“There shouldn’t be anyone out here.”
“Sorry, I didn’t… realize I left… comms on.” Ron spoke haltingly, as he was already climbing the hill, taking care to place his feet on rock rather than sand.
“We’ve been listening to your grunting and sighing for at least half an—”
“Who else is out here? I’m seeing a dust cloud going up, to my East. A rover, or a scooter. Something.” He was almost to the top of the hill. “You guys are supposed to let me know if there’s someone else working in my area. I know I’m not scheduled to be using the explosives today, but—”
“Swear to God, Ron, everybody’s inside right now. Maybe the Chinese?”
“Long way for the Chinese to come just to kick up some dust where the treaty says they can’t mine.” He got to the top of the hill, straightened up, hand on an outcropping of rock to steady himself. The dust was dissipating, becoming formless and hard to read. There was nothing moving. “Well now I don’t see anything. What the hell?”
“Maybe a liftoff signature?”
“No noise. Even in the thin atmo you can hear something. Plus the lander would still be in sight. Are you sure everybody’s inside?”
There was a pause. “OK, I asked Penny to do an eyes-on headcount. In the meantime, how’s your yield looking?”
“Well, had some trouble early on sounding the extent of the deposit, but once I—” He’d turned to begin the careful climb back down, but he froze. “Jack.”
“Something here.” There was a misshapen figure standing next to his rover, standing over it, peering down into it long and hard as if to make sense of something strange and unfamiliar. “It’s not the Chinese.”
“Ron, what are you—”
“Maybe ten feet tall, maybe twelve. Thing is mostly arms.” He felt a cold chill. “Fuck me I left the camera in the trunk. Can you activate the rover’s feed from there? Am I out of range?”
“Hang on, Ron, I’m already trying.” There was as pause. “If you’re just messing with me, that’s ok, but Penny’ll be back in a minute and you know how she is about practical jokes.”
“It’s not a… it’s looking at me now.”
“I can’t get a connection to the rover. Ron, do you have your key fob on you?”
“No, I left it in the Rover too.” He was back on the top of the hill, holding on to the rock with both hands. “It’s started coming towards me. Did I mention it has a weapon? Like a halberd or something.”
A different voice: “Ron, this is Penny. What equipment do you have on you? List everything you’re carrying.”
“What does it—”
“Just do it.”
“One semi-full sample bag. Four more empty ones. The sounding tool. A—”
“Okay. Okay. If it gets too close, point the sounding tool at the alien, turn the intensity all the way up, and pull the trigger. Then run for the rover.”
“Wait, what?” The creature had stopped at the base of the hill and was looking up at him the way it had looked down at the rover. “What if it’s not hostile. I mean it hasn’t—”
“They’re hostile.” Penny was the base commander. She’d had briefings he hadn’t, received communiques for her eyes only; she knew things, knew secrets. “The sounding tool is designed to be dual-use. Do you understand? Dual-use. It’s also a weapon.”
“Yeah, I understood what you meant. Jesus, Penny.” He turned the dial all the way up. It even felt like a gun, had a pistol grip and everything. How had he not realized? It was maybe forty feet downhill: a nightmare thing with a ten-foot reach and an eight-foot-long spear-thing. “It’s stopped, it’s not coming up for me. So far. What will the sounding tool do to it? Stun it? Kill it?”
“Stun it. That’s why you have to run for the rover.”
“You do remember that the rover is slow as hell, right? How fast can these things run?” It had gotten around behind him quickly, assuming there weren’t more than one. “How many of these things are there?”
“Ron? We have you on the orbital telescope. Can you get any further from it? If not, try not to provoke it for… forty-five more seconds.”
“What? Forty-five more—” It had shifted the weapon to another set of hands, and stepped a few feet to its right, placing it directly between him and the rover. Ron raised the sounding tool and aimed it carefully. As he did, the creature took a step back, and lowered its body into a crouch, a protective posture, as if it knew what was coming. Ron hesitated. “How close do I need to—”
There was a split second where the dust and rock in a perfect circle around the creature darkened perceptibly; then Ron found himself on his back at the bottom of the back side of the hill, ears ringing, suit hissing, the sounding tool no longer in his hand. But I didn’t pull the trigger!
“Ron!” Penny’s voice was muffled, quiet, but still perceptibly distressed.
He was too busy fumbling with his suit to answer: he had a limited time to apply puncture patches to the leak before the lack of oxygen caused him to pass out.
“Ron! To your left!”
He looked to his left: saw only the sounding tool. “Hang on.” He slapped a patch on the front of his kneepad, where air and blood had been bubbling out. “What the hell just happened? I didn’t even—”
There was a second creature above him, looking down, raising its own spear-thing above its head in preparation for bringing it down at him, through him. Ron grabbed the sounding tool, jerked it upward, closed his eyes, and fired.
The creature fell heavily next to him, two of its long, heavy arms and the spear-thing landing across him.
“That one didn’t explode…”
“You didn’t shoot the first one, I did. With MOPR. Run for the lander, do it now.”
He pushed his way out from under the creature, and began hobbling towards the rover. “Slow going. Hurt.”
“As fast as you can, Ron. It’ll wake up in maybe four minutes, and it’ll take MOPR five to charge back up for another pulse. Not to mention how hard it’ll be to hit a moving target, assuming it’s chasing the rover.”
He picked up a little speed once he was around the edge of the hill and the rover was in sight. He passed the area where the first alien had stood, a circular blackened patch of sand fused to glass. Microwaves from the orbital relay, power for the base. Penny must have adjusted the delivery coordinates, using the telescope as a gunsight… “Almost there.”
Ron’s knee was on fire, and all his muscles ached, but adrenaline kept him moving. He made it to the rover, climbed in, fumbled for the key-fob, pressed the starter button. There was no sound of an engine growling to life: it was battery-powered. “Okay.” He jammed the ‘go’ pedal down with a heavy foot.
The rover lurched forward, bounced and kicked in the lighter gravity. He adjusted his course slightly, towards the base, and only when he had the distant tower lined up in front of him did he look back.
The creature was cresting the hill behind him, raising the spear-thing. “Hey how far can these things throw?” Maybe he could turn the wheel after it let fly, and the spear would go wide…
The top of the hill exploded in a cloud of dust and red-tinted steam. Rocks and bits of the thing rained down, kicking up dust, and shreds of tissue wafted down like ribbons fighting an updraft.
“Two for two.”