New planet, new problems
Josu and his father trade up for a second chance at life by emigrating from a dead Earth to the Alpha Centauri system.
But their new role as planetary pioneers presents its own challenges.
One of which is that on this wild, waterlogged world, they always have to watch each other’s backs.
How dangerous can a little fishing trip be? Josu is about to find out.
Centurion is a post-apocalyptic science fiction story about friendship, teamwork and conquering new frontiers. Get it now!
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by M.G. Herron
(c) 2017 by M.G. Herron
All rights reserved.
I was sick and tired of being tired and wet.
“Alpha Century,” I said. Although we’d only been on this waterworld a couple months, it felt like a hundred years.
It was an inside joke now, but Dad had laughed at me the first time I asked him if we were moving to “Alpha Century.” My face had burned while he threw his head back and worked the fit out of his system.
He didn’t hear me this time. Around the corner up ahead, he hacked his machete into a Twitching Vine that had wrapped itself between two broad leafed trees. Moss, climbing up the visible sides of both thick, deeply ridged trunks, gave off a luminescent turquoise glow that always reminded me of the neon lights that still blazed along the skylines of the dying cities of Earth.
“Alpha Centauri is how you say it,” Dad had said when he finally stopped laughing. “But there’s no reason to be ashamed, Josu. If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, that just means you learned it in a book. Do you know what Alpha Centauri looks like?”
I remember my face flushing, shaking my head. He swiped at my forearm, where I had molded my tablet. The screen lit up as his hand came near it. Dad twitched his fingers and the cyclopedia I’d been reading on Alpha Centauri zoomed away. He fed in an audio query and was rewarded with a hi-resolution star map. His fingers chose a certain star, seemingly at random, from a pile of them. The screen zoomed in on a solar system where several colored marbles orbited a massive yellow sun. The star at its center was labeled Alpha Centauri, while the planets were labeled with random strings of numbers and letters.
“There’s liquid water on the fourth planet. It doesn’t have a real name yet, but anything is better than living in this anemic dustbowl. I got us two one-way tickets. It’s the opportunity we’ve been looking for, son. A chance to start a new life.”
“I don’t want to leave.” I looked away from him, watched the dust blow across the pavement in familiar tessellated patterns. In the cul-de-sac, the kids played street hockey, their faces masked with the smartcloth bands that filtered out the everpresent dust.
“There’s nothing left for us here, son. This world is dead.”
“The President says we can fix it.”
“I don’t know if even he believes that anymore. Not since the nukes took out New York and half of the Eastern seaboard.”
If Earth was a dried husk, then Alpha Centauri Four was a bucket of primordial ooze. No solid ground to set your feet on within a hundred miles of our rig except this soggy little island. I knew this now. We’d lived here for almost two years.
My shoulders sagged. This fishing trip had taken longer than usual. My feet squished in the marshy soil as I walked back toward the Twitching Vine.
“Whoa!” The cry startled from my mouth as a dark brown cylinder crashed through the jungle adjacent to the path. I gestured madly at the form-fitting screen on my wrist to send Dad a warning, but the device glitched and stopped responded.
“Dad, look out!” I pumped my arms hard as I ran.
I caught up to him a moment later. He stood calmly, aiming the sonic blaster at a thick patch of vegetation. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that he was safe. There were no hospitals on this planet—no emergency first responders. If he got hurt, I wouldn’t know what to do. This sopping wet planet was humanity’s new frontier, and we were among its first inhabitants.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Don’t know.” He shook his head and lowered the blaster. “Doesn’t seem very interested in coming out. What’s he hiding from?”
“Could be a lizard.”
“Little bigger than the lizards we’ve seen so far…”
“Is there another way around?”
“The beach route will add hours to our trip. I’d prefer not to risk traveling at night. We’re still learning the rhythms of this place.” My dad had been a mechanic back home. He knew how to catch a fish and build a fire, but he was no survivalist. We were always careful.
