Past Light

The surveyor curled beneath his leafy covers just inside the forest edge and looked into the field.

“Did I really see that?” he asked again.

He honestly didn’t know any more and tried to think back to what he had seen—a human face peering at him over the back of one of the horse-like animals. The features had looked young, definitely male, and the surveyor seemed to remember long hair. No clothing or tools had been apparent, but he only got a split second to take it all in. He couldn’t be sure of anything he saw.

He lay, quietly listening. No sounds whispered except for a bit of wind in the leaves. The lost pilot checked the homing signal again and wasn’t surprised when it didn’t show anything. How could it be malfunctioning? Maybe this planet had some unknown quality that disrupted the signal. He switched the thing off. There would be no wandering around in the dark anyway, with or without a working beacon. Maybe if he left it off all night, it would reset.

“Just stay alive until morning.”

The surveyor remembered the animals he saw that day, and they had seemed like herbivores. A planet of herbivores? Perhaps he would be fine after all.

He glimpsed the moon rising over the tree tops across the way. It cast a comforting glow, making the world feel normal. He sighed. The soft powdery light rested on the leaves and grasses nearby, outlining them against the total obscurity of this strange planet. Behind him the forest darkened and deepened. He had turned away from it in an effort to put the gaping blackness out of his mind, but the pervasive gloom breathed upon his back, sending a tingle creeping up his neck like an unwanted thought. On the edge of dark, the surveyor turned toward the solace of the visible world.

Then he sat up and stared.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” he asked himself.

He could not believe what he saw. The moon was strangely deformed. It appeared to be a large ball with another smaller ball protruding out of one side of the bottom. How the hell did that happen? It disturbed and amazed him. Such a thing seemed impossible. He watched the moon rise and wondered at it a long while until he could feel his eyes getting heavier.

“What a mess.”

But he’d fix everything tomorrow, and then he’d be rich. The pilot just needed to make sure to keep his head. No crazy running around. Get back to the business at hand. Who cares what he saw, or thought he saw today.

He prepared to surrender himself to sleep when a disturbing noise shocked him to attention. A deep, gravely howl answered by another, the second seemingly closer than the first. They sounded distinctly carnivorous.

He remained still. It was useless to try to peer into the darkness of the forest. All he could see were the amorphous shapes that played across his own eyes—phantom forms shifting and drifting—so he couldn’t be sure if he was really seeing anything or not. Instead he listened with more intent than he had ever attempted before, hoping to hear an image into his head. A number of small disturbances in the undergrowth rustled here and there. Nothing too alarming. They seemed incidental and sporadic, as if they were random, unrelated forest occurrences, but after a while, he realized these distant sounds were gradually coming closer. Something—or some things—approached, not directly, but in a weaving, searching pattern.

He wanted to run. To where? To what? He would only manage to draw attention to himself. But he didn’t want to just lay there and offer himself as a feast.

Not far away he heard a strange noise like a quick gurgling hiss. It was followed by a heavy “hawoomph” which almost reminded him of a bark. This second sound had come from a slightly different direction. The surveyor regretted not keeping his stick nearby, and fear kept him from groping around for it. Still hoping he could remain undetected, he listened keenly and heard nothing more for a moment.

He almost jumped from his leafy cover when it burst from the darkness—an exploding storm of panic and terror. It started with a high-pitched squeal and was instantly joined by loud ravenous growls and screams. He could hear the cracking and thwacking on the disturbed underbrush. It lasted for ages in his frozen mind. Finally, the squealing died, and soon after the other noises faded. He didn’t move. The surveyor could easily imagine what had just happened, and he tortured himself with the bloodstained thought he too could soon be sacrificed to the ravenous dark.

It took about an hour before he could hear anything other than the thumping of his own heart. The nocturnal forest slowly came to life. There were swishes and crinkles, scatterings and scamperings in the night. He jumped at every sound and got no sleep at all.

End of Excerpt

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