Chapter 2: The Funny Farm


He saw first light: a dim glow that distinguished the sky from the dark tree-line across the field and from the contour of the great tree in the center. As he watched, the soft light turned golden red and settled like dew onto the grass in the meadow. The world gradually became visible, separating itself from the darkness of the universe. But the morning was strangely still. No twittering birds proclaimed the day; no bustle of awakening permeated the forest. It was a silent, creeping dawn, as quiet as space. 

“Time to get up, Kid.”

The dusty boot firmly nudges him. The man stands against the first blush of the desert sunrise.

“We have to get under cover before sun up, and you and Dermot need to fix the pitch problem on that field drive. Dermot’s still drunk, so guess what that means.”

“The field drive is fine. I just need to reset the control,” he croaks with his morning voice.

“Good. Dermot will be useless until he gets his coffee.”


​The surveyor could think of no reason to get up yet. It was still too dark beneath the trees to search for his ship, so he watched the field and waited. The horse creatures came out first. They huddled around the base of the giant tree and looked around nervously for a while...

Incognita

Chapter 1: Plans, Planets and Plants

Contents of site © 2018

“Don’t show your face here anymore or nobody will ever see it again.”

The surveyor watched the message. He knew it should bother him, but it didn’t. Somehow, having to travel two hundred and some odd light years, the words just didn’t pack the intended punch. He’d worry about it later.

“Go sink into a sewer,” he grumbled. “You and your entire moronic family.”

He didn’t send that response, of course. No sense in making things worse. Instead, he spoke it to the impassive display pane.

For amusement, he selected another he hadn’t seen in a while.

“You better just disappear!” shouted the impassioned speaker. “If I find you hanging around, if I find out you said one word to her, I’ll break you!”

“I know. I know,” the surveyor began another reply no one would ever hear. “You were hoping that yelling would miraculously turn a useless drain clog like you into a man. Keep dreaming.” 

For a while the surveyor had reviewed the messages every week or so, whenever he felt the need to score the last word with some cleverly composed wisecrack, but he had not played this little game for over a month. Today he was bored and found himself tapping around on the SynCom. He watched a vidcast, toyed with some other pastimes, and now he found himself returning to these old standbys.

Despite the wide selection of engaging missives, a certain memo tag always drew his eye, but he never opened this one a second time. The message that started this whole correspondence love-fest contained nothing amusing, nothing worth ridiculing. He probably would have dumped the thing long ago if only doing so could alter the fact that he had seen it. The message was from his wife.

The surveyor sat back in the pilot seat and gazed toward the front windowpane. Nothing outside the ship had merited any interest for months.  Instead he focused on the bright pattern of the woven bauble hanging down from an unused alternate switch.

“Ojo de Dios,” she says.

“A what?”

“Ojo de Dios,” Maria repeats. “It’s called a God’s Eye.”

He stares at the colorful ornament, transfixed by the tugging of a dim memory. He is unaware that his face has gone completely blank.

“Are you ok?” she asks, smiling and amused at his wonder.

He doesn’t hear. He has seen something like this before: the two crossed sticks with bright yarn woven around them. He has seen this, but he cannot remember where or how.

“Hey. This is Earth calling,” Maria teases. “Please respond Mr. Space Ace.”

He looks at her. He is standing in the hot street in front of a tourist kiosk.

“Oh, hey,” he responds and smiles.

“Lost in space?”

“Well, there is a lot of it between my ears.” He reaches into his pocket.

“You’re going to buy that?” she asks surprised. “These are for tourists. You don’t buy them.”

He pauses.

“You make them. Come on. We’ll make one together. I’ll show you.”

The bright diamond pattern hung in the forward window like some gleaming star, always marking his direction.

A soft beep from the ship’s control pane interrupted his thoughts. Sensors picked up something worthwhile. Many corporate surveyors performed their own private prospecting on the sly, looking for deposits of any number of lucrative resources including rubidium, vanadium, gold, and painite, but these searches were too general and time consuming. Ignoring all the things he should be recording for his company—large hunks of minerals, planetoids, and planets—he had significantly narrowed the parameters of his exploration. Instead, he hunted for something much more valuable.

