The Shell: Three

Three:

Sizing up the route once more, Emily started running numbers in her head and projecting where she should be by dawn. What lay in the lands below was desolation, no doubt some sort of hunting ground wherein the predators had a distinct advantage. Bones and other such remains, not everything on the planet had bones, were scattered across the bleak, empty landscape. There were few trees, mainly those sporting the pinecone like fruit Emily had found, and the grasses were very low. If she couldn’t make it across the plains before dawn, then she and the cappera would be no more. However, any concern that she wouldn’t make it was quickly washed away. Her projections had here across the land bridge by dawn. It wasn’t going to be easy, she would be spent and burnt out before even making it to the tunnels, but it was progress.

Questing into the wastes, Emily made sure to check the battery on her defensive pulse unit. It wasn’t something one of the shells was supposed to use regularly. In fact, their charge was likely little more than what Emily had used to fight off that hand creature. The reading returned as low, unsurprising, but still enough to deliver a few shocks of reasonable strength. Yet, Emily wasn’t confident that even with a full battery, a human in a shell could handle one of those creatures that had taken her attacker. There was no turning back, though, so for a matter of comfort, rather than actual defensibility, Emily found herself a nice heavy bone. With her suit on, she wouldn’t be able to swing it with much force or range, but perhaps it would look intimidating to prospective hunters.

She quickly picked her way along a well-worn path, making sure to avoid organic vents in the terrain. They were wide openings, large enough for even Emily with the shell to slip into if she were made to but likely only went so far down. The pit couldn’t have been more than a few feet deep or if it went down a couple of yards, was likely very narrow after the initial length. Yet, even knowing this, having seen a few around the outpost, Emily was horrified by the notion that some small critter could slip out from one. They were the second-largest threat against the natives, quick-moving urchins no bigger than your hand that could stab through solid steel and still suckle through their needle-like appendages the juices of whatever they skewered. Yet, they too were day stalkers, the natives couldn’t find a way around the spikes, so left them alone by in large.

Emily checked the status of her passenger again; it was still sapping energy at a constant rate, and no warnings were coming up yet, but it felt safer to simply check. The receiver and antenna would need time to communicate back and forth for any readings sent to the Foundation for analysis. Though the monitoring devices inside the shell were state of the art, a cappera wasn’t something they knew how to monitor just yet. Some of the scientists back on a carrier ship would have to go over the data and assess it before sending another signal down to mark that the creature was still okay. Still busying herself with the displays in her helmet, Emily worked through the neural network to replay Knox’s final message once more.

There was something about the recording, the hybrid human’s voice that inspired confidence in Emily. She couldn’t place what it was, the man certainly didn’t look like someone who should immediately be thought of as a leader, but it was all in his bearing. Those deep turmeric eyes were as intense and heavy as his voice, but the pale yellow skin broken by black strips made Knox look all too silly to be serious. If the effects of human engineering weren’t enough, the man with amphibious genes spliced into him requiring warming suits or heavy clothes where ever he went indeed did him in. All the same, every member of the crew had respected him, maybe not everyone equally, and certainly, Mona liked to joke, but they knew he was the one running the show. Yet, finishing the message once more, Emily had to admit, she was in charge now, against her own will.

Sensors inside the shell began to go wild, breaking Emily from memories of better times, and people who were no longer. They had detected an environmental threat somewhere in Emily’s immediate vicinity. Though the warning flashed on her screen, a hazard yellow and black like Knox’s skin, Emily was more focused on what she saw beyond the screen. Another of the previously undiscovered lifeforms kicking around the planet after dark. This was not some monstrosity of arms or one of the adult cappera; she wished it were anything even vaguely similar to those softer creatures. Instead, something that looked like a triceratops made of bone was running at a full sprint towards her.

Emily didn’t know how to react; her mind froze as the reality of what the creature was and how powerful it must have been to survive on the planet set in. For an instant, she became aware of the warning message on the screen right before her. Glancing, running her eyes across the words without really reading it, Emily collected the information but felt the gravity of it all sink in as the ground rumbled. The sensors had picked up instability ahead. The earth was weak, and either was like quicksand or hollow. To the misfortune of both Emily and her dinosaur-like attacker, the latter happened to be the correct assessment.

Dirt and rock fell like rain behind her as Emily plummeted through the ground that gave way like an overly delicate pastry. The fear of how far she would drop, if she would survive, or if the cappera would be intact after this flashed through her mind but was almost immediately droned out. As the creature fell into the hollow earth with Emily, it emitted such a cry of agonizing terror that nothing else could be heard. If there were other predators anywhere near the fields, Emily was confident they were not only roused by the sound but would be on there way posthaste. Suddenly, the ground met Emily; to her surprise and relief, it was soft and spongy but just a little sticky.

The fact she didn’t land on hard rock or on some stalagmites in a deep cave should have been a relief to Emily; however, it was almost the very opposite. Had she landed on something sturdy enough to break bone, Emily would at least know she was hurt. This material was less than assuring. As the dust cleared, Emily looked out across an area, vast as the valley had been as it was merely the innards of the plain, yet it was covered in a dense cedar-colored material. It looked almost fluid but most certainly was as sticky as spiderweb yet somehow stronger than steel. Emily was stuck; she didn’t panic, though, as she saw her hunter was also caught.

The dinosaur creature fought frantically, the outcroppings of bone that covered its body did little to assist its escape. Its panicked attempts at freedom seemed to have the effect of quicksand on the creature. Each movement found it’s limbs and body wrapped all the more in this alien substance. Looking into one of the many holes that peppered the webbing, Emily found only black, an abyss to consume it should the creature get free. For a second, she thought to pity the animal, it had acted brashly and gotten itself in a no-win situation, then her compassion faded. The beast would have likely crushed Emily with the wide fan of spikes that ran perpendicular across its brow, and if it didn’t eat her, would have left her for dead. There was nothing she could do for the animal, that much she was aware of as well, yet she could very well free herself from the trap.

Taking her time, Emily peeled an arm from the gluey net, even doing that had been an ordeal. With one free arm, Emily could more easily release the other, giving her a chance to grab onto the stone column to her back. Pulling herself up on the pillar of earth gradually, the shell came free along with her torso. Last was the legs, but as she began to unstick her rear and thighs, Emily felt strange vibrations through the net.

Looking to the triceratops, she found it was too stuck to move much more than its eyes, even its mouth had been stuck and held open in trying to bite its way free. It was not the animal that made the sensation, but as Emily looked to the web once more, she saw motion beneath it. The thought of something creeping about on the underside sent a chill into Emily that she could hardly bear. Had she not the presence of mind, she would have panicked and likely gotten herself sucked in all over again. However, Emily patiently pulled one leg free and then the other, to finally wrap her whole body around the pillar of earth. There was likely no hurry; the triceratops was bigger prey and by the looks of it, what this predator had come for. As Emily shimmied her way up, she did not bother looking down at the horror show below. To even know what fate awaited the dinosaur-like thing was far more than what Emily intended to walk away from this planet with.

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