The light of two moons shone upon the dark world. Shadowy trees, their black, veined leaves curled tightly against the meager glow, stood undisturbed by the movement in the forest around them. Deerlike creatures slipped through the winding maze of their trunks and branches, delicate feet silent on the black layer of rotting leaves and underbrush. The flickering shadows and low droning of unseen creatures permeated the muffled air.
Suddenly a distant roar was heard through the dark foliage, and a shudder reverberated through the forest floor. The forest stood still; hidden animals tensed and waited, the droning stopped as infinite things ceased their endless shifting. From the trees a gray form dropped and landed, almost soundless, on the forest floor. It slunk away, catlike, as the humid, sulfurous air sighed and the wavering hum was rejoined.
Following a path well known by none but itself, the creature loped its way through the ancient trees. Catlike, yes; it walked with the quiet grandeur of a deer, switching between upright and loping not unlike a bear, and was covered in fine, light gray hairs such as a wolf’s, but shorter and less rough. Its face was another matter. A lizard’s- yet also catlike and furred- skull flattened and disfigured so that the nose was set, slit-like and veined, in the forehead above the eyes. A subtle jaw, flicking ears, and small, gleaming shark teeth, and ancient eyes that gleamed with fire, bird-like, with no pupils. A creature indescribable, yet still beautiful and graceful in the eyes of an Earthchild.
It slowed, sensing the clearing before it was visible or within hearing, or maybe by prior knowledge of it; it slunk through the foliage that overhung the gleaming asphalt and watched.
The shuttle pad was not empty. The dull metal hull of a ship glinted in the night. Figures wearing red suits strode around the ship, pointing and clambering upright around the entrance. A hatch stood open and more figures came out of it, in groups of two or three.
The creature flicked its ears.
Suddenly the roaring filled the sky again and another ship came down from the sky. It landed on the asphalt near to the creature, which shrank back further into its hiding space and opened its mouth in a grimacing snarl.
Three of the red figures came around the new ship. The red around the creatures was like a husk, and it crinkled as they moved. Underneath the red, the figures’ flat, pale faces showed, faces with small eyes punctuated by wandering dark points. Under the eyes the faces were covered by white, hard shells that rattled with each breath.
A single figure emerged from the metal pod and another barked at him from under its mask. “Jokul, how are the colonists?”
The man, Jokul, stretched and yawned. “They’re fine. A little disorientated from their Sleep but they’ll brighten up pretty quick. There was some turbulence on re-entry; the shuttle handled it well enough.”
“It’ll be strange, not having the place to ourselves anymore. A proper Colony. Hmph. I never liked a crowd.” said the first in reply.
“Council’s orders. A lot of them are refugees from Orand. The war’s displacing a lot of people, I guess it must be pretty bad if they’re relocating them to such an outta-the-way corner of the galaxy like us,” said Jokul as he turned to a panel set into the side of the airlock from which he had just come. One button press closed the door, and several turns of a small crank inset into the panel made the entrance lock down and seal with a hiss. The man pressed another button and he lifted his hand to speak into an intercom; “Max, airlock’s sealed. Start sending them through.”
A minute later the airlock opened again with the same hydraulic hiss, and a group of people, also in red and wearing breathing masks, stumbled out. Their faces looked noticeably pale as they stared at their surroundings, huddling on the asphalt a distance from the shuttle.
A father and child came out next; a man holding bundles of belongings, and a small, wide eyed child. The suit the child wore was loose and the extra fabric bunched around her ankles and elbows.
Her father led her by the hand away from the shuttle and sank to the ground. He leant against his luggage wearily and closed his eyes. He looked as if he had once been strong and lean, but the years and months in stasis on the starship had left him disorientated and weak merely from the act of standing. The tags on his luggage marked him from Orand; a farmer, pioneer. Interstellar war had ripped him from his home world and left him a refugee.
The girl stood behind her father, staring at the next group of people as they emerged from the shuttle. She had been five when they had left. She remembered in a dreamlike way the dusty, rocky soil, the open, treeless hills spreading out in any direction. The red sun turning the gray cattlebrush that covered the hills delicate hues of lavender and mint-green as it sank below the mountains in the East.
