The five set out across the plains with relative ease. The lakes that dotted the landscape here and there, sank through the haze the nearer they came. The tall grasses hid them beneath the gentle sway the wind imparted to them. Every few minutes, one of the group would stop to gather samples of the different foliage and soil. Raymond remarked on the odd composition of the latter, cited that the minute composition of limestone was inconsistent with the world’s place inside a mountain.
As they trudged forward through the knee-high grass, Raymond mused aloud to the others, “It’s possible that the peninsula has been here for millions of years in its entirety. Gagrinsky may have grown upward as the plates shifted, closed it off from everything but the Black Sea. It could have been only a small pond then, or even a lake– smaller than it is now.”
“How do you explain the ceiling then?” Chad asked, the camera at his eye as it captured the plains with a wide, slow pan.
“I can’t be sure until there’s a core drilling,” he admitted. “But I suppose one theory could be arches. If they had spanned the chasm from one side of the growing range to the other at its peak, it would have only been a matter of sediment, dust, or anything else settling over them for millions of years to create the ceiling.”
A ear shattering shriek split the air. Like that of an eagle but much in higher pitch. It dizzied them with a sine that spiraled downward into a growl. The group froze in its tracks, scanned the skies. The luminescent ceiling was all that cut through the thick mist, visibility reduced to little more than a few meters.
“The predators are out now,” Anthony said as he rubbernecked the mist. “Prey must be diurnal.”
Elliot’s voice was airy, quiet, “Probably why we haven’t seen anything yet.”
They waited, listened. When the next call came, it was further off, headed away from them.
Elliot sighed relief, “C’mon. We don’t know how long the day lasts here”
Liana readjusted the rifle in her hands, followed Elliot to match her pace.
To the right, a pond was half-shrouded by mist that seemed to sink further and further toward the ground. Elliot hoped it wouldn’t delay their trek– it was already getting harder to see the forested ridge, and she didn’t like the idea of climbing in the fog. While the day might last much longer here, as the laws of the surface need not apply, it might also be much shorter. Though it was certain the cavern’s light-source had curiously thickened the air. Her lungs were heavy, fatigued by the foreign oxygen.
“Wait, wait,” Elliot said with a flail of her hand.
She turned for the others, worried for the oxygen levels. Liana watched her step past with curious look, turned to follow her again. The shriek sounded high overhead. Elliot froze mid-step, her mind blank. Liana crouch-walked to her, pulled her downward. With a slow, calculated momentum, she shouldered her rifle, raised it to the skies, the mist too dense to see anything.
The shriek pierced their ears, forced hands over heads.
Liana swiveled, yelled, “Down!”
The team fell to the ground, covered their ears against another shriek. A shadow raced at Liana as she dropped; a massive gray blur that swooped down, skirted the air where Liana’s head had been. Air rushed as it passed, cried out with a vile high-pitch to their ears at such close range.
Liana yelled, “Up! Up!”
The group had just enough time to regroup in a single-file crouch, when the second run came. She waited, timed her words, caught sight of a spear-like beak, barbed at the lower end, attached to a swept back, horned head. Its appeared as a demonic crane that rocketed at them. She yelled.
They were on the ground before it passed, but Chad screamed. He lay on his back, a wolf-sized predator atop him. Liana took aim, fired her rifle in short, loud bursts. The bullets sprayed green blood from its lizard-like body. It thrashed in pain and anger, its long beak embedded in Chad’s shoulder. Forelimbs extended from its torso, forced Chad agaisnt the ground. The body gave a hard jerk, ripped its beak free. Blood dripped from the barbs as it yelped, shrieked. It reared up at Liana atop Chad’s chest. Her rifle rose. The creature’s feet balled up. It sprang toward Liana. She squeezed the trigger.
The creature animal was blasted backward mid-leap, fell with a twitch. It leaked, milky, green translucence from its body, bore no feathers, but forearm-thick muscular bulges beneath its leathery wings.
Chad screamed again. Elliot rushed over examined his wound; the beak had pierced straight through the left clavicle.
Liana shouted, “Get him quiet!”
