The stench of charred human flesh and lingering ozone assaulted Nick’s olfactory sense as he knelt to examine the latest corpse. What a shame, he thought. Sherri Oxford; 24 years old. She was only four when we were stranded on this God-forsaken planet.
“This is the fifth one in four months,” Eddie, the town mayor said.
Nick’s suit crinkled as he stood up, “Yeah, and this one was also scavenged postmortem, just like the others.” All the flesh stripped from her right lower leg, her guts ripped out and half her face missing, poor girl, he thought.
“How in the hell, are the static discharges getting through the suits now?” Eddie asked.
Before Nick could answer, lightning streaked across the sky briefly turning night to day. He waited for the thunder to pass when suddenly another burst lanced from the sky and struck them both, the electricity passing harmlessly around the outside of their Faraday suits and into the ground. “The real question is why did their suits fail when everyone else’s seems to be working fine?”
Eddie nodded, “No one’s died from strikes in the last nineteen years. What’s changed now and why these five?”
“Don’t forget about these scavengers,” Nick replied as he pointed to Sherri’s corpse. “In twenty years, we’ve never had a single instance of a native predator attacking a person or livestock. None of our livestock has ever even been scavenged and God knows we’ve had a lot of livestock killed by strikes.” Nick remembered that the first year after being stranded on Faraday had been rough. They’d lost over twenty lives to lightning strikes and static discharges before perfecting the faraday suits for personal use and the cage for the town, but none of them were scavenged afterward.
“You can worry about the native scavengers all you want, but we gotta figure out what’s going on with these suits. We can’t keep everyone pinned up in Ohm forever.”
Nick again pointed at Sherri’s corpse, “What was she doing out here anyway? Nearly three kilometers from town?”
“Apparently, one of her goats got out and she was looking for it. That’s what her mom said anyway.”
“Dee’s going to take this hard,” Nick replied.
“Yeah, Sherri was always her favorite. Nick, why don’t you head back to Ohm and get the guys to come collect her remains? I’ll stay here and make sure your scavengers don’t return.”
The static charge made the tops of the short Faraday trees glow eerily in the dark as Nick made his way over a small grassy hill. Occasionally, there were startling popping noises as the static discharged angrily, like firecrackers sizzling in the canopy. After twenty years on Faraday, this strange planet still gave him the creeps when he was out at night. As lightning flashed, casting shadows on the forest’s edge, movement in his peripheral vision caused him to turn and look. For a fleeting second, he saw four squat figures silhouetted against the trees, matching his pace but just as quickly they were gone. I must be losing my mind, Nick thought as he turned back towards the trail, the hair on his nape still standing up.
Shortly after landing on Faraday some twenty years ago, they lost their only biologist to a lightning strike. As the colony’s only physician, Nick filled in as the resident biologist and had become something of an expert on the planet’s ecosystem, including animal biology and even a little botany. For Nick xenobiology had become more than a hobby and as much as he hated this cursed planet, he was obsessed with its biology. He was fascinated with the many wonderful ways that life had adapted to the extreme environment of Faraday. All the animals he’d observed and examined were built low to the ground so as to avoid the lightning strikes and their bodies were heavily insulated. Even the largest herbivores were no more than a meter tall. Most of the animals tended to be wider than they were tall, and as a result slow-moving and could easily be mistaken for reptiles as they lacked fur or feathers. All the plant life was fire resistant, and the short trees incorporated minerals in their bark that conducted electricity along the outside of their trunks and into the ground so as to not damage their interiors.
Nick’s wool-gathering came to an abrupt stop as the flickering lightning revealed a strange creature blocking his path about twenty meters away. Like most Faraday animals he’d observed, it was low to the ground, but its body was segmented with four appendages on each side. As the light flickered in and out, the creature rose on its back segment to nearly two meters off the ground. Static charge glowed and popped around the four appendages that sprouted half a meter from its head. He started back peddling as fast as he could without taking his eyes off this terrifying creature when suddenly the lighting stopped and plunged him into darkness. Nick fumbled for his flashlight but when he finally deployed the bright beam, the creature was gone. What just happened? Nick thought. Was that real or am I losing it? Regardless, he decided it would be prudent to run the rest of the way to town.
Nick glanced over at Eddie and could tell the town hall meeting wasn’t going according to plan. No one was happy that they were extending the lockdown another week as they tried to figure out what was happening.
