A new work in progress – this time sci-fi.
In case you're new to this, I'm writing some pieces especially to post up on my blog so that you can share in the process as of the book as it goes along. The entire book won't be delivered in blog posts, because that's not a great way to publish a book and it doesn't make for a very convenient reading experience. But up until the first draft is completed, I'll be posting chapters up so that you can see what's coming along, and you can join me on the journey, making comments and asking questions.
Terraforming Planet Designation 41
Jared marched along the tunnel, pulling his respirator from his face. They were deep underground now, the cool darkness wrapping itself around him like a welcoming embrace from an old friend. They were safe. He filled his lungs and called out to the others, “Masks off.”
Behind him, the six members of the foraging party coughed, clearing their throats. By rights, the respirators should’ve been discarded years ago, and although they still worked well enough, time and decay had done their work, and the stench of the masks stayed with you long after you’d removed them. A small price to pay, Jared thought, taking off his gloves and pulling back the hood of his Hazchem suit. But not everything came so cheaply.
Jared ran his rough hands over his scalp, the thick scales of hardened skin on his palms scraping against the rough layer of keratin that coated his head. He still missed his hair, sometimes, even though he’d lost it long ago on the transport ship. And it wasn’t just vanity. His hairless body was a constant reminder of what had been taken from him, from all of them, without their permission, without a word of goddamned explanation. The engineered viruses must still lurk somewhere within their bodies, constantly multiplying, injecting their payloads of modified genes. But all Jared knew was that it itched, night and day, an ever-present irritation of skin that could no longer sweat. It keeps us alive, he told himself. That’s all that matters. It wasn’t much of a mantra, but it would have to do.
He strode onward, his eyesight rapidly adjusting to the almost perfect darkness in the tunnel, but somehow, he missed his step, his left boot catching on a ridge in the uneven floor, and he grunted in pain.
“What’s up?” Katya called out from behind him. “You get stung?”
“No. Nothing’s up.” Jared stood tall, grabbing hold of his backpack’s straps and pulling them tight. “Hurry it up. We’ve got to make up some time.”
There was wry laughter from the group, hollow chuckles echoing from the damp tunnel walls. “What’s the hurry, Jared?” some joker yelled. “You got somewhere to be tonight? A hot date?”
Jared ground to a halt, spinning around, his hand on the crowbar that dangled from his utility belt. “What?”
The others stood in silence, all six of them staring at him, their bright eyes blinking in tunnel’s darkness as their nictitating membranes fluttered across their toughened corneas. And as Jared drew his crowbar from its sheath, every head turned to follow his movement; they could see him well enough. The Drogues could discern outlines in all but pitch blackness, and even then, their finely attuned hearing allowed them to track the smallest movements.
Aaron stepped forward, shoving Katya aside. “Just a joke, Chief. Nothing to get bent out of shape about. Been a long day and not much to show for it. No harm in making a joke once in a while.”
Jared sniffed, taking in the faint scent of the plant material they’d collected. It was starting to wilt already, and the sooner they made it back and grabbed some food the better. He was hungry, and so was everyone else, but the truth was, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. There never was.
He fixed Aaron with a look. “Do I look amused to you, asshole?”
Aaron shrugged. “Like I said, Chief, ain’t no harm in–”
The rest of Aaron’s sentence was lost in a guttural yell as Jared’s crowbar connected with his stomach. Aaron bent double, clutching his belly, spitting curses, but Jared looked past him, glaring at the others. “The reason we’re behind schedule is that you punks don’t do what you’re goddamned told, and that is not good enough. If we’re going to stay alive, we need discipline, yes?”
“Yes, chief,” the others muttered, and Jared turned his back on them. Aaron was in no mood to try anything stupid. The guy was a moron, but even he would appreciate that Jared had handed out a warning, nothing more. Aaron could still walk, still use his hands, and most important of all, he could still work.
“Keep up, now,” Jared called over his shoulder as he strode away. “Otherwise, we’ll get even further behind.”
And the sound of their footsteps let him know that they’d fallen into line, in both senses of the phrase.
There were no more jokes on the way to the main cavern, and no complaints, even though Jared set a faster pace than usual. It was a long slog, but they made good time, and Caleb was waiting for them, the table cleared. He handed each of them a metal cup of water as they entered, and Jared drained his water in three gulps, being careful not to spill any. The thick skin of his lips made it difficult to sip from a cup without dribbling, but he’d grown used to it over the eighteen long years since his transformation had begun, and now he tipped his head back and let the last drops fall from the cup into his open mouth.
He ran his tongue over his sharp teeth. The water had heightened his hunger, and he could smell food. “Is the snake meat ready?” he asked Caleb.