Elliot opened her mouth to speak, her voice drowned in a high, rasping roar. This one was much closer, Terran in nature. Raymond and Anthony rushed to Chad, silenced him. Second and third roars came from opposite directions. Before Elliot could speak, Chad was silent, on his feet. Blood leaked from his shoulder, his face red from the pain, he moved fast. He hurried past her, then Liana, sprinted away from the sounds.
“Get him before he’s out of sight,” Liana commanded.
She took up aim once more as Elliot and the others sprinted past her. Her feet made slow, quiet back-steps, her eyes darted around the forward area. The roars came again, ahead of her this time.
Light thumps were all that was audible until a heavy breath emitted death and dried blood at her. The silhouette of a medium-sized animal sped across the path the team had made. Its spine was curved, like that of cat’s, but the muzzle was large, blunt. It bounded across, disappeared into the mist. Liana’s feet worked her backward at a slow, consistent pace, the distant team audible behind her.
The first Terran-creature rushed at her in a diagonal path. Two bursts spattered blood from its chest. Its legs gave out mid-bound. It tumbled forward, end-over-end, dead. Life faded from its yellow eyes, visible in deep sockets and framed above a heavy jaw-line. Sinew and wounds made the beast’s head appear as though its skin had been turned inside out. Its ears were absent, mere openings near the crown. The other beasts growled a heavy menace. Liana’s feet worked faster, were too slow.
The two beasts came into view. Their blunt snouts flared with razor-sharp teeth. A second set gave a violent oscillation from the back of the throat. They launched at her in unison. The rifle barked without aim. Liana was tackled, the rifle thrown from her hands. Heavy claws dug into her sides. She screamed in agony, felt blood drain from her sides. She grasped for the diving knife at her waist, managed to thrust it hard into the weight on her chest.
One of the beasts stumbled back with a high yelp. The second took its place, dug its claws deep into her chest. The stench of death overwhelmed her, the pain torturous. The beast made a sharp inhale as it sniffed, snorted at her, opened its mouth to reel back its head for a death-strike. Its head snapped forward, met her arm to block it. Teeth sank into her forearm, lashed it from side to side. She struggled to keep the beast’s teeth from her neck, tried to roll away, felt the SMG beneath her. She rolled back and forth. Her arm weakened. The weapon slipped out beside her.
With a forceful hand, struck the beast in the neck. It rasped, stumbled back. The SMG rose. The beast returned, readied to strike. The barrel pressed the neck, spewed ammunition from the barrel to shred its airways, and severe its spinal cord. Liana’s adrenaline kept the trigger down as she scurried backward, the creature dead. Her hand released only after it fell over dead.
She swallowed hard, bloody and sickened, turned for her rifle. Shouts and screams emitted from the direction the team had gone. She retrieved the rifle and her knife, sprinted with a limp after the sounds. Each breath was a knife in her side, but she dared not stop. Torn flesh burned and bled from beneath her shredded wet-suit. She stumbled down Chad and the others had created as their shouts grew louder, coherent.
Elliot yelled with desperation, “Your knives! Get your knives!”
Liana emerged from the mist into a small grove of trees, the other four bound up by thick vines, suspended a meter in the air.
Anthony’s neck was stretched upward, his voice a grunt, “It hurts!”
“Liana, No!” Elliot screamed.
She stopped with heavy pants, looked to the ground. More, long vines, thick as sea-rope criss-crossed the patchy soil with hundreds of small thorns and wet suckers in them like a squid.
“Don’t…. touch them,” Elliot shouted, her breath strained as the vine squeezed her.
Liana dodged the vines with nimble feet, watched the team rise slowly upward. Her eyes followed the vines upward and deep into the canopy of conifers. She found a bare spot where the vines had been triggered, stepped into it.
She called to the others, “Stay still.”
The rifle rose in her hands, grazed the torn flesh at her abdomen. The rifle cracked once. A bullet whizzed over Elliot’s head, split the vine that curled around and over her. She fell free, hit the grounded with a winding thud, coughed and choked for air. Liana shifted her aim, freed the others with more cracks of the rifle.
Elliot choked for air, pushed herself up. Her throat rasped for air as she tore thorns form her arms and sides, brushed off a viscous liquid that had begun to coat her. Raymond and Anthony did the same, hurried to Chad on the ground whom struggled to breathe.