“Mayor Thorson, what about our crops? The fields need tending or we’re not going to have much to eat this winter,” Accused one of the farmers that had stood up from the crowd to address the council.
Eddie stood up from the table, “Tom, I assure you, we’ll get this figured out soon.” Eddie turned to his left as he continued, “Janelle, will you please give us an update on the new suits?”
Janelle Mwangi, the colony’s lead engineer stood from her seat just beside Nick, “We have three new designs completed and they are in fact out in the field for testing now. They’re all reinforced to be able to withstand additional energy and I’m confident at least one of them will pass muster.” She paused as there was some excited muttering from the crowd. “However, until we fully understand why the old suits are failing, I don’t know how we can fully bless these new designs.”
Tom stood back up, “No disrespect to those that have lost loved one but only five have failed. There’s over 500 of us. Hell, just last night, the Mayor and Dr. Malkovich were both struck and they’re fine!”
As the meeting hall was consumed with the ensuing ruckus, Nick couldn’t help but reflect on the unfortunate events that led to them being stranded on this dreadful planet. Thirty years ago, they were all so hopeful for the future. They had left their resource-depleted home world and had set out on a hundred-year voyage to the newly discovered planet Elpis. Elpis was a paradise, unpopulated but full of life and potential but they didn’t even make it halfway there when their ram drive started failing. They knew they’d never make it to Elpis, so they looked for alternatives and found a previously uncharted planet that was just close enough. Nick assumed they were all doomed to a slow and drawn-out death when he heard their ram drive was failing so finding this planet seemed like a miracle. As they limped into the system, their ram drive failed altogether, and the captain had to do some creative planetary braking to get them into orbit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a stable orbit, and they didn’t have enough time to bring everything down to the planet’s surface before the ship burned up in the atmosphere.
Shortly after landing, they realized that the atmosphere was so ionized that it was impossible for any outbound signals to leave the planet. No rescue was coming, they were going to spend the rest of their lives here. Not long after that people started dying from the other side effects of the heavily ionized atmosphere, the frequent high-energy static discharges from inanimate objects as well as frequent ground strikes from the sky. They built a giant Faraday cage around their town and were forced to wear Faraday suits anytime they ventured outside. Michal Faraday’s ancient discoveries had saved their lives, so they decided to name this dreadful planet after him.
“Dr. Malkovich, did you hear the question?” Eddie asked.
“I’m sorry, what?” Nick replied as he returned to the moment.
Dee stood back up and restated her question, “Nick, what about the scavengers? Weren’t the bodies scavenged post-mortem?”
Nick was surprised to see her here, just the day after her daughter’s grisly death. He was glad he was able to talk her out of viewing the body. The devastating electrical strike combined with what the scavengers did to the body was something a mother shouldn’t have to see. He regretted he had seen it. “Yes, all five victims were indeed scavenged post-mortem.”
Someone else stood up, “But none of the native predators or scavengers have never taken an interest in us or our livestock!”
Nick nodded, “After examining the bite marks on the victims, I believe this is a previously undiscovered animal.”
The crowd murmured.
“Dr. Malkovich, you’ve spent the last twenty years cataloging all of the animal life in this area, surely there’s no way you could have missed one that could dismember a body like this,” said a woman that just stood up from the crowd.
Another person shouted from the crowd, “Maybe this new predator killed them, and then they were struck by lightning?”
Nick shook his head, “No, I don’t think so. The bite marks were definitely post-mortem.”
“Are you sure?”
After seeing that strange creature, the night before, Nick wasn’t sure of anything. He debated telling everyone about the creature but decided against it. Doubtful they would believe him and even if they did, what good would it do? Besides, the cause of death was massive static electrocution. “Yes, I’m sure.”
Dee Oxford stood back up with tears just starting to show in her eyes, “But it can’t be a coincidence that these new animals showed up at the exact same time that our suits start failing, right Dr. Malkovich? Maybe you should go out and find one to make sure?”
Maybe I should, Nick thought.
Eddie stood up and waved for the crowd to be quiet, “Everyone settle down. No one is going out looking for this new creature, especially not Dr. Malkovich. He’s our only physician for crying out loud, what would we do without him? No one leaves town until the new suits are fully tested and vetted.”
