Gentle Reminders Serialisation Chapter 17
Legacy Universe: Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)
Gentle Reminders is being serialised right here on SFBook with a new chapter published each week.
Previously in Gentle Reminders:
Stranded on a distant, uncharted planet the crew of the Jump Cannon have captured the saboteur responsible for the ship's near destruction. Following his interrogation more information has come to light about the Free Man Nation but for now Maur, Kerra and the rest of the crew must focus on getting off world.
You can visit the Legacy Universe website for more information.
"Our field team will need to consist of non-essential personnel," Champion ordered, "or at least non-essential to the repair efforts. That means all gunnery, maintenance and engineering staff will not be leaving Annie for the foreseeable future. Our military staff are low in number right now. That means Kerra and Charles will be heading out to hunt. Thom, you’ll be assisting since you’ll be cooking whatever we kill."
"The three of you are to keep regular radio contact and are to broadcast back any intelligence that might assist the repair of the ship. I doubt we’re going to find ready-mined quarries or abandoned avionics factories but this is unexplored territory, so you never know. Away missions are to last no more than three hours."
"Initial scans have been hampered due to system damage," said Marc 14, "but there are definitely lifeforms scattered across the planet in reasonably dense numbers. We can’t get a read on what they are or what they look like, but the majority of wildlife seems to prefer to live alone. Should make it easier to hunt them down. Try and find a way of tapping the water sources too – I’d like to start pumping it into the ship."
They were standing on the command deck twenty-hour hours after the initial landing, those given the proud title of “essential staff” were mostly absent. Other than a few deck staff it was mostly Beta Crew, with Yazram resting in his quarters after being brought back around. The four of them had gotten armoured and armed, ready to head out, including Maur.
He felt stupid as soon as Champion announced he was staying aboard, having made the assumption that he was indispensable as a soldier and donned his armour accordingly. He now had to stand and try to look natural while holding his rifle. Rolling his tongue over the top of his teeth, he held back the sort of outcry that was more often the product of humiliation than weakness. He wasn’t beyond getting emotional and the current circumstances warranted it. He stared ahead while the briefing continued.
"Make sure you are packing some varied ordnance, try and prepare for as many situations as possible..."
Marc 14 was, in all truth, making some rather large leaps of faith when it came to the results of the scans. The ship’s power was being diverted away from analytical systems without human prompt, making any claims regarding the nature of the wildlife to be well-thought estimates and not much more. He figured that the team could handle themselves, which was true. Kerra and Charles both wore expressions that said they believed as much too. Thom looked far less sure, and search around for support to this cause. Unfulfilled, he began to fiddle with his rifle in frustration.
"Try not to kill much more than we need, this isn’t an ecosystem used to intelligent interference. The natural response to our presence could be drastic – plague, unexpected combustion, walking trees, all that could happen and all of it would give away our location. I don’t want to be the only sitting duck visible from space, especially with this Free Man Nation on our tail," said Champion. "Am I understood?"
"Yes Captain," came the uniform response from the assembled individuals, although some replied with more eagerness than others.
Maur slumped off to his quarters to get rid of the gun he had armed with unnecessarily, sulking and barely wishing the other three luck as he wandered off. That left them free to exit through the hangar, into the wild world that lay out in front of them.
Everything about the planet was big. Its surface size was impressive in itself, roughly one and a half times that of Uranus, but capable of supporting life. Green and purple were popular, giant contorted trunks stretching into the clouds. Their bases were lifted from the ground, creating dark caverns underneath every growth. These caves dripped and dropped, water seeping through the skin of the trees. They were havens for moss and algae that edged around temporary pools of stagnant water. Plant life was very different here, unlit swamps that birthed hardier plants than out in the sun.
Much of the vegetation broke cloud cover, and so precipitation leaked down them and formed constantly shifting springs that leaked from the clouds along the branches and leaves of these colossal trees.
The ground itself was covered densely, but in keeping with the size of everything around them the shrubbery and flora was of such scale as to leave distinct and open paths for them to travel through. Some members of the crew had already ventured out as far as a click during breaks. The three members of Beta Crew would be going far further.
Heavy feet clunked down the hangar ramp, before crunching onto the surface of the planet. Guns were clicked off of safety and the more experienced two of the three began to look around instinctively for threats. Thom merely stared forward, there was so much to see after all, and began to wonder what things might taste like. A particularly bright purple root caught his eye as it slowly pumped out a terracotta sauce from pock-marks all over its surface. He was seriously considering dipping a finger in and trying it, but remained in military formation. It was the sensible decision, considering the liquid would put him to sleep for the next few months if consumed. They trotted onwards, beginning to lose sight of Annie’s bulk.