Liana took careful steps over the vines, examined Chad’s wounds, “He’ll be fine. Get him up. Chad moaned, took a sharp breath. Liana neglected her own injuries, to help lift him, “We need to move.”
She checked the magazine in the rifle, cast it aside, for a new one. Elliot stepped to her, knelt to examine the jagged skin at her belly. It had been scalped to the dermal layer, the epidermal-layer like a flap that hung, still connected.
“Jesus, what the hell happened?” Elliot asked as she surveyed the puncture wounds.
The animal’s claws had stabbed her sides as though it had tried to grasp her. The motion necessary suggested digits that moved independent of the hand or foot connected, like fingers.
“You need to be bandaged,” she said, her voice grave.
“We need to move.” Liana protested.
“Damn right we do, but we’re not going anywhere with you like this,” she said, poking a finger into the wound. Liana fell to her knees, gasped and whimpered. “Ray, Tony; I need gauze, alcohol, and pain killers.”
Liana doubled-over, clenched her eyes shut and grit her teeth, “What are you going to do?”
Raymond passed over supplies to her, Anthony still at work on Chad, now propped upright. Raymond knelt to aid Elliot, poured alcohol onto a large swath of cotton-cloth.
“This is going to hurt,” he winced, sympathetic.
“Do it any–”
He swabbed the wound. She screamed through her teeth, tortured by fiery needles. Her voice resounded off the trees and the empty clearing. It was answered by a shriek.
“Son of a bitch!” Anthony cried backward. “Can’t we be off the menu just this once?”
“What do you expect, we’re wounded prey to them,” Elliot said over Liana’s cries.
She tried to silence herself, but Elliot’s knife was out. It sliced away the torn flesh, gave way to a hard pressure against her exposed dermis. Tears squeezed through her eyes, stuttered breaths inhaled with whimpers. Elliot wrapped her abdomen with a large roll of gauze, threw her hands back and forth fast.
“Done,” Elliot said to Raymond. “Get her up.”
They got beneath either of her shoulders, lifted her to her feet. She hung limp from the pain, the weapons at her back dangled, smack together. Her feet caught the ground, took off with Raymond at one-side. Elliot helped Anthony lift Chad, followed after the others. Their legs ached from the slope of the forest, the shrieks nearer behind them. Elliot glanced back to see a small animal scamper into view, devour the piece of Liana’s flesh she’d left behind.
The slope peaked a few moments later, the shrieks banked away, headed back for the scene of carnage Liana had left behind. The treeline opened ahead. A dirt clearing appeared with a river through one third of it. The mist was thinner here, the far-side of the river clearly stone as it would off and round to the right. Small crocodile-like creatures sat lazily on the far side of the bank, as if sunning themselves. The group slowed, quieted.
The creatures resembled their surface relatives in every way, save for their minute size. They were as large as a toy dog, with heavy jaws and short, squat snouts in place of a croc’s wide rounded one. Their claws were long, stiff, stuck out several inches from finger-like appendages. The crocodile creatures seemed to notice them, but paid them, no mind. Even so, the group passed by them nearer the trees, came to a downward slope.
Liana begged to stop, panted for water. Raymond set her upright against a rock, her face pale, covered in sweat. Elliot grabbed for a bottle, handed it over, set Chad beside Liana.
She checked his wounds, moved onto Liana, “How’re you doing?”
“Fine, just… tired,” she breathed, weak.
“Looks like blood-loss,” Chad said. “But I wouldn’t rule out poison.”
“No poison… just tired.” Liana wheezed.
“It could be both,” he siad with a look to Elliot. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“Its blood loss,” Raymond said with certainty. “I’m exhausted, and I didn’t get attacked like she did. Plus her wounds were clean– there would have been some residual left over if it were poison. Discoloration of the wound, discharge, a reaction from the alcohol– something.”
Anthony fell back in a sit beside Chad, “I think we’re all exhausted, but we’ll need to keep moving. We’re going to have to set camp eventually.”
“Christ, I wish we’d just slept through the day,” Chad groaned.
Anthony was sarcastic, “Why? So we could be eaten in our sleep?” He shook his head. “Look the fact is, it will get dark again. When that happens we have to move, otherwise we will be eaten. The night will be our best time.”
“Then we need to find somewhere safe, out of the way and off the ground,” Elliot said, with a glance around.
