Story: The Paradise Planet
|The Paradise Planet|
Pinguinus and Styracosaurus Rider
“I've had dreams of alien planets before. Wonderful dreams, dreams of places and creatures you'd never believe. But this place is better. More amazing than I could ever dream, more amazing than I thought possible. And yet there it is. Paradise.”
- - Dwaman
The Paradise Planet is a piece of fiction co-written by Pinguinus and Styracosaurus Rider. It tells the story of the meeting between the Salsenes and the Atrenids, and their alliance in the exploration of Kaventro.
- 1 Chapter 1: The Departing
- 2 Chapter 2: Code 314
- 3 Chapter 3: Decisions
- 4 Chapter 4: The Council of Kaventro
- 5 Chapter 5: One Small Step
- 6 Chapter 6: The Sharm Plains
- 7 Chapter 7: Ancient Dragons
- 8 Chapter 8: The Biologist and the Lunatic
- 9 Chapter 9: Beyond the Doorway
- 10 Chapter 10: A Day in the Life
- 11 Chapter 11: The Gates of Hell
- 12 Chapter 12: Welcome Home
- 13 Epilogue
- 14 See also
Chapter 1: The Departing
Kaervel drove the carvicor across the barren landscape. There was only one more lake to go before he went back, and he was anxious to return.
The Atrenid fleet was leaving Petaurista in search of new worlds, and the last supplies were being collected. Kaervel was one of the troopers on water duty.
He pulled up alongside the lake. Kaervel got out and started getting the purification tank in the back ready: the lakes in this region were even worse than usual, and the salt level was at near-fatal levels.
Suddenly, a skraygith burst from behind the rocks and charged towards him at full speed. Startled by the attack, Kaervel whipped out his refraction weapon and fired.
The predator dropped instantly, with a hole straight through its head.
Satisfied, Kaervel switched on the tank and waited for the collection to finish.
Dwaman peered out of the window and took a final gaze at his home planet. A statue of the Atrenids was erected that morning, to show visiting civilizations the wonders that had resided here.
An announcement was heard throughout the ship: Launch ignition in 30 minutes. At this time everything needed for the journey should be present.
Dwaman sighed and turned away, heading back toward the civilian quarters.
Along the way he reflected on the marvelous times he had on his planet. But it was all going to end today.
Still, it wasn't all bad. As a scientist Dwaman knew that change was perhaps the most important thing in the universe. Especially so, in fact, since he had led the Atrenids out of a state of evolutionary denial. It was a relief ending the Constant, and deep down he knew that a burden would be lifted here as well.
He passed the biological containment facility, which held populations of all the native life on Petaurista. It was his own idea, because he felt that their legacy should be preserved along with the Atrenids. Even the skraygith, however much of a nuisance they were. At least the silicis bugs would probably be useful.
Soon he was only waiting for the launch. And as the ships left and Petaurista became a tiny gray dot in space, Dwaman felt a new beginning.
Chapter 2: Code 314
"Well then," said Captain Nutay Rinkam to her crew, "do one last scan, and then plot course for Ishtar. Mission failure".
It was not that she did not want to explore Kaventro; on the contrary, the thought of learning more about this beutiful world attracted her greatly. However, it was far too dangerous, and for lives to be wasted futilely trying to colonize the world was not what she wanted.
Not long ago, a few probes had touched down on Kaventro, with the intent on exploring and possibly starting a new colony. It started well; they discovered and catalogued large birds called Feng-Huangs and small arboreal animals called Joum. But that night, disaster struck. A pack of ruthless reptilian predators had attacked and destroyed every probe there. The only image they had was too blurry to show what the creature was exactly.
Kaventro was a strange world; a strange world indeed.
Nutay was brought out of her daydreaming by a startled exclamation from one of the technicians.
"What is it?" She asked immediately.
"It's a ship!" said the technician, still speaking exitedly.
"Yes, yes, but what of it? We see ships all the time."
"Oh yeah? This one isn't from Ishtar! It's from an unexplored part of space!"
"What?!" exclaimed Nutay loudly. Sure enought, they had a visual view of an alien ship in orbit around Kaventro. Apparently it had just dropped out of FTL travel.
Nutay immediately called out "We have Code 314! I repeat, Code 314!"
Code 314 was simple: an alien spacecraft had been encountered. Send message beacon.
Dwaman was aroused from his thoughts by a startled exclamation from one of the technicians. A message beacon had been recieved; translation software kicked in. The beacon read as such:
"Greetings from the Salsene Grand Fleet. Welcome to Kaventro."
Chapter 3: Decisions
The Atrenid ships went into an immediate scramble. Dwaman raced into the main room of the ship, trying to get ready. "Get those broadcast systems up! We need an ambassador NOW! Who's going to be it?
Not hearing an answer, Dwaman sighed and said "Fine. Visual contact systems up please! This could be the big one!...And do I have to wear that rag?"
"This was especially in case of other space-faring species," the official said, holding up a cape decorated with Petauristan symbols.
Dwaman grabbed the cape. "There's no room anywhere else, we're going to have to send this from the biological containment facilities. The skraygith will be annoyed, but it's got to happen. Come on," he said, and started walking into history.
After a burst of static, the Salsenes' holographic screen diplayed a black, teardrop-shaped face. Nutay had never seen anything like it before. She was actually nervous, even after all the races she had encountered before.
"Greetings. I am Dwaman. I am one of the race we call ourselves Atrenids. And you are?"
Nutay took a deep breath and said, "Greetings. I am Nutay Rinkam of the Salsenes."
"Do you come from this planet?"
"No," Nutay said, a flash of static running across the Atrenids' hologram. "We come from the planet Ishtar. Sadly the Merging has affected it too greatly for it to remain as our homeworld. Perhaps I should explain what the Merging is?"
"I don't think you have to," Dwaman said, "as it is a story very familiar to our own.
"The Atrenids evolved many millions of years ago. Our planet, Petaurista, was lush enough for us to build a whole civilization.
"And then change started. Stars seemed to move, comets changed direction, and there was many other types of astral phenomena. Petaurista was thrown far out of its orbit, and it has been moving away ever since.
"The change caused the planet's surface to become rocky, windy, and desolate. The waters shrank into tiny lakes, which reached salt levels too dangerous to drink safely. It was becoming harder to live."
Nutay had a sense of pity for them, now hearing what had happened.
"But all this time, we were foolish enough to believe we were perfect," Dwaman continued. "We went so far as to engineer ourselves. We tried to deny evolution itself.
"Years ago, I saw this was not right. I am a scientist, so I helped my race to change back. But the climate was still growing hostile. We built spacecraft to move to other worlds. After a huge dust storm hit our main city, however, we finished the ships and finally took to the stars.
"And then we found you," Dwaman concluded. "We've had a few looks at the planet, and it looks very rich indeed. But tell us, how did the Salsenes rise?"
"Well," Nutay began, "we were once a low-lying species in the swamp. But through all the perils that the Merge began, we developed high intelligence.
"But populations were growing. Resources disappeared. Wars broke out.
"Eventually, a spaceship fell to Ishtar. We believe it came from an ancient race. Using the ship, our tribe emerged victorious. We copied the ship's design, and searched for other worlds.
"We have actually encountered many sapient races. Maybe you have heard of the Aians, or the Zyrothans?"
"We have not heard of them," Dwaman said. "You are the first intelligent race we have seen."
"We are honored," Nutay said. "However, I must recommend that we meet in person, so we can discuss more about ourselves and this new planet. Our probes have discovered two moons in orbit around Kaventro. One of them seems suitable to land on. Do you wish to meet there?"
"That is fine."
"Excellent. We wil see you there." Nutay moved to turn off the hologram, but then turned back and asked a question.
"Oh, and one more thing. We have sent probes down onto the planet, and we have received footage of life on the planet."
Dwaman said, "That is very good. The Atrenids are a lover of animals."
"But the probes were destroyed. Some fast and vicious creature attacked them."
On the Atrenids' side of transmission, a skraygith burst out of its cage and started running about, with a few technicians and officials chasing it with tranquilizer weapons.
Dwaman sighed and said, "I think we can handle it."
Chapter 4: The Council of Kaventro
A large crate was loaded onto the surface of Omegus. The two races had both decided upon this name for the larger moon---the smaller one was Sigmus.
"We apologize for the makeshift council room," Dwaman said, "but it's the best we can do at the moment."
"That's fine," Nutay replied.
The Atrenid scientists had crafted a quick prototype of an "oxygenation bubble" to use on Omegus. Dwaman didn't even notice: he only noticed that he was standing on another planetary body.
Nutay and Dwaman went into the council room with a couple other representatives of their species and sat down at the table.
It wasn't exactly the best coucil room---the walls were flaking, the chairs squeaked, and the table was on its last legs (both figuratively and literally). But it would be enough.
Nutay started the discussion.
"As we can see, Kaventro looks to be a very promising planet. The Salsenes have obtained probe footage of three different sites on the planet's surface."
Nutay pressed a button on the holographic device in the middle of the table, and a hologram lit up in the air. It showed a jungle, with a waterfall raining down into a pond.
"This is the footage we received from the first site. It's from a landmass that's almost an island, just hanging on to the continent by a thin strip of land."
The image switched to another tropical forest, except it seemed more mountainous.
"This is from the main continent. We had hoped to get footage from a swamp or desert or something, but it seems there are many microenvironments on the planet."
The image switched again. This time there was a forest.
"The last site here is from a temperate forest. This is just the basics, there are still two other smaller continents we haven't hit."
"Do you have a map of the planet?" Dwaman said.
"Well," Nutay replied, "we did get a scan around the planet, and we have a holographic representation." A 3-D image of the planet popped up. It showed two large and two small continents, seperated by a wide ocean.
"Interesting," Dwaman said. He examined the planet for a few moments before asking, "Do you have images of the life forms available?"
Footage of a large feathered creature appeared on the hologram.
"This animal is from the second site," Nutay said. "We named it the Feng-Huang, which is a beast in Salsene mythology."
The hologram switched to a humanoid figure swinging in the trees.
"Next, these are the Joum, from the first site. We were excited when we discovered these, because they show sapience potential. But then this happened."
The hologram switched to a blurry figure with wings and a tail. It leapt at the hologram, and then there was only static.
"Those creatures are quicker than anything we've ever seen. We decided not to risk losing lives, so we haven't landed yet."
"Well," Dwaman said, "the most logical course of action is to explore Kaventro together."
"Yes, it would be," said Nutay.
"I am only worried that my race will not like the idea of working with another species."
"Well, the Salsenes can give the Atrenids valuable technology for helping out. We have a large assortment of useful devices."
Dwaman thought and said, "That is excellent. We can also help the Salsenes. We have collected knowledge about the universe that I'm sure your race will be interested in."
"Then it is done," Nutay said. "Perhaps you would like to see our ship?"
Dwaman stepped onto the ship, shaking with excitement. He was actually onboard an alien spacecraft.