"I don’t think Marc 14 knew as much as he claimed to about what’s out here," Thom said, distracting himself from the vegetation.
"Of course he doesn't," Kerra replied. "We're lucky Annie came out as well as she did. We would have been pasted across the surface of this place had we tried that move before the refit. Absolutely crazy."
She stepped over a felled trunk. Although as thick as an ancient oak it was in fact only a few years old. They marched on.
"I have doubts about the Captain's mental state," said Charles, with surprisingly frank honesty. "His involvement in the interrogation was unwise."
"Why? He had every right to ask the questions he asked"
"Yes Thom, but he did not have the right to get blood on his hands. That is work for soldiers, not captains," replied Charles.
"Regardless," Kerra said with a tone of disagreement, "he has never steered us wrong. This is just a lot to deal with."
"Looks like you’ve got a few things to think about too," chirped Thom, deciding to change the subject to something more jovial. "You and Maur seem to be awfully comfortable in each others company, despite the fact we have just crashed onto a potentially hostile planet..."
"Shut up Thom," responded Kerra, an annoyed hand swinging out to push away this planet’s equivalent of a branch sapling. "You don’t know what you’re talking about."
"Hah," bellowed Charles. "I think he knows exactly what he is talking about, as do I and everyone else on the Jump Cannon."
"Whatever, me and Maur aren’t fucking, if that’s what you want to know."
The two men were quietened by her choice of words, caught of guard by their extreme nature. It shut Thom up for a short while, before he thought himself witty enough to reply. Another thick trunk was vaulted, deeper and deeper they went into the wilderness.
"That’s only because Maur keeps fucking up. He’s either got a busted up knee or he’s covered head-to-toe in shit. Or maybe you like that sort of thing?" Thom ribbed, gleefully glancing toward Charles to get his support, rewarded with a hearty guffaw and a heavy pat on the back.
"Not for me I’m afraid Thom, I prefer a good spanking," Kerra replied calmly, looking dead ahead, using the same tactics that had silenced him the first time around.
They continued to walk, calves getting tired over the rugged terrain. Within the hour, the Jump Cannon was well out of sight but they had not yet spotted anything worth killing. Thom had hastily fired at a few branches as they shifted around – Champion was only just in the realm of hyperbole with his walking trees comment – but all remained quiet other than the rushing of water directly from the heavens.
"It is odd," Charles said, "that we have not found any life. Edible or otherwise."
"You’re right, I haven’t even been stung by anything yet," Kerra replied. "Although from all the scans told us, everything might be above cloud cover. There’s certainly plenty of sustenance up there, I guess we might just be in the wrong place for the welcome party."
It was with that that they broke through the cover of a large bush, lifting leaves above their head to reveal a titanic dome. Dimpled with large spheres its surface was a dark green, a texture and colour akin to an avocado. It was perspiring in the day heat, a matter that Thom did not consider before hastily lumping a kick against the surface. There was little consequence for this action and this only spurned him on. Thom held his rifle at arms length and loosely fire rounds into the object. This sequence of actions, all mistakes, occurred within the time it took for Kerra and Charles to assess the situation.
"I fear," said Charles, "that you may well live to regret your actions friend."
The dome shuddered, sending forking cracks across the solid ground beneath them. The surprise made it difficult to respond, shock fixing in place each of the diminutive humans. Beta Crew were still long enough for the trenches to reach between their legs.
With a large gouge opening beneath her, Kerra dived in reverse, flipping over on her back before jogging backwards from the moving object. Charles was as aware, but his movement had far less flair, having to hook his fingers underneath the panels of armour nearest Thom’s neck to pull him away from danger. They took shelter underneath a younger tree, its raised base tall enough for the three to crouch underneath.
By now the miscellaneous object could be easily categorized by all as a creature. It had lifted its head and begun to push its torso upward; hands pressing down, crushing plant life to drive the body from the ground.
It was considerable in size, although still dwarfed by the trees around it. Its skin was consistent in texture and colour all over. Reptilian in appearance, it had a segregated tail, splitting from the root into three separate parts. They flailed around as it steadied itself, occasionally meeting together in the middle to form one powerful club. Each section was spiked, thin bone poles extruding into the air and running the length of its spine. The orbs that covered most of its skin showed it capable of deflecting blast damage.
