The Shell: Four

Four:

Emily hurried away from the massive gash in the earth, it would take all night just to go around it, but perhaps it could slow any other predators. The rift had turned the valley into a chasm, and the only means to get to the far end was by taking the long route around the perimeter. Still, Emily was not without a nagging suspicion that the rest of the ground would give way at any moment. Looking into the pit, the far side in particular as she didn’t want to see what was happening below, Emily noticed a dense wall of earth. It didn’t wholly ease her suspicions that the hollow patch stretched on and on in every direction indefinitely, but it did give her hope.

Coming to the far part of the rift, an alert sounded inside Emily’s helmet, nearly giving her a heart attack for all her paranoia. It was not a sensor reading any danger, but the response from the Foundation. She hadn’t realized so much of the night had passed by between the ground giving way and beginning her trek to the land bridge. Opening the message, Emily read as she walked, glancing to and fro from the notice to the path. She didn’t want to be taken unawares, not again, but didn’t have the time to stop as of yet. Through a few separate glances, Emily collected all the information she needed, despite it being nothing she wanted to hear.

The cappera would need more nutrients; it was still healthy but was showing signs of dropping weight. At this time, the creature would likely be receiving something more filling than vitamins filtered through a living human host. Not to mention, a cappera’s diet was far different than a human’s. It was possible the nutrients it needed were not even edible for people. Emily decided she would just have to move faster. There was no way she was going to be able to provide for the specimen if the journey took too long. And of course, the creature was still growing. Slowly but at a constant rate, the cappera was reaching its infant size and would become more massive. The thought of the alien bursting through the shell, busting off all the sensors, and slithering free of the containment unit didn’t sound wholly awful to Emily, though. If it lightened the load, she would have an easier go at getting to the extraction site, yet without it, that would be just a landing space, and nothing more.

Rounding the northern point of the valley, Emily was given to pause as some movement caught her eye. For it to not be within the chasm was only slightly reassuring; however, anything stirring on this planet was a problem. Getting the shock online, Emily cautiously crept around to the far side of the rift, finding that whatever it was must not have seen her. All the same, Emily kept eyeing the colliding rock walls that served as a throughway between the valley and whatever lay beyond it. She could guess that what sat on the other side was home to more of the dinosaur aliens, more things she didn’t want to deal with. If they kept their distance, all would be well in the world. Emily was content keeping her own, she would live longer that way.

The land bridge was further north than south on the far end of the valley, Emily wasn’t to it yet but nearing it. From where she stood, taking a brief pause to test the air, and then consume some of what she had rationed in her bag, Emily could see where she was when the ground gave way. Her bag had snagged on the lip of the column her back had been against, breaking the strap. She had left the metal clip that had been secured to the bottom of the belt, it couldn’t be fixed in the field. From there, she sought the animal that had caused the cave-in, only barely remembering where it had fallen. It was an odd thing; the valley seemed uneven on this side despite the fact it looked to be a perfect hull taken from the earth on the other side. Leaning a bit over the lip, Emily looked in and found more than what she thought she would see.

Piece by piece, the ruse posing the image of traversable terrain was being mended, likely until it was functional again. It was difficult to see what was making the ground reform at first, then Emily flicked up the filter over her screen to something close to night vision. What she saw at first baffled her but then came together like two magnets. It was the natives, deep inside the earth, putting back rock and dirt by spraying the adhesive nets from their mouths. The cobalt-colored hands that was the best way Emily could describe their shape were climbing the walls with ease, bundles of debris in their prehensile tails. Planting two fingers into the wall, the other four spread wide, and the mouth at their center sprayed the fluid onto the returning earth to then place the bundle of debris into it. Over and over, they did this, while Emily watched disgusted, and then she realized the body was just below.

It wasn’t easily discernable as a body at first glance, but then the outline of a triceratops became apparent in Emily’s mind. They hadn’t attacked the rough bones or scaly hide but crushed themselves into a small enough shape to enter through the orifices. The mouth being pried open may have been intentional, yet had it not, they were given a great advantage with this meal. Emily could see, with her augmented sight, that inside the dinosaur, a feast was being commenced. It was an orgy of pulsing and wriggling that made the body resemble a sock filled with rats more so than a living creature. Trying to contain herself, Emily climbed up the bank leading from the valley before she began to vomit.