The inside was plated with a strange green mineral. "I'm sorry about the ship. This is just a standard Explorer-class. We have others that are much better.
"I think it's lovely," said Dwaman. Nutay smiled.
"Well," she said, "Let the tour begin. This is the Entrance Bay."
They entered a large room, full of crates. "I imagine you'll want to see our technology," said Nutay, "So let's get to the Tech Bay."
Dwaman stared in awe as they walked into a chrome-plated laboratory. "This is our Biological Bay," continued Nutay, "We have an advancement I think you'll find interesting."
"I don't see any animals," said Dwaman.
Nutay smiled, and handed him a small box labeled "Flamingo Stag". "We bring the DNA of the animals along with us."
Dwaman stared with envy. "We have to bring whole animals on our ships. It would be so much simpler to just bring a piece of skraygith instead of the whole bird..."
Nutay laughed. "See, we can already help you! Now for the most valueble resource: knowledge."
They walked into a large library. There were books everywhere; shelves covered the walls, and smaller chests were everywhere.
Seeing the look of unparalelled envy on Dwamans face, she handed him the book. "There, you have it. I've read it a dozen times already, and I can get a new copy anytime I like."
"Thank you," said Dwaman, shocked. This was the greatest gift he had ever been given.
Nutay smiled again. "Merely a trifle. Now, shall we continue?"
They moved onto a large room. "Now, I don't know if you'll need these, but..."
This room was filled with weapons of all shapes and sizes. "It's a dangerous universe out there," she said, "And we have to be prepared. There were those who took to the skies as pirates the moment they got a ship. Mainly Salsenes and Zyrothans, although sometimes Aians. And then of course, dimensional rifts can open at any time, allowing monsters out of nightmare to enter our world." She shuddered. "Well," she said, "I think I've shown you all the big things we can to give you. Now, if you don't mind, could we see your ship?"
As they moved on to the Atrenid ship, Dwaman had to think a few moments about what had just been acheived. In just a few short hours, he had stood on the moon of another planet, been shown probe footage of impossible creatures, been given a guide to effectively the universe as it was known, and almost certainly led his race into an alliance with another species.
"Well, this is our ship," he said. "It's not much, that grayish color was just from building the structure from metals that were made from all the rocks on Petaurista."
Nutay was fascinated: the technology was completely different from any other races' the Salsenes had seen.
"This over here is where all the technology is stored," Dwaman said. He picked up a strange weapon. 'We use this to take care of predators. There's a battery-powered light box up top, the gun refines and focuses the light enough to carve a hole right through the animal. Nasty, but it does the trick in dispatching the skraygith."
"Those are the pink things, right?" Nutay said.
"Yep. Want to see them?"
They walked into another room filled with cages and vivariums. "Biological facilities," Dwaman said. "We ship a few individuals of all the animals on Petaurista to preserve the species."
Nutay gazed at a skraygith, which was still bashing at the walls.
"Fascinating," she said. "How many species?"
"About 75 or so. That's all we've discovered, the planet is that hostile."
They moved to the last room. "I think of this as the most important place here," Dwaman said. "Our museum."
It was a tall room, for sure. It contained skeletal mounts of strange species, old artifacts and images, and much more.
"All of our history is in this room. Fossils recovered, pieces of the planet, old images and tech. It's a beautiful place," Dwaman sighed.
One image, that of a city, stood out in particular. Nutay walked up to it and read the writing below it:
"This is amazing," Nutay said, "but I fear our reserved meeting time is almost finished. Let's go back to the council room."
"Well," said Nutay Rinkam, back in the council room, "I think it is safe to say that both of our races have a lot to learn and gain from one another. By the power invested in me by Froegan XIV, I request an official alliance."
Dwaman smiled. "As a representative of the Atrenid Race, I accept." He raised a glass. "A toast to new friends, and the exploration of Kaventro!"
Nutay, and all others in the room, drank to the toast.
Chapter 5: One Small Step
Plans began immediately to set foot on the planet. The Atrenids and Salsenes were preparing themselves for one of the most exciting worlds they have seen.
They had worked through the night examining the probe images, and had named the major biome areas that existed.
The two races had decided that, due to the vast myriad of environments on the planet, 12 seperate landing ships should be launched, to explore Kaventro in full.
The next day, they were almost ready.
"Kaervel, you take your boys down to the Vermillion Hills with the others," Dwaman said. "Are you ready Nutay?"
"As ready as I'll ever be," Nutay said. The two races had agreed that, since she and Dwaman were the most experienced, they would lead a team down into the Epsilon Forest---where those vicious winged creatures were.
This was sure to be an eventful expedition.
In a few minutes, the landing ship touched down in a clearing.
"Here we are," Nutay said. "Kaventro."
Dwaman threw open the door. There was oxygen. That was good.
He peered around. There were trees surrounding the ship, spreading to the horizon. The planet's sun blazed in the sky.
And the Atrenid race stepped onto another planet.
"Somehow, I thought this would be more exciting," Dwaman said.
"You get used to it," Nutay said, who came down. "This is near where the probe landed."
The team to the Epsilon Forest consisted of five Atrenids and five Salsenes. Because of the apparent dangers, restraining equipment had been brought in full supply.
"We'll stick to the plan. Lairo, you take a few people down into that stream there," Nutay said. "Dwaman?"
"Yep. Selful, can you take a look over in those grasses there? You never know what's there."
Dwaman turned back to Nutay and said, "Alright. Into the forest."
Lairo Herreff was a slightly bemused Salsene.
Ambitious, he wanted to go into the main woods with the others. He felt is was challenging and daunting to go in with those monsters. But no. He had been picked to explore this smelly old stream.
Well, smelly wasn't the right word. It was very clean, and the water was a pleasant temperature. There were sure to be many animals living here.
Before Lairo could examine anything else, however, and while the eyes of his other teammates were elsewhere, he spotted something peculiar.
Inside a ditch, covered with mud and ferns, was an odd shape. He picked it up, and quickly turned it around.
He pocketed the object and moved on.
Meanwhile, all the activity was being observed. Nobody noticed, for they were hidden in the trees.
To them, the new arrivals weren't dangers. They were new meat.
Chapter 6: The Sharm Plains
Trena Laray stepped out of the ship and looked around the Sharm Plains. They were vast, and very clear. She could see for miles in any direction. Not too far way, a herd of large mammalian herbivores were grazing. "Interesting," said Demacc, an Atrenid she was working with, "These seem to be mammals. We haven't seen many of those here."
Trena laughed. "We don't have these "mammals" at all on Ishtar. We've discovered a few on other worlds, but for the most part the galaxy is devoid of mammals."
They continued onward, mapping the landscape as they went. However, as they went further and further away from the mammals herd, they began to see fewer and fewer animals. There were insects and a few small birds, but that was it.
Suddenly, Demacc pointed at a single tree sticking out of the ground. "Look!", he said excitedly, "There are animals on that tree!"
Sure enough, about twenty animals reminiscent of the Joum were foraging through the undergrowth.
"Interesting," said Trena, "Do you think they're safe to approach?"
"Only one way to find out," Demacc said with a wink.
Together, they walked towards the animals. When they got to be about ten feet from them, they noticed that one of the creatures was watching them intently.
"Aww, look," said Trena happily, "it's watching us. We must seem pretty weird to them, huh?"
Suddenly, the Jou look-alike lept towards them, baring its teeth and growling. Instantly, Trena and Demacc ran off as quickly as they could.
"Obviously they don't like to be disturbed," said Demacc once they had gotten a good deal away.
"I guess not," said Trena.
They walked back out towards the plains. Suddenly, the mammalian herbivores they had seen before paused, very alert. Without warning, they all took off at a run. Towards the explorers.
"This is bad," said Trena quietly, "I think we should move."
They scrambled to a side as quickly as they could, and watched as the herd stampeded past them.
"I wonder what spooked them?" wondered Demacc out loud.
They got their answer when a pack of reptilian bipeds came rushing towards them.
Each animal was reptilian, covered in green scales. They ran on two legs, and stood about twelve feet tall. Each one had four arms, with many long, sabre-claws. Each one had a crocodile-like head, but eyes that glinted with intelligence. Worst of all, there were almost thirty of them.
"Oh my god," muttered Trena, "this is bad. These have the potential to be very dangerous."
"Agreed," said Demacc, "Let's hope that they don't see us."
Unfortunately, the mammalians had stampeded away. One of the predators sniffed the air for a moment, and made a quiet, nasal sound. Instantly, all thirty animals came charging across the plains towards the explorers.
Trena and Demacc lost no time in running as quickly as they could. However, the animals were gaining on them with dangerous speed. One of them, apparently the leader, let out a shriek that carried across the plains as if by com-link.
Trena knew that they would not survive for long if they didn't find shelter. They had weapons, but they wouldn't be able to bring down every one of the predators before they were reached. Even so, Trena pulled out a Mincer Pistol from her belt as they ran, and loaded quickly. If she was going to die, she would at least go down fighting.
Suddenly, Demacc stopped in his tracks. "Go on," he told her, "I'll hold them off." He pulled out a Mauler Pistol from his belt.
"No, you can't!" said Trena urgently.
Demacc smiled. "Just tell Dwaman what I did. Tell all the other Atrenids to honor my name. Remember, I want at least a dozen children's biographies written about me."
Trena started to argue more, but she heard the predators closing in on them. She bit her tongue. "I'll tell him," she said with a deep sigh, "Goodbye, and thank you." She gave him a slight kiss on the cheek, and ran off.
From a distance, she heard several gunshots, immediately followed by reptilian shrieks. After a few minutes, though, she heard an Atrenid's dying scream.
Dwaman and Nutay Rinkam listened intently to Trena's tale. Finally, Nutay Rinkam spoke.
"This is a disturbing story," said Rinkam, "these '"Smilonychs" could pose a serious threat to later explorers. I'm glad to hear that at least one of you got back here alive, though."
Trena swallowed hard, and nodded.
"You are excused," said Rinkam, "you may go back to your quarters. You can have a two weeks of leave if you like. Go spend some time on Ishtar, before it's uninhabitable."
Trena thanked Rinkam, and cut the video link.
Dwaman seemed particularly disturbed. "I want a new plaque built," he told one of the Atrenid architects nearby, "Name it after Demacc. Future generations should hear about the brave souls who died on Kaventro, as well as those who will survive."
The architect acknowledged the order, and walked back to the ship.
Dwaman sighed. "Too many people are going to die during this," he said.
"Yes," said Rinkam, "it is a sad event that is repeated with every new world discovered. When the Grand Fleet first landed on Oread, the entire team was besieged by Necrosaurs, which eventually forced entrance and killed them. When we finally located their remains, and their audio logs, every one of those men and women said that it was worth their lives, since they were serving their peoples. Due to their work, the Salsenes had discovered a new planet, and a new peril to be avoided in the future."
Dwaman nodded, but sighed. "I just fear that this mission will fare as badly as the Oread mission."
The two of them looked down from the top of a tall hill, down at the forested surface of the planet Kaventro.