The legs and arms were longer than you might expect of a lizard from Earth. Scaled against the rest of its body they might be compared to those belonging to an ape. Ending in opposable thumbs, with well filed black nails clicking against each other as the beast flexed.
It had a long snout filled with rows of teeth. Cold slanted eyes and visibly toned muscle structure completed the look of a predator. Despite facing three members of the most ruthlessly deadly species in known space, it maintained an advantage due to its size. Easily five or six times as tall as Charles, and unimaginably stronger, it cut an terrifying presence within this gargantuan jungle. Were a lizard to mate with an orangutan, this is what you might expect the result to be, after thousands of years of evolution on a planet where size most definitely mattered.
The beast roared, filling the air with anger at being awoken from its slumber. Leaves of trees quivered as hot expelled air pushed past them, the deafening noise pulsing through the sky. It scanned the area, trying to locate from where the unwelcome morning call might have come from. Beneath the trunk of the tree, the cause of all this fuss began to panic at what he might of got himself and his friends into.
"Guys," Thom said, "I’m sorry, I’m really sorry."
"Oh, I don’t know Thom,” Kerra responded. “This might not be such a bad thing."
"What are you talking about? We need to leave. We need to leave right now!"
"Nonsense," added Charles, having to whisper, "this is worthy prey. It might feed the ship for the duration of our stay. I think you’ve done well Thom."
"Are you nuts?" Thom shouted, arms flung into the air in repressed agitation while trying to stay out of sight. "You want us to kill that thing? It’s a literal, living monster!"
"I think it might be fun," Kerra grinned, teasing him but with genuine in her excitement. "Help us let off some steam."
"Guys, guys, guys, lets think about this!"
Thom was ignored, and Charles set out from their hiding spot.
He kept his body down low, jogging at a slow pace through the jungle, silently progressing across the creature’s flank. When he was out of view Kerra made her first move. Mimicking his movement, she pushed across the front of the beast’s path, too small to be noticed in its rage filled confusion. Her target was a smaller tree whose body only just reached the low-level cloud. Along the way to the skies it plateaued at several points, offering excellent vantage points for the keen sniper.
The ascent up the trunk was relatively easy, albeit made nerve-racking by the thrashing beast. The scale of everything on this planet turned what would be small cracks on Earth into legitimate hand and foot holds for her diminutive appendages. Shifting her weight upwards, Kerra tried to scout out her team-mates, slightly concerned that Charles had set off without a well-formed plan. Mostly though, she was excited at being back in the fray and in it quite so deep into this unknown jungle. It reminded her of treks in the Corps, journeying to rescue downed craft in ferocious combat zones. The experience excited her soldier’s heart.
She nested herself on the end of a branch roughly at the level of the beast’s collarbone, relatively unseen in all the cover provided by the flora and fauna. Thom was visible, having decided his part in the plan was to perform the same function as Kerra on the creature’s opposite side. His climb was going much slower, the older trunk which they had once been hidden in having far fewer easy handholds and further to go before you reached a nest. Kerra decided to press on with aggression, the rush of blood and adrenaline getting the better of her.
Flicking switches on her rifle, she set up a wide spread of automatic fire designed to weaken the beast in as many places as possible. Holding the butt of the gun to her shoulder she lined up the sights, laying on her stomach, flat against the wet, natural surface of the plateau. Trigger finger poised, she resisted the urge to fire for just a few more seconds to allow the confused beast the opportunity to align its chest with her gun.
It turned, and Kerra’s finger pushed down, releasing a torrent of laser fire into the sky on a direct course to the beast. The rounds each connected, but her initial optimism was quickly quashed as the lethally hot rounds merely burned the creature, creating black circles on its skin before rebounding off into the distance. She looked up from her sights, panicked and fearful, and gazed into its eyes. The beast was now aware, its voice quietened as it stared straight back. He knew where she was now, and would soon see to her death.
In the time it took for him to lunge forward and swipe at the tree, Kerra had already upended herself. Sweat dripping from her face, she attempted to leap away, but the beast’s hands were too large. It swiped downward into the tree, smashing her former location and bending the entire growth away from her grasp. She had been thrown and was plummeting downward at a deadly pace; one that her armour was not equipped to manage. Kerra’s hands clung to thin air, only a few thin sprigs doing anything to slow her down.
A larger bough hit her back, cracking the surface of her armour but deflecting her into a wall of hanging vines. She clung for dear life, praying for safety, but was only rewarded with snapping sounds.
