By Rosemary E. Johnson
“It looks like Earth.” Captain Kilian maneuvered the pod through the atmosphere, eyes bouncing from the control panel to the green surface of the planet that had yet to be named.
Alice’s stomach churned with a combination of excitement and dread. “Except the forest is glowing.” For a moment, excitement won out, and she let a grin slide over her face. Empty sample jars waited in her lab bag, ready to be filled with soil and vegetation. The air had been tested days ago and was safe, so no awkward bodysuits. Just an entire planet, waiting to be explored.
As long as they made it back alive.
She gripped the cross pendant on her necklace as she followed Kilian onto the surface. It wasn’t that she was afraid to die—she just wasn’t ready. There was too much to do and discover still.
“Trees are broken there.” Kilian checked his blaster. “We should investigate. Maybe we’ll find someone.”
Five small exploration pods had gone from the starship Felicity before she and Kilian had volunteered for one last attempt. Five pods, two dozen crewmembers, and communications that stopped after a few hours every time. It was like the others had vanished into a black hole.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, Alice tromped after Kilian into the shimmering forest. She found it wasn’t actually the trees glowing, but millions of slug-like creatures stuck to the leaves. She slipped a few leaflets into a jar, as well as some of the purple-tinted grass. Sweat dripped down her face, but by the time they reached one of the five other pods, she’d collected several more samples for later testing. Her comm blinked green, signaling that her updates were reaching the Felicity.
There were no bodies in the pod, no equipment. Just a leather jacket that smelled like cigar smoke, and a photograph of a child.
“Someone must have dropped it.” Alice touched the girl’s face.
Kilian bent over the ground behind the pod. “Footprints.” He straightened, nodding toward the blaster holstered on her belt. “I’d take that out.”
Alice hesitated, still clinging to the picture.
“You’re trained to use it.” His face softened. “I want us to return safely, Alice.”
She blinked at the use of her first name, then tucked the photo into her pocket and drew the blaster.
Her neck itched as sweat trickled onto her shirt. A wet spot darkened Kilian’s gray captain’s uniform between his shoulders. The underbrush changed to rock, and soon they emerged into the valley of a devastated canyon. It looked like a forest fire had burned through, blackening rocks and turning the air acrid, but there were gashes in the ground and some of the stones crumbled to ash at a touch.
A twisted corpse of a starship huddled in the midst of it all, broken metal groaning in the hot breeze. It was surrounded by clawed animal tracks—ones big enough for Alice to take a bath in.
“It’s the Raven.” Kilian kept his blaster raised, eyes sweeping the area.
Alice stiffened. The first starship they’d sent to this planet, ten years ago. The first to vanish.
She stared at the giant tracks, claw marks deep at the tips. “Kilian…”
“Look.” He gestured to a massive gap in the canyon wall. “The tracks lead there. Maybe… maybe there are still some survivors.” He switched on a small flashlight in his free hand.
Alice gripped her blaster to keep her hands from trembling, sending one last message to the Felicity before following Kilian into the cave.
Cool air gushed over her, along with the scent of ancient stone and decay. She coughed. Kilian touched her elbow, then kept moving forward. She checked her comm. The signal flickered, then disappeared. She took a deep breath that did nothing to calm her queasy insides.
The cave walls evolved into a huge cavern. Stifling warmth steamed from a sulfurous lake in the center. Some kind of stringy, mud-colored lichen covered the walls, and a tiny spark of excitement flared at the thought of new samples.
She ran her sleeve across her damp forehead. “If this planet is anything, it’s hot.”
Kilian snorted through his nose, then stopped walking so abruptly Alice bumped into him. Before she could apologize, he shushed her and pointed.
A pair of amber eyes hovered in the darkness on the other side of the lake. Another pair joined it, along with a rustling, scraping sound. A low hum vibrated in the air, rippling over the surface of the lake.
Alice bolted after Kilian, shoving off the cave walls when she tripped. She dared to check her comm. No signal. The entrance to the cave was a tiny speck of light, growing closer every second. A low, reptilian hiss rattled behind her.
She collapsed in the shelter of the Raven, falling against the cold, charred metal and clutching her chest. It hurt to breathe.
Kilian put a hand on her back, face streaked with sweat and dust. “You okay?”
No. She was not okay. She shook her head.
Rocks burst from the cave entrance, followed by a piercing cry and their pursuers: beasts as big as houses that spread their crimson wings and circled the sky, scales gleaming in the fading light.
Kilian gasped. “Dragons?”
Another launched into the air from the cave, then another and another. Their calls shook the air. One landed on the Raven, and the hull crumpled beneath its weight.
Alice scrambled away before she was crushed. Her comm flashed, within signal again.
A dragon tossed him into the air and engulfed him in fire. When the flames dissipated, nothing was left but ashes in the wind.
She jabbed the recording button, thrusting her arm into the air to capture footage of the dragons and the wrecked Raven, along with her shout: “Kilian is gone. They can take down starships. Leave while you can.”
A dragon swooped toward her. Before its fire reached her, her comm blinked green.