“Oxygen. Ok. Let’s take a closer look.”

Oxygen popped up regularly, but no significant discovery had come from it. Nothing even close to Earth-like concentrations had ever been found. He commanded the intellitor to close the distance, then stood up and stretched. A shadow scurried across the floor at the edge of his vision. By the time he turned his head it had vanished, but he knew the culprit. It had moved down the passageway toward the stern of the ship. He hurried back as quickly as the low gravity would allow, passing his personal quarters to starboard and the work room to port. From a locker he snatched a screwdriver and a welding wand to zap with and snapped them to his utility belt. Who ever heard of a ship infested by gerbils? Mice or rats, yes. But gerbils? Nobody would believe him; it was a ridiculous problem to have.

The loading bay was tiny, but there were lots of places for the pests to hide. The surveyor examined the all too familiar details: a secondary control pane, the gangway door, electrical conduits, electronic units, the return air vents. That would be the most obvious place. He dropped to his knees with the screwdriver already whirring in his palm and began to remove the vent grill.

Rodent infestations usually plagued bigger ships with larger crews where sanitation became more of an issue. The surveyor certainly didn’t think he was that much of a slob. His ship wasn’t the most organized in the world, but it wasn’t filthy. He couldn’t imagine what they were living on, but he did know that they would chew most anything. Out here, that could be deadly. He must have removed half the wall panels by now trying to find them.

The vent cover clanged over, and he shoved it aside. The front dust filter still looked intact but he pulled it out anyway to see behind. Nothing. Again nothing. For as long as he’d been looking, he never found a nest, never even gotten a very good look at a single one of the little beasts, but they existed. As he lay in his bunk he could hear them behind the panels ripping the paper all night. He listens from his bed, curled around his teddy bear. In the morning he’ll see the mound it creates during these dark hours. He’d recognize that sound anywhere. What were they doing that made so much noise yet remained undetectable?

The surveyor switched off the screwdriver, sat up on his knees and cocked his head, so he could track the little noises in the walls. They seemed to move in impossible ways, from the bulkhead across to the interior partition and then to the utility covers. He pinpointed the sound. They were behind the relay panel. He rose to his feet and began unscrewing the fascia. It fell to the ground, but there was nothing unusual in there—only the wires and relays that one would expect.

He sat on the floor against the door, the knobs of the kitchen cabinet digging into his back. An ache paralyzes his stomach, and he bends forward trying to ease the pain. He has never looked at the kitchen floor this closely before. Dirt has filled in the crevices of the fake floor tile and has outlined the pressed patterns. As soon as he forces air back into his lungs, the pain spreads. He looks up at his father standing directly over him. He raises his arms to cover his head. After a moment, he peered cautiously up the length of the ship and lowered his arms. 

“Must’ve fallen asleep again,” he muttered to himself. “I need something to eat.”

Despite the lightness of space, the surveyor rose heavily and walked forward. On his way by, he tossed the screwdriver and the welding wand onto the workbench next to the lockers. At the automat, he closed his eyes and selected a meal to rehydrate. Then he tried carrying the scalding hot tray back to his SynCom without burning himself. He remembered he had been viewing the old mail.

The message from Maria was actually a disguise for a legal document informing him of the divorce. Sneaky bastards. Once opened, the proceedings could begin; he had been legally notified. The action did not really surprise him. It seemed to fit the set of experiences he was familiar with.

As he stepped toward the cockpit, the beep drew his attention away again. The ship decelerated, making him wobble slightly as the field drive readjusted. The surveyor looked over to see what the sensors registered and then promptly dropped the food tray from his stunned fingers. Confusion stifled his thoughts and forced him to reexamine the readings. This was exactly what he’d hoped to find, and now he didn’t know what to do. He had been searching every chance he got for the last few years and had experienced so many false alarms that success no longer seemed reasonably possible, but here it was: oxygen thirty percent, nitrogen sixty-nine percent, trace amounts of methane—another Earth.