Chapter 7: Ancient Dragons
Kaervel was the rare Atrenid individual: he was of the military type. It was his primary training, it was what he was best at. But he still had scientific training; it was practically required if you were an Atrenid. That training was coming back to him now.
He stood at the top of the valley, gazing at the land below. A sparkling river weaved across the ground, through rolling hills and colorful jungles. Several glistening waterfalls dotted the landscape.
This was the newly-named Vermillion Hills.
The second Salsene probe had landed in this place. Only Dwaman and a few others had seen the actual footage, but in person it was even more beautiful.
In the distance, Kaervel could see shapes flying above the trees. Those must be some of the Feng-Huangs that the Salsenes named. Clad in feathers of red, blue, yellow, white, and black, they looked like spirits in the sky.
Reaching into his supplies, he pulled a vid-pad out and switched the connection around. "Kaervel to Dwaman," he said.
The image of Dwaman flickered onto the screen. "What's on, Kaervel?"
"We've landed. The Vermillion Hills."
"Excellent. You mind if I look?"
Kaervel turned the vid-pad around so it was facing the valley. He waited a few moments before turning it back and continuing his report.
"So what do you think?"
Dwaman was still wide-eyed. Eventually he said, "I've had dreams of alien planets before. Wonderful dreams, dreams of places and creatures you'd never believe. But this place is better. More amazing than I could ever dream, more amazing than I thought possible. And yet there it is. Paradise."
There was silence. "Keep us updated," Dwaman then said. "Over and out."
Kaervel and his team descended into the valley.
"This place is amazing," Dwaman said, putting the vid-pad away.
"You can say that again," Nutay said. "But we should still take security precautions."
Nutay saw Lairo and his group, coming back from the stream. "Well? Anything?"
"Yes there was," Lairo said. "There were a few crustaceous forms in there, and we picked up a few for examination back in the ship."
"Very good," Nutay said, smiling. "I believe we have teams searching the other surrounding areas now, so your group can come along with us if you'd like."
"Sure," Lairo said, hiding a smile. "I've just got to take some supplies back before I head out with you guys."
Instead, Lairo stepped aside as their backs were turned. He retrieved the mysterious object from his pockets, and examined it more closely, brushing the mud and leaves off. It had straight sides---an odd shape for something naturally formed.
That's when it hit him.
It wasn't natural. It was a book.
Kaervel felt the heat on his skin and the humidity in the air. It reminded him of ancient myths, the Petaurista that once was before catastrophe.
He continued to watch the Feng-Huangs in the sky. It was interesting to watch them pick fruits off the trees. Kaervel glanced back a lieutenant, who was busily taking notes.
Dwaman had always stressed that proper documentation was the key to success in any situation. The Atrenid mind was never perfect, and things got forgotten. One lost memory might make all the difference. Indeed, every detail mattered. If one novice technician had not bothered to write down the fact that the Akou produced an interesting skin secretion, the cure to several cancerous diseases would not have existed.
Kaervel switched on a headcam and slowly whispered in some details. "Vermillion Hills day one...half past noon local time. We're here in a tropical riparian forest. Very hot and humid. Those Feng-Huangs we saw on the probe are here, eating a large berry-like fruit. Will pick out samples for study."
They continued on.
Nutay and Dwaman stepped through the forest, unsure of what they would find next. Fallen logs and branches were strewn all over the leaf litter amongst the wildly unfamiliar ferns and fungi. It was a mystical place.
Dwaman collected a colony of maroon-colored isopodal forms from a nearby tree for later examination. "I'm still worried about those things on the probe feed," he said. "As much as I'm hard-pressed to admit it, we're a bit unprepared here."
Nutay looked back at him. "Well, that's what we thought too. But that was before we met your race, and marvelled at all the technology you possess. I think those weapons of yours can handle them if the need arises."
Dwaman shrugged. He still wasn't convinced. The skraygith might be fast, but they couldn't compare to those winged creatures. And he felt uneasy about them. They were so strange, but not strange enough to feel that you were totally disconnected from them. It was...eerie.
He shuddered as he heard a strange, shrieking cry. The thoughts of such a creature weren't comforting. Well, best to ignore it and stick to the mission ahead of you.
The strange cry repeated itself, closer.
And then there was the sudden scream of an Atrenid from directly behind Dwaman. He didn't register it at first, but then quickly turned around as he realized, too late. Nutay followed suit, as did the rest of the team, and they stared for a moment at the terror unfolding in front of them.
The Atrenid's stomach was being ripped open by a horrifying creature, the same as was seen in the destroyed probe. It was a large green animal, about 3 meters long, with ominous, blood-red wings. A spiky head was devouring the intestines of the Atrenid, and its hands and feet were tipped with glistening claws.
The team stood dumbfounded for a moment before whipping out their weapons and firing madly. Like a bolt of lightning, the creature snarled, grabbed the body of the now-dead Atrenid, and dashed up a tree trunk into the leaves. At the same time, four others of its kind flew down from the branches and began attacking the party. They dodged every bullet and laser that came at them.
Dwaman wasn't thinking properly, but just aiming at any predator that he saw. He heard screams in every direction, both the attacking screams of the creatures and the dying screams of Atrenids and Salsenes. The pack was overwhelming them.
For a brief yet unending moment, Dwaman knew he was going to die.
As a Salsene next to her was grabbed by the jaws of one of the menacing creatures, Nutay shouted "Pull back!"
At that, the team ran deeper into the forest, their numbers roughly halved.
Most of the terrifying creatures remained behind, content enough to devour the many bodies left behind. However, a single individual kept pursuing them.
Lairo had completely forgotten about any strange object that he had found. He was screaming madly, wishing only to get away as fast as he can, and he didn't really care about anything else at the moment. As he ran, he quickly turned his head around to look behind them, where the remaining creature was not only flying right behind them but was staring right into his eyes. It was the most horrifying thing Lairo had seen in his entire life, and it was because he could feel that the thing was singling out him.
In an intense panic, he fumbled for the only weapon he had, a small Mincer machine pistol. He fired blindly behind him, just so he could slow down the thing. Distract it, even. Just something. But the creature was gone.
It took Lairo a moment to comprehend that. It wasn't there. It had gone.
It was somewhere up in the trees.
The plants were getting taller and thicker here, and harder to move through. Lairo could feel himself slowing as the wet plants slapped against his body and stuck to his clothes. After a while, the group stopped entirely.
Lairo gasped for breath among the plants. "Did we lose it?" another Salsene said from somewhere near him.
And then with a harsh scream the leaves from the trees in front of them shook, and the creature suddenly appeared from above the team, and dived towards Lairo at an unbelievable speed.
Lairo screamed and threw himself backward, throwing up a cloud of wet and tattered plants as he went down. The creature snapped down...
...on a mouthful of plants and overshot Lairo, tumbling to the ground in surprise. Almost immediately the creature was warbling and trying to rid its mouth of the plants, but it was clear that it must have swallowed some plants, and yet more were stuck in its teeth. While it struggled, it regurgitated a clump of half-digested meat.
As the creature scratched and writhed, the group stood there, staring. It was somewhat disturbing to see such a vicious creature, one they had seen in action for no more than a minute, become so pathetic.
Soon enough, the creature gave one final moan and slumped to the ground. After this it was still.
Lairo and the others finally released their tension and started panting. Nutay slowly walked up to Lairo and put her hand on his shoulder. She gave him a long look and said, "Good work," before turning away for a drink of water.
Lairo couldn't say anything. He could only stare at the creature laying in front of him.
Dwaman, meanwhile, was examining the body more closely. Now that he was able to get a good look at the creature, he could see the tail was actually tipped with a sharp barb. He also saw that it probably appeared so suddenly because it was able to change color---an unnerving discovery. But he couldn't really take his eyes off the head.
"I can say one thing," he said to nobody in particular. "Those are some terrifying teeth."
Meanwhile, Kaervel paused to view his surroundings. They were in a more open area now, with bushes and a stream off to one side. High cliffs stretched along the other side, and appeared to have naturally formed caves nestled at their base.
The Atrenid didn't speak, but let the headcam speak for him.
Over near the bushes, he noticed a group of small waddling creatures. They had a short, beaked head and heavy bodies. Kaervel decided they were slow enough to be examined later. There seemed to be something more important near the stream...
In fact, an animal was lapping at the fresh water, and its fur was a striking blue. Even in this colorful jungle, it seemed to stand out.
Kaervel beckoned for some help, and a group of two Atrenids and a Salsene came up to him. "Look at it," he whispered.
The Salsene, whose name was Verian, nodded. "There's still the horn to worry about," she whispered back. Indeed, a large antler sprung from the top of its head.
"Let's see if we can get closer," Kaervel whispered.
As they slowly made their way toward the stream, the animal looked up at them and snorted, starting to back away from the stream. Kaervel quickly recalculated and stopped, holding the others back. "Alright, so much for that," he whispered. "Let's get back."
But Verian did not hear Kaervel's words and continued on towards the creature.
Kaervel cursed to himself. He was fine with having Salsenes on the team, but he had a feeling from the start that this girl was too young and too curious...
But as Verian came up to the other side of the stream, the creature did not run away or panic in any way. In fact, it put its head down and resumed drinking while Verian watched, fascinated.
Kaervel stood watching, a bit confused. Obviously it wouldn't let certain individuals approach. Maybe it could somehow sense high testosterone levels, and that was what disturbed it so suddenly. But he really didn't know.
Right then and there, however, Kaervel decided to try an experiment.
He gestured to Leas, an old Atrenid elder, to have a go. She was naturally cautious, so it was unlikely that anything too drastic would happen.
But again, the creature snorted and shook its head as it did with Kaervel, startling Verian a bit. But soon it resumed its calm drink again.
Alright. So it was clear that it didn't like most people, only allowing young females to approach. Kaervel guessed it had something to do with the creature's sensory equipment, maybe something to do with the presence of certain hormones...but he really wasn't sure.
But then, Kaervel noticed some movement by the cliffs. Thin, sinous forms, and relatively large.
He motioned for the group to stay by the blue creature and gather more details about it, and headed towards the cliffs alone.
As he approached, he saw that the animals, with bony projections of the cranium atop their heads. They had sharp teeth, suggesting a carnivorous lifestyle. And they were very colorful, too---clearly, subtlety didn't exist here in the Hills.
But their color pattern seemed to be moving, travelling down the length of their body. It was odd, Kaervel thought. They probably had the ability to change color, if it wasn't just a simple optical illusion.
More interesting still was their behavior. Their claws appeared to be very hard, and were scratching at glistening minerals imbedded in the cliffs, almost like they were trying to extract them from the rock. And they showed no hesitation to a stranger's approach like the blue creature had.
However, Kaervel's eyes fell upon one of the caves located nearby. He knew he shouldn't. He was alone, even though he wasn't supposed to be, and who knew where the cave led to.
The headcam was still rolling, so he decided to take a risk. Slowly, he descended into the cave.
