Please Enjoy A Short Story by George L. Duncan
Reaper Planet - By George L. Duncan
Bureaucracies or chains of command, whether military or civilian, are exasperating because they often move at a snail's pace. Occasionally, though, when the Powers That Be want something done, they react with astonishing speed.
It was the latter case when Dr. Edison Altamonte was literally dropped in front of my make-shift command post on Jardoval just three days and five hours after I had requested him. Dr. Altamonte had been a few solar systems over but Earth Command demanded light-speed priority in getting him to the base.
As he shuffled into my office, while wiping the dirt from his wrinkled uniform, Dr. Altamonte did not look happy. His hair was ruffled, a red, ugly bruise spotted his forehead and a few nodules of the black Jardoval sand darkened his chin.
Because he had been so rushed, I forgave him for his ragged salute.
"You requested me, sir."
"Yes, I did."
"May I be at ease, sir?”
"Thank you. May I speak freely, sir?"
He growled but I ignored it.
"I know what you're going to say major, and I don't want to hear it. I need you here."
"Do you know where I was?"
"Probably chasing skirts on some obscure planet where the women have not yet heard of your reputation."
"No, sir, I wasn't. The women on Jamaica Two don't wear skirts. It's a beautiful planet with no large land mass. Thousands of islands are spread across a watery landscape. The weather is tropical and the women, at least in the bar I was at, wear very skimpy outfits. Hardly anything at all actually. I had a month's leave."
He plopped down in the chair and sighed heavily. "On Jamaica Two they also have an amazing drink called Coral Reef Punch. It is the finest liquor I have ever tasted.
I had moved over to the small bar and held up a bottle.
"That'll be fine."
I poured a drink and took it over to him. "I need a man of your expertise. You are the best in your field, or fields, as the case may be. The sooner I get answers the sooner you go back to your island paradise."
I moved back behind my desk and sat down in the black officer's chair. Altamonte sipped his drink.
"What is it, exactly, you want me to do?"
I waved my hand to indicate the planet around us. "This un-island paradise is Jardoval. A few solar systems down from here is a planet called Titus, named for one of early galactic explorers."
"Spare me the travelogue. Just the basic details...sir."
"Titus has about twenty thousand colonists. However, seismic activity threatens to, in the future, rip the planet apart. Evacuation plans are being made. This is the closest habitable planet and was thought to be a perfect place to move all the colonists."
"So move them and let me go back to Jamaica."
"There's one small issue. At one time this planet was inhabited. A primitive, rural culture, much like prehistoric man back on Earth. That's our best guess anyway. But all the inhabitants have disappeared. As if they were wiped off the face of the planet. My superiors are not about to transplant colonists until they find out what happened to the original inhabitants. If something killed the first group, the new colonists could be in danger too. It is believed the natives lived here until relatively recently then..." I snapped my fingers. "Nothing. They vanished."
He drained his glass. "As usual, when the civilian command has a problem they send for Commander MacCloud and the Spacehawks. Bet you prefer dealing with ravenous Chinors than with bureaucrats and politicians."
"It's a toss-up. So I need your expertise. I need to find the Grim Reaper on this planet and, if necessary, break his scythe. To do that, I need you.”
"OK. Piece of cake."
"That's one thing I like about you, Ed. That overwhelming sense of modesty. But you do have an amazing ability to piece together disparate information to find the truth. Your science facility is two doors down from here."
"Close enough so you can keep an eye on me."
"Close enough so we can communicate with each other. I want daily reports."
He sighed again and stiffened in the chair. "OK, but if I need something done, I don't want to start filing forms in triplicate."
"The scientific staff and the military personnel have been informed your wishes are the highest priority. All the information our science teams have gathered is in your office. In addition, we have several Spacehawk squadrons on the ground and two mother ships hovering above us. The two ships have fully-staffed science departments to help.
He stood up and placed his empty glass on my desk. "By the way, is Lt. Lynquest still with your squadron?"
"Lt. Lynquest and I are engaged."
He jerked like he had just spotted a husband coming home early. "Oh. Does she still have the neuro-electro implants?”