The thick vine continually shifted and rewove itself where Dad had been hacking at it with his machete, already beginning to repair the damage the blade had done. The movement of the vines helped to mask the position of whatever creature was hiding under there. I wondered if that was a survival mechanism, too. I once read about symbiotic creatures that lived on the backs of whales on Earth, feeding on them and cleaning them. Did this creature and the vines have some sort of evolutionary agreement? And if so, what did the vines protect it from?
I slicked a sheet of moisture off the screen of my wrist-mounted tablet with the edge of my hand. I tried to bring up the flashlight, to see into the undergrowth, but it wouldn’t turn on. I smacked the screen with the palm of my hand, which made my arm sting.
“Come on,” I said. “Piece of junk.”
“You’ve got to let that thing go,” Dad said. “Bad connectivity here, anyhow.”
“It’s still useful.”
“It’s useful when it works. When it doesn’t work, which is most of the time, it’s a dangerous distraction.”
“I’ll take it apart and dry it out again. It’s supposed to be water resistant.”
“Water resistant doesn’t mean waterproof.”
“Maybe Americorp can send a replacement on the next supply run.”
He just stared at me.
Bubbles shifted under the screen where I pressed against the tab with my fingertips. Beads of water had worked their way into the array of sensitive internal electronics.
I sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” I peeled the tab off my arm and felt like naked without it. I closed my eyes for a second, applying all my willpower to stem the flow of tears that threatened up. Damnit all if at that moment I didn’t crave the dry dust-filled air of Earth, a plentitude of electrical sockets, and hi-speed internet. Even the sight of those blasted dust-filtering masks would have made me smile. I took a deep breath, put the tablet screen in my pack, and zipped it back up.
Dad nodded. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could get a word out, a high-pitched cry sounded at the edge of my range of hearing. My heartbeat kicked into a gallop as my eyes opened. I looked around: jungle on all sides. Did the creature hiding in the vines make that horrible noise?
“What was that?” I asked.
The screech came again. Closer this time.
“Take this,” Dad said, handing me the sonic blaster while he dug around in his backpack for his other gun—the one with live ammunition.
He carried the gun on his belt the first couple trips to the island, but we didn’t have a lot of spare ammo. Once we had determined the soggy triangle of land to be relatively free of threat, he had taken to carrying it in his backpack instead.
Dad finally managed to pull a long-necked pistol from the bottom. He checked the clip and slammed it back into the gun with a reassuring metallic click.
A banshee screech pierced the air, blowing rancid wind across our faces. Dad slammed back the slide of the gun and pointed it at the canopy. It was a big whopping kicker of a firearm. I’d seen that thing blow fist-sized holes in sheet metal. It would rip right through the flesh of any creature.
But I knew my dad. He wouldn’t use it unless he had to. So I held the sonic blaster ready, pointed up at the canopy, too. He stood to the side of me and slightly back, so he was behind the barrel of my blaster where his ears would be safe.
“Steady,” he said.
You know what else we did on the rig besides sleep and eat the fish we caught to keep the rig running?
Target practice. Lots of it.
Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my hands shook like a storm.
The trees with the glowing turquoise moss swayed as something large and heavy settled down atop their upper branches. A giant, sharp beak poked down through the blanket of leaves. Its beak parted and snapped together hard over tree branches, sending a shower of splinters at our eyes. We squinted and retreated a few steps.
A pathetic whimper came from beneath the Twitching Vines.
“Now!” Dad said.
I pulled the trigger. Two thousand decibels of rage kicked out of the barrel of my blaster. The targeted cone of sound rocked the whole canopy up. It lifted the giant pterodactyl-thing into the air.
The oversized bird cawed madly as it righted itself and settled back onto the branches. This time the beak stabbed down through the canopy and screeched at the same time. The snapping maws clapped together inches over my head as I ducked.
“Hit it again, Josu!”
I aimed up, pulled the trigger once more, then once more after a pause to adjust my grip. Each time the branches shook, a shower of leaves rained down around us. I kept shooting until the creature had flapped up and soared away across the island.
It took me a few moments to notice Dad was yelling. “That’s my boy.” He pounded a hand on my shoulder.
My heart slammed in my chest. I grinned madly. Even though Dad was there, he hadn’t fired a shot. It had been my aim with the sonic blaster that saved us.
Then I yelped and jumped, startled, as something wet and cold lashed across my shin.
I looked down. It was the brown creature, reaching out with a pink tongue to lick my hands. I tensed my whole body, but let it get closer. It kept licking me, like it was trying to say thank you for saving its life. I looked down and caught it staring into my face with its glowing turquoise eyes. When I pushed its head away so it’s cold, slobbery tongue was out of licking range, it rubbed up against my leg and got me all wet anyway.
“I think he likes you,” Dad said.
“What is he?”
“Maybe it’s a she. It looks kind of like a seal.”
“Or a dog.”
“Weird shaped dog.”
I cocked my head at the creature. It was vaguely dog-sized. It had wide, webbed-hands that were more like flippers than paws. Iridescent blue spots ran down its sides, like the moss on the trees. Its back sloped down at an angle, which made me think that it spent a lot of its time in the water. Did it need to stay wet all the time like a seal? This place was so wet all the time that probably wasn’t a problem for the creature. I was wet all the time here, and I wasn’t even trying to be.
Dad holstered the gun—on his hip this time—and took his machete out to resume hacking at the Twitching Vine. It only took a few slashes to part the curtain. The rent he’d made before had been torn further open by the ruckus with the bird and the sonic blaster.
“Let’s go,” Dad said.
“Bye little buddy,” I told the creature.
The wet dog thing sat and watched me with big sad eyes as we walked away.
It was already starting to get dark as we trudged through the jungle back toward our boat, which would take us to the rig.
Three times we were forced to hack our way through, to make a new path. The foliage grew back over the small game trail we followed so quickly you wouldn’t have thought it impossible if you didn’t see it for yourself.
Each time we paused, I looked back and saw two bright turquoise specks shining just off the trail.
“I think the dog thing is following us.”
Dad grunted. He was intensely focused on the trail. It was getting darker. I’d never say it out loud, but Dad had been intensely focused on a lot of stuff since we arrived. Yeah, I know, survive and all that, make sure the rig continues to pour the terraforming chemicals ceaselessly into the atmosphere, make sure we have enough food to eat and clean water to drink. But if he wasn’t working, he was lecturing me about detaching myself from Earth tech and becoming self-reliant. And if he wasn’t lecturing me, he was trying to cheer me up.
What I would have given for someone else to talk to.
I looked back, but the turquoise eyes were gone now. We marched onward through the muck. My rubber boots were heavy and caked with mud. I leaned against one of those big tree trunks with the phosphorescent moss, and banging the mud off my boots.
“Look out!” Dad shouted.
Three shots let loose from the barrel of Dad’s pistol. I dove, rolled through the muck, and came up a few feet away from the tree. The pterodactyl flapped up, turned and released a deafening screech. A fist-sized hole appeared in the membrane of one of his wings, but that only seemed to piss it off more.
The pterodactyl pulled its wings into its body and began to drop. I realized with a cold slithering feeling in my gut that it was coming straight at me. I guess I was a smaller, more vulnerable target. Or it was still mad about me socking it with the sonic blaster.
For whatever reason, that thing dive-bombed at me. I slammed the stock of the the blaster into my shoulder. Dad fired at the creature from where he stood. I think a few bullets even hit home, but it was coming in hard, oblivious to the pain. I held my ground like Dad had taught me, aimed the sonic blaster up, and pulled the trigger. The blast came out like a whimper. Too late, I realized the barrel was filled with mud from my evasive dive.
The dog creature bowled into the backs of my knees, knocking me down and saving my life. The dactyl’s claws reached out, but they only managed to slide along my back and leave long, bloody scraps that burned with a vengeance.
Then something else grabbed the collar of my shirt, something wet and cold. I yelled, and suddenly I was being jerked through the muck, pulled into the jungle. The dog thing was dragging me toward another patch of Twitching Vines nearby.