Every deep space surveyor harbored the secret hope of finding the third habitable planet, the first outside of the home system. It tortured their minds like the Holy Grail. The discovery would be historical and could make him a king.

He looked out the front window, leaning forward in a pointless effort to help his eyes span the celestial distance, but there was nothing to see yet.

“This is it, baby,” he said. “Daddy’s rich now.”

There was, of course, no baby, and he wasn’t a daddy. In fact he hadn’t spoken to another person in five and a half months. Long ago he had stopped caring about the taboo of speaking aloud to himself. He had lots of time to dream and scheme and to tell himself all about it.

Everyone said that talking to oneself was the first sign of space craziness, but he didn’t believe it. Supposedly, being by himself would make him lose sight of the benchmarks people used to measure the universe with. Loneliness would make him forget the limits society put on reality. Without others, how would he recalibrate his sanity when it came into question? Numerous stories always circulated about long distance pilots going nuts: flying into suns or going on rampages when they returned home. The surveyor had convinced himself numerous times it was all baloney. Space craziness was just a myth—an excuse to use when you screwed up.

And he certainly was not going to screw this up. He had been very careful with all of his plans. The ship wasn’t his, of course. It belonged to Unitrax, the folks who paid his salary. Technically, Unitrax would have first claim to any viable find, but the surveyor had taken a few delicate liberties with his employer’s trust. He was sure other surveyors did the same. They never came out and said so, but he had heard plenty of stories about minor unreported discoveries. He never asked; he just figured out how to do it. He delayed reports and fudged the ones he did send in. A little space garage on Mars helped override the company’s instruments and loop dead space filler into the logs when necessary. After almost six months in space, he had carved out a few off-the-record weeks for himself. If things worked out, he would return to Earth and resign. Then he’d scrape together the capital to form his own company and come out here to “discover” the new world. This could be big; it was every surveyor’s dream. 

He finally saw the planet in the distance, no more than a fleck of light in the heavens, looking like any one of a million lonely stars. He breathed in deeply and licked his lips as if savoring a meal before devouring it. 

“Beautiful,” he said.

The surveyor couldn’t see much of the planet yet, but he could see himself in about two years. A private claim like this would make him one of the richest, most desirable men on Earth. He could sell mineral rights, production rights and possibly residency rights. If there were any interesting sights or animals, he could cut in on tourism, hunting and exploring. None of the developing would he conduct personally; let others pay him for the right to do it themselves. Then he’d set himself up in a mansion somewhere. The exact location didn’t really matter; the surveyor never saw much of the Earth. He had always heard the French Riviera was nice.  Or maybe the Hollywood Hills. It wasn’t important as long as it was a place others envied.

“Oh boy. I’m really gonna do it.”

He probably was going to do it. No one else surveyed out here. Most prospectors searched through the larger star clusters where the chances of a payoff were much greater. His supervisor took a bit of a risk sending him out this way, and it had required quite a lot of convincing to get him to agree. This spot had captured the surveyor’s eye for some time. There were a few small star clusters out here that weren’t big enough to attract attention, but without competition, he thought he’d have a good chance at a profitable find. And now it was going to pay off. Not for his supervisor, or for Unitrax, but for him.

“It’s his neck on the block, not mine.” 

Poor guy. His head would roll. After the company sees his lackluster reports, the bosses won’t be too happy, especially when none of them will be able to understand why he was out here in the first place. They’ll fire his supervisor. They might even fire him. Fine. If they don’t, none of them could blame him for quitting. After all, he did get sent out on a wild goose chase with little chance of accruing any significant commissions. No one in their right mind will send anyone else out here for decades, not until the more promising areas became overworked and saturated. 

“Ah…”

It was definitely blue. Nothing more could be distinguished at this distance, but it was blue. His mouth watered. Intellitor models showed a single large moon which he could not see yet. It had to be on the other side. Good. A sizable moon could indicate stability, and stability meant a chance of biodiversity. His speed became noticeable as he approached, the planet looming ever larger. He slowed his ship and stared.

He sat astounded. It really was beautiful: glassy blue and creamy white clouds.  Glacial caps, or perhaps just a simple snowfall, covered the poles. The intellitor would be able to figure out which soon enough.

“Home,” he thought; and yet it wasn’t.

No divorce lawyers, vengeful in-laws, bill collectors or court agents—no angry wife—chased after him here. It was so peaceful. Just the idea that this planet could end all of his terrestrial troubles gave him a sense of calm he hadn’t anticipated in all of his months of dreaming. This was better than Earth; this was his. He’d take the tranquility this place offered back to his home. The profits he’d make would be enough to ensure that the peace of mind lasted the rest of his life.

His next action surprised him. He didn’t chart his surveying orbit. He didn’t initiate the imaging arrays or send out the samplers. He didn’t do the typical “circle and run.” The surveyor prepared his ship to head down to the planet surface.

He turned his seat to absorb the force his body would experience while the ship decelerated. After dropping the braking anchor, he waited for the effects of it dragging through the atmosphere. The first slight tuggings jostled the ship like a memory toying with his mind. When the anchor bit solidly into the air, the surveyor’s body pressed back against the seat. He monitored the ballast adjustments just to make sure the intellitor was doing its job. After months of silence, the vibrating tether filled the cabin with a disturbing hum.

When the ship had slowed sufficiently, it began its descent. The first whiffs of atmosphere rocked it with surprising blasts of sound. Soon, the constant wail against the shielding indicated that the craft had fully submerged. The anchor slowly retracted as it cooled in the upper atmosphere. After the sonic blast caught up with the ship, the shielding ruffled to allow the flowing air to whisk away the heat of entry. As soon as he could, the surveyor turned to look out at the planet.

He flew just above a layer of cloud cover and could see nothing of the ground. Immediately the whiteness obscured even the sky. His eyes widened in the haze, as if that would help him peer through it. When the ship broke into the clear, he saw a wide forest. His heart thumped in his chest. Never had anyone discovered anything remotely like this. Tree-like plants grew everywhere, and a grassy cover filled the clearings. It looked so much like home should look that it prodded at a tender ache he didn’t know he had. Earth had not looked anything like this for hundreds of years. He knew what it used to look like, of course, from archived images and various reproductions, but these had never elicited more than a disinterested shrug from him. This vision of an ancestral home from a collective past moved him; tears welled into his eyes. He could not understand why.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” he kept repeating to himself.

Guiding his ship lower, he looked in the open fields for signs of life. Grazing cattle, herds of buffalo or elk, scenes once common on Earth, would fit quite naturally here in this alien setting. Finding higher forms of extraterrestrial life was undreamed of. Animals weren’t the only source of methane, but with so much Earth-like vegetation, the possibility of Earth-like creatures seemed promising. He was still too high to see anything useful through the windows. Touching the instrument pane, the surveyor brought up a magnified infrared view of the terrain on the display. Breathlessly, he continually switched views, scanning a new section of landscape every few seconds.

Something was down there. In fact, numerous forms showed up on the display pane. A jittery thrill percolated through his body. The infrared view distorted their figures, and he couldn’t quite make them out. They occupied a large open meadow. Gazing out of the window pane again, he still could not see anything. The surveyor needed a closer look but didn’t dare fly over, not wanting to frighten anything. A smaller clearing nearby seemed to have what he would call a well-used deer track running through it toward the larger open field, but he doubted that deer had made it. There would be no deer here, would there? Something else must be running through this forest. The surveyor set out the landing gear and settled the ship next to a line of tall trees.

He became suddenly dizzy when he stood and fell back into his seat. There had been no up or down to look out at for nearly half a year. Now that the ship listed slightly on the uneven ground, he had to adjust. His balance no longer correlated with the level of the floor he had been walking on for the last five and a half months; the normal visual cues weren’t helping anymore. The surveyor waited a moment, closed his eyes and tried again, using his hands as he worked his way toward the storage lockers.