"Congratulations." He smiled, then shook his head. "Well, she never liked me much anyway.”
"Yes, I did," Tequesta said as we flew over a Jardoval forest. We both had jet packs on as we surveyed the landscape. "He can be a very charming guy. I didn't approve of his lifestyle. Didn't like his ego either. It's as big as the orb of Jupiter."
I smiled. "Humility is not one of his strong points."
We turned north into the wind as the forest dwindled into hilly, yellow plains. She wore the blue vid-binoculars but her golden hair blew in the breezes.
"The first time he sees a female Spacehawk," she said, raising her voice over the wind.
"He won't be distracted. He is, first and foremost, a scientist. Give him a scientific challenge and the juices start flowing. When he gets his teeth in something, he has an intensity that will melt steel."
We eased down and landed on flat, barren land. The Jardoval grasses, six inches of green flat reeds, swayed in the wind. A half dozen huts stood before us, abandoned and decrepit.
I looked around but saw nothing moving.
Tequesta knelt down and ran her hand along the ground. She scooped a handful of dust up, tossed it and then brushed her hand against her leg.
"Never liked this planet. " She shook her head. "Something is odd here. Have you noticed that, in addition to no people, there are not that many animals in the forests and brooks? All this fertile land should be teeming with creatures."
"I've wondered about that. Don't know what to make of it though." I flicked the jet switch. "Let's go."
We lifted and flew slowly south. We circled a jagged, brown canyon but I saw nothing of interest. Tequesta had sharper eyes.
"Down here," she said, as she sped past me.
I followed her, breaking against a wind gust that tossed me against a sand hill when I landed. Tequesta was six feet in front of me, kneeling behind a boulder. As she brushed away some sand, I saw what had caught her eye. A bone, bleached by the Jardoval sun, stuck out from the ground.
It was the only trace of the planet's original inhabitants we'd discovered. Tequesta spoke quickly into her transmitter, calling for forensic transport. The gusty winds must have uncovered the body. The skeleton had very distinct markings.
"I'm not a forensic anthropologist but I'm guessing something took a bite out of him," I said. "Those rib bones looked like they were crunched."
"Yes, what ever did that has to be pretty large and strong," said Tequesta. "You know how much power it takes to bite through three ribs?"
"No, but I'm sure our scientists will tell us. Right now, let's just go with, 'a lot."
"Imprecise," Tequesta said. "But accurate."
I waved Altamonte into the office as Lt. Wendy Lee finished her report on the planet survey. All our squadrons had turned up nothing. She is one of our finest young Spacehawks. Intelligent, dedicated, eager. Slender with dark hair and her face showed signs of her Asian ancestry. When the major walked in, he kept his glare toward her. Without missing a syllable, Lt. Lee shot out her arm and grabbed his chin.
“I also have the neuron-electro implants, major,” she said. She yanked his head toward me. “So keep your eyes on the commander.”
I had to smile.
When she was dismissed, Altamonte plopped a twenty-page folder on my desk. Two wisps of dust swirled into the air as he dropped the report. Tequesta sat on the edge of my desk. He gave her a wary smile, then pointed at the papers.
"They worshiped the planet," he said.
Today, Altamonte had a military bearing. He did not look sluggish from the long trip. His eyes were alert, his back straight. His uniform was impeccable. Even the ugly bruise seemed to have healed over night.
"They worshiped the ground we walk on," he said. "It's not unusual for primitive people to worship the planet. Even back in the 21st century we had people worshiping Gaia."
"What was Gaia?"
"It was their name for Earth. There was a belief among a fringe group that it was a living organism.”
"I would ask why they simply didn't call it Earth but I don't think that's relevant to the issue at hand."
"The worship here could be an indication of a somewhat advanced society. Many primitive peoples had primitive gods who were ruthless and bloodthirsty deities. The Aztecs, and the Moabites of the Bible to name two. Their gods demanded human sacrifices. Both races had a blood-drenched culture. I assume worshiping the planet was a bit more pacific."
