Chapter 2 Ambush
The expedition was due at 0200, in three hour’s time. Admiral Lennyson, fleet commander, briefed the mission to the troop consisting of personnel from special fields: Keith Gunter being the leader, Sarah Hitcher and Gerard Medler were Special-ops commandos, Reuban Anderson the system maintenance officer, Crystal Griffin the paramedic, and other three private personnel, one Terran and two Gochamout soldiers, namely Hike, Gadan and Silac respectively.
“We’re travelling 10 o’clock, 4 Halospeed,” announced Reuban.
The departure from Neo Gamma to the planet, codenamed Neo Harbour, was going smoothly. Keith reread the mission objectives on his deck. They were supposed to explore Neo Harbour and open a colony there, for a reason. Once the settlement was created, it would function as a docking bay for warships, as its name suggested. The eight of them were to make sure that the planet was safe from any alien inhabitancies that would threaten the Terrans.
“We’re approaching Neo Harbour’s atmosphere. Oxygen density check: ten-percent of atmosphere. Water molecule check: forty-percent of whole mass, solid structure. We’ll be traversing an ice-capped terrain. No oxygen supplies needed.”
Trekker V penetrated through the thick swirling mists with high speed. There was a slight rumble and then it stopped altogether with the engine. They had landed.
The team stepped out from their ship into a new place still wild and waiting to be explored, except for Reuban, remaining behind to guard Trekker V. Due to the lighting, everything around the area looked blue – blue rocks and blue ice everywhere. Afar, some trees came to view, but they were actually unique rock formations moulded into extraordinary shapes and sizes. Besides those, nothing else was present, no sign of life.
“We need to split into three teams,” said Keith to his comrades, “Hike, Gadan and Sarah will form a team and you’ll cover section A, to the west. Gerard and Silac will cover section B. Crystal and I will cover section C. Any problems with the arrangements?”
“Of course not. You get to choose your own partner every time,” commented Sarah with a sniggering tone. Keith ignored her. Crystal giggled to herself.
Three teams set off for their tasks. Each team was assigned a navigator for them to plot the map and landscape, and as a safety precaution in case they lost their way round the foreign planet.
Keith moved towards the broad horizon vigilantly, Crystal tagging behind. The navigator proved useful for him to survey the terrain and search for landmarks for easy plotting. In that unravelled plateau where every place looked almost the same, it was hard to recognise the directions. But finally, a frozen sort of river came to view, and next to it, a ravine.
“There isn’t anything here, is there?” asked Crystal, after vanquishing hopes of finding any living beings nearby. “Yes, it’s just a bare island,” agreed Keith, staring at the dull stillness of the landscape, “just like in my….”
His words cut short by a startling beep of the navigator. The soft signal continued followed by a red flash on the display of the machine, and then changed into a gridline where two red dots were marked on the coordinates. Keith sensed danger, hence pulled Crystal to a safe hiding spot, behind some lofty stalagmites. “What’s the matter, Keith?” she asked. “Company.”
He peered beyond the rock formations and rolled his eyes around, then wore his goggles for a better view. Far towards the frozen stream, he saw movement of some living beings moving. Keith adjusted the lens for a more precise picture, only to find the worst possibility of their encounter – scavenging Arzankans! Flashes of his dreams started to play in his mind again, as the bloodcurdling images of those creatures reappeared to torture him. He shuddered, but controlled his fear, and made his move.
“We must return to Trekker V immediately. I hope the others won’t get into trouble.” Without further explanations, he dragged Crystal along, who was quite bewildered over his sudden change of plans.
The eerie darkness and the spine-chilling Arzankans made him uneasy, an inkling of something ominous that would befall him and his compatriots. Most of all, he was worried about Crystal, as having someone dear at times of unforeseen dangers was a burden and obstacle. He should have requested for her exclusion from the mission, or place her as deck observer, if that was the best option.
