The rumbling shuttle engine woke Chris. Carmen was already up and in her coat. She sat with her back to him. Each in their own silence, they listened as sound swelled into a buzz that shook the room.
Outside, a thick blanket of snow engulfed everything. They waded through the drifts. Beyond the black barked pines, island and ice had merged into an immaculate field of silver-blue. Sheets of snow dropped, shaken from the canopy.
They reached the clearing just as the vessel dropped into it, kicking up a blizzard. Momentarily blind, Chris shielded his face, smiling. We’re going home.
The engines cut and, in the subsiding echoes, the only sounds were their crunching footsteps and the dinks and creaks of cooling metal. Then, with a hiss the door opened, revealing Roderick holding a tablet.
“Hi guys!” he said, brightly, “I got your email and I have the documents,” he gave them a sad look, “I’m sorry to see you go.” Chris slid his bag into the shuttle, and climbed aboard. Carmen tried to follow, but Roderick blocked her path, “I’m sorry I can’t let you on board the shuttle until you sign.”
“Let me on.”
“I’m sorry the bylaws—” began Roderick with a patronizing smile.
“probably say something about embezzlement, falsifying records?”
“I have no idea—”
“We have your files. I don’t think FrontEx will take too kindly to you fiddling with the books and overcharging for surveys,” Carmen grinned triumphantly, “and there’s the little matter of you making them accessories to ecocide. Chris, you remember what the punishment for ecocide is?”
“If I remember correctly,” said Chris, “it’s civil forfeiture of all assets and a life sentence.”
Roderick shot him a dirty look, and turned back to Carmen. “Miss Vill-ah,” he sneered, “Do you imagine that I would have done any of what I did without approval.””
Chris’ heart sank. It had been a good gambit but, he supposed, it was over.
“Does that matter?” Carmen continued, her voice quavering slightly “You think they won’t just throw you under the bus?”
“Maybe,” Roderick sounded bored. “But that wouldn’t be worse than what they’d do to me if you don’t sign the papers. Now Miss Vill-ah—if you’re done trying to blackmail me to get out of your responsibilities under a contract you signed as an adult—sign the document so we can all get off this frozen wasteland.”
Carmen clenched her jaw and gave Roderick a defiant look. For a second, Chris thought she’d refuse to sign. But her expression faltered. She took the tablet.
“Fill out the first form. Then sign at the bottom of every other page. There’s a section for comments at the end—we at FrontEx are always looking for ways to improve.”
Carmen rolled her eyes. She looked more tired than he’d ever seen her, dark blue sacs weighing down her eyes. Leaning against the shuttle, she began to read the first page. Roderick sat on the lip of the door, watching her. Occasionally, he pointed to a part of the form and said something inaudible. Every time Roderick leaned closer, Carmen stiffened.
Chris sat in the shuttle. Squinting as his eyes adjusted to low light. The stacks of cases that normally crowded the shuttle were gone. In their place, seats lined the wall, each facing forwards. At the back, next to the door to the cockpit, there was an area for luggage covered with netting. He rummaged through his bag, making sure he had everything before he stored his bag away. Everything was there, everything except… fuck, he realized, I forgot the sobriety aid.
A strange sound came from the direction of the cockpit—a low whistle cut with clicks and flashes of static. What is that. Through a crack in the door to the cockpit he saw the cold light of screens.
“What the fuck.”
Chris turned back. Carmen screamed. There was a thud; something—someone—hit the ground. Glass shattered. He turned towards the door. Carmen was splayed across the snow. Her bag lay buried a foot from her but she made no attempt to pick it up, scrambling backwards towards the trees. The clicking sound increased in pitch.
Roderick pulled something from his pocket. The man raised a small gun. He was aiming it at Carmen. Chris lunged at Roderick.
“What the hell!” Roderick roared.
He teetered, lost his balance and fell backwards into the snow. Standing in the doorway, Chris saw the whole clearing. He froze, transfixed.
Two forms flowed across the snow, countless legs undulating as they approached. If Chris had been able to speak, he would have described them as millipedes, though that might have given the wrong impression. The creatures closing in on them were three metres long. Overlapping indigo scales covered their bodies, jutting out as they skittered forward. Their blunt heads ended in a circular hole flanked by barbed mandibles—a black liquid dripped from them, spattering the virgin snow. Six eyes glinted above and below their mouths, all fixed on the shuttle.
One, slightly ahead of the other, was covered in bulbous, grey lumps spotted across its carapace. It smacked its mandibles together, and emitted a guttural click. Roderick scrambled to his feet, aimed, and fired. The creatures flinched, clicking rising to a shriek. But Roderick had missed.
Carmen scooped up her bag, stumbling through the snow towards the shuttle.
Roderick unloaded his clip. He hit this time but the bullets just bounced off.
The creature froze. Its legs slid together beneath it. Then it leapt, covering half the distance to the shuttle.
“Fuck this shit,” muttered Roderick.
He jabbed at his tablet and pushed past Chris towards the cockpit; the shuttle juddered to life.
“Wait!” Chris yelled after him “Carmen—”
Roderick swung into the pilot's seat. The doors to the cockpit slid closed behind him, locking with a faint click. Out in the clearing, Carmen was wading through the snow. She was about eight feet from the shuttle; the creature was farther away but was moving faster.