His hand came up and scratched his jaw. "The puzzling aspect of this planet is not just that the previous population has disappeared."
"You can tell I know nothing about science. To me, that was the main question."
"That's what I was thinking too," Tequesta said
"True, all the natives have vanished, but so have their remains. That's an even bigger mystery."
"Beg your pardon?"
"Dead people," he said. "There are no dead people here. No cemeteries. No burial grounds. No remains. Very often primitive cultures have reverence for the body - even though most believed in a spirit world after death - so they made elaborate rituals for funerals. Sometimes, as with the Egyptians, they took special care to preserve the body, if the dead guy happened to be royalty. But even such diverse races as the Mayans, the Aztecs, or the Vikings honored the dead. The primitive cultures on other planets follow that pattern. That's how we gain the best information about a dead civilization - from burial plots, bones, bodies and the surrounding artifacts."
"None of that is here?"
"Nope. That's the mystery. No dead bodies. No living bodies either."
"Could the inhabitants have been transported to another planet?"
"No. Even if all the living inhabitants were somehow whizzed away, it's doubtful they would dig up all their dead ancestors for the trip."
He walked over to the bar and raised a bottle. "You mind?"
"Not at all."
He poured a glass then returned to his seat. "The information I've seen indicates this planet is just coming out of a mini-ice age. It wasn't long in geological time, just two, three hundred years maybe. We had a similar one back on Earth in the Middle Ages, which was followed by a warming trend around thirteen, fourteen hundred which lasted for a couple of hundred years too."
"Does that help us know what happened to the inhabitants?" I said.
"It might. Many could have been killed by the spreading glaciers. Plus, I just wanted to convey some information to you. I didn't want you to think I was over in my office doing nothing."
He took a sip of his drink. "The skeleton that the sharp-eyed Lt. Lynquest spotted is another puzzle. It shows evidence of massive trauma. Teeth, very large, and very powerful, bit off a large chunk of the dead man. I’m guessing there was some type of disruption during lunch. Whatever was munching on him fled because of all the commotion."
"From the bite marks, can you tell how large the creature was?"
"Still doing tests but I'm guessing it was the size of a small dinosaur. Those were big teeth.'
"We haven't seen anything close to that size on this planet."
Yes. However the skeleton may tie in to page nine in my report."
I picked up the booklet and skimmed to page nine.
"You're looking at a reproduction of one of the few samples we have of Jardoval primitive art."
Tequesta walked around behind me so she could view it too. Page nine showed a man - barely more than a stick figure - being swallowed by a gigantic maw of teeth.
"Not much of an artist," I said.
"No, but I'm guessing the artist is sketching, to the best of his ability, a real event, not a fictional one. He was probably shaking with fear when he drew that."
"I'd be afraid of something that big too," Tequesta said.
"No, you wouldn't. You have those implants. You could give that creature such a toothache."
Tequesta narrowed her gaze and smiled as she looked toward me. "The major speaks from personal, low-wattage experience."
"Hate to see what high would do. Anyway..." he tapped the page. "If the picture is accurate, there is something odd about those teeth."
I took a second glance at the omnivorous maw. "They don't look odd to me. They just look huge."
"Those teeth are not incisors. They're not designed for the ripping or tearing from a predator that has to chase down its prey. They're made for munching and chewing, much as a cow chews its' cud."
I took another look at the page. "You're reading a lot into a bad drawing."
"I have too, commander. I have to gleam every bit of information from the artifacts we have because there aren't that many."
"And you're doing a good job. Anything else?"
"Just one thing. I think it may be a mistake to say every single inhabitant has vanished. In the southern hemisphere there are many mountainous areas. If we searched every square inch, we might find a few natives. There even might be a few left on this continent, hidden away. This is a big planet, about 15 percent bigger than Earth, and I assume you don't have the men to search every inch of it.
"You're right about that."
"Something, clearly though, devastated the population."