Thankfully, he could see the back of the cave only a short ways from the entrance. However, there was a large, reptilian skeleton almost covered in shadow, and it was unlike anything Kaervel had ever seen before.
He could not look at it for long, because an impatient buzz came from his vid-pad. That sound meant there was going to be an announcement broadcast to each exploration party on the planet. Kaervel took the vid-pad out, and it switched on automatically. Dwaman's face appeared on the screen.
"Glad to see you're all doing so well. We now have excellent images of wildlife coming from no less than four regions on Kaventro: the Sharm Plains, where we have found more species that show a potential for sapience; the Snow Regions, where our team has documented herding behavior of large creatures called Snow Shufflers and the attacking strategies of their predators; the Vermillion Hills, where the tropical paradise has shown us many new lifeforms to examine; and the Epsilon Forest, where Nutay Rinkam and myself are stationed now.
"This forest is actually the reason I am telling you all this now. As you all remember, there were some...unsettling forms detected on the probe here before it was destroyed. And now we have found them."
A headcam image popped up on the screen, apparently recorded earlier in the day. It showed the group walking in the forest. It wasn't long before there was a harsh scream of an animal.
"We have called them the Terrorteeth, and for good reason. These creatures are able to fly, and move extremely quickly. As expected, they are predatory. They are masters of camoflauge and can appear at any moment. And it is with great dismay that I tell you there are many brave Salsenes and Atrenids who died today."
The video feed was shaking, and there were screams and gunshots faintly audible. The volume had been turned down for the broadcast.
"Thankfully, there is a substance in a certain species of plant that is fatal to them. Whether it's a type of poison, pollen, or something else, we aren't sure yet. But we now possess an intact body, which we will be examining and dissecting as soon as the XLab is flown in from Atrenid ships."
The image on the vid-pad switched back to the head of Dwaman.
"Those who have died in this tragedy will be honored forevermore. But there is hope still. Those creatures are not indestructable, as we have proven. The mission will go on. The Salsenes have decided to call in mercenaries, in case such an attack should ever happen again. But keep us all informed, if anything seems of interest. Over and out."
The sun was setting over the forest, bathing the treetops in a golden glow. Dwaman put his own vid-pad away, and walked over to Nutay. She was sitting on a rock, and clearly shaken.
Dwaman sat down beside her, and said nothing.
Nutay slowly turned her head towards the Atrenid, and gave a quivering smile. "Worse than Oread," she said quietly.
"I know we all could have died then. The only reason we might have lived at all was because of Lairo. He was lucky. Very lucky. But it's not going to happen again."
"Maybe." Nutay shrugged. Her tone of voice hadn't changed.
Dwaman shifted his weight. "We aren't giving up here. Sure, there are setbacks, but it's not going to stop us. We just have to adapt and move forward. The effort is what counts."
"Hey, guys?" said a voice from a distance behind them. It was Lairo, surprisingly cheerful after his ordeal.
"Have you heard?"
"Guess not. Polair himself heard of all this, and now he's coming to Kaventro?"
Nutay turned sharply. "The Polair?"
"Yep! His ship's on course for the Zartescan. This should be something!" Lairo said, and left.
Nutay started laughing. "What?" Dwaman said.
After a while, Nutay said, "Remember that book I gave you?"
"Yes..." Dwaman said, pulling out his copy of the Encyclopedia Emenata.
"Well, the author's heading here to check things out!"
"Really?" Dwaman said. "Amazing. It would be an honor to meet him."
"Oh, more than that. He's quite the character."
Dwaman raised a hairless eyebrow. "Oh?"
Chapter 8: The Biologist and the Lunatic
An unmistakably Salsene ship blazed across the sky and landed in the middle of a clearing within the Zartescan Jungle, where a group was waiting to greet their new arrival. The sun had just dipped below the horizon, and night was fast descending.
The door of the ship slid open, and a rather wide-eyed Salsene stepped out and landed on the moist ground. Every single salsene knew who it was, and rushed forward to greet him. The Atrenids, on the other hand, had no clue.
"Hey guys!...Ah, smell that sweet evening air. Smells like a fresh new planet awaiting a new chapter! How do you do, my fine new friend. The name's Polair Bezurk," he said, shaking the hand of an Atrenid. "I suppose your species deserves a new chapter as well, hm?"
The young Atrenid, whose name was Irrvin, didn't reply, but just sort of nodded slowly. He wasn't used to this rampant eccentricity. So instead, he said, "We've been expecting you."
"Good, good. So, this is Zartescan in all its glory. Welcome to the jungle, I believe they say." Polair peered at a pebble sitting on the ground and immediately began taking notes on a digital multi-purpose pad.
Irrvin did his best to explain the situation. "We've already done a bit of searching, but we believe a lot of the large animals are active at night, or even crepuscular. So we're about to look for them, and conduct the first exploration of a Kaventran habitat at night."
"Sounds like a plan." Polair turned to the jungle and spread his arms. "Just look at it. Never gets old, does it?"
Glowing fungi and small flying creatures peppered the jungle with spots of light. Indeed, for such an individual as Polair it was probably normal. But for Irrvin it was the most magical thing he had ever seen. "This is the first time the Atrenids have explored a new planet, actually," he said.
"Well, you'll find out soon enough. Are we going?" Polair said.
"I guess we are."
"In that case, I can lead the way."
Nobody made an attempt to stop him, and in fact all the Salsenes were over the moon about the whole spectacle and trying to talk to him, possibly even trying to get his autograph.
Irrvin merely followed the group into the jungle. He didn't understand what was so interesting about Polair. On Petaurista, famous individuals were regarded with honor and respect. Here, though, it was all a rabid, mad dash to see a celebrity. Then again, this was the first alien species he'd ever met. Their culture would be a bit hard to digest at first.
Irrvin was so caught up in thought that he didn't noticed Polair whisper "There!" until a few seconds after the fact. The group crouched down to look.
A colony of Joum were nestled in the branches of a large tree. They were sitting on large leaves they had gathered, apparently bedding down for the night. One Jou appeared to yawn with its two feeding organs.
Immediately, Polair started taking more notes as the Joum fell asleep. Others also made their observations, but none were scribbling and typing as emphatically as the new Salsene.
Irrvin also looked up at the colony of sleeping creatures. He shot a glance at Polair, and noticed he had numerous books, both digital and hard copy, stuffed in his pockets. They were all of the same book, labeled EE.
As they watched, bushes rustled near the base of the tree, and a green creature emerged. It was roughly 2 meters long and possessed large, saber-like teeth.
Polair whispered, "Predator?"
"Looks like it," Irrvin replied.
And suddenly, the sabertoothed creature dashed up the tree and grabbed a young Jou in its mouth. The juvenile screamed, waking up the others in the colony, which immediately started shouting at the predator. The sabertooth dashed down the tree trunk and into the bushes with its prize.
The jungle was now alive with a cacaphony of noise. Polair was grinning, saying "Did you see that? Amazing! Imagine the diagrams I can draw! Feeding and Hunting Strategies of..." while Irrvin was becoming nervous with all the shouting around them. This was perfectly capable of attracting unwanted guests---
There was a loud rattling noise, coming from behind them.
The group turned, and saw a huge insect or spider-like creature with clawed front limbs. It was bioluminescent and lit up the surrounding area.
"Look at that!" Polair said. "It's huge! How can it grow to such a size! The biological means to---"
"Pardon my interrupting, but I believe we should, um, get out of here," Irrvin said.
Polair looked up, and saw about a dozen of the same glowing creatures converging from different directions upon them.
And they ran, the spiders in hot pursuit. Their chase was in no way organized or cooperative, bugs pushing other bugs out of the way in an attempt to catch the new meat in their territory.
Suddenly, Irrvin felt an agonizing pain in his leg and tumbled to the ground. Polair turned and slapped a spare cloth he had against the rush of blood. A spider was right on top of them and raising its menacing claws, but Polair looked mournfully at one of his paper copies of books before bashing it against the head of the creature, which scurried off in surprise.
"Not too smart, are they," Polair said more or less to himself. Another spider rushed at him, and in his scramble to get up the creature tore at him, missing his body but ripping off a sizeable percentage of his pockets. Pads and pages of past and future editions of the Encyclopedia Emenata flew up into the air. While there was still a distraction, Polair picked up Irrvin and carried him off towards the others.
The spiders were slowing down, and they eventually stopped entirely, chasing them apparently now too much work. They disappeared into the jungle as quickly as they had come.
Polair was back at the clearing with his ship, and everyone else was okay. Irrvin had sustained the only injury. "There a medical bay around?" he shouted, and was pointed to an Atrenid ship.
With the assistance of others, he hauled Irrvin up into a stretcher, who was slowly regaining conciousness. After a few minutes, he stirred.
"A thing got you."
"Big insecty thing."
"It...I can't feel my leg."
There was a long and empty silence.
Irrvin shifted, winced, and slowly picked his head up, trying to ignore the pain. As his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, he looked at his leg.
There wasn't a leg.
"Oh well. I was hoping that wouldn't happen. You can care for him here?" he said to one of the personnel, who nodded.
A screen in the medical bay of the ship flickered. The image was still hazy but the audio was clear.
"Hey, sorry for the systemwide broadcast. We wouldn't do it if we didn't have to. But there's something funny going on over here."
"What's the matter, Zalos?" Dwaman's voice, from a different channel.
"Any progress?" Another voice, from another channel.
"Well, we have collected a few interesting specimens, but that's not the point. The point is that this mission just got a little more complicated than it ought to be."
The video finally flickered in, and it showed a few Salsenes and Atrenids standing in a desert area. Polair could see the corner of the image read ZETA VIDCAM 3 ULURN DESERT. The video was a bit shaky.
"Turning the cam now to get a good look..."
And then it was there. Among the scrubby little trees, the iconic image of a Dimensional Rift.
Polair's eyes widened even more than they normally were.
There was a brief silence, then Nutay Rinkam's voice. "I want constant surveillance on that Rift. Hang tight; we're calling in the RDC, just in case. For everybody else, keep your current plans but keep an eye out for any other Rifts. Over and out."
Just in the range of the radio's audio capabilities, Dwaman asked "What's the RDC?" and then both the video and audio cut. The medical bay was silent, except for the whirring of equipment.
Polair leaned over the unconcious Irrvin and said, "Sorry for my brief appearance, but I gotta go." He ran out of the Atrenid ship and dashed through the crowd of Salsenes who still wanted autographs. "No time, guys, there's a whopper of a chapter to write!" he said, dashing into his own ship. "Set course for that big continent with all the deserts!" he shouted to his pilots.
A curious Salsene walked up to the ship and peered inside. "Polair has chauffeurs?" it said aloud.
One of the Salsene pilots walked up to him and said, "We don't like to let him drive."
He grinned, and closed the door on the bemused Salsene. Within seconds the ship was off the ground and out of sight.
Chapter 9: Beyond the Doorway
In the heart of the desert, Zalos took another large swig of water. He couldn't stay out much longer. However, the Atrenids beside him seemed perfectly fine, and continued peering curiously at the Rift before them.
