Caustic wind howled across the black plain, kicking up eddies of dust that scratched at her visor. And each scratch was being eaten by the wind. These suits wouldn’t last as long as they’d predicted. Lieutenant Mara only hoped they would last long enough.
Beside her, just out of the field of vision her helmet allowed, she heard the crunching footsteps of Hinks, his oversized girth leaving deep imprints in the black sand. She could hear his laboured breathing through the comm link, and it was starting to get on her nerves.
She checked the display.
“Just a few hundred metres now,” she said, and listened to his rasping response.
“About bloody time.”
A violent gust pushed him sideways, and he stumbled into her shoulder. Together they went down, slowly, awkwardly landing on hands and knees. She waited for the wind to subside, then pushed him off of her hip and clambered upright.
The radar unit was nowhere to be seen. It must have landed in the sand and been covered by the gust. She couldn’t even make out its light beneath the dark, crumbling surface. Suppressing her expletive, she decided it didn’t matter. They were headed the right way, and it was only a few more steps over the crest anyway.
Grabbing his hand, as much for support against the howling wind as to hurry him along, it took all her strength and a concentration that hurt her head just to make those few extra steps. The rise in altitude was gentle, but it was enough to burn her thighs with agony.
At the top, she let the strong gravity do the rest of the work, and together they slid down into the calm shelter of the crater.
The ground down here was different. It was littered with the broken debris of shells, crunched and broken under heavy feet.
And there, right in the centre, was the nest.
It was made from the collected bones of the dead. A circle of desolation ringed this crater, not from the impact, but from the hunting instinct of the creature that now lived here. There was nothing left living within a five mile radius, and the only clue anything had ever lived here was the pile of bones acting as the alien’s bed.
And those bones were knitted together with thick acidic saliva.
Hinks collapsed to the ground, breathless, and she left him behind. Moving was easier now, without the violent wind, and within moments she was at the nest.
Mara started to climb.
The air filters in her suit were working overtime, she could hear their fans whining with strain, but she could still smell the stench of death and decay.
And there, curled up in a macabre slumber, she saw it.
Chest rising slowly, holding, then falling. It might have even been snoring, content in the hostile air of an acidic planet.
As she reached out her hand, it was shaking violently, and it took all her strength and self control to stop from recoiling as she touched the alien. Its shoulder was coated with a thick mucus membrane, but was solid armour beneath.
She gave it a gentle shake.
It opened one eye, blinked wearily, said ‘one more hour’, then rolled over and went back to sleep.