He was shaking: nervous and happy and eager; each emotion tumbling over the other. Riffling through a field box he had never expected to use, he pulled out some binoculars, a water bottle and a small pack. His hands flashed with adrenaline as he ripped open the packaging seals; he hardly wanted to take the time to prepare properly for his exit. He wouldn’t need much; it would be a short excursion. The surveyor removed his deck shoes and put on his boots. These he always kept for when he returned to Earth’s gravity. It took a few twisted ankles before stumbling across this little trick. His clothing should be fine. It was tight fitting but stretchable—meant for comfort. It was also well insulated for the cold of space. He had no pockets, but if he found anything worthwhile, he could use the pack. The belt he always wore had a variety of clips and snap loops, but he didn’t think he’d be using those either.

While waiting for the air pressure in the ship to balance, he double checked the readings at the rear display: an acceptable level of oxygen and no traces of toxins. The air was breathable; he knew it would be. The surveyor looked at his reflection on the shiny surface of the instrument pane and smiled. His longish brown hair was unkempt—a result of the low gravity of the ship—and his face was covered in a few days’ worth of stubble.

“Ah, what the hell.”

This momentous occasion was going to get no special pageantry. His dark eyes beamed back at him.

“This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.” 

He released the lock. The door lowered, and fresh sweet air rushed in. The surveyor had forgotten how stale ship air smelled, how heavy it felt, and he breathed deeply, cleaning out his lungs. The strong sunlight forced him to shade his eyes as he clanked his way down the door. Blinking the bright pain away, he examined the landing area. His ship was small and nestled easily in the clearing. The trees towered well above it. He briefly considered leaving the door open to air out the interior, but he didn’t want any critters coming in and chewing on anything. After securing the ship, he walked up the trail in the direction of the field.

Soon the large trees closed in around the path and completely concealed the sky from view. It took a moment for his eyes to adapt to the dimmer light. The track continued through the brush, fading in spots but quickly reemerging. It was taking much longer to get to the meadow than expected. The trees were so giant that he had misconstrued the scale of sizes and distances. The mighty branches arched far overhead so that he felt like a mouse in some enormous cathedral. He had been in tall buildings with indoor courtyards from where he could look up past countless balconies to the distant ceiling. This forest gave him that same dizzying awe. Finally, the trail brought him to a bright wall of foliage which marked the edge of the field. The surveyor pushed cautiously through some bushes to find himself in a large meadow.

Crouching to make sure he could remain hidden, he moved further into the open land for a better view. This felt like a dream, almost real, familiar and yet odd. A giant tree, enthroned on a slight hump, dominated the middle of the field; its gnarled roots, like a massive knot, fastened it to the ground. As far from the tree as he was now positioned, he still had to crane his neck to see the top.  The bole itself stood as solidly as a city building. Though it stood as high as the others, this tree looked larger because of its solitary nature. Unlike its more crowded neighbors in the forest, it grew very wide at the top, like an umbrella. Evidently it had room to spread out here. The other trees were not shaped like this.

All around the base of this enormous tree grazed a menagerie of creatures. His head involuntarily shook in disbelief. He had found alien life. This was more that he had hoped; finding oxygen and plants was astonishing enough, but complex life forms defied all expectations. Nonetheless, here it was, living and breathing right in front of his eyes. The surveyor had never believed in miracles, and certainly nothing in his disappointing life ever came close to meriting that title. Not until now. But how was such a miracle possible? Did the conditions for life, the more probable plants and oxygen, make complex life inevitable?

The longer he looked, the more the scene resembled some bizarre version of a nature show. The animals were nearly familiar. A large group of them looked like horses and populated the center of the field beneath the tree. The surveyor didn’t know what was stranger: horse-like creatures here on an alien planet, or their heads which resembled those of wild boars with tusks. Another smaller type of animal, reminding him of a large dog, munched lazily on grass and had a distinctly contented bovine look. These smaller animals mixed in among the larger ones and appeared quite as ease with them. At the forest edge, a long skinny bear-like creature reached into the nearby branches for leaves. Not far from that, something that could almost get mistaken for a giraffe, but with a sturdier neck and bulkier legs, foraged on the lower leaves of the trees at the perimeter of the field. It seemed so peaceful, these different species inhabiting the same area.