The path ahead sloped down, but the river twisted off in the opposite direction. Both paths disappeared back into canopied forest. She was at a loss, if they stayed in place too long, they risked an attack, but if they headed back into the mist now, they risked having to set camp in the open grassland.
She sighed frustration, “Set camp here. We need to rest, and this seems like the safest place we’ve come across so far. When we do leave, we’ll head back down into the mist and the trees. Two tents. Pack it in.”
Raymond and Anthony acknowledged with a nod, broke open two tents and helped the others into them. Elliot sat watch for the first two hours the others slept until Raymond woke to relieve her. She handed over the pistol Liana had given her. He ushered her into a tent. Liana lay on the floor, deep in sleep, her breath labored from pain and morphine. Elliot settled beside her, fell fast into sleep.
She was awoken by Chad four hours later, sat up with a start. His arm was now placed in a make-shift sling, made from a torn remnant of his flannel over-shirt. He put his free finger to his lips, motioned for her to follow. She grabbed Liana’s SMG, crawled out. The area had changed since she had slept; now free of mist and with a receded river while daylight waned overhead.
Chad crouched at the rock they’d taken refuge at, pointed across the river with his uninjured arm and the video-recorder in his hand. There, by the water, were a dozen, long-necked animals. They bore features of deer, save that their skin was of hard, reptilian scales, and their bodies sported thick-veined muscles. They reached up into the low trees, chewed off large sections of the needles that crunched in their triangular muzzles. The smallest ones, juveniles Elliot guessed, sprinted at trees. They leapt up, suddenly began to climb like an arborist with spiked shoes. She took the camera from Chad to zoom in on the creatures’ feet. Where a normal hoof was rounded, adapted only for running, these also had large, heavy spikes in the front, no doubt for climbing.
They watched the animals in silence for a few minutes while they finished their meals and bounced off into the forest. Elliot was elated; for once they weren’t on the menu, and it was almost worth it. She was taken by the alien beauty of the scene, her mind on the creatures’ skin.
She mused at Chad beside the rock, barely above a whisper, “Everything here seems to have evolved from reptilian ancestors, or else adapted their distinguishing features; hardened skin or scales, long bodies, jointed feet, etcetera. All of their natural defenses are reptilian too; sharpened spins, or vestigial bones, barbs– I’ve yet to see a single feathered animal.”
Chad was silent for a moment, replied thoughtfully, “You think Ray’s right?”
“You mean about the rock bridges?”
“Yeah. You think its possible?”
“I’m not a geologist,” she admitted. “But I trust Ray. If he thinks that might be it, I agree.” Chad hesitated, then, “It does seem odd though. I wouldn’t have thought any number of arches could’ve formed this.”
An idea came to her, her voice hushed, “Of course! I can’t believe I didn’t see it before!” Chad’s brow furrowed in confusion. “That’s why everything here is so radically different.”
Chad’s confusion manifested words, “Elliot, what the hell are you talking about?”
“The Single-Impact Chad, that’s what did it.”
Chad still wasn’t following, but he knew what the “Single-Impact” was. Postulated by Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980, the Single-Impact Theory stated the last, massive extinction event was most probably caused by a hundred-and-eighty kilometer wide asteroid. After it struck the Earth, the changes to the global atmosphere would have equaled that of thousands of atomic bombs. The result was extinction of some seventy-percent of Earth’s life at the time.
Chad had only begun to piece it together, when Elliot helped him along, “The bridges form right?” She illustrated long arches with her hands, “It takes thousands, maybe millions of years of water for the valley between sides to form, leaves the arches behind. The result is two, connected edges of a mountain range that frames the valley’s ceiling– like rafters of a roof.” Her hands hands made a quick slide sideways, “Then, the water recedes. Sediment and soil blow around for eons, end up sprinkled on top of the framing. Meanwhile, the water moves inland again as the mountains begin to rise. The combination blocks off what, at the time, could have been described as horseshoe valley. Finally, the impact event occurs, and the dust and fallout settles over the extensive “framing,” and finishes the roof. Over the eons, the mountains grow, shift, over take it.”
Chad understood at last, his eyes wild, “Do you know what this means?”
Elliot’s tone matched his eyes, “This world is the direct lineage of the world before the impact event. And it’s been totally preserved.”