Angel of Death

By AMANDA CRUM

Survival is a good option.

     “Oh, it’s so beautiful. I mean, most planets seem so dead and barren.”

     Xenobiologist Jaqueline Nacey stood at the viewport of the exploratory starship Lewis. Its companion ship Clark was grounded nearby for repairs.

     The view from the ship was indeed spectacular. The newly-discovered planet Aurora IV presented a splendid palette of colors ranging from shy pastels to bold vibrant blues and greens.

     Trees soared ten stories high into the air, bare of vegetation up to the very tip of the trunk, then leafed out in cloudlike sprays of yellow leaves. The trunks were robin’s egg blue, with darker purple speckles. The grass was also yellow, but a darker shade than treetops. No wildlife had yet been seen, although that was to be expected. The heat from the ships’ landing and the accompanying noise had surely driven it away.

     The captain of the Lewis, Henry Roseberg, nodded. “Yes, it is—but remember, appearances can be deceiving. Never go out without the proper gear until all atmospheric conditions have been checked out. It wouldn’t do to have you dying from something that could have been avoided by wearing a protective suit. And always, always take a stunner. There’s no telling what kind of alien creatures are out there.”

     Jacqueline sighed. She’d heard the same lecture over and over during her training and the trip here. She was new at her profession, and this was her first off-planet assignment, but still, those precautions had been drilled into her head since childhood. Practically all of space remained unknown territory, and you couldn’t be too careful, even on long-settled planets.

     “The first thing you need to do on this planet is take the recorder and a skimmer and check out the wildlife. If something is wounded, you might use the remotes and capture it for study. Steer clear of carnivores, especially the big ones. Be very careful with everything, no matter how harmless it looks. Looks are often deceiving.”

     She nodded. How well she knew that! Back on her home planet, a small animal existed the size and shape of a basketball. It was fuzzy and cute and looked perfectly harmless, but it was really covered with minuscule needle-like hairs tipped in poison. Even the slightest brush against one could be fatal. Once they’d poisoned something, one side opened to reveal a mouth with rows of vicious teeth. The settlers had learned fast to avoid these creatures.

     Jaqueline stood in the airlock, fully suited and with a stunner strapped around her waist. She made her final check on her suit and the skimmer, and fastened the safety belt. She pushed the control and the lock doors slid silently open.

     Actually seeing the world outside up close was even more spectacular than the view from the ship. The trees seemed taller and the colors brighter. The violet sky shone even more brilliantly. Jackie gasped. This made the monotonous journey aboard the ship more than worth it. And just think of all the new animals to discover and to study! This mission promised to exceed her wildest expectations.

     She was really lucky to have been allowed on the trip. Usually only experienced scientists were allowed on the primary exploratory trips to a planet. Jaqueline had been the only available xenobiologist for this trip. The field was very limited, and only one school of alien biology existed. Gaining entrance was difficult, and once in it the work was very difficult. Not many students made it through, and then there was a high demand for their skills. Since the field was constantly changed as new discoveries were made, keeping up took a lot of hard work.

     So far eleven new planets had been discovered and settled. Only two of these were Earth-type planets immediately inhabitable. The other nine required at least minimal, and sometimes medium life support systems. One required dome cities. These were inhabited by the minimum number of workers needed to mine valuable subsurface minerals.

     The advance team had already set up collapsible sheds to house workers and equipment. They were now busy erecting a temporary lab for the scientists. That was of first priority, so the water and environment of the new planet could be thoroughly studied. Already a few of the scientists hustled around busily, collecting samples.

     Jackie mentally cursed the life support suit. Although it presented a great improvement over the moon suits of the first astronauts, it still had a lot of bulk, and the sides of the hood gave her tunnel vision. She made her way to the skimmer and got in. It was nice to be back in the driver’s seat after sitting so long in the spaceship with someone else driving. She always felt a little nervous whenever she couldn’t be the one controlling what happened. Jaqueline dreaded a trip to a strange city. Riding in computer-piloted cabs made her feel like a piece of cargo being shipped. As she started the skimmer off slowly through the trees, she kept a sharp eye out for movement. It would be her first clue as to what kind of alien life there was on this planet.

     After about fifteen minutes, she spotted a thicket of low shrubs shaking. She dropped down for a better look, only to discover that what she’d thought to be a patch of shrubs of eggplant-purple color was actually a flock of large birds with huge plumed tail-feathers pecking at something on the ground. She quickly turned on the recorder and dropped as low as possible without disturbing them. As one raised its head, she saw that while their bodies and plumed tails looked like those of ostriches, they possessed the huge ripping and tearing beaks of scavengers and fed on the remains of an animal. She couldn’t quite make out what sort of animal it was. Suddenly they all gave startled squawks and took off running. The animal revealed had been badly mutilated, but it looked to be some sort of animal about the size of a large dog. It was blue and had small purple specks in its fur. She assumed the color was camouflage. It would blend in well with the tree bark. Long claws tipped its paws, probably to aid in climbing.