Even though she had regarded the creature beyond her mercy, even were she able to grant that, Emily admitted nothing deserved to die like that. But it wasn’t for the dinosaur that Emily had gotten sick over, it was for her friends. They had, without a doubt, lost their lives to those native things and went through the same process. Though those in the pit had been roughly the size of humans, Emily had seen some that were only about a foot in height. Her friends, colleagues, people she had known and loved, spent their final moments in terror as alien creatures crawled into them wherever they could. To know this but more so to know that the Foundation would profit from this specimen that lives were lost for and not give a damn was almost worse.

Emily slammed back on her helmet after wiping the acidic slobber from her lips and meant to keep on her way. There was no looking back, no turning back, and certainly no alternatives, Emily had to keep on track. Yet, even as the thought of Knox and Mona and the rest faded from her thoughts, Emily felt she was going to be sick again. For a moment, she forced herself to press on and continue down the path, the land bridge was in sight, yet on the other side of the hill, Emily was forced to stop. The helmet came off again, vomit poured onto the copper-colored grass and even darker earth, but with it, there was much more.

In the yellowy mass of stomach fluids and half-digested fruit, there was more than a tinge of deep, unsightly red. The blood wasn’t what stuck Emily so deep; it was the cluster of seed-like items that looked nothing like any of the food she had eaten. Moreover, from one of the pods, something worm-like was wriggling in an all too sinewy manner. Emily shook her head, wanting to only believe she was seeing things and that stress was turning her mind into a block of swiss cheese. Fighting her way to her feet, Emily carried on her way, taking the land bridge as dawn began to fall on the world.

There would have to be shelter somewhere beyond the valley as it offered no hope of protection. Emily would have to keep moving regardless of what her body and mind said, as staying in place was not an option. However, as she began across the bridge, she found herself stuck fast and more so than she had been in the pit. Early risers were taking to the land or streams. One such predator had come up just as Emily crossed the river. Flaxen limbs rose from the stream and wrapped tight around Emily’s legs before she could even notice. Their job was made easy as the ground below had clearly been augured away at spots to allow for effortless captures. More holes were there along the way, allowing for even more of the tentacles to rise.

There were twelve, all within a few feet of Emily, and all had at least twice the distance in slack. She quickly panicked and forgot about the remaining pulse left in the suit. Instead, she whipped her bag in front of her. As the appendages moved in, Emily rooted around in the sack, hoping to find something that could distract them. Throwing rations that had come from the facility and what she had foraged did nothing to dissuade the tentacles from their goal. Before she could resort to flinging the bag at them, Emily was caught much tighter. Two had wrapped around her waist while another grabbed the helmet, more tightened around the legs, and others explored their next meal.

Curiously, they outlined her form before seemingly being drawn to the shell, multiple tentacles went for the domed container. It was almost as though they knew somewhere inside something soft and easy to tear apart rested. The focus on the shell didn’t stop the investigation of other warm or supple areas across Emily’s body from being explored. Still, she was somewhat relieved they focused on the cappera rather than her. With a moment to think, Emily brought up the defensive battery’s status to see it still ready a minor yet healthy enough amount. To use it now would be risky or possibly deadly, yet Emily couldn’t see much choice in the matter. As she tried to weigh the decision, she could feel a tug on the shell. Quickly striking out at a cluster of tentacles, she shot all of the remaining charge into one massive attack.

Making a screech like hot metal being submerged in ice water, the creature let go of Emily with one quick motion. It did

not fully recede into the river, and many of the tentacles remained on the land bridge’s surface, but that was enough for Emily. Picking her way across the bridge as not to step on one of the feelers and get grabbed again, she crossed. Morning light was now pouring over the planet, and for all the eye could see, there was nothing to conceal her. Checking her location with haste, she found that the tunnel wasn’t far north from the bridge. It would have to be taken at a full run, but Emily hadn’t any ambition to stop out in the open.

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