They weren't going in yet until the RDC got there. There was no telling what lay beyond the Rift. It had taken a long while to explain the concept to the Atrenids, who were still fascinated by it. But they remained cautious near it all the same. At least they understood the dangers.
Zalos glanced over at Blaire, the only other Salsene in the Ulurn group, who was tending to some native specimens. She smiled at Molaf, and then offered a leaf to a small lizard-like creature enclosed in a wire cage.
Faintly, the roar of engines could be heard, breaking the silence in the desert. Finally. They had taken their own sweet time.
The ship landed atop a hill not far from the Rift site, and soon four Salsenes and a Zyrothan stepped out. They made their way towards Zalos.
"Cando Weref. I'm one of the senior officers of the RDC," one of the Salsenes introduced. He was wearing reflective goggles and a large hood to deflect the harsh sunlight. "So this is Kaventro."
"Indeed," Zalos said, "and these are the Atrenids." He beckoned at the Atrenids, who were still milling about by the Rift, keeping watch.
Cando peered at the strange aliens. "How technologically advanced are they?"
"They're pretty advanced. As we said, this is their first exploration of a new planet. And they're big on science."
Cando paused for a moment, and then shrugged. He turned to the young Zyrothan next to him. "Would you be able to tell them more about the Rifts, and let headquarters down on Centro know about the new species?"
The Zyrothan nodded and made its way toward the Atrenids. "Anyway," Cando said, "let's get down to business."
They walked in front of the Rift, where Cando pulled an analyzer out and let it scan. "I don't know if you're familiar with our tech, but this handy little device can estimate approximately how long a Rift's been open, and if it's been on this spot before." The device gave a little bleep, and data appeared on the display. "Seems like this one fluctuates, opens and closes on a regular basis. That is, on a regular basis of about every million years or so. You're lucky you found it when you did."
Zalos nodded, taking another swig of water. He looked over at the Zyrothan, who seemed to be having a pleasant conversation with the Atrenids. In return, they were marvelling at the funny little creature's centauriforme posture in amusement.
Cando removed his goggles and said, "Well, let's head on in. Keep your weapons at the ready." The other Salsenes from the RDC shouldered their guns, and the group walked through.
There was a brief flash of light, and then there was a forest that starkly contrasted from the desert that now rested behind them across the other side of the Rift. The trees were varied in size, but otherwise mostly the same. The place seemed familiar. Was this an already colonized planet?
"Hey!" Blaire said, looking at the trees. "You know what these are?"
"What?" Zalos said.
"These are Rabbit Trees," Blaire said. "I can recognize the shape of the leaves. This is Aristotle!"
Cando ripped a leaf down an examined it. "Yeah, it is," he said. "Well what do you know. The Silva Magnificens, by the looks of it."
Blaire was thinking things through in her mind. "You said this Rift only opens about once every million years, right?"
"I don't know if you saw the dolosids back there. Those are what we're calling the lizard-like things we found in the desert. They look almost like primitive types of the Geckas here on Aristotle. Some of them may have come through the Rift a while back and later evolved into the Geckas themselves!"
Several of the Salsenes and Atrenids looked at her in interest, while Cando merely gave her a wide-eyed look.
"It's a ridiculous theory, I know, but it might just be true. We're going to have to do genetic tests to be sure. But I have a hunch."
Zalos smiled. Blaire always came up with the best theories.
Cando turned back towards the Rift. "We'd better get back, now that we know where this thing leads to. There's still a potential that predators will come through to the desert, so we still need it under surveillance. Now let's go before something sneaks up behind us."
Dwaman took off a pair of disposable gloves and sat down just outside the XLab. It was still dark outside, and had no idea how long he'd been working. Originally, he had hoped that they would sleep in their own beds inside their own ships tonight. The XLab wasn't a ship, and Dwaman had been awake ever since they landed on Kaventro.
Suddenly, he saw a small ship blazing across the sky. It was circling for a landing.
Dwaman sighed. Nobody was supposed to be out at this hour, especially without notifying anyone about it.
The ship landed in a clearing nearby. The door slid open, and---
"You idiots! I said the one with the deserts, not with the forests! Why are we here?"
A rather wide-eyed Salsene jumped out and stamped his feet. Inside the ship, Dwaman could see two pilots, who were paying no attention to the spectacle.
The Salsene grumbled, and then jumped when he noticed Dwaman sitting nearby. "Oh. Sorry about my rant," it said, "I'm just a Salsene on a mission. My name is Polair Bezurk. And you are?"
"Ah, pleased to meet you. I hear you were the official Atrenid ambassador?"
"The reluctant official Atrenid ambassador."
"What's that?" Nutay said, poking her head out the door of the lab. "I heard---" she started, and stopped in mid-sentence.
"Nutay, I believe? A pleasure," Polair said. "It seems my pilots wanted to stop for the night, so they dropped me off here. Mind if I stay?"
"Not at all," Nutay quickly said. "In fact, it's an honor."
Polair smiled. "Before I hit the sack, I feel a little snooping about is in order. A little nighttime hike in the woods shouldn't do any harm, right?"
Nutay and Dwaman both stared at him for a long time before the Atrenid said, "I think you need a little time with the local wildlife, my friend."
Polair was led through the depths of the XLab, through white rooms and glass corridors. As he walked, he could see Atrenids and a couple of Salsenes, all doing some sort of scientific work. He had to admit that the Atrenids had built a very capable lab.
Soon, Nutay and Dwaman had led him to a room with all glass walls with a table inside, and several Atrenids standing beside a large white table. Polair could see a shape laid out, although he couldn't determine exactly what it was.
"In here." Dwaman unlocked a door leading into the room, and the three stepped inside.
Spread out on the table was a large lizard-like creature with wings. Even though Polair had never seen it before, it didn't look right. "Has it already been dissected?" he asked.
"Yes," Nutay replied. "Because of that, we can't go through all the details with the exact specimen. However, we do have a video presentation prepared," she said. Dwaman was standing in front of the large screen that would display the images, making some last-minute adjustments and selecting a few options.
There was an electronic chime, and an photograph of the creature appeared on the screen. Unlike the body on the table, it was definitely alive, teeth bared and claws flexed.
"This is the terrortooth," Dwaman began. "At first glance, it's a relatively large and reptilian creature, bearing wings and displaying a predatory lifestyle. However, as we quickly learned, there's much more to this animal than just that."
An image of the specimen appeared on the screen, laid out on the table, not yet dissected.
"Adults are roughly 3 meters long on average, although abut half of this is made up of the tail. Clearly, it has a basic shape of four limbs and a tail, with the addition of two large wings. This specimen is colored a light green, but we have discovered terrorteeth can change colors for the purpose of camoflauge and communication between individuals. We suspect that they display even brighter colors in the breeding season."
The image flickered, and switched to a photograph of the animal's head.
"As you can see, the head is the business end. There's a blue horn on the tip of the snout, covered in keratin. We think that it's really the egg tooth that never fell off, indicating that these creatures lay eggs. Similar blue spines begin in a crest behind the eyes and run down along the back."
"What about the eyes?' Polair asked.
"We have someone working on the eyes now," Dwaman said. "From the preliminary work that's been done, we can tell they have binocular and color vision, although we can't tell yet how many spectrums they can see in."
Polair nodded, and resumed his silence. Even he, a rather seasoned explorer of planets and their fauna, was impressed at this thing.
"The teeth, however, are what you want to worry about," Dwaman said, pointing to the clearly visible fangs in the image. "They're curved and serrated, which isn't surprising itself, but the fangs deliver a powerful venom into whatever they bite. We've analyzed it, and it turns out that it's simply a cocktail of various neurotoxins. If a terrortooth bites you and somehow manages not to kill you, you'll be dead within a day anyway."
The picture switched again, to the hand of an Atrenid holding out a large red flap of skin.
"We also found a dewlap in the throat, connected to the hyoid bone," Dwaman continued. "We never saw it on a living creature, so we assume that it's used strictly for display between species."
An image of two Atrenids holding out the creature's wings appeared.
"The wingspan is almost as wide as the creature is in total length. They seem to be quite durable, although the wing membrane is a bit difficult. Even so, if it was torn, we don't imagine in would affect flight very much. Interestingly enough, this individual has a distinct pattern on the wing membrane, spotted with star shapes. We still don't know if this has something to do with disease, genetics, or simply an optical illusion. Currently the gene hypothesis is more favorable, but there's not much evidence to back it up. So we don't know. We don't know a lot about Kaventro."
A picture of the animal's legs, both forelimbs and hindlimbs, flickered onto the screen.
"The legs are fairly unremarkable, although there are a few interesting features. They have all the basic joints and have typical claws of a carnivore. Their hands are quite flexible, actually well adapted for climbing trees and moving along branches. The front limbs have three fingers, and so do the hind limbs. That extra claw you see is actually the dewclaw, which has evolved into a simple cartilaginous spur. As if the terrortooth wasn't venomous enough, the spur also contains venom. We tested it on a few lab organisms, and it actually liquifies organs."
Polair whistled. This clearly wasn't your everyday lizard.
The image switched to that of the animal's tail.
"Lastly," Dwaman said, "the tail is lengthy and probably used mainly for balance. However, you'll notice that there is a sharp barb on the tailtip. It turns out that it contains a liquid substance that's filled with sugars and other carbohydrates. We think that when it's injected into dry or bitter meat, this actually makes it sweeter and more palatable. So in essence, the terrorteeth add this substance to food to make it taste better."
"So basically, these things are homicidal chefs?"
Nobody laughed. "It gets worse. We've analyzed this substance thoroughly, and a specialized type of virus takes up residence in it, creating yet another venom at the creature's disposal. We don't know its full effects yet, but it appears the virus attacks the thalamus of the brain, similar to other diseases that cause sleep deprivation."
Several images then appeared on the screen as Dwaman spoke, one after the other. "I won't go into boring details," he said, "but there are a few anatomical features of note. There are tiny holes on the side of the body. Originally, we didn't know what they were for, but it turns out they were spiracle-like structures connected to branching tracheal tubes. They aid the lungs and provide oxygen directly to the muscles."
Polair was getting uneasy. "You're saying this thing has spiracles? I thought they were limited to more primitive body designs..."
"That's what we thought too. But it seems that on Kaventro, things don't operate the way they should.
"Terrorteeth are both endothermic and homeothermic, equipped with a four-chambered heart. The blood is extremely efficient at delivering air to the cells. This and other factors explain the terrortooth's rather amazing speed to some extent. However, we do believe that they move much slower in the cold to conserve energy.
"The immune system is also remarkably efficient. Foreign and malignant bacteria are quickly eliminated, as are most viruses. They're extremely well-adapted to diseases, to say the least. The rest is still being subjected to experimentation, so that's all the anatomical details we can explain sufficiently at the moment."
An image of the forest outside appeared on the screen.