The high-decibel whine of laser drills set our nerves on edge. A steady stream flowed from a block of ice as the red, fiery lasers sliced into it. Small chunks fell to the ground. The water turned the snow to slush and even our military boots couldn't keep the freezing water from soaking our socks. Droplets and slivers of ice spit back from the drilling and splattered our winter jackets and goggles, clouding my vision.
We were six hundred miles north of our command post.
I turned my back to the drilling and wiped away the water. My eyes focused on a smiling Tequesta, goggles on but her blue Eskimo hood partially down.
"I like cold weather," she said. "It's invigorating."
"No, it's not," I said. "It's just cold. This is not just cold, this is freezing. Sub-freezing. Probably sub-zero for that matter."
"You were right, though, to fly up here. We have found frozen remains."
I sloshed over toward Altamonte. He had knelt down and peered at a fleshly specimen of a Jardoval native. The body was solidly encased in a second block of ice.
"Not as primitive as our original guess," Altamonte said. "Clearly not what we would call a stone age man back on Earth. He could fit into the Mayan culture or any number of Native American tribes."
"Doesn't look like he had enough protective clothing."
"He didn't. He had pelts, leggings, animal skins around him but not enough to protect him from this kind of weather."
As if on cue, the wind howled and tossed snow flurries our way. Ice slivers mingled in with the snow. They slapped our blue jackets with a splat every time they hit. The whine of the drills continued in the background.
"At least we found some remains," I said.
Altamonte dug his dark glove into the Jardoval snow and studied it, as if it were tea leaves and he could foretell the future by looking at the jagged shapes.
"But they don't tell us a lot. We've found about a half a dozen bodies, all died by freezing. Their deaths reveal nothing about what happened to the rest of the natives." He tossed the snow aside. "But when I get back to headquarters I want to show you something."
Altamonte's lab facility was a bit cramped because he had computers and screens all over the room. I sipped coffee as he dashed between machines, punching in numbers or words. He pointed toward a blank screen on the wall. The screen flicked and displayed a map of the northern continent of Jardoval. Altamonte narrowed the scope to a six hundred mile radius of where the camp was located. To the north, the green plain wavered and become a light blue and then a deeper blue in the farthest region.
"Frankly, Ed, I've never been much for topography," I said.
He used a pointer to poke at the blue sections of the map. "Even up here we only found a few bodies. The ice is retreating, a process that began possibly fifty years ago. But look at this. Following the trails, this is the migration of several groups of this planet's indigenous tribes. "
Several red lines appeared on the map. Altamonte turned to me. "Does anything appear strange to you."
I was still shivering from our arctic sojourn so I was tempted to shrug and say no. Then the red lines caught my attention.
"The ice moved in from the north, from the polar regions," I said.
"So the migration should have gone south, to warmer locales. But your lines have three separate tribes going north, into the freezing climate."
"Yes. Odd, isn't it?"
"Darn right it is. I assume you have ruled out stupidity as the reason they headed north."
"Yes. I don't think they were suicidal or stupid. In fact, and this is a supposition and I have no hard evidence to back it up but I suspect..." he tapped the end of the three red lines with the pointer. "...and these were the most intelligent of Jardoval races."
He flicked a switch to call one of the mother ships. A few second later Capt. Eskine Lonnigan responded. Lonnigan is head of the science division on the ship.
"I need a dead body," Altamonte said.
"I beg your pardon."
Lonnigan sounded incredulous and I couldn't say I blamed him.
"I need a dead body, or a reasonable facsimile of a dead person and I need it to give off heat, enough heat to attract our sensors and...let's say, a predator."
Lonnigan started to protest but Altamonte cut him off. "I have Commander MacCloud here if you would like to check with him."
I walked over to the mic. "Captain, the doctor here needs a dead body. I think I know where he’s going. So see that he gets one."
"Sir, how am I supposed to do that?'
"You're a scientist, do something...scientific." I said.
I heard a long sigh.
Altamonte flashed me a big smile. "Isn't it fun giving orders?"
"Sometimes. But you have no idea of all the paperwork I have to deal with."
