The heat was stunning in its intensity, and the light reflected off the sand like black glitter. Instead of dull, thick particles, the sand was made of fine grit like tiny pieces of shiny mirrors. I had to trigger the eye protection on my exosuit to help filter the intensity.
“You do not have to go out,” Garjah said.
“We want to.” I patted Bouncer on his side and walked down the metal ramp that led out of the ship. We’d gone only a few steps when he began trotting ahead. I gasped. Those rigid ears that had stood so tall the whole time were flopped forward midway down, creating a shade over his face.
And his entire body had darkened. The red was so dark it resembled thick blood, stripped of all its oxygen. The lighter stripes just developing stood out in greater contrast. “Wow. I didn’t know he had the ability to change his pigmentation.”
“Cerops can manipulate their coloration to help adapt to their environment, to attract mates, or to ward off predators.” Garjah stayed beside me, swiveling his head back and forth while I knelt to examine Bouncer’s skin.
“I can’t wait to write this up.” I took some notes, but then movement on the horizon caught Bouncer’s attention before it Garjah saw it. “The changes to his skin and ears protect his eyes. He’s cooler to the touch already.” My voice dropped to a murmur. “Fascinating.”
“Many of the animals on this planet are adapted to the dual suns.”
“Yes, but most species are more specialized to their local region. This is a separate hemisphere.”
“Cerops roam this entire planet.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.” I tapped that note in. “What other animals survive here.”
“Watch him.” Garjah pointed one hand at Bouncer. “His senses are stronger than either of ours.” We began walking away from the ship.
“You can find our way back, right?”
Garjah looked amused, his lips curling up. “You think that will be hard to spot?” The ship wasn’t cloaked, and it stood taller than most of the shiny dunes gently curving in rounded pillows all the way to the cliffs.
“I learned a long time ago that distance and landscape can be deceiving.”
“How did you learn that?”
Before I knew it, he had me telling him all sorts of stories about my youthful misadventures. I’d visited many places in the universe. It was harder to pull stories out of him, so I settled for details of the planet around us.
We followed Bouncer over the top of a hill and started down, our feet digging in divots. Garjah left wider, deeper holes behind him as we walked side by side, tracking downward toward the harder packed sand at the base. There were rocks and even a few small plants tucked against them.
“I don’t detect much wind.”
“No, the cliffs protect this area of the sands, which is why we land the ship here. The sand is sharp and the weather can be dangerous during storms when it is whipped up into the air. It is rare a storm makes it through the shield of the tall mountains.”
Bouncer had made it to the bottom and bounced, glancing up at me then darting toward the rocks. One ear would briefly pick up then cover his eyes again. “Do you think he found something?” I chuckled.
“Sindranth live within those tube plants under the rocks.”
The plants he mