Arthur was getting tired of this. His entire body sent shivers of pain throughout tired, weakened limbs. He was getting damn tired of this. His vision cleared to human clarity and beyond creating waves of nausea. He waddled like a sick puppy a few feet before forced to rest. The ground seemed to be coated with glue and the stalactite ceiling swirled like a vortex and roared in desperation to pull him in. With great effort, Arthur grasped the ground and summoned his remaining strength to stay standing on all fours. The ripples of sickness slowed as his body began to fully recover.
Arthur jumped to his feet nearly throwing his entire weakened balance off. His head slammed into a hanging stalactite; a former hanging stalactite as Arthur severed the annoyance with a quick tail swipe. It took five seconds to figure out he was in a cave and five more seconds to realize that was seriously wrong. Where was he before? A scream of whirling metal and a shower of sand rocked his memory straight. He was still alive after losing control in the high atmosphere with a damaged ship. That was a death sentence he narrowly avoided. Lucky bastard. A light trickle of water attested to a small underground river floating somewhere above him.
Now where the hell was he? "
Stop asking questions and get on with it.
The transformed man whipped his head around looking for the source of the voice and found nothing but himself. Water dripped from stalactites running down his chitin-like skin. Arthur reached to wipe off the water but felt only dry skin. Concussions played tricks on the mind. Right? He crawled through a myriad of tunnels leading to a simple maze like cavern. He followed a small trench dug after he was dragged bodily from the wreckage and dropped into this cavern like a sack of meat. He listened to the water as it flowed downwards and went up the opposite direction.
Get on with it.
A wave of nausea hit Arthur again. Arthur carefully explored tenderly testing his light wounds feeling little more than strained muscles after a too difficult work out. Alien physical superiority made crashing into a planet nothing more than shaking off a few cramps. But it did nothing to shake off mental exhaustion. He could faintly see the faint vibrations of light movement up ahead. It was the largest cavern spotlighted by the everlasting desert sun through the small entrance twenty feet away.
STOP WAITING AND GET ON WITH IT!
A jackhammer thundered through Arthur's head and he collapsed rolling on the floor with every pulse of pain. Damn! He felt the need to wretch violently but had no ability to do so. He did not need this right now! It took Arthur five seconds to realize he was completely surrounded by an army of drones. All cocked their heads in curiosity and seethed with an emotion resembling concern. Every alien in the cavern paused; no one moved an inch.
Leave him be.
The Queen's hypnotic voice sent them running back to her. Arthur trailed them. Deep in the back of the interconnected cave system, the Queen languished. The drones surrounded her offering support in whispers and hisses. They knew she was in pain, but they did not understand why. She was in pristine condition looking as if she walked around a block instead of crashing into a planet. Yet every ragged movement from her massive body was slow and exhausting. The drones tendered to her as some mockery of a family.
He was human.
They moved to help her, and he felt as if he should join them.
He did not belong here!
He should not be here!
This time he listened to the voice. He darted out of the caverns ignoring his still weakened condition. The bright almost orange desert world shocked the senses. The scenery was covered by a dull blue atmosphere, and sand extended forever occasionally broken by a large oasis or the mountain range where the caverns were carved by small underground rivers. His human like run instinctively turned into a wolf-like lope surfing across the wind-dominated sand dunes. He ran, but in his mind he flew. He flew far away from this scorched world and soared free.
He had to stop eventually to rest on the trough of a fifteen foot high sand dune. The caverns were now miles behind him. The mountain range that contained them was nothing more than a small hill on the horizon. A pillar of translucent grey smoke sparkled a hundred meters beyond above him. The life pod! Was it still intact? From a standing start, he cleared the sand dune landing clumsily in the other side. His balance, still a little off from diving into a planet, gave out and he tumbled the rest of the way to the ship.
Minutes, hours… Arthur could no longer tell. The sun never moved an inch since when he ventured out. The ship was destroyed beyond all recognition. A twisted sculpture of steel and melted electronics was scooped into a deep trench and mixed up like a landfill. He searched through the wreckage for a ray of hope, some sort of communications equipment, a map, or something! His mind played tricks in him disguising random junk as communications devices. Panic began to get the better of him. He began to dig wildly; claws ripped through every piece of equipment. He accidentally grasped a piece of red hot metal. Arthur screamed in pain and shook it off by relentlessly punching the wreckage, denting thick steel, and kicking up a plume of sand.
He forced himself to relax and picked out chunks of metal stuck underneath his claws. He vowed to himself: he would find a way off this rock. God willing, he would escape and regain his humanity. He reached down and picked up a clump of sand letting it slide between his fingers. God help whatever got in his way.
Location: High Orbit, LV-786
A cylindrical gun shaped ship barreled silently through space. The mission was classified. The destination was withheld and given only to General Sherman, sole commander of this operation.
Dr. Haley breathed a stressful sigh as the cryogenic status woke her body. She slipped out of the cryogenic tube; the equipment monitoring her life signs promptly went into stand by. She stretched lightly, yawning, and pushing stiff blonde hair away from her eyes. Some people dreamed during cryogenic status. She never had anything of the sort. It was just a prolonged nap. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and smoothed out her cryogenically-approved white tank top and matching shorts..
The cryogenic room was a hexagonal metal cage with two automatic doors recessed into the wall. The room held six dull grey cryogenic chambers aligned with each edge of the room. Otherwise, the room was an immaculately clean off white. What time was it?
"Morning, Dr. Haley."
Dr. Haley nearly jumped through the roof, startled.
General Sherman, in normal battle dress, watched her. It was unnerving to keep eye contact. His glare could carve through solid granite. She nervously fidgeted before bringing up the strength to respond.
"Morning, General," She whispered and then forcefully cleared her throat with a light cough.
"We will be arriving at our destination shortly. If you notice, the others have woken up a few hours earlier than you." General Sherman entered the room and the door sealed the chambers.
"I assure you, I am prepared-"
"Dr. Haley, how well have you known Dr. Lorne?"
Dr. Haley looked confused for a moment.
"I believe you worked with him for a few years did you not?"
"Yes," she nodded. "I was his assistant for his early nanite research. Nothing as complex as what he has now, of course, but –"
"You knew him well I take it." General Sherman opened the door turning his back to her.
"Yes, he was almost a father to me. He helped out when I nee-"
General Sherman interrupted Dr. Haley, turned his back to her and then casually walked out the door. Dr. Haley stood with her mouth gaping partly in confused shock and partly in anger. She was an experienced professional, not a child to be ignored!
"Dr. Haley, we will be arriving within an hour. Best you get ready." Sherman's voice echoed through metal hallways muffling the source.
"I don't need this… I don't want this…" A strand of hair fluttered past her face before she curled it back into place in frustration.
Twenty minutes later, a hastily prepared Dr. Haley drabbed in a professional suit, held a briefcase full of important documents and journeyed as fast as she could to a prepared dropship. The hangar was exceptionally large, an example to how much money the Company was willing to regain lost research. A contingent of marines, the best of the best, loaded, checked, and double-checked the most advanced war weaponry the Company had at its disposal. The creaking of power loaders, the screech of steel sliding over steel, the satisfying whirr of ammunition locking into place, and the boisterous chatter of marines made Dr. Haley stand out like a neon pink sign in the middle of a industrial wasteland. The marines, all at the peak of their physical conditioning, were a nondescript mix of men and women. Dr. Haley gave no concern to their presence; she had a hard time as it was maintaining her professional mask. All the marines were young, armed to the teeth, aching for a fight, and thoroughly amused at Dr. Haley's presence.
As Dr. Haley pranced past them, most took their time to holler their amusement at her presence. She ignored it summoning her mental strength to maintain her careful crafted professional image. Just keep calm. Just maintain.
"Dr. Haley." General Sherman said again startling said doctor as he seemed to appear from the shadows.
A marine from the back cracked a disgusting joke about Dr. Haley a little too loud. General Sherman cocked his head in the marine's direction. The marine promptly shut up and began working double time.
"I'll take this time to brief you. Our assumptions have proven correct. The old terraforming plant's generators are operational. We believe Dr. Lorne is just waiting there. The marines will try to handle this situation as quickly and as professionally as possible."
A sergeant yelled his throat hoarse shouting out his orders. Dr. Haley breathed deeply hiding a nervous gulp and switched her briefcase over to her other hand. Marines all around her began to fill three loaded dropships while some stayed behind to finish maneuvering cargo about the hangar.
"Glad to hear it," she replied.
"Of course. Since you have worked with him for so long; you are going to have to accompany us planet side."
Dr. Haley had been hoping she could someone weasel her way out of danger. But when General Sherman spoke, disagreeing was like trying to move a mountain. So with the best of her strength, her confidence, and every fiber of her being, Dr. Haley was able to mutter her response.
General Sherman nodded lightly, forgot she was standing in front of him, and strolled off melding into the shadows. Dr. Haley could barely keep her right eye from twitching and her right hand from crushing the handle of the briefcase. That was really freaky. She breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to sit down on a metal crate near a support beam. A couple of marines left on cleaning duty chose to ignore her presence, but she could not stop from overhearing their conversations.
"You hear about the marines on a bug hunt kinda like this one?" Dr. Haley did not turn to see who was speaking, but his voice was deep and easy to discern.
"Mission went awry, I hear. There's been word they had to detonate the power plant to get rid of that one." This marine was definitely female.
"Yeah, but what bug hunt would do that? Company's withholding info from us yet something horrible happened to call us in. Especially with General Sherman here."
Dr. Haley held her breath at the General's name.
"Sherman," the female marine said. "You think the rumors are true?"
"Rumors… the one's about how he outmaneuvered three rogue cruisers and forcefully took control of a pirate ship with a small contingent of marines?"
"No, that's bullshit. Company would have awarded him through the roof. He'd been on the cover of every magazine. I'm talking about him killing a group… of marines…. with nothing more than his bare hands during an exercise! Just to get out of basic training."
Dr. Haley unconsciously leaned in closer.
"Probably exaggerated, there's probably some truth to it." The deep voiced marine grumbled something intelligible. "I've been at this job for twenty years and I've never met a person like him. I can't read him. It's like there's nothing there; not even the slightest inkling of human emotion. He has probably never hesitated. Never had any doubts or ramifications. But hey, you gotta do some serious shit to get his level."
The conversation soon drifted onto less morbid talk drifting into casual humor. Dr. Haley cradled her head in her hands wondering again: what the hell did she get herself into? She breathed deeply, shook off her worries, and checked the documents within her briefcase. She had volumes of information on every marine on this mission, but General Sherman had drawn complete blanks. All information on him dwindled down to top secret status.
Half an hour later, Dr. Haley found herself locked in a dropship with the countdown to the planetary drop ticking off in single digits. The dropship pilot was female, black with dark brown hair, and completely at ease; it seemed women had a knack for piloting dropships considering the disproportionate number of female pilots to male. That was the least of her worries. General Sherman had kindly decided to accompany her. To show his kindness, he sat directly in front of her on the other side of the dropship and stared her down. Dr. Haley spent her time examining the floor. A few marines crowded the back end of the dropship as far away from General Sherman as possible.
"Ten seconds!" The pilot answered. "Ah ha! I'll never get tired of this. Buckle in your seatbelt Miss Haley?"
Miss? What is with all these people treating her like a child? She was a prodigy, a genius!
"Doctor Haley," she spat, "and you would be?"
The pilot chuckled to herself, flipped down a console, and flicked a few switches.
"Miss Clay. Most people call me Cassie. Oh and don't yell will yah?"
The dropship screamed a million miles an hour as it was unleashed from the docking mechanism. Dr. Haley felt her kidneys touch the back of her throat. The dropship almost immediately righted itself. The marines screamed, cheered, and bragged about how many times they have done this. General Sherman just stared ahead lazily and seemed annoyed.
"You know what I like about you, Doctor Haley?" Cassie screamed over the onrush of air as the outer hull of the dropship turned a fiery orange matching the planet it was entering.
"You're here, dressed to kill, but look like you got no hope in the world, ha ha!"
Cassie gently guided the dropship through a computer controlled course. The ship eased its inertia but Dr. Haley was beginning to turn green at the gills. But hell if she was going to be talked down to by some overrated scumbag pilot.
"You got some nerve, Miss Clay. Last time I checked, I didn't have to guide a computer through hoops." Dr. Haley yelled. The marines behind her chuckled and 'oooed.'
"Ha ha! Most of the science advisors are usually tight asses. Talk with me for a while, doc, let's just start over." Cassie double checked the instruments.
"Quiet," General Sherman commanded. "We're done talking now. I need you all ready in case something unexpected occurs."
The dropship hit some sort of air turbulence that shook the whole chassis of the ship. Cassie muttered a few choice swear words before hastily resetting a course. The computer monitor went slightly haywire, flickered in and out, and worked to find a more approachable course. The cabin turned red with emergency lights. A rumble hit the ship chucking the entire crew into the safety restraints and knocked the air out of Dr. Haley. Cassie whispered a few more choice swear words as her window was utterly darkened over by a torrent of uplifted sand.
"Yeah, shit, we got problems. We're gonna fall a bit behind the others; damn weather here is fucked up. Computer's telling me we got some sort of sand storm that kicked out of nowhere. Damn it's huge, like a hurricane formed instantly. This planet was only partial terraformed?"
"Do not worry about the weather, Miss Clay." Sherman answered abruptly. "Get us to the destination as quickly as possible."
"Yes sir," Cassie muttered and gestured a sarcastic salute before mouthing a few more choice swear words.
The dropship broke through the storm and the turbulence returned to normal. The emergency lights shut off, and computer instruments reset to normal. Dr. Haley composed herself holding in the contents of her stomach.
"Well, there it is." Cassie noted as the dropship maneuvered ever closer to an immense structure shimmering on desert sands with the enormous sand hurricane nipping at their heels.
Arthur could now understand why people changed in prison. This planet had become his cage. The desert was everywhere without stopping. Nothing except the occasional oasis, strangely out of place, dotted the landscape. Time past differently. The sun moved but there was no true night. The days on this world were cycles of bright mornings and slightly dimmer evenings.
Arthur had to stay at the caverns to rest and gave no acknowledgement to any passing drone or Queen. The drones brought food, small mammal like reptile creatures that lived near oasis, and he ate them with no satisfaction. He was almost glad they brought them in dead. The Queen barely moved at all just waiting in her cavern eating little. At times he could see through her eyes to memories she was kept cycling in her head. A young girl smiled, laughed, and played through beautiful Earth-like fields. Sometimes the Queen would start a prayer and then promptly forget it halfway through.
Every morning Arthur would leave the caverns meticulously exploring the landscape. He doubted the Company would go through all the trouble of terraforming a planet for nothing. So he would search in an ever increasing circle aided by his superior memory. When the light dimmed, he would return again, eat what the drones had left, and listen to the ever blurring memories of the Queen.
The world only grew more alien the longer he stayed. Without any way to tell time, he could have been here for months or years. Sometimes he wondered if he had truly died in the crash and this place was now his hell. The weather was absolutely chaotic. Dull clear days could turn almost instantly into a swirling nightmare. Tornadoes sprung up without warning sucking up an enormous amount of dirt into the air. By contrast, every oasis was a sparkling, crystal clear jewel, but each extended miles into the ground. Occasionally something enormous would move down there; a dark shadow that moved erratically like an uprooted earthworm suffering a seizure.
After many "days" of wandering in ever increasing journeys, Arthur knew this planet was slowly bleeding away. Terraforming a planet was a complicated process that Arthur knew all too well. Hell, he had worked on one. Chaotic weather meant the planet was trying to revert itself to its former inhospitable landscape. He still did not know the limits of his survivability, but he doubted he could survive on a planet with constant hurricanes and tornadoes. So Arthur would work that much harder to find a way home, found nothing, and came back to the caverns in greater amounts of despair.
He began to watch the drones in his spare time, studying them, and searching for any sort of human like intelligence. Most were robotic in their nature and did their duties with ant like precision. But a select few dawdled over minute things. One would stack rocks and the kick them down before repeating the strange exercise again. Another seemed enamored with the cavern's walls and began to dig or randomly scratch at it. Over time after every excursion, Arthur came back to see the drone's stack of rocks began to take an architecturally sound design and every scratch in the wall began to piece itself together like a puzzle forming a picture. But most importantly, the Queen was the greatest mystery. He tried to talk to her once, but she just pushed him aside.
One evening he returned on his daily journeys to find the Queen outside near a small oasis on rather large sand dune. Arthur stayed a good distance back. A dusty tornado scurried over the water becoming a twisted geyser of pure water. She caressed the sand between her powerful fingers and slowly smoothed a picture. Her hands slowly dug an almost photographic likeness of a young girl smiling. But when she tried to fill out the eyes, her hands stopped hovering in mid air. Arthur could see her memory again, but the face in her mind was out of focus and forgotten. In a sudden moment of rage, she tore at the carefully crafted pictures, and her fists pounded deep into the earth. She fled back to the caverns leaving behind a great sense of loss in the air.
After that event, Arthur felt like lost her trust. He often felt watch. He could just almost sense the drone following him. Perhaps it was tailing him and keeping tabs on him. It was like the Queen was a mob boss keeping an eye on her investment. But he did not care. Let the drone follow. He had gained confidence with this body. It even felt natural to be this way. And he kept searching.
He crawled over an immense hill. His body was lax with exhaustion but with some effort he pulled himself over the crest. The sun glinted off immense buildings in the distance. One was an offline terraforming plant that was built awkwardly like an upside down bird's nest. Another, a boxy structure with its windows covered by weather proof shutters, was probably the living quarters. Judging from a big hole through a storage facility on ground level, the living quarters must have been hastily built. He was elated, ecstatic, excited, and high all at once. He laughed mentally as he gained his second win and made a mad dash to the hole torn on the side of the building. But Arthur had made a couple oversights during his discovery. As he dashed to the building, he failed to notice the distinct shapes of military dropships descending through the atmosphere. But most importantly, he failed to notice the laugh in his head was not his own.
Author's Notes: Sorry for the lateness of this one. I was not quite satisfied with what I originally had in mind.