Caleb nodded, but his expression was dour. “Did you bring more?”
“What do you think?” Jared said. “I haven’t seen a snake in three days. We got a couple of birds in the snares, but that’s all the meat we could find. It’s getting harder every day.”
“You got the plants though? Tell me you’ve brought plenty of plants, or we’ll have a mutiny on our hands.”
Jared bared his teeth. “That’s not a word we use, Caleb.”
“Sorry, Chief, but you know what I mean,” Caleb said. “I do my best with the plants but…”
“I know. You do very well, my friend.” He patted Caleb on the shoulder, the rough scales on his hands snagging on the worn fabric of Caleb’s jumpsuit. “Without you, we’d have starved years ago.”
Caleb tilted his head from side to side. “It’s amazing what you can do with a little fermentation. Sometimes, it doesn’t even taste all that bad.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jared said. “Hell, if you’re getting a taste for this stuff, I might really start to worry about you.” They shared a smile, then Caleb stepped a little closer and lowered his voice. “Seriously, Jared, our food stocks haven’t been this low for years. A few more days like this, maybe a week at most, and we’ll be in real trouble.”
“We’re all right for water?”
“Fine. The spring runs just as well as ever, and I store what I can, but we can’t live on water, Jared.” Caleb hesitated, glancing across the cavern to where the others were removing their backpacks and handing them over to Rich and Amy. “Listen, my friend, I’d never dream of telling you how to run things, but we have to find another place to gather food. The fermentation takes a few days, so–”
“So we have to keep ahead,” Jared interrupted. “I know how it works, Caleb. But we’re already operating at the edge of our range. We can only spend a few hours on the surface, and we can only walk so fast. What do you expect me to do about it?”
“There must be something we could try,” Caleb insisted. “Maybe we could modify the respirators so they don’t get clogged up with dreck, or we could make some way for you to swap out the filters in the field.”
“No,” Jared snapped. “You know damned well we can’t breathe out there, not even for one second. And the way things are going, I–” He clamped his lips tight shut, but it was too late; Caleb’s eyes were already locked on his.
“What’s happened, Jared? You’d better tell me. What’s gone wrong?”
Jared grimaced. “Nothing. It’s nothing at all. It’s just…my damned boot got a hole, and my foot got stung, but don’t worry about it. It’s nothing but a…a surface wound. Hell, the skin on my feet is like leather. I guess that’s how I got stung. I didn’t feel the crack in my boot. But it’s not a bad sting. I can hardly feel it. Just when I tread on it the wrong way, that’s all.”
“Ah, that’s a damned shame. I still have some root paste you can use. I’ll fetch it for you.” Caleb started to turn away, but Jared grabbed him by the arm, stopping him short.
“Later, Caleb. The others don’t know.”
Caleb looked as though he’d like to argue, but then he nodded. “All right, Chief. No problem. I’ll drop it by your quarters.”
“Thanks.” Jared let go of his arm. “Thanks a lot, Caleb, really.”
“No problem.” Caleb looked across the cavern. “Well, I’ve got hungry folks to feed. I’d better get to it.”
“Yeah, I’d better hand over my pack before Amy starts in on me,” Jared said. “She doesn’t take prisoners, that one.”
“You can say that again.”
“I’ll catch you later, Caleb.” Jared slid the backpack from his shoulders, holding it by its straps as he headed over to the table where Rich and Amy were sorting through the meagre collection of leaves, roots, and berries that the foraging party had managed to scrape together. But though Amy chided him for his delay, and moaned about the lack of snake meat, Jared wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy making plans to solve the food shortage, turning solutions over in his mind. Could they find a way to lure the burrowing snakes to the surface? Or what about the birds? Was there some better way of attracting them? They’d been using dried berries to bait snares for years, but perhaps they could capture some of them alive and breed them underground.
But his thoughts were derailed when Amy clutched his arm, her scaly fingers squeezing his arm muscles tight. “Amy, what the hell are you doing?”
She stared at him. “Don’t you hear that?”
Jared frowned, the thick skin on his forehead itching as his brow furrowed. Everyone in the cavern stood stock still, listening. And then Jared understood, a jolt of fear thrilling down his spine. This planet had been still and silent since they’d arrived all those years ago, their landing craft thudding into the surface. The sputtering roar as their craft’s retros failed had been the last mechanized sound that they’d heard. Only the craft’s emergency parachutes had saved them, the canopies whipping in the wind, flapping and rattling as they’d flared above them. The survivors had taken their name from those chutes, calling themselves Drogues because God knows, they weren’t human anymore. But now, somewhere, far above them on the surface, a vehicle was thundering past, the vibrations thrumming through the bedrock.
They were not alone.
I hope you enjoyed this part of the story.
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