     She landed the skimmer and, manipulating the remote arms from the cockpit, maneuvered the animal into a medium-sized specimen-bag. Then she noticed the reason the scavengers had left. She didn’t know why she hadn’t seen it before, but hovering on the edge of the clearing was some sort of animal. Its large wings resembled those of a butterfly, but there the resemblance stopped. It measured about four feet tall, and floated above the ground. Its wings undulated slowly, like a sheet rippling in the wind. At second glance they looked more like two transparent envelopes filled with air. The body was long and legless. It had a definite head, and a round, small mouth. Its eyes were like those of a squid. Wings and body had a pearly luminescence, visible even in the daylight. After observing Jackie a few moments, it turned and floated away. She blinked. It was a remarkable animal, the total effect one of almost horrible alien beauty.

     The next day she was out on another specimen-hunting trip when Captain Roseberg sped up in a skimmer. He jumped out and ran over. “We’ve got a problem,” he said. “One of the mineral scouts was killed today. You need to get back to camp immediately.”

     “Captain, I fail to see the relevancy of this to my current situation. Accidents happen all the time, especially on new planets.”

     “It is relevant, Miss Nacey, because he was killed by an animal, not an accident. If you will recall, your job is to study animals.” There was a hard edge to his voice. “Even if it had been an accident it is relevant to your situation as a member of this team.”

     “Yes, sir. I’d like to see the body. It could help me determine what killed him. I assume since he was a mineral scout he was alone when it happened.”  Her voice was subdued. She realized she’d spoken hastily, angry at being disturbed, and having her work cut short.

     “Of course. I have to warn you, though, it isn’t a pretty sight. Whatever got him left only an empty shell. Our med officer thinks whatever it was must be something like a Terran spider. It injected an enzyme that reduced his insides to jelly and then sucked him dry.”

     She felt sick at the very idea. She could handle a mauled body, but this sounded horrible. “Perhaps you’d describe the effects. What kind of wounds were there?”

     “There’s just one. It’s a puncture wound, just about palm sized.”

     She nodded. She hadn’t seen any animals with mouths equipped to do something like that. “I’ll finish up here and get back to camp. Meanwhile, I can keep my eyes out for something that could fit that description.’ Then she noticed that the captain wasn’t wearing his protective suit. “Is it all right to go without suits now?”

     “Yes. I forgot to tell you. The med people cleared it just before the body was found. One more thing. Whatever it was hit him from the front, but there were no signs of a struggle. That could mean it is incredibly fast-moving or something that looks harmless.”

     She nodded again. “I’ll be more careful. Be sure you warn everyone. The last thing we need is a lot of people killed. Tell them to steer clear of all animals if possible.”

     He then nodded and got back in his skimmer. She returned to her work, all the while trying to remember anything that could be of use. Surely the scout had seen what was coming at him. She hadn’t seen any really small animals here. None of the plants seemed carnivorous, but it was really too early to tell much about any of the wild life. Almost anything was possible.

     She glanced up from studying the bark of a tree where some kind of tree climber had dug its claws into the soft surface. She saw one of the beautiful animals she’d nicknamed “angels”. It floated about twenty feet away. She remembered Roseberg’s advice and started to leave, but then decided to observe it just a minute more. Surely it couldn’t move very fast. It looked like the wings might be filled with hydrogen, like the floaters of Ancar. That could explain how it just floated instead of actually flying.

     Suddenly she realized that the Angel had moved much closer, and she decided to get back in the skimmer. She started to step away, but her legs wouldn’t obey her. Her eyes looked onto those of the angel, and she knew what had killed the scout. The power of those eyes held her. Frozen, she could only stare as it got closer and closer. It didn’t need to move fast. It could hold its victims with its mind-power alone.

     Slowly, a needle-like tongue extended from its round mouth. She wanted to scream, but nothing came out. Then she felt a command. Her feet moved against her will, carrying her even closer to the monster.

     She didn’t hear the approaching skimmer.

     The next thing she knew, a laser beam shot across the clearing and hit the angel. It exploded in a burst of flame and she was free. She turned to find Roseberg’s skimmer. He was leaning out the side, still holding the laser pistol that had incinerated the angel.

     “I came back to tell you we’d need you back at camp in an hour. We’re having a briefing on the discoveries so far on this planet. Good thing I forgot to tell you before.”

     “You’re telling me! I would have ended up just like that scout. At the meeting I’ll tell you more about what I’ve surmised about the angels.”

     “Angels? I’d say that’s an odd name for a horror like that.”

     “Well, just think about them as angels of death.”

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