He scanned the scene and then remembered the binoculars. He took them out and reexamined the creatures, panning back and forth and not believing his eyes. That’s when it came into focus, a shockingly familiar sight frozen in the frame of his magnified view. It stunned him so that he let out an audible gasp. The surveyor lowered the binoculars to make sure he had seen correctly and stood upright for a clearer look. A face. A human face? The animals suddenly turned toward him; a silent, electric tension instantly pressed down so hard that nothing could move. All of those glowering eyes and menacing tusks were aimed directly at him. He forced himself to take a single step back, but his desire to confirm what he just saw overcame his instinct to run. A second later, the field exploded in dust. The ground shook, and the air concussed with thunder. The animals were stampeding away from him. Everything was in confusion.

“No!” he commanded the commotion to stop. “Oh, no.” 

The sound cleared before the dust settled, but he didn’t wait any longer to run out into the field and to begin searching passionately for tell-tale signs. The surveyor knew exactly what to look for, but he didn’t find it. The field floor was a confusion of trampled grasses and unfamiliar prints. Nothing could be made of it. The air cleared of dust, and he turned his gaze toward the forest, hoping to somehow see proof of what he just witnessed.

He circled the edges of the field searching for any indication, but he found nothing.

“Did I really see that?” he asked himself incredulously.

It should not have been possible. Perhaps he just got a brief glimpse of one of the unusual animals at an odd angle. This seemed unlikely to him. What had appeared in his binoculars was different, and he knew he would never forget those human eyes staring back at him.

The shadows from the forest had lengthened across the field. He reluctantly decided to return to his ship, but knew he would not leave until he somehow established the validity of that improbable vision. The trailhead was hard to find. No broad opening in the plants indicated a passage; however, a large worn patch of grass near the edge of the pasture signified a high traffic area. He pushed through the bushes there to find himself on the trail. The surveyor followed it into the forest, constantly looking to the sides, expecting to see the face in the forest depths. He steps from one shadow to the next, examining the darkest nooks carefully. An unused back stair casts its protection against a distant street lamp. This will do. He places his bundle in the corner and takes a last look around. The shining eyes, glowing in the dark, startle him. A grin materializes and speaks.

“Hey you.”

He grabs his bundle and runs further from the light.

“Not now,” he said knocking the ball of his thumb against his temple to clear his head. “No time for that now.”

The murky image dissolved from his mind. He was still on the trail looking for his ship, but his progress soon ended in an impassable thorny thicket that he had not encountered earlier. The pointed thorns stung painfully when he tried to push through and left red marks on his hands and arms. Clearly this was the wrong trail.

The surveyor returned to the field, hoping it would be repopulated, hoping to see everything again, but it lay silent and empty. The shadows had darkened; the sun no longer hit the ground but had started to climb the trees.

“Focus, focus,” he told himself.

He had to forget that face. It was only a distraction now. He circled around looking for another worn spot. When he found one, he plunged into the forest onto another trail. After a short distance, the trail dissolved but never reformed. He searched desperately and finally had to return to the field.

The sun had almost set, and he was getting nervous. He didn’t want to be caught out on a strange planet at night. To make up for lost time he started to jog. Any sign of a trail drew his attention, and he began to try routes he knew were not correct with the hope that they would lead to the broader path he had first taken. Each ended predictably, but he cursed anyway. Darkness filled the gaps between the trees. Panic leaped in his chest and vibrated through his arms and legs, making his vision jumpy.

“OK. Keep your head,” he advised himself. “Calm down.”

He didn’t like the idea of sleeping out in the open, and he didn’t like the idea of sleeping in the forest. “Shit,” he said for about the twentieth time. It was quickly becoming one of his favorite words; the slew of recent mental impasses needed some form of expression.

“Just keep it together until morning.”

Then he would have all day to look for his ship. For now, finding cover became his first priority. The chances of making a shelter seemed better in the forest; he had a vague idea of leaning sticks against something and covering that with something else. Whatever solution he decided on would need to be effected without tools.

Stepping out of the field and into the forest, the surveyor found a sapling which he attempted to snap, but it only bent. Frustrated, he found a stick lying on the ground and beat at the small tree in anger. This gave him no satisfaction; the sapling kept flexing and moving.