The carcass had arms and legs and was a reasonable facsimile of a dead body. Our "flyers" had scoured the land and found a site that held some odd markings and unique stone pillars. Which was just what we were looking for. A shuttle had brought the body and a Spacehawk squad to the specified location. I hooked into a jetpack as two soldiers placed the body down. I ordered every one back. I wanted at least twenty yards between us and the facsimile. Altamonte also slipped on a jetpack. We lifted off and hovered over the site.
"It's kind of a long shot," he said, when we were fifteen feet above ground.
"Worth trying," I said. "If nothing happens, all we've wasted is some time."
A stillness settled over the land. Not a leaf rustled in the trees. Tequesta and the other Spacehawks watched in silence. As solemn as a funeral service.
The rumbling came from below the surface. An odd noise, unlike any other I've heard. A heavy, grating whirling sound, almost like a giant blender. The ground under the body churned. Sands, grass and weeds twisted, whipping violently in a counter-clockwise motion, A small funnel formed and stretched down into the ground, and the rumblings became louder. A crevice widened under the body and opened slowly at first, then with quickening speed.
The ground split open, but instead of dirt, the gigantic maw came into sight. Huge teeth on each wall of dirt. The body slipped down, and the maw closed.
"I thought so," Altamonte said. "If we-"
The next second the ground shook so violently it knocked three Spacehawks off their feet. Other spots of ground began churning.
"Get to the shuttle!" I yelled.
The squad broke toward the transport. Two dodged and fired into holes now gleaming with organic molars.
In a split-second, the Earth opened and swallowed Tequesta. I zoomed toward her.
She landed on one wall of molars and planted her feet on one blunt tooth. As the other wall advanced, yellow flashes came from her hand. I flew into the crevice, grabbed her jacket and yanked her up. A cry or moan of anguish came from the ground. The fiery discharge had stunned the creature for a second. And a second was all I needed.
I roared toward the skies. Her feet were six inches off the ground when the earthly jaw closed.
Back in the shuttle, I ordered a quick count and found all Spacehawks were unharmed. I had placed the camp on stand-by, and ordered everyone to stay close to our other shuttles. It didn't take long to evacuate.
Altamonte, Tequesta and I stared down at the planet as our shuttle sped toward the mother ship.
"What was that?" Tequesta said.
"Gaia in all her glory," said Altamonte.
He nodded. "They worshiped the planet. She turned out to be a god, after all. But one of the more bloodthirsty ones. The planet is alive and...needed sustenance. Takes a lot of energy to run a planet, I guess. That's why some natives headed into sub-zero weather. They guessed even Gaia would have trouble splitting open twenty feet of solid ice. Moving loose dirt and sand is a lot easier. It was a good tactic but the climate became too cold for them.
"She ate them all?" I said.
"Would you mind not calling the planet 'she.' " Tequesta said. "I haven't observed any feminine qualities from Gaia or whatever it was called."
"She or It, I'm guessing, sensed the ice age was coming so she went into hibernation," Altamonte said. "But before she did, she gorged herself. The cold killed most of the other inhabitants. "
"But we've been on the planet for three weeks. The ground didn't open up under us," I said.
"She would wait for an offering, for a while at least. She -"
"Would you mind?" Tequesta said.
"It. It didn't need the altars. It could open the ground, but the altars became special, sacrificial places, perhaps even preferred by ... the planet. So when a new sacrifice was offered..."
"We will have to put a no trespassing sign on this planet. The Titus colonists will have to find some other place to go," I said.
Altamonte reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. "Now, commander, if you would sign this."
I took the sheet. "What is it?"
"An order extending my leave for another month due to my dedicated service on Jardoval, which probably saved the lives of thousands of colonists."
I looked at the sheet.
"You didn't include a commendation for yourself, too?"
He pointed to the bottom of the page. "Last paragraph, sir."
"Ego the size of the orb of Jupiter," Tequesta muttered.
I hastily scribbled my name and handed the paper back to him. As he walked away Tequesta said, “Can I zap him? Just once. A low-wattage zing.”
“No, but we may see him again,” I told her. “So, on the plus side, you may get another chance at him.”