Shipwrecked survivors on a harsh planet.
We chose a spot near the Zerndriki Range to set out our little two-man tent. Bergen readied light and heater inside, while I went a short way from the camp to watch the nebula set in the darkening sky. Already the plain was black in the shadow cast by the mountains and our little blue tent stood out like a ripening blister on the empty flatness. Scattered above the nebula, a billion stars in the Omega 3 galaxy rose higher into the night sky.
If you had to choose a planet to be wrecked upon, Gallifrage wasn’t a bad one. It was, at least, incredibly beautiful, with the most spectacular sunsets known to the Space Administration. The nights were very cold, it’s true, but given a heated tent and a decent supply of rations, you ought to be able to survive until the morning. Bergen and I had both.
There remained the obstacle of the Zerndrikis to climb before we could get to the lone settlement of Andresson’s Port. That was something I wasn’t prepared to tackle without the assistance of daylight. I hurried back to the tent as the cold began to seep through my Arctica suit.
Bergen had everything ready in the tent, including a few energy bars heated over the light column. We had a light meal followed by a swig of the julep flask and then settled down for the night. Those experimental lightweight cocoon bags, part of the cargo we’d salvaged from the wreck of the DogStar, proved both warm and comfortable. I don’t think it took longer than five minutes before we were both asleep.
Nights on Gallifrage are a couple of hours longer than on Earth so I’m not entirely sure what time it was when I awoke. The light must have timed out long before and it was pitch black in the tent. Something had dragged me from sleep and I lay there unmoving as I tried to figure out what it was. I could hear Bergen making snuffling noises from his side of the tent, so it seemed he was awake too.
And then we heard the sound of something big sliding down the side of the tent. It started right from the top so it had to be pretty big. The superfabric protested with a squeal as the paw, or whatever it was, ran down in search of an opening.
That was enough for me. I scrambled out of the cocoon and felt around for the light controls. Bergen beat me to it and the tent filled with bright light. Outside, the creature went silent. But we could see how its attempts to get in had stretched the fabric and made one side hang down from its supports.
“What the hell is it?” I whispered at Bergen.
He shrugged. “I dunno, man. I never heard of there being any life on Galli.”
“That’s what I thought. But that thing out there has got to be big. It reached the top of the tent, no problem.” I pushed at the hanging tent material as I spoke. The creature must have had the instincts of a cat because something hit back at me from outside and I was thrown spread-eagled against the opposite wall of the tent. I collapsed in a heap.
Bergen hauled me back up into a sitting position. “Damn thing wants in,” he said. “What do we do?”
“Don’t think I want to share the tent with anything that big. Reckon you can jury rig a weapon from what we’ve got with us?”
“Well, I suppose I could use the light to make some sort of taser. But we wouldn’t have any light then. And I’d have to make it in the dark. I’m good but I’m not that good.”
That was when I remembered the flashlight I was bringing as a present to my son back home. I rummaged in my pack and produced it in triumph. “Get busy, Bergen. We’re going thing hunting.”
I’ll say this for Bergen, he’s a damn good engineer. In half an hour he had constructed a weird-looking tube with spikes at one end that we reckoned would probably give quite a kick to anything it came in contact with. Everything outside had gone quiet, so we gathered confidence as he worked. Maybe the thing had lost interest and moved away. We dressed in as many layers as we could manage and still be mobile, then prepared to leave the tent to deal with our adversary.
We stood by the entrance and I counted down, then unzipped the flap. With a great yell, we leaped outside and turned to view the aggressor. The flashlight beamed on black emptiness. I directed it in a wide arc beyond the tent but there was nothing to be seen.
“It might be hiding behind the tent,” said Bergen. I led the way as we conducted a search in a circle, at some distance from the tent so that it could not surprise us with a sudden attack from behind a corner.
We found nothing but scrape marks in the dirt where the thing had tried to break into the tent. It looked as though it had gone about its business.
It was Bergen who noticed the tent flap moving away from the tent to reveal the opening behind it. As we watched, the opening expanded, then relaxed as though something had passed inside. That was bad enough, that the thing had taken possession of our tent, but then the zipper travelled down from its open position to close the flap again.
“Damn thing wanted the warmth,” I breathed.
“No shit, Sherlock. And what do we do now?” Bergen was already moving in repeated little steps, back and forth, to keep warm and I realised the trouble we were in. Without the tent, we were most likely going to be frozen blocks of ice by the morning.
“Well, I’m not going in there to confront that thing,” I said. “We have to keep moving and that means the Zerndrikis at night. With a bit of luck, we should be nearly over them by morning.”
It was a crazy notion and Bergen complained about its impossibility but, in the end, it was the only option available to us. We kept our makeshift taser in case we met any more creatures but, when we came to the mountains, we threw it away as too cumbersome to bother with. By that time we were so cold and tired that the prospect of other creatures didn’t seem so terrifying.
The rest, as they say, is history. The saga of our nighttime climbing of the Zerndrikis, the freezing heights, the exhaustion and frostbite that nearly killed us before we staggered into the Port, these have been told often enough.
But there’s a reason we never said anything about the real cause of the disaster that happened to our camp, passing it off as a lack of supplies from a wreck far worse than we had actually experienced. I mean, if a couple of guys had crawled into your base, half dead and delirious with cold and a supposedly impossible journey, would you believe their tales of an attack by an invisible monster? Neither of us fancied a spell under the care of an expeditionary psychiatrist, thank you very much.
Word count: 1,226
For Short Shots: Official WDC Contest, August 2021
Prompt: As per illustration.