Nick, shifted the plasma rifle slung to his back as he bent down and studied the site of Sherri Oxford’s untimely demise, hoping to find the tracks of the beast that had scavenged her. This was one of only two rifles they’d managed to get off the ship before it crashed. As soon as Eddie discovered it was gone, he’d know who took it. It’ll be worth if it I can kill one and establish a link between the creatures and the failing suits, Nick thought as he stood up and started toward the tree line.
Hours later, the sun was setting, and Nick was about to give up and return to town when he heard something behind him. It was faint and subtle, and he only heard it when he was walking. As soon as he stopped, the noise stopped.
Holy shit, it’s stalking me, Nick thought as he quickly scrambled up the hill and laid down at the crest to prepare an ambush.
The sun slowly set as Nick waited for the beast to show itself. Minute by agonizing minute he waited and nothing. He looked up from the scope of his rifle to check with his bare eyes but nothing. Nick slowly scanned the area around him, paranoid the creature was circling around him when he heard something dead ahead.
With the sun now fully set, and the remaining light fading fast, the creature slowly emerged into the clearing. Nick peered through the scope at his quarry as it raised up on its hind segment and lifted its ugly head two meters into the air, the four appendages on its head waving about as if sensing for something…or someone. He felt a chill down his spine as he looked into the creature’s nearly meter-wide, hooked beak-shaped mouth. A mouth like that is made for stripping flesh off bone, Nick thought as he drew fully down and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing happened, no discharge, no recoil, no nothing! Nick quickly pulled the charge cartridge out of the rifle, and it was dead. Damn it, it was fully charged when I stole it!
Nick looked back toward the clearing and the creature was nowhere to be seen so he jumped up and not knowing what else to do started running. After a couple of minutes, he could hear the creature behind him. This must be the fasted creature on Faraday! Nick thought as he increased the pace as much as he could with the suit slowing him down. Just maybe he could outdistance it.
When he felt his deep labored breaths getting shorter and closer together, he knew he wouldn’t be able to outrun the beast that was still closing ground. Out of options, he decided it was time to fight, while he still had energy left.
As he abruptly came to a halt, Nick turned and with his right hand pulled out the large knife from the sheath on his belt while keeping the dead rifle in this left hand. Maybe I can hold it off with the rifle while I stab upwards with the knife. If I can get it between the segments, maybe that will slow it down?
The beast stopped about three meters in front of him and again rose on its back segment, its head appendages moving slowly, but this time the air around the appendages began glowing and popping with static charge.
What the hell is happening, Nick wondered as he felt the air around him hissing and popping. Now, the creature moved closer to him and suddenly he was struck by two simultaneous electric blast, one from the creature and one directly from the sky itself!
This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, Nick thought as the blasts passed through his Faraday suit and discharged into the ground leaving him unharmed. The beast is able to manipulate the highly charged atmospheric static and use it as a weapon, but why am I still alive?
Before Nick could ponder this question further, the beast quickly closed the distance between them, snapping its lethal beak as it closed the gap. Nick thrust the plasma rifle into the creature’s mouth as he stabbed upwards with his knife directly into the gap between its thorax segment and head. The beast bit down sharply and snapped his rifle in half as static discharged loudly from its head appendages, then it collapsed to the ground.
Nick jumped up and down as he screamed at the now dead beast, “Take that you cunt! That’s for Sherri, you ugly bastard!” He kicked the corpse once more for good measure, “Fuuuuuucccck Youuuuu!”
Nick abruptly stopped his barbaric celebration and slowly turned as he heard static popping behind him. About thirty meters away in the inky darkness he could see a faint glowing circle that was growing brighter and now through the sparks, he could barely make out the head appendages waving slowly as the sharply pointed beak slowly opened and closed with a snap. Oh, shit, there’s another one, Nick thought.
Nick puffed his chest out as he held the knife out towards the beast, “You want some of this too? Come get some!”
He heard the same popping noises now to his right and left and as he looked both ways, he realized he was surrounded by three of the beasts. As the glowing around their head appendages grew brighter and the static popped louder, Nick felt a tingling sensation come up through his feet and pass up his entire body. He felt all his hair standing on end. He looked to the skies just in time to witness the massive lightning bolt come down from the sky. His last thought as the massive charge ripped his mind apart was, at least I know what happened to the others.
A short story by John Japuntich
Copyright August 2022