Butterflies in his stomach disappeared as Trekker V came to view, a sign of protection from the wild. Once he reached for Reuban, he would send a signal to the rest of the exploring teammates to call them back for a departure. It was the best action a leader must take to ensure the safety of his subordinates, even though it meant failing the mission and being demoted by the superiors. There were too many risks to take, and he valued life over glamour.
Along their return, he noticed something strange about Crystal, about her walking queasily as though she had just drunk. Perhaps tiredness needed a rest, so they stopped. Her face looked disturbed, so was he, thought Keith. The best he could offer in this situation were words of comfort, so he said, “this may be a treacherous country, but I’m confident we can get out of here safe and sound – you need not worry too much, dear….”
Keith watched her again, but queerly, there was no response. Crystal sat still all the time, seemingly to be musing in her own world. Keith bothered less, and held her by the shoulders from behind, trying to soothe whatever taunting her. “Crystal…” he sighed.
This time, he managed to draw her attention a little, seeing her turn her head around. However glad he was, when he saw her face, he was shocked a thousand times more than relief. To his horror, Crystal’s eyes were gleaming green, and her face changed, teeth grew into sharp, menacing fangs! She gestured him with a snarl, which made him flinch and tumble over. Too shocked for words, he could only see Crystal flee into the darkness back the way they came from, in a total silence.
Alone by himself, he could not quite place the whole incident in his mind – his benumbed senses, as an effect from his fright, gradually returned. “Crystal!” Screaming, he leapt off on her trail. Puzzled and taken aback he was as her actions replayed in his mind, her strange behaviour and intimidating manner. But whatever she could have turned into, (from stories he heard about people turning into monsters after being exposed by radioactive cosmic particles), he must get her back. So he ran, pursuing the tracks with all his might, lest mishap befall her the longer he had delayed.
Heading back the route as far as he could remember, the surroundings looked the same, great rocks and boulders that never moved, except that they were now darker and scarier to him. Mild winds that blew occasionally were like dry ice, cutting cold, nearly freezing him into a popsicle. But he kept on undaunted, braving the cold. The land soon came back to the ravine that they saw earlier. The Arzankans were gone, left only Crystal, standing over the ledge, staring down at the dark abyss.
“Crystal!” Keith shouted, running to her. When he was at least two metres away from her, Crystal suddenly swayed around, her eyes still green with fury, still fuming mad. Wherever gone the beauty of her azure eyes that were the faith of his troubled soul in times of peril? “Crystal, please listen to me!” he begged piteously, but Crystal still remained unresponsive to his assuages. She stood still, eyeing irately at Keith, until he extended his hand towards her.
His sudden move startled her utterly, and retreated her steps, unaware of the ravine behind that anticipated her plunge into the depths beyond. One fateful slip and down she fell, but just at the nick of time, Keith caught her by the hand, saving her from a disastrous end.
“Don’t let go!” he shouted, lying just above while his arm strained to lever her up from her overhanging on the crag. Despite the coldness, his palm began to sweat. It soon became slippery and it was difficult to hold on to her.
“Must… hold… on….” he uttered to keep his spirits going. As cold sweats trickled down his brow, his paling face wrinkled, and a trembling arm struggling, depleted of strength and energy, Crystal’s hand was slipping, little by little off his grip. The last he could hold her was her fingertips, and then down she plunged, plummeting a few thousand leagues below.
“CRYSTAL!” his eyes widened with horror, as he watched forlornly his dearest for the last time, falling further and further away into the chasm, and just disappeared from his sight. He could not believe his eyes; to see that one minute she was still clinging to his arm, and the next minute she left him without a even a farewell. No, Crystal was still there!
“What do you think the future holds for us, Keith?” asked Crystal, staring hopefully at him.
“After the war, let’s start a life fresh anew, you and me. I’ll bring you to a place called Eden, a very beautiful place. There we shall stay peacefully and have our own children. Somewhere far, far away from here, and nobody to disturb us….”