In a half dozen tugs, he—I could see its boy parts swinging under it from this awkward angle now—had us both concealed under the Twitching Vine. The light was mottled under there, but I could still see enough to clean out my sonic blaster. Meanwhile, the dog thing continued to lick me. Its tongue searched and found the scratch marks the pterodactyl had left, and where it licked me the burning subsided. Something in its saliva was antiseptic, maybe.
“Good boy,” I said. “Thanks buddy. You saved my life.”
He licked my face. I guess that meant we were even.
But Dad was still out there. When I poked my head out, the dog thing whimpered, grabbed my shirt in its jaws, and tugged back. I gently disengaged.
“I know, it’s dangerous, but my Dad’s still out there.”
The dog thing spread its jaws, full of molar-like plant-crushing teeth, and let out a yawn that turned into a pathetic whine.
The sonic blaster was clean now. Operational. My eyes swept across the jungle, searching for Dad. I didn’t see him until another round of gunshots rang out from my right . The dactyl swooped down at him like it did me, but he hopped around nimbly, kept moving and emptied half a dozen rounds at the screeching predator. A few struck home, and green blood dripped from its torso. Finally, the dactyl seemed to sag in the air. It turned and retreated.
“Josu!” Dad yelled “Josu where did you go?”
Keeping the retreating dactyl in his line of sight, Dad edged back toward the Twitching Vines where the dog thing and I were hiding. The stupid vines were everywhere on this little island.
“Thank God. Are you okay?”
“I think so. He dragged me to safety.”
“No kidding,” he said. “Look, we can’t wait much longer. Let’s make a run for it now while that bastard is still licking his wounds.”
I nodded, swallowed past the lump in my throat, then crawled out from under the vines.
“Come on boy,” I said to the dog thing.
He whimpered in response.
“Come on, it’s okay.” I showed him the blaster. “I’ve got you. Show him your gun, Dad, tell him it’s going to be okay.”
“We don’t have time for this, Josu. That giant bird is going to come back any minute.”
“We can’t just leave him here! He’ll get killed.”
“He’ll be fine. He survived this long, didn’t he?”
I had to concede that point. He was fast, and clever—but he couldn’t watch his own back, could he? How much longer would he last out here, even with a symbiotic defense mechanism like the Twitching Vines? I couldn’t leave him there.
“Come on, boy,” I said. “You’re a brave little fella. A survivor, like us. Besides, it’s awful lonely on that rig with no one to play with. Won’t you come be my friend?”
Something occurred to me. I reached into dad’s backpack and pulled out the seaweed-wrapped fish flesh we’d caught and gutted earlier that day. I pulled off a thick, salty slice of seaweed and held it out to him.
The dog thing crept forward on its wide feet, inching out from under the vines at last, and took the seaweed into its mouth. It peered up fearfully into the sky as it did so, but at least for now, the pterodactyl was nowhere in sight.
Dad snorted and shook his head. “All right. If he follows us, that’s fine, but we’re not stopping or waiting for him.”
Dad began to jog. “Come on,” I told the seal-dog, and sprinted after him. The coast, where our boat was beached, was only a few hundred yards away. The seal-dog loped behind us. His back legs were so much shorter than his front, and he rain with a kind of loping gait, but he kept pace, no problem. He kept bouncing up alongside me and snuffling at my hands, so I guess he was still hungry. Who knew how long he’d been out here, trying to scrape a living off this island?
That was a struggle I could really relate to. I grinned at the seal-dog. He opened his mouth and let his tongue bob in the wind. Dad glanced over his shoulder and laughed heartily. It was the first time I’d seen him really smile in a few months. That felt good.
Finally, the shore came into view. Our boat was right where we left it. The seal-dog started whimpering again as Dad and I each grabbed a side of the raft and dragged it back into the water. I glanced at the sky, but there was no sign of the pterodactyl. The seal-dog must have heard something that startled it, though, because he darted for the tree line again.
“No, not that way! Come with us, boy. Come on. This way.” The seal-dog stopped, glanced back at me, and then darted under the thickest knot of vines where the forest met the beach. I started after him.
“Josu, don’t!” Dad’s eyes were scraping the skyline fearfully. He held onto the raft with one hand. “We have to go, now!”
