Socket (Distance Chapter 3)

The dark sky above him, the man began to chant in a deep voice. He began slowly and softly, his voice rising to harmonize with the sound of the wind around him. He lifted his arms away from the earth, bowing his head down against his chest, his feet now lifting off the ground in polyrhythmic patterns, the soles pattering against the cool sand underneath him. The cliff face he stood before sloped off steeply, at an acute angle to the ground far beneath it. The rocky shelf stood proudly against the landscape, a landmark for all animals and tribes to notice. The man’s words accelerated while his voice and pitch crescendoed higher than before. The atmosphere erupted in flashes of light in tune and time with the song. As it showed its recognition, the tribesman stopped. He gracefully bowed, a rumble of thunder in the distance a similar gesture. The man turned and walked back to the hut, where his wife and children awaited him. She stood at the door, her beautifully pale white skin markedly different than his own dark and sandy-colored body. As she smiled with an excitement behind her motions, she gently rubbed a hand against her abdomen to comfort the small embryo inside.

Jolie shuddered, remembering the creature that watched them from the forest. After it scampered away, the two had stopped their fighting with an awkward truce. They introduced themselves, and both agreed to retreat to the zeppelin in the morning. It would be too difficult to navigate at night, and they didn’t know how many of those stalking bugs were out there. Leif had left to search the hangar for some supplies while Jolie set up to start a fire. She hadn’t found many flammable items, but Leif gave her the lighter that was supplied with his gear, in order to help her finish more quickly. Leif hadn’t talked much, to her surprise, as the terranauts she had met before couldn’t seem to ever stop. He had promptly gotten to work and left her by her lonesome in the middle of a hallway with two functional doors, which would keep the heat in and those abominable insect-aliens out. She could remember those segmented arthropod legs, the dripping fangs, the antennae flicking in every which direction. A chill ran through her body again, and she set her mind to finishing the task at hand, getting this fire started. She hunched over the small pile of dry paper and cloth and turned the tiny torch on, lighting a corner of a newspaper into flame.

Leif bent down, squinting at the splatter of liquid on the ground. The night vision on his suit had come in handy, except for the fact he couldn’t determine colors nearly as well. He fixed his gaze on a smear farther away. A fear and uneasiness crept over him, but he urged himself to keep moving. He didn’t know what had happened to this ship, but he knew he needed to ask Jolie about it.

“I’m ready to make some notes.” The system in his suit was able to take down research, for exploration purposes, but Leif used it from time to time instead of writing in his journal on the zeppelin. Oftentimes his language down on the planet would be more raw, more indicative of his true feelings. While he walked, he dictated to the voice recorder, and it translated it into text before pushing it to the screen in his mask. He didn’t have to correct it often, so he spoke as fluently as he would to another person.

“I don’t understand why Jolie is able to survive without gear on. The gravitational force is approximately the same, but the composition of the atmosphere is completely different than Earth. I am afraid to take off my helmet, but it’s the only way to determine if this planet is habitable for mankind. I’m going to think about it more.” He paused briefly, thinking to himself as he searched through the hangar. He groped at a small card, having difficulties wrapping his thickly gloved hand around it. It was quite obviously a key to get elsewhere on the ship, but all of the locks were disabled. He picked it up, just in case. A thought struck him, violently and without hesitance. Leif grew scared as it lingered.

“There must have been people down in the hangar when it crashed, and I haven’t seen a single body.” Leif shook his head, feeling foolish for thinking out loud, but he often did it when alone for long periods of time. He was almost thankful for Jolie, another human to talk to, but… was she behind the starship crash? He walked with a distinctly swifter pace back to their hallway holdout, before stopping in place. He could most likely find out what happened, without needing to put himself in danger by asking Jolie. She could already be prepared to kill him, for all he knew. She fought fiercely before, and he wouldn’t win if she had fashioned a weapon or ambushed him. A corridor stretching away from their agreed meeting place now lay in sight. Leif set off to search the rest of the ship.

Jolie sat, while warming her hands around the orange tongues of flame. An hour or so had passed since her new acquaintance had left their headquarters. The hallway she sat in connected two loading bays together. The duo had entered one closer to the exterior of the massive transport ship, and the hallway connected it to one that contained supplies for Jolie’s team. The hangar they entered was ransacked by alien life. Long stalks of ivy and other invasive plants had lodged themselves in every crevice of the metal structure, crowding the space with dark green. Smudges of avian feces and mammalian waste were smeared across the previously pristine metal floor. It was gritty to prevent crates from sliding around during transportation, but now had mud tracks and blood stains coating it, causing slippery patches to riddle the hangar. Jolie had to watch her step when she searched it for kindling, as she had fallen once when Leif and her had first arrived. In contrast to her clumsiness in flexible apparel, she remembered how he walked; he artfully avoided the numerous spots of grime. Leif walked with an air of gracefulness, despite a baggy outfit of plastic and metal surrounding him. Jolie poked at the slowly dying fire with a thin rod she had found on the ground. The door to the hallway opened, and she responded softly without looking.

“What did you find?” She paused, before realizing that it was the door leading to the exterior loading bay. Leif had left through the other door. She looked up to see a thin needle-like arm poking through a tiny slit in between the door and its frame. Jolie’s eyes widened, her skin paling to a shade comparable to the lightness of her blonde hair. She stifled a gasp, and instead crawled to the opposite side of the fire, away from the probing feeler. Her hand gripped the metal rod more tightly. The end she was holding had a jagged point, where it had broken off of something. Jolie turned it in her hand while keeping her attention on the almost-humanoid bug trying to pry its way through the door. One more feeler poked through, and as the crack widened, she caught a better glimpse of the perpetrator.

A dark black exoskeleton was elegantly draped over this monstrosity, the segments of armor sliding across its joints with ease and beauty. The feelers were thin, only a few centimeters wide, but were tapered from the top where they joined the torso. It appeared to be a colossal millipede, hundreds of legs holding its top half at a right angle from the abdomen crawling on the ground. A breath seized in her throat as those hellish mandibles clicked together, creating the sound that she had heard in the forest as Leif was carrying her. It had been following them for a while, was this the same one? How many were trying to find her and Leif? Why didn’t they kill her in the forest? Her mind would have been crowded with questions if her fear wasn’t already expanding, filling her entire consciousness. A final glimpse of the predator showed thousands of sockets on its chest with sickly purple lining. They throbbed with a demonic pulse as Jolie struggled to observe it all. As a third leg creeped through the door frame, Jolie moved to her feet. While still facing the intruder, she stepped backwards and opened the door into the hangar where Leif had been only a few minutes before. She closed it gently, and exhaled.

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