One by one the vines holding her gave way and the last part of her fall was completed. Thudding into the ground, the beast quickly bore down upon her. A searching hand found only vacant space where her rifle should be.
Scanning around she found it, but the gun was well out of reach, coiled into the remaining vines that were too many feet above her height. The beast roared again in victory, and slowly padded forward until she could feel it radiate heat against her. There was no sign of rescue, and as it reached down she began to count back the years of her life, holding deep regret for all the things that she hadn’t done.
A bellow filled the skies, the boom of projectile fire causing flying creatures to boost from their sanctuaries and into the air. The round pierced through the beast’s skull, hot red blood raining down in heavy bucketfuls onto Kerra’s body and the ground around her. It did not fell the creature, but the shot had punctured its skull clean through. The fountain of fluid was flowing down into its eyes was enough of an annoyance to warrant abandoning his quarry.
She could hear Thom shouting, drawing the brute’s interest further away from Kerra’s cowering figure. The relief she felt as it lost interest entirely, heading in the opposite direction, felt like a clean breeze across her body. Seeing Charles clutching onto one of the spikes at the summit of the spine brought further assurance that nobody might lose their lives in this poorly thought-out escapade.
Thom’s rounds continued to damage the towering creature, blood staining the green grass around it as wounds spattered.
"Come on you piece of shit!" he cried. "Come and get me! Come and get me!"
It responded, but in its haste the beast remained unaware of Charles' position. He had reached the shoulder, and stood out of sight of the side-facing eyes. Happy that it had not noticed him at all, the soldier thanked the foolish chef for his distraction. The fire was completely blind, a few shots narrowly missing his own head while others connected with the bigger target. Charles unhooked a grenade from the belt around his waist, tugging it free despite the constant rocking and shaking of the speeding creature.
It had built up a decent pace, and was tracking along the path that it had left in the wake of hunting Kerra. Charles carefully timed the steps, gripping a fleshy orb, with the grenade in his spare hand.
With a single finger, he pulled the pin out. It spun silently away, unassuming despite the carnage it had just given potential to. With a step forward from the target, Charles vaulted into the air. He twisted, hulking his significant weight to face the beast, before hurling the explosive into an open mouth.
The creature gagged briefly, Charles grinning wildly as he fell to the ground. Even the heavy, painful thud of collision, between his heavy armour and the ground, could not rid him of the pleasure of victory. The creature was bested, clutching at his throat as the grenade ticked down a lengthy fuse. The few seconds lingered in the air for all three of the humans, a final wait before salvation. When it came, that salvation was grotesque, the grenade blowing out the beast’s throat, sending bloody chunks wailing into the sky. An arterial spout created a red monsoon.
Its body lingered in the air even as the flow became a trickle. Swaying several times before the eventual crash, the look of defeat in its eyes captured no sympathy. Kerra imagined that it might be king of this jungle, given its size, but felt no remorse for her actions. It had been fair game, and the rumbling quake of his collapse only served to remind her that the creature had held all the odds in its favour.
They convened around the body, not being crass enough to high five or salute. Each was aware that the victory had been a fortunate one, and that the whole incident may well have gone the other way.
"Well, that was stupid," Thom sighed, using his rifle as a walking stick for support.
"Yes, it did not go according to plan," said Charles.
"Plan? What plan?" scoffed Kerra, removing the armour panel from her chest and idly inspecting the crack along the back section.
"The plan in which I snuck up on the beast and you both stayed here. I’m surprised that was not more clear."
"You didn’t think to share that plan before you ran off?” Thom asked with some exasperation. “You didn’t think to mention that we weren’t to offer support as you ran off into the jungle? It might have been helpful, it might have stopped Kerra from ending up a few feet away from the things jaws!"
The two squabbled a little, Charles knowing he was in the wrong but unable to accept the stupid error. Truth be told he had simply forgot to voice his tactic, losing himself in the hunt. There was little time for that though, as danger was soon upon them again.
"Boys!" Kerra shouted, slapping her palm against Charles’ shoulder. "Boys! Look! Stop your shit and look!"
The sight that met them was not a welcome one. Crashing through the jungle, the limbs of three separate but almost identical beasts, each as intimidating and large as the original, became visible to the waiting prey. With creaks, cracks and squealing, bending branches were falling to the ground around them Beta Crew were soon surrounded by the squad and unable to comprehend a way out.
"Got a plan you’d like to share this time Charles?"
"Thom, I think our best option is to stay very very still," said Kerra.
* * * * *
Come back next week for Chapter Eighteen of Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)