The engines sputtered on, throwing up a veil of snow that blocked the clearing from view. He leant out of the door, feeling for Carmen’s hand in the flurry. The floor jerked, throwing him back, and the shuttle began to lift off. Red lights flashed.
“Exterior door open, exterior door open,” intoned a robotic voice. The door began to close. Chris leapt towards it. Body blocking it, he braced himself against the door frame. Blue lights flashed. A siren replaced the voice. The door renewed its push against him.
He leant out again. Sweeping his hand through the updrafts of snow. Guttural clicks rang out closer, too close.
His foot hit the side of the door frame. The door groaned, the blue light turned red, and the siren became deafening.
The door inched sideways; it would crush him before long. Once more, he reached beyond, swinging his arm down through the haze.
Then he felt her hand and was pulling her up. Her face appeared from the blizzard beyond.
She tried to lever herself into the ship. Her feet kicked. Slicked with sweat, Chris’s gloves began to slip. Carmen grabbed at his coat, his arm, his wrist.
Chris fell back, pulling her with him. They sprawled across the floor, panting.
The shuttle lurched backwards. He hit the wall behind him and slipped upwards as the cabin rolled. The door groaned. Pines—pointing downwards into the sky—were visible through an inch-wide slit.
Chris fell onto the ceiling, his hands scraping at the walls. A seatbelt swung past his face. He grabbed it, steadied himself, and looked for Carmen. She was across the cabin—clinging to a seat belt with one hand and holding her bag with the other—hanging over the door, which was slowly sliding open.
Then, with a shriek of tearing metal, the door disappeared—a blur of ice and snow whipping past below. The shuttle careened on.
Legs gripped the door frame, long, spindly, clawed things. Then, mandibles clacking, a creature wormed its way into the cabin.
Chris threw his bag towards the baggage area and dropped to the floor. He looked up at the creature, heart pounding and, suppressing his gut wrenching fear, ran towards it.
Suspended above the hole where the door had been, Carmen fumbled with her bag. She was dimly aware of Chris yelling incoherently. Adrenalin coursed through her.
She tried to extract the axe from her bag. The shuttle shook; she almost lost her grip. She tried not to look at the ice below. Blood welled in her mouth. Then cool metal brushed her hand.
She gripped the axe and dropped her bag. As it dropped, her bag glanced off the creature, knocking something off its shell. It shrieked. Its tail lashed out. But Carmen was already gone, heaving herself into the cabin. She landed hard and, winded, turned back.
Using his bag as a club, Chris was beating at the thing’s shell. The blows had no impact. It towered over Chris, six eyes fixed on him, seemingly considering what to do. Then, moving at a speed Carmen could barely follow, it jumped, rebounding off the wall to land between her and Chris. With a flick of its tail, it batted Chris towards the gap. He stumbled backwards, teetering on the edge, but caught hold of a strap. He hung there, trying to swing himself to safety, but the belt was fraying.
I need to distract it, Carmen thought, and closed the distance between her and the creature. Skipping over the netting, she hefted her axe, and with one last bound swung it at its back. With a schlick, the axe lodged between its scales. It screeched, writhing. The axe ripped from her hands. The creature loomed, swaying like a cobra.
A blur flashed across her vision. Something hit her chest. She flew from her feet, flailing, trying to break her fall. Thunk, she bounced, skidding across the floor. It scuttled towards her, legs clacking on the metal ceiling.
As Carmen scrambled to her feet, it leapt at her. She ducked, feeling the slipstream whip over her head. She tripped forward, tumbling towards the door.
For a breathless second, she had a gut-wrenching view of the ice. Then she caught herself. Carmen stood, and turned back to the cabin. It was empty. Where did it go—
“Carmen look out!”
There was a flash of movement from above. Something hit her. Carmen toppled backwards. Her arms flailed but caught nothing. She fell.
She’s dead, Chris thought. The concept didn’t make sense to him. He clung to the seat belt, hanging over the gap where the door had been. Snow scrolled past below. He was at eye level with the creature, and every one of its eyes bore into his.
His gloves slipped along the seat belt. He jerked downwards.
The creature’s eyes flicked between him and the seat belt he clung to. It backed deeper into the cabin and curled for a moment, running its forelegs across its carapace. Each time it reached a grey pod, it gently pried it loose and placed it on the ground by the cockpit door. As the pile of grey things grew, they writhed. Looking down at the pile, it let out a series of soft clicks, and turned back to Chris.
Something tore. Chris jerked downwards. His feet kicked in the jetstream below. Snow scrolled past beneath. Now’s my last chance, he thought, and gathering the last of his strength he swung himself forwards, letting go of the seat belt. His hands windmilled through open air and caught the lip of the doorway.
He clung, staring at the rows of seats above. A pair mandibles jutted over the gap. Something cold and hard ran over his hands—its forelegs. Chris shuddered and tried to shimmy sideways. It followed. He felt its mandible brush his hands.
Chris glanced down. The view of his legs in the gulf did not calm his pounding heart. Again he tried to shimmy sideways. The creature caught his hand between its mandibles. Chris tried to pull away. The creature squeezed. Pain lanced out from his hand. He screamed. Blood dripped down his arm. Then he fell.