"The Epsilon Forest is their native habitat, and we haven't found them anywhere else on Kaventro, thankfully. Because ambushing is their preferred hunting technique, they enjoy the trees as hiding places. It's quite interesting how they hunt. They wait in the trees for something appetizing to walk by and then glide down to rip it apart. They'll usually start eating it immediately, sometimes while it's still alive."
"You said 'they'?" Polair asked.
"Yes. They live in packs. We don't know much else about their behavior, as the only instance we've been able to observe them up close...didn't end well."
"Thankfully, though," Nutay began, "we have a plan." She held up a small piece of machinery, only about the size of a small pebble. "These are nano-probes, designed by a board of Salsene technicians. This will be the first time they've been used, so we can both see how they work and observe the terrorteeth safely."
There was a silence, for the first time in a while. Polair uncrossed his legs.
"It's a mighty impressive planet you've got here. And you have the mighty impressive brains needed to study it. Thanks for the information. Now, if you don't mind, could you direct me to a spare bedroom?"
Dwaman smiled, and led the way.
Things had settled down in the Hills. Cataloguing was going well without a problem. It meant Kaervel had time to make an important call.
He took his vid-pad out and selected a connection. Then a voice. "Hm?"
It was the middle of the night on Nikreli, and the sun would be rising soon. Judging by his face, Dwaman hadn't slept a wink all night. That was probably because he was still working.
"Would you mind walking over to the body of the terrortooth? I'd like to check something," Kaervel asked. "If it isn't too much trouble."
The image shook a bit as Dwaman made his way over to the table, and the now almost unfamiliar body laid out upon it.
"You've been working nicely."
"Through the whole night," Dwaman's voice said. "We've pretty much gone over the head, and now we're looking at the various cranial features and sites of muscle attachment. It's got a whopper of a bite force that we'd like to calculate."
"Could you focus on the skull?"
Although various bits of meat and tissue were still attached, the skull was clearly visible. The single blue horn stood out from the white of the bone.
"That's what I was afraid of," Kaervel said.
"We found this interesting skeleton in a cave. It was previously encased in the cavern but I think a rockslide opened it up again. It's a very, very disconcerting skeleton." Kaervel turned his own vid-pad to a bit of exposed ground, where many bones were laid out on the dirt.
Dwaman peered at the bones from thousands of miles away. "Looks like it could be a close relative of the terrortooth," he said.
"I'm afraid it's a bit more simple," Kaervel said, and held the skull up.
The two skulls on the opposite vid-pads were practically identical.
There was a long silence before Dwaman spoke. "But..." he started. "...That doesn't make sense."
"We've only found terrorteeth here in Epsilon. No other party has encountered them."
"That's right," Kaervel said. "Continental drift makes no sense as the two areas aren't even remotely connected. If they were here, they would be everywhere else too. But then again, we're not dead yet. So maybe the terrorteeth aren't here anymore."
"How old are the bones?"
"We haven't tested them yet. But being locked in a rock cave for a while seems to have preserved them quite nicely."
There was a shuffling noise over at Dwaman's end. "I can't see any connection involved in this."
"Neither can I. My best guess was that there was another Dimensional Rift floating around at some point," Kaervel said.
"I suppose that's our best hypothesis for now, but I don't like it. We'll have to see what develops. Is that all?"
"All for now."
"Well, in that case, I think it's time for us all over here to get some shuteye," Dwaman said. "Dawn's in a few hours and I want to get at least some sleep. Keep us informed...but only if you absolutely have to." He winked.
"Over and out."
Chapter 10: A Day in the Life
Polair awoke as the first shafts of sunlight grazed the horizon at Dawn. He quickly dressed himself and headed down the corridor of the lab's sleeping quarters.
At the end of the hallway, he rapped his knuckles on a door, which immediately opened to reveal Dwaman's face. He still looked a bit tired, but refreshed all the same.
"You're up early," Polair said.
Dwaman smiled. "It's a big day," he said, and the two made their way to the communications room.
The room had a large bank of screens on one wall, while a few chairs surrounded a small table in the center of the room. Nutay was already there, sipping a hot drink. When she saw them approaching, she said to Dwaman, "This is very good."
"It's an old Petauristan recipe. Obviously we have to grow the spices ourselves now, so it's not as common as it used to be. We usually only bring it out for special occasions."
"Like this?" Polair asked, and the two smiled.
A Salsene volunteer brought two of the nano-probes into the room and set them down on the table. "I'll drive," Dwaman said. He was handed two identical remotes, which were probably used to control the probes, Polair noted.
"Ready for the test?" Dwaman asked.
Everyone in the room nodded, and Dwaman flicked a switch on each probe. They both shuddered slightly, and started making an almost inaudible humming noise. The screen bank burst to life, the images divided evenly among the machinery. Upon noticing that the images were of a set of very distinct knees, Polair moved aside quietly and quickly as possible.
At Dwaman's control, the probes lifted up from the table's surface and turned in midair. The pictures on the screen bank panned along with the motion of the tiny probes. Polair was quite surprised that they made so little noise.
Soon they were whizzing about the room and circling the heads of everyone in the room. Nutay smiled; they were working perfectly.
"Why are you launching two of them?" Polair asked.
"Well, we have the extra one as a backup," Nutay said, "in case one of the probes breaks down, gets eaten by something, or---"
Nutay was interrupted as one of the probes nosedived, which then whizzed past her head and crashed into one of the screens, splintering its surface and shorting out half of the screen bank.
All eyes turned to look at Dwaman, who looked right back at them.
"I guess we shouldn't do this inside," he said.
Dwaman tossed the now useless remote aside. "I think it works fine," he said, "so we should get down to business. Nutay, would you be able to go out and just chuck this outside? I can manuever better in the wide open space."
Nutay left the room, but every moment of her progress was filmed from the probe and displayed on the working side of the screen bank. Soon she reached the door to the outside, and in moments the image was just a twisting blur of color.
As abruptly as it began, the swirling was replaced by a crystal clear picture of the advancing forest as the probe dived into the dark woods, and into the unknown.
Nutay returned and sat back down. After that, nobody moved from their seat. All eyes were on the screen bank, and what the probe might find.
At first, the dimly lit forest looked rather like what the team had seen on the first day. Small patches of bioluminescent fungi peppered the forest floor, but the glow was fading as the sun rose. It was an exciting scene, and it felt much safer watching it from the safety of the XLab.
"Hold it," Nutay said after a few minutes, and Dwaman halted the probe's progress.
There was an elongated shape, hiding among the branches of a tree in the camera's frame. Dwaman panned upward, revealing that it was in fact a tail connected to a vaguely reptilian body. An eerily familiar reptilian body.
Discretion being the better part of valor, Dwaman zoomed in instead of going closer.
Thankfully, it was not a terrortooth. It had the same basic shape, but there was a large and colorful crest on its head. There was a small group of them in the branches, and they were all fast asleep.
"Herbivores?" Nutay said, and Dwaman slowly nodded.
Polair agreed with the deduction with a small nod, and glanced over behind him. Several Salsenes and Atrenids were busy taking notes. At the moment, Polair wished he was taking notes himself. All of his materials were currently either in shreds or in the stomach of a gigantic insect in the middle of a jungle thousands of miles away, but he had more in endless supply contained in his ship.
The probe couldn't stay there all morning, so eventually Dwaman moved the probe along.
The sun was peeking above the horizon a little more when the probe stopped again. This time, it was Dwaman's own decision, and everybody could clearly see why.
There was a clearing in view. The branches above the probe were rustling, and leaves gently fluttered down from the treetops. Then, two terrorteeth scurried down a tree trunk from nearby. Presumably, they were the alphas.
Others soon followed suit, and it wasn't long before a pack of terrorteeth were lounging in a patch of sun. "They're endothermic," Dwaman said, "but it looks like they enjoy a good bask all the same."
"We all do," Nutay said.
The pack remained in the clearing for a few minutes, and then without warning dived into the thick forest. "Follow them," Nutay said, and Dwaman gunned the probe after the terrorteeth.
It was difficult to weave the probe through the trees, and the terrorteeth remained a step ahead even at the probe's top speed. After busting through the leafy branches of a tree, the animals were nowehere in sight. Dwaman slowed the probe and stopped.
Although the terrorteeth were absent, a small herd of furry creatures was grazing at the base of a tree. Three horns topped their heads, and each individual had a feathery tail.
Nutay glanced at Dwaman. They both knew what was going to happen next.
Polair saw the look on their faces and said, "What?"
There was silence as the probe hovered and watched the creatures. There was nothing wrong with the scene. It was peaceful. In fact, Polair was wondering why everyone was so on edge---
There was a harsh scream that reverberated throughout the forest and the XLab, causing Polair to jump out of his seat. The grazing creatures looked up in alarm but too late, as a terrortooth shot down onto one of the animals and ripped its belly open within a second. All the other herbivores nearby scattered. The dying screams of the creature were short-lived, as the terrorteeth continued their feast.
Polair slowly got himself back into his chair as the others watched, wide-eyed. They, and they alone in the room, had experienced a terrortooth attack before. Their attack style was getting more and more familiar, but each time they watched the spectacle unfold it got more and more terrifying.
Everyone sat speechless as the terrorteeth ate. Most of them in the room knew that most apex predators preferred the soft meat and left the rest to scavengers, but the terrorteeth seemed to be downing the whole thing. They heard the snapping of tendons and the crucnhing of bones.
When the carcass was rmostly educed to scraps of bone and hide, a few of the terrorteeth grabbed a bite of meat and flew back to where they came from. Dwaman followed them with the probe.
The pack returned to the clearing, where a distinct squeaking could be heard. Polair spotted a tiny head poking out from the tree, making the noise. One of the alpha terrorteeth scurried up the tree trunk and offered the scrap of meat to the youngster.
It soon became clear that a whole clutch of terrorteeth had hatched at some point before the Salsenes' and Atrenids' arrival. Nobody was speaking, but Polair could clearly see the look of delight on their faces.
The other alpha gave a warbling cry, and others in the pack responded with the same call. These were very, very intelligent creatures---and from a safe distance, they even seemed likeable. Almost.
The same process continued throughout the day. Dwaman steered the nano-probe while Nutay and several others kept an eye on the screens. Polair was doing experiments with the terrortooth venom in the laboratories, kept under an equally close eye. He had quite the reputation for messing things up.
Lairo was sitting in the zoological facilities, across from the cage of a rather stout and very strange creature they recovered yesterday. He wasn't paying any attention to it. Instead, he was restless.
After a while, he couldn't take it any longer. He reached into his pack, and pulled out the book.
Lairo had resisted opening it for all this while. But there was just one glaringly obvious fact. There was a book on Kaventro. He hadn't seen any signs of civilization at all. Perhaps some wandering traveler dropped it. But surely they would have informed someone else of this planet. Well, at least if they had gotten off alive.
So how did the book get here?
He decided to find out.
Lairo opened the book, and gently flipped to a random page. There were words written, but in a strange language. There was also a picture of an odd little creature, rather wide and with a large mouth...
Exactly like the creature in the cage across from him.