“Damn!” he yelled. “Damn, damn, damn, damn!” he screamed as he thrashed at it.

This was becoming his other favorite word. Exhausted, he sat down on the forest floor and looked around. He had to cover himself with something. The elliptical leaves from the tall trees were thick and large, some longer than his leg. The surveyor gathered a dozen of the fallen leaves to him and pulled them over his body. How cold would it get tonight? Hopefully his improvised bed would be enough to keep him warm.

The surveyor curled beneath his leafy covers just inside the forest edge and looked into the field.

“Did I really see that?” he asked again.

He honestly didn’t know any more and tried to think back to what he had seen—a human face peering at him over the back of one of the horse-like animals. The features had looked young, definitely male, and the surveyor seemed to remember long  hair. No clothing or tools had been apparent, but he only got a split second to take it all in. He couldn’t be sure of anything he saw.

He lay, quietly listening. No sounds whispered except for a bit of wind in the leaves.

“Just stay alive until morning.”

The surveyor remembered the animals he had seen that day and realized all of them had been herbivores. A planet of herbivores? Perhaps he would be fine after all.

He glimpsed the moon rising over the tree tops across the way. It cast a comforting glow, making the world feel normal. He sighed. The soft powdery light rested on the leaves and field grass nearby, outlining them against the total obscurity of this strange planet. Behind him the forest darkened and deepened. He had turned away from it in an effort to put the gaping blackness out of his mind, but the world breathed upon his back, sending a tingle creeping up his neck like an unwanted thought. On the edge of dark, the surveyor turned toward the solace of the luminous glow.

Then he sat up and stared.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” he asked himself.

He could not believe what he saw. The moon was strangely deformed. It appeared to be a large ball with another slightly smaller ball protruding out of one side of the bottom. How the hell did that happen? It disturbed and amazed him. Such a thing seemed impossible. He watched the moon rise and wondered at it a long while until he could feel his eyes getting heavier. 

“What a mess.”

But he’d fix everything tomorrow, and then he’d be rich. He just needed to make sure he kept his head. No crazy running around. Get back to the business at hand. Who cares what he saw, or thought he saw today.

He prepared to surrender himself to sleep when a disturbing noise shocked him to attention. A deep, gravely howl answered by another, the second seemingly closer than the first. They sounded distinctly carnivorous.

He remained still. It was useless to try to peer into the darkness of the forest. All he could see were the amorphous shapes that played across his own eyes—phantom forms shifting and drifting—so that he couldn’t be sure if he was really seeing anything or not. Instead he listened with more intent than he had ever attempted before, hoping to hear an image into his head. A number of small disturbances in the undergrowth rustled here and there. Nothing too alarming. They seemed incidental and sporadic, as if they were random, unrelated forest occurrences, but after a while, he realized these distant sounds were gradually coming closer. Something—or some things—approached, not directly, but in a weaving, searching pattern.

He wanted to run. To where? To what? He would only manage to draw attention to himself. But he didn’t want to just lay there and offer himself as a feast.

Not far away he heard a strange noise like a quick gurgling hiss. It was followed by a heavy “hawoomph” which reminded him of a bark. This second sound had come from a slightly different direction. The surveyor regretted not keeping his stick nearby, and fear kept him from groping around for it. Still hoping he could remain undetected, he listened keenly and heard nothing more for a moment.

He almost jumped from his leafy cover when it burst from the darkness—an exploding storm of panic and terror. It started with a high pitched squeal and was instantly joined by loud ravenous growls and screams. He could hear the cracking and thwacking on the disturbed underbrush. It lasted for ages in his frozen mind. Finally the squealing died, and soon after the other noises faded. He didn’t move. The surveyor could easily imagine what had just happened, and he tortured himself with the red thought that he too could soon be sacrificed to the voracious unknown.

It took about an hour before he could hear anything other than the thumping of his own heart. The nocturnal forest slowly came to life. There were swishes and crinkles, scatterings and scamperings in the dark. He jumped at every sound and got no sleep that night.