The pterodactyl swept back over the trees again, opened its mouth, and loosed a hungry cry. I ran toward it, pointed the sonic blaster at the sky and nailed it good. But this time it must have known what to expect. It tilted away, avoiding the brunt of the blast, then doubled back and dove at me again.
I jumped to the side and rolled, keeping the blaster clear of the mud this time. The injured bird monster had overcommitted and was now flapping itself up from the beach, blowing wet sand into my eyes with each gust of its wings.
I jammed the level adjuster on the sonic blaster to max, stepped inside its reach, and pulled the trigger with conviction. The blast slammed into the ugly bird’s face. Its eyes rolled back into its head and it fell to the sand with a heavy thump. Green blood oozed from both of its ears. My heart struck hammerblows against the inside of my ribcage as I caught my breath.
I turned away from the unconscious bird and walked quickly to the edge of the vines where the seal-dog was hiding.
“Come back out, boy,” I said. “That bird can’t hurt you now.”
The seal-dog slowly crept out of the vines, baring its teeth at the giant, unconscious body of the pterodactyl.
“I know. Take it easy. It scared the hell out of me, too.” The seal-dog rubbed its wet body up against my legs again. “Good boy.”
Dad came up then. He’d managed to drag the raft back up onto the beach on his own. He wrapped me in a crushing embrace. “That was downright foolish, Josu! You could have been killed.”
“I’m sorry, Dad, but I couldn’t let that thing hurt you, or the seal-dog. And I got him, didn’t I?”
“That you did, son. When that thing wakes up, it’s going to be even more pissed, and now the sonic blaster won’t work on it, since you blew out its ear drums.”
“Maybe that’ll make it think twice before it tries to attack us again.”
He sighed. “Let’s not wait around to find out.”
When he stepped toward the raft, I dug my heels in. “Can we take him with us?”
Dad frowned at the seal-dog, then shrugged. “If he’ll come. But he stays outside, and don’t think I’m cleaning up after him.” His words were stern, but I could tell he thought the seal-dog was cute, in its own way. It leaned against my knee, mouth open in a big smile.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll take care of him.”
“I believe you when you say that. You know, you’ve grown up a lot recently, Josu. Maybe it’s time I start giving you more responsibility at the rig.”
“Sure. Why not?”
My heart soared.
It took a few minutes of coaxing to get the seal-dog into the raft. But he finally climbed in with us. Dad lowered the motor and pointed the raft back home. I spotted the steel rig by searching for a black speck on the horizon that poured a thick plume of chemicals into the grey sky. I sighed with relief. The plume of smoke spelled hope to me. Once the terraforming process was complete, others would come in greater numbers to join us on this new world.
Until then, at least I had a new friend. And the trust of my father. A mile from the rig, the seal-dog flopped its body over the side of the boat and splashed in the water. I gasped, my blood running cold, but it turned out there was nothing to worry about. He was a great swimmer. We had to slow the boat a little for him to keep pace. His body undulated through the dark waters with ease. I thought he would leave then, but he didn’t. He followed us all the way home.
“We’re going to have to be more careful now that we know there are predators on the island,” Dad said, raising his voice to be heard over the motor.
“You’re a good shot, son. Next time, I’ll take the shotgun and you’ll carry my handgun, if you promise to do some more target practice on the rig.”
That made me feel proud. But also scared. I didn’t want to let him down.
“Promise,” I said. “He can warn us, too. Did you see him on the beach?”
“I did. He heard the thing coming before we did.”
“Yeah.” I leaned over the side of the boat, cheering him on. He went down under the water, disappearing for a moment, then jumped up into the air before landing with a splash.
“You know,” said Dad. “He’s gonna need a name. We can’t just call him boy all the time.”
I thought about it. “How about Centurion?”
Dad laughed—at my joke this time, not at me. I smiled, happy to have pleased him. Happy he was starting to treat me like I could bear some of the burden he’d taken on for both of us. I suddenly didn’t care that I was soaking wet and exhausted. I was just happy to be alive.
“I like it,” Dad said. “It’s a good name.”
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