He gave the animal and the illustration a long look. They were definitely the same.
Lairo flipped to another page.
More undecipherable writing, and a terrortooth.
There were more creatures illustrated on other pages. Lairo recognized some from outside in the forest, then some from other regions on Kaventro, and then others he didn't recognize.
And then he happened upon a Katrola.
It took Lairo a few seconds to register that. It was a creature from Aristotle in a book that seemed to be about things from Kaventro.
Two thoughts came to his mind. Whoever created this book must have traveled far and wide. And that was even more unsettling than the terrortooth. Who was it?
And second, what was going on with all this?
Lairo shuddered, and closed the book, slipping it back into his pack.
A small red light on the wall flashed on and off and gave a soft buzz. It meant there was a system-wide announcement about to be held. Lairo left the zoological facilities, and headed to the communications room.
On the screen bank, the probe was heading back towards the XLab. Everyone in the room was awaiting the announcement. "I still don't know what's so important," Dwaman said as he steered the probe towards the lab door. "Everything seems to be going nicely. Who would be making a broadcast now?"
An Salsene caught the probe at the door, and the camera feed was immediately cut off by an incoming transmission. Slowly, a face came through. It was still blurry, but then---
It was the head of Atrenid that came through. All of the Salsenes didn't move, but the Atrenids quickly stood up straight and kept their eyes on the image.
Dwaman spoke first. "Chancellor Santehn," he said. "Good to see you."
The old Chancellor smiled. "And you. It seems you're running a fine expedition here."
Lairo turned to a nearby Atrenid and said, "Is he the head of your government?"
The Atrenid simply nodded. "The reason I'm calling is because I would appreciate a full report of the situation. It's a bit stuffy up here in the ship. Naturally, security won't let me go down yet," Santehn continued.
"Well, there's lots to see down here," Dwaman said, and paused with his own vid-pad at hand. "I'll send a report up to you. There's a lot to explain in one sitting, and reading should be faster."
They waited a few minutes as Santehn read. "It's certainly a planet of paradise," he said after he finished. "And there is much yet to be discovered. We will always remember those that we have lost here. And I welcome the Salsenes, the first extraterrestrial race we have encountered. Good day to you all."
Nutay nodded her head in respect.
"I'm glad that the situation is currently under control. But there is important news to divulge. There is another planet in Kaventro's system, which we have named Novus, that appears to be habitable. As you know, we can't live in a ship cooped up with the skraygith for the rest of our lives."
"You can say that again," Dwaman said.
"Ha. But the point is, it's a very important duty to colonize a new planet. And even though we have supplied everything we can for your research, everything's a bit chaotic up here. When we colonize, we can be much more organized and well prepared for further exploration."
Dwaman knew what he was saying: expect the unexpected. Even while they were under control, they still had very little in the way of proper supplies. If another pack of terrorteeth decided to ambush them, for instance, there would be almost nothing they could do. The last escape was just by sheer luck. They had made effective weapons, but there were very few of them. Once Novus had been colonized and things got back to normal, they could return to Kaventro and continue studying even more vigorously.
"Understandable," Dwaman said. He was a bit disappointed but he saw the logic.
"I'm assuming we can fly the XLab out of the forest in its current state, so a few hours will give the other teams time to clean up and pack out," Santehn said. "Congratulations on the expedition. Over and out."
The picture briefly cut, but then reappeared in. "Oh, I almost forgot. What's this "Dimensional Rift" all about?"
Nutay smiled. "Sir, you have a lot to learn about those. Would you mind meeting us all in the Ulurn Desert once the sun rises over there?"
"I can try. Looking forward to whatever it is." And the feed dissolved into static.
Dwaman turned to the group. "Well guys, get all your luggage. It's time to head out!"
The XLab was lifted up into the sky as the sun set over the Epsilon Forest, and the Salsenes were making their way towards their ships. Nutay and Dwaman led Polair back to his own ship. The pilots had bunked all night there.
"Well, I should make my way down to the Rift now, finally," Polair said. "I assume you're going down to meet up with the Atrenid chief?"
"That would be right," Nutay said.
"Excellent. See you there," Polair said with a smile, and walked up to his ship. "Heh. Left the door open all night. Guess I was a bit excited, eh?"
"We all were," Dwaman smiled. "It's been a pleasure."
"And you." Polair winked. "To the space-mo-ship!"
He went in, and the door slid closed. The ship took off into the sky, and west toward the ocean.
"Quite a character," Nutay sighed, and started walking back to the Salsene ships. "Let's go now. There's a Rift to find."
Chapter 11: The Gates of Hell
Zalos watched the fleet of ships enter the atmosphere to make their landing. The RDC personnel were still here, to make sure nothing bad happened during the remaining time left in the expedition. Cando in particular was on edge. A second Rift had opened nearby during the night, but when they first discovered it Blaire had insisted that they should wait for the Atrenid Chancellor, who had recently made the systemwide broadcast.
The largest ship in the fleet landed, and Santehn walked out followed by a half dozen officials. He couldn't hide the delight on his face.
The Salsenes and Atrenids had traveled together in the fleet, so Nutay and Dwaman followed shortly. Zalos walked up to them all.
"Honor to meet you, sir," Zalos said to Santehn. When in doubt, manners were the way to go. "Have you already been briefed about the Rift?"
"Yes. Nutay Rinkam told me about it on the way over," Santehn said. "It's quite remarkable. Where does it lead?"
"This one leads to another planet called Aristotle," Zalos said. Lairo gave Nutay a hard glance, who said nothing but merely nodded. Zalos continued. "A second Rift also opened during the night, but we waited for you to come. I'm sure you would like the experience of walking through a Rift, and setting foot onto two new planets within minutes of each other."
Dwaman glanced at Santehn, who was still smiling. Behind the fleet, he saw the ships from other teams landing. When they had finished with the Rift, he really needed to talk to Kaervel about the skeleton.
'What happens if something rather nasty is waiting on the other side?" Santehn asked.
"We've got our secret weapons, sir," Nutay said, and pulled out what appeared to be a dart gun. "It turns out there's a poisonous chemical found naturally in a certain species of plant that's highly toxic. It's the only way we've found to bring down a terrortooth, so we're sure it works. The Atrenids filled a couple of darts with a highly concentrated version of the poison, and slipped them inside here. We have only two guns, with three shots apiece, but there's nothing on Aristotle that's quite as vicious like some Kaventran lifeforms."
"So we're safe?" Santehn inquired.
"Entirely safe." She looked up at the skies. So now we just wait for Polair. Can we send up a transmission to him and tell him where the Rift leads?"
Polair glanced up at the pilots from the back room, and then noticed a radio transmission coming in. He pressed the comm button. "Yeah?"
"Is this Polair?" said a familiar voice. It was the one he had heard last night in the Zartescan, of a Salsene down by the Rift.
"The one, the only, and the best!" he replied.
"Well, Nutay figured we should let you know there are two Rifts now."
Polair stood up. "Really?"
"Yep. Not sure where the second one leads, but when you land we can find out together."
"Where does the first one lead?" Polair gasped into the radio. One exciting new planet was amazing, but two exciting new planets in a matter of only two days was beyond phenomenal. It was absoultely life-changing, and if he could publish a whole new edition specifically about these two, the Rift Planets---
"But---" Polair paused. "I've been there before!"
"Uh. Yeah. I guess."
"The nerve!" Polair shouted to the room he was in. "Of all the places a Rift could lead to, it has to be somewhere I've already been! It's not fair!"
Polair stomped his way towards the door to the room where his writing supplies were stored. "I wanted something new and fresh and exciting! They expect me to write about somewhere I've already looked in every nook and cranny of? Come---"
He opened the door, and the face of a snarling terrortooth stared back at him.
Polair slammed the door and backed into the adjacent wall. The co-pilot looked back at him. "Haven't we told you before that slamming doors is very distrac---"
Three clawed fingers sliced the door in half, and the terrortooth leapt free.
Lairo could see Polair's ship making its way in for a landing. Everybody was waiting for him to land so they could go through the second Rift. Zalos hung up, a bit bemused.
"I radioed him. He seemed a bit annoyed that it wasn't a new place. His radio seemed to have died, though. He was in mid-sentence and this harsh noise cut him off," Zalos said.
The group of Salsenes and Atrenids just looked at him. "I don't think radios make that noise when they die," Dwaman said.
Something was very, very wrong.
Cando instinctively searched the skies for any sign of danger. But there was nothing.
Polair's ship dropped abruptly in altitude, and then swerved up again. It made a long swerve to the side and did a barrel roll simultaneously.
Either Polair had gotten to the wheel, or something very bad was happening.
A large and heavy paper copy of the Encyclopedia Emenata slammed into the terrortooth's head, but this did little to discourage it. Instead, it swiveled its head towards Polair and jumped him.
In the cramped quarters of the ship, it couldn't maneuver as easily; its tail kept banging into the sides of the ship and it couldn't spread its wings fully. But for Polair and his pilots, it was still a nightmare.
Polair dived for the supply room, which was now almost entirely blocked with a heavy piece of machinery. He stuck his head in the only available gap and pushed, but it wouldn't budge. Two other terrorteeth were snarling in the dark room and scrabbling at the metal. they were trapped for now, but there were other things to worry about.
Polair kept tossing random items at the terrortooth in an attempt to discourage it. But it wasn't working.
Desperate, he dived for the door of the ship and opened it, grabbing bolts and imperfections on the surface of the ship. He would have died in there if he didn't get out, and, well, everybody on the ground would have to take care of it now. Polair silently apologized.
"What the krag is he doing?" Cando said. "You told me he was one for stunts, but this is ridiculous."
And the terrortooth flew out of the ship and screamed a harsh cry.
For many of those who had been in the Epsilon Forest, it was literally a physical blow; they stumbled backward in surprise. The instant they saw it, the RDC personnel and Santehn's officials started firing at it with all manner of weaponry on their person.
Upon recovering, Nutay immediately yelled, "No! Don't bother! Use the darts instead, and aim!"
But nobody listened.
Polair had crawled up to the top of his ship, which was now completely out of control. They were nearing the ground at an alarming pace, and Polair braced himself as the ship touched down and skidded across the rocky desert. Sparks were flying everywhere, and Polair was flung into the air as his ship slammed into a rocky outcrop from the side. He landed on the ground rather painfully.
A crack had split into the side of the ship, and the two other terrorteeth flew out, snarling, and joined their pack member in the sky.
Santehn had been forced to drop to the ground while his officials and bodyguards shot at the menaces. He knew that there was a bit of inherent danger when he received the report, but it was nothing like this. Maybe his decision to pull out had come too late.
Cando saw that the terrorteeth were heading in the direction of the first Rift, and so he dropped his Mincer and pulled out a heavy duty Rage chaingun. But they were just too quick, even with a spray of bullets raining everywhere.
Nutay and Dwaman, unarmed aside from the dart guns, watched in horror as the first terrortooth sped through the Rift.
