need another shuttle team down here to defeat them and bring our people home.”
When Shuttle Three landed nearby, they and Rodney joined to advance toward the nest, shooting the beasts before they could react, including the younger ones. They rushed in and brought out Dick, two young girls, and a young man, all members of the missing landing team. By this time, Lucy and the revived Vicki also arrived in Shuttle Two, so the unconscious landing team could be loaded into both craft.
“We found the remains of two more,” said Preston, Shuttle Three’s pilot. Sadly he shook his head and his lips pressed together. Tears welled in his eyes. “Dick’s wife and my son … are dead.”
Startled, Rodney turned toward his daughter. “Nadine, why didn’t you tell me some of them were already eaten?”
Nadine broke down bawling.