Hope abandoned us the day our ship crashed on this godforsaken planet. In the thick forests and poisonous swamps of this hell we call Nox, slowly but surely, we too have abandoned hope. Even Ted, who’s been my friend for over fifty years, is nothing but a savage now. They all are, and their goals are those of savages as well.

But not mine. Not while my promise remains unfulfilled.

Today I march toward the mountain. As I approach, I see them scattered across the only field of this wasteland, bent over their labor, and all I see are animals waiting for slaughter.

Ted bares his blackened teeth in a rigid smile as he sees me coming, and stands tall between the weeds. “Look who returned from the dead. If it isn’t my old pal, the tinkerer! Where’ve you been this past decade, Brom? Building yourself another tomb of ship parts?”

I swallow my anger, nod in his general direction and keep walking. The mountain’s shadow is already covering the field and village. My time is running out.

“Hey, where are you going?” Ted twists the makeshift scythe in his hand. “What do you want on the mountain?”

“You know damn well what,” I retort, barely slowing down. “I have to stop that beast once and for all. So everybody can finally get the hell out of here.”

He laughs hoarsely, and wipes his face with the back of his hand. Then he starts toward me. A handful of men cease their harvesting and follow him.

“You can’t stop the Reaper, Brom.” Ted’s tone is a little sharper now. “I thought you knew that after sending your own son into death.”

I look him in the eye, hoping to see the man I once knew. But there’s barely a shadow of him left after three Cycles on Nox.

“This is our last chance, Ted. We’re out of parts, and almost out of fuel. If we don’t strike it hard this time, it’s gonna keep coming until it kills us all.”

“It doesn’t want us,” Ted says with a shrug. “It just wants the technology.”

The men nod behind him.

“As long as we do the Reaper’s biding and keep to our farming, we will have peace.”

“It’s biding? What is it, your new god?” I cuss under my breath, my blood turning sour. “That thing has to be killed. Now, while we still can.”

“You can’t kill it all by yourself.” Ted laughs dryly.

“Well I’m not gonna wait another thirteen years for it to crawl out of the mountain and come hunting again, either,” I reply. “You do what you want.”

He keeps walking, frowning at me, his path soon about to meet mine. “What have you done, Brom? Whatcha built this time?” Then sharper, “We need the wreckage to build farming tools and housing, not waste it on pipe dreams and coffins for the stupid.”

“You think if you revert to the Dark Ages, it will leave you alone?”

“I’m sure willing to try,” Ted says, then turns to the others. “We all are.”

They grunt and nod their agreement, closing ranks behind Ted like an obedient pack.

I remember most of them from our take-off back on Earth. We were in our twenties, full of hope and eager to be the first to breathe the air of Terra Nova. We stepped aboard the Hope and fell into a long, cold sleep, only to wake as our ship crashed into this festering nomansland. Now their faces are unshaved and sun-burned, their hair matted and their clothes torn, and the spark in their eyes has turned grim. Thirty-nine years stranded without the means to escape or call home can do that to any man. Three Cycles of hopelessness and mourning for our dead. Three Cycles tonight.

“Remember who we are,” I insist, looking at each of them in turn. “We’re scientists, and scholars, pioneers. We have a responsibility. We can’t stay here.”

We have families here,” Ted says, lifting his chin.

My breath catches. I swallow a bitter old lump, feeling it slide painfully down to my heart, then blink the onset of tears away.

I look at Ted once more, and resume my march. The sun has already set behind the barren peak, and I must hurry.

“Hey… What’s that?” a man says behind me.

I swing my bag around, hiding the square bulge from their eyes as if cradling an infant, and pick up the pace.

“What do you think you’re doing, Brom?” Ted yells.

I hear people swooshing through the weeds but don’t look back.

“Let it go, Brom. Don’t be stupid!”

“I can’t,” I yell over my shoulder, and break into a run.

I can’t. I promised.

* * *

I’ve almost reached the monster’s cave, but still have a lot to climb. My legs are old and tired, and my boots are bear traps gnawing at my swollen feet. The box in my bag hangs heavily against me.

I have one last chance to kill the beast that ruined us. After tonight, there won’t be any scraps left to build functioning equipment. That beast will have destroyed them all, like some sadistic alien watchdog, purging this hell-hole of advanced foreign technology. Soon we’ll be left with nothing but barbaric tools and loincloths. How long before all sense of civilization is lost too? How long before our descendants will forget we ever came from Earth?

Twilight is slowly tightening around me, and the air is fouler with every step I climb. I grab hold of another rock spur, and then another, and pull myself up with aching arms. My mind is clouded, my heart a bottomless pit. I’m going over the names of those this horrid beast has taken, remembering their faces, honoring their spirit. One by one they fell, protecting our dream, defending our shuttles and rovers and escape pods, until nothing they treasured remained, not even their breath. But their dream, and mine, remains. I must fulfill my promise to them, to my wife and son, to myself, to mankind.

I reach a broader ledge and scramble to my feet. I rest my hands on my knees, waiting for the thin oxygen struggling through my lungs to reach my head. There’s barely enough light to count my fingers, but the entrance to the cave is still visible further ahead, like a black sore on the mountain’s face. A dire growl comes from within, spreading the stench of rotten flesh and mold around me. My skin crawls where instinctive fear and deep-seated bitterness meet once again. The latter eventually conquers me, my old companion, and pushes me forward.

I swallow pins and needles, and reach into the bag. Step by careful step, I approach the cave, clutching the box with both hands.

Something hits me hard against the head.

I slump to the ground, and drop the box. It tumbles away from me and lands open sideways in the dust. I scramble for it hastily and punch it, sending it skidding between a man’s boots. A tiny red light starts blinking inside, and I breathe into the rising dust.

“Think we’re just gonna sit tight and let you fuck everything up?” Ted says, and rams his scythe in the ground before my face.

The others grunt in solidarity, kicking at me like nipping dogs.

I should have known he’d follow me. Men like him only come at you from behind.

Ted bends down over me, and spits into the dirt. “Sorry, Brom. I like the way things are now.”

“Go to hell,” I growl, staring at the blinking homing beacon.

“You shouldn’t have said that.” He stands back up. “You could have won my favors. Now it’s too late.” He turns around, and walks toward the box.

The men start hitting me with clubs and spades and boots. My groans mix with the monster’s growls and the scraping of its claws. Then everything is drowned out by a sharpening whistle in Nox’s foul sky, as my soulless contraption comes to find its maker. Finally—this past decade of mourning and wedging the shards of our Hope together with bleeding fingers, is catching up with me.

Ted spins around and screams at me, but it’s too late. The beast emerges with a sickening roar. The whistle in the sky becomes a screech. The men are yelling, cussing, scrambling. And I take one last breath.

The picture taped to the inside of the box’s lid flashes red before me. I smile at the glowing faces of my wife and son. Then everything is bathed in red.

Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author — I deliver the aliens.

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