After a few seconds, it was thrown out again, and a snorting Fraguar emerged, bobbing its head in annoyance. The two other terrorteeth immediately set upon the newcomer, forcing it into the ground and ripping the screaming creature apart. The dim outline of a Fraguar pack was visible beyond the Dimensional Rift, but the harsh snarling of the terrorteeth seemed to dissuade them from coming any farther.
Lairo took careful aim with one of the dart guns, but as it fired the terrortooth ducked downward to detach the Fraguar's arm. The dart missed and whizzed through the Rift instead.
Five darts left, and three terrorteeth to down.
Cando was taking full advantage of their distraction to slip a quick suit of armor on. He beckoned to the Zyrothan, who handed him a rather large and menacing-looking rifle.
Nutay looked at him in surprise. "You're not going to use that, are you?" she said.
"You better believe it," Cando said. He looked grim. "We only have so many darts. So we have to bring out the big guns." He loaded. "If we have to use the shock rifle, we have to use the shock rifle." He aimed, and then fired.
The cylinder blew straight through the foot of the terrortooth, which howled in pain and whipped its head in their direction. It snarled, spread its wings, and sped towards them on foot.
"I'd move if I were you," Cando said to everyone around him, and they scattered instinctively. He waited until the terrortooth was almost upon him before firing again, but the creature jumped unexpectedly and clipped the top of his head. Cando fell to the ground but scrambled back up instantly. The rifle was nowhere in sight.
He looked up, and found that the rifle was stuck on the terrortooth's toe. The animal was trying to gnaw at it in midair.
"Darts!" he yelled, and Dwaman tossed him one of the dart guns. Cando grabbed it and aimed for the toe, firing.
The dart missed the toe, and the terrortooth nosedived toward Cando.
"Krag!" he said, and dodged to the side. The terrortooth rose again, and finally dislodged the rifle. The weapon went sailing across the sky. Polair was running for the rifle, but Cando could see that he wouldn't be able to catch it, and---
The rifle landed, bounced once, and disappeared into the second Rift.
Cando gave one look at the rest of the team, and then a look at the other terrorteeth, who appeared to be finishing their meal, and then he bolted for the second Rift.
Reluctantly, the others followed him.
Santehn turned to his officials. "We need to follow them!" he said.
"No can do. It's too dangerous!"
Santehn ran after the others anyway, with his officials screaming at him from behind.
With three terrorteeth chasing after them, they entered the Rift into lands unknown.
There was a blaze of light, and Cando threw himself to the ground, landing next to the rifle. He waited for the others to get through before grabbing the rifle and aiming it upwards. He fired as one of the terrorteeth burst through, and the cylinder tore straight through the chest and out the back. It toppled to the ground, dead.
A thundering bellow reverberated across the landscape as the other two terrorteeth emerged and rose into the new sky. Dwaman quickly turned and saw the source of the noise. Nutay appeared at his shoulder. "Yeah," she said, "I guess this is another Rift to Aristotle."
A herd of Montotheres was migrating across the plains in their direction. They were unfazed by the sudden appearance of the predators, miniscule by their standards.
Dwaman was standing there dumbfounded, but Nutay had a sudden moment of realization. "If they find..." she began, but then turn to Cando. "What gunships do you have on hand?"
"A small Javelin. Why?"
"Just get it!"
Cando gave her a suspicious look, but then radioed the RDC personnel that had stayed behind for the gunship. "What's this all about?" Dwaman asked.
"Oh, just wait until you see what lives on their backs," Nutay replied.
Cando threw the dart gun to Dwaman, startling him. "Try this for me, will you?"
Dwaman nervously fidgeted with the gun, but then aimed. The terrortooth was flying towards the nearest Montothere, apparently inquisitive.
Dwaman's first shot missed, and buried itself into the Montothere's leg. He glanced nervously at Nutay.
"It's alright," she said. "Come on! We only have one more dart gun."
Dwaman aimed carefully at a spot in front of the terrortooth. He kept his target just ahead of the animal as it flew forward. At the last moment, he fired.
The terrortooth flew right into the path of the dart, which struck it in the side of the head. It immediately reeled in the air, and started dropping out of the sky.
Nutay cheered, and Dwaman stared at the gun in disbelief. It was the last dart, too. It was probably the luckiest shot of his life.
But he had little time to congratulate himself, as the last terrortooth dived at them in a fit of flapping and screaming. Its tail struck Santehn upside the head, who tumbled down into the arms of his officials. He pushed himself up and signaled to everyone that he was okay.
In the meantime, the terrortooth was heading toward to the darted Montothere. Nutay noted that it probably didn't feel it was worth trying to attack them anymore, and was looking for easier targets. Which, if it kept going in the direction it was heading, was exactly what it would find.
The gunship burst through the rift and landed next to Cando, who switched places with the current pilot. He had insisted on flying the gunship while it was on Aristotle. Dwaman climbed aboard with Nutay, and she said, "Lairo! You have the last two darts. You're coming with us."
Lairo stood stuttering as Nutay pulled him on. As the ship started off, Polair jumped aboard, shouting "I'm just not going to miss this, you hear?"
Nutay shot a look at Polair, and said to Cando, "Get to its back." Cando nodded and raised the shock rifle, ready to fire at any moment.
The terrortooth dived by the Montothere's face, which bellowed in surprise. The gunship had to make a sharp turn to avoid the protrusions on the huge animal's head. Cando fired at the terrortooth, just for good measure.
Cando landed the gunship on the Montothere's back. There was a small town nearby. "Is that---" Dwaman said, his eyes wide.
"Yes it is," Nutay said, "now, incoming!"
Tiny sapient beings peeked their heads out of the windows of the houses as the terrortooth glided down on top of the gunship and attempted to slash through the metal with its claws. Cando stuck the rifle out the window and tried firing at it, but the terrortooth just rose back up into the sky again.
A Cho'ghar knight ran up to the gunship and began talking, much to Dwaman's amazement. "Are you a Salsene?" it said to Nutay. "We have heard much about you from other colonies."
"No time!" Nutay shouted. "Mad animal on the loose!"
The Cho'ghar looked up, and ran under the ship as the terrortooth landed on the ground, claws flexed. It rose up into the air again for another strike.
Other Cho'ghar had gathered to watch the spectacle, amazed and frightened at the new beast. Polair jumped out of the ship, followed by Nutay and Dwaman. "Get back!" Polair shouted. "We can try to hold them off!"
Some Cho'ghar had tried firing arrows at the terrortooth, but all of them missed by a large margin. This thing was clearly much too fast for them.
The gunship rose up into the sky, and Lairo fired his second dart. It just missed the terrortooth's wing.
One dart left. One last chance.
Cando was now following the terrortooth above the Montothere's head, one hand on the wheel and the other firing the rifle. The gunship was wobbling erratically, the terrortooth was darting left and right and would probably slaughter the entire town of Cho'ghar soon and possibly even all those that went to defend them, and there was only one dart left.
Lairo took aim.
In his head, he heard the voice. You can do this. You can cheat fate itself.
At that moment, the Fates seemed to be giving him the wheel.
It hit the terrortooth smack in the eye and it dropped to the ground with a harsh scream.
The Cho'ghar watched and cheered as the beast was vanquished, Polair, Nutay, and Dwaman at their side. They sighed in relief and climbed into the ship when Cando steered it over.
"Finally over," Dwaman said. "Good job, Lairo."
There was a rather loud creaking noise, and a rumble from the Montothere they were on. It had stopped, and seemed to be getting shorter.
It took them a while to notice the Montothere was toppling over from the dart embedded in its leg.
The Cho'ghar started screaming shrilly, while Dwaman looked around nervously. They seemed to be falling flat, so maybe if they stayed still...
Excruciatingly slowly, the Montothere's legs gave out, and it slid to the ground with a deafening crash.
The Cho'ghar opened their eyes a few minutes later and took their hands off their heads. "It's alright," Nutay said. "I think the dart should just render it unconscious for a few hours. These Montotheres are mighty beasts."
The knight nodded, although it kept a suspicious eye on Dwaman.
"Well, before we go, we have a lot of cleaning up to do," Nutay said. She turned to the Cho'ghar. "Mind helping?"
Chapter 12: Welcome Home
Everyone was back, mostly safe and sound, in the desert. Cando and the other RDC personnel were going to be guarding the Rifts until they closed, but everybody else would be leaving shortly. Santehn was alright, although a bit shaken.
Polair was talking to his pilots, who had both survived and were now resting under the shade of a tree. Nutay walked up to him. "You alright?" she said.
"Yeah," he said. "A bit disappointed though." He turned to what was left of his ship. "I recovered all my notes, but it looks like I'm not going anywhere for a while. I'll just hitch a ride with one of the ships."
Nutay patted him on the back. "Take care, and don't overexert yourself."
Polair just smirked.
"It's clear that even with complete control of the planet, so to speak, we should be very cautious," Santehn was saying to the Atrenids in the group. "Once people hear of this place, everybody will want to be a tourist. Or worse, start smuggling animals off. If a terrortooth makes its way off of here, chaos will ensue wherever it lands and we'll never hear the end of it. I'm not sure how we're going to regulate this with all the dangers, but I'm sure we'll figure out something."
Some smaller ships were already taking off, and it seemed they were all wrapping up and heading back inside the ships. "So, will we see you guys again sometime?" Dwaman asked Nutay.
"Of course," Nutay said. "The Atrenids have probably become one of the strongest Salsene alliances in these past few days."
"Well, come visit once in a while."
Dwaman stretched his arms. "Well, back to the ship, to our new home planet, and then it's time for a nice long nap," he said.
"Oh, you've still got a lot to do," Nutay said. "A lot."
"Why is that?"
Nutay giggled. "You have a lot of people to meet in the galaxy."
In an empty room on Centro, Lairo sat, listening to the commotion outside. The Atrenids were the newest race to grace the face of the galaxy, and everybody thought they would quickly become one of the major powers in Viperius. Maybe that would happen. But he had other things on his mind.
He pulled out the book again.
He was fighting with himself. Should he really tell someone about it? It would finally take it off his mind. All its secrets would be immediately revealed.
But in a way, it was just so disturbing. And other things on Kaventro might have connected it to other things.
Lairo had overheard a lot of talk about the Vermillion Hills. It was eavesdropping and he knew he wasn't supposed to do it, but it was just too curious. There was something about a terrortooth's skeleton, far away from any possible place a terrortooth could have been. The Rift hypothesis was one step away from being confirmed for its sudden appearance, but Lairo had his own theories.
In any case, he couldn't open it now. He was too afraid of what he would find.
Later, perhaps. There was always another day.
He put the book away, grabbed his pack, and left the room, closing the door behind him.
- Salsene Grand Fleet
- The Merge
- Encyclopedia Emenata
- Refraction Rifle
- Petaurista Primus
- Froegen XIV
- Vermillion Hills
- Epsilon Forest
- Lairo Herreff
- Sharm Plains
- Polair Bezurk
- Saber Terune
- Sigma Spider
- Dimensional Rift
- Shock Rifle