But now, these words were just echoes that flowed along with the merciless wind. He was unsure of whether if they were just one big lie, or some conspiracy to make him miserable. To continue with life was totally meaningless to him now, or it was what he thought in that situation. Suppressing no more of his emotions, he wept bitterly, peering forlornly at the bottomless pit. Little by little he felt himself as light as a feather, as the fire in his valiant heart died down completely – it never occurred to him that free-falling could be so gratifying, letting loose of everything he once clutched tightly to, the burdens of his emotions – and inside a little voice thought: I’ll be joining you, Crystal… wait for me, wait for me….
A sudden searing pain attacked his heart. Had he landed, crushing all his bones and ribs piercing into his guts? He would, by then, be reunited with his dearest again. Or perhaps… as he opened his eyes, there was just darkness, he hanging mid-air, and a belt supporting his midriff. Slowly, he was being pulled up, and hauled back on the surface again by some strong hands. Not too long after that, came a distinguishable voice with a very strong alien accent.
“Have you lost your mind, Shjrous? You are killing yourself jumping down the endless gutter like that. Are you insane, or what?”
“Just let me die!” Keith groaned, his eyes raging with fury, looking at his mis-saviour ungratefully. The person standing before him, from his features – great fins on his head and gills on his chests – represented no less a superior Nyuek in a Guard’s uniform, the Raunoblean’s Colony second highest-ranking officer. He snarled viciously at the Nyuek, gritting his teeth, almost forgetting if he was a Terran with dignity or worse than a beast.
“Bah, you talk to me like that, foolish Terran?” the Nyuek scorned, and then kicked him at his torso. Keith curled with pain. The Nyuek continued to drag Keith along with him. “I saw everything. You chasing that comrade of yours when she jumped into the gutter. What the heck, and you followed her down? No, you don’t die too early, you selfish dirt! I have a whole load of questions unanswered, and YOU are answering them for me!”
Grasping his shoulders tightly, the Nyuek pushed him through the rocky terrain. However hard he tried to shrug it off, the firm hand remained gripped onto his flesh.
Keith followed submissively the Nyuek’s instruction to lead them back to Trekker V, although not understanding why he would do so and not returning to his own ship, or wherever he wanted to take him in the first place. Upon reaching, he could see the team gathered outside the ship, but decreased by a few of his teammates. Again, his heart ached to find more casualties in this fatal mission, gaining nothing but sorrows. “We’re being ambushed!” he heard them discussing, “Hike and Gadan were killed, Silac disappeared to nowhere! And where’s Gunter and Griffin?”
“Look, it’s Lieutenant Gunter!” cried Reuban, pointing towards the duo. Then seeing the Nyuek officer, immediately they raised their guns and pointed at him.
“Make no move any closer,” warned Sarah, “and release the man.”
“You’ve misunderstood. I’m not your enemy; we have a common foe! I know I’m not in a position to say I come in peace, but, if I’m your enemy, I wouldn’t have brought your friend back in one piece.”
“He has his point,” said Gerard, “guys, put your guns down, and hear what he has to say.”
“Thank you for believing me. But now, we better leave this place as soon as possible and talk later. This whole area is overrun by Arzankans!”
“Before we leave, where’s the other woman?” asked Sarah.
“I’ve only time to save one. The other, she jumped off a ravine, and I can’t do anything about it.”
“Come on board then,” Gerard beckoned, trusting the stranger, “quick, before those savages chased their way here and it’s too late to even think of escape.”
Together, they helped the dishevelled Lieutenant into Trekker V, as he seemed to have fainted off amid their conversation. As the engine and thrusters roared to life, Trekker V started its launch into space again, dashing through the atmosphere wedging through thick layers of fog.
Once out in the black nothingness, Reuban checked on the radar. His face changed into a scowl, and announced dispiritedly, “it looks like we’re unable to even make a detour to Neo Gamma, I’ve a huge reading of unfriendly units blocking all alternative routes. We’ve to move on for safety.”
“And so be it, if it couldn’t be helped,” said Gerard, acting as second-in-command.