She was frightened and enthralled by the towering, dark undergrowth nearby. The trees a hundred yards further blocked half of the sky with their dark forms. The light from the moons was gray and misty, and the air seemed to thicken and muffle the sounds of the men as they worked the airlocks.
Her father was dozing; she set her small bundle upon the blacktop and took a step towards the forest. A broad, sooty leaf from a fern-like plant hung over the asphalt, trembling. She put her hand out, and let the tip of the frond rest on it. It was soft, not dry and rough like the desert plants back home. One more step and the plant brushed her, and she could smell through her air filter the sulfurous aroma that permeated the air here. She looked back once at her father, still sitting numbly on the ground, and the other figures as the huddled around the shuttle.
Quietly, she slipped into the forest.
The ground fell steeply away, dead leaves and branches littering the forest floor. The girl had to walk diagonally down the slope, her feet sliding down with each step in the soft, un-trodden soil. The fern-plants dotted the slope and the dark tree canopy blocked the sky.
As the ground leveled, she had to scramble through a barricade of tangled plants, and found herself at the edge of a clearing. She stopped. She suddenly felt afraid and tired. Whirring and scuttling sounds came from the trees. Her breathing was amplified by her suit, and her feet caught on a branch as she stepped into the open space between the trees.
She sat down on a fallen tree and felt the blood thumping wildly in her legs. Her hands were shaking. How long had it been since she had walked on uneven ground? Felt real air? Her shrewd nine-year-old mind laughed at itself, a nine year old confident in her own wisdom. She was shocked by her own blatant rule-breaking.
Suddenly, thoughts of her father and the world above swamped her. They must have found out by now. Frightened by the thought, she turned.
In the shadows something stood. Gray, with strange eyes. Taller than her. Not a wolf or a cat or anything else.
She caught her breath and held her arms closer to her sides. She remembered a book about a cat she had read once. On the space ship before the sleep. Cats were from the planet Earth. Kitty kitty kitty, she thought.
But this cat was alien of course.
The alien cat was watching her with pupil-less eyes. He took a slow step forwards, and another.
She took a little scared step back.
The cat stopped abruptly, a few feet in front of her, looking at something over her shoulder. His face grimaced and he glared. Flicked his ears back.
Stay still. Stay still.
He sat sharply and hissed.
She is of those who killed Him.
He glanced at the girl, who had stumbled backwards and lay, trembling, her back pressed against the ground. The smell of fear hung thickly in the air, repulsive.
The girl’s eyes flickered between the two creatures before her. The first cat was watching her, eyes narrowed and muscles tense beneath gray fur.
The other one was smaller. Her fur- for it was surely a her in the mind of the child- was a paler gray, and smoother looking. This one watched the Gray one. To the girl she seemed to exude a certain power that held him in check.
Finally she turned her gaze to the child.
It is just a child.
The Gray blinked.
It killed Him.
The Gray turned towards the child, his breath upon her face, pinning her down.
Her kind killed him. She will die. A life for a life.
He bared his teeth, body trembling with anticipation.
The other came upon him swiftly, cutting him off and forcing him to step back. She mouthed his ear and he cringed, stepping off of the girl and crouching before her.
No. It is a child. We do not kill the young.
The female turned her head down to watch the small, wide-eyed creature who was trembling beneath her. It almost seemed to understand and listen, turning its head towards her as she began again.
Its parents will come looking soon. I can hear them calling. It was not the child’s fault that its kind has killed. She is alone and scared.
The forest quieted as the calling reverberated through the forest.
The female rose, and cautiously the gray slunk away into the shadows and disappeared into the forest as if dismissed. The female watched the child.
Get up, she seemed to say.
When the child did not move, the creature bent and nuzzled her shoulder.
Get up. Get up. Where is your mother? She is calling, said the voice in the child’s mind.
With a whimper the child sat up. With another nudge, she stood, and gave a sad little cry. She took a tentative few steps forward, and stopped. She looked at the cat-thing, and seemed to understand.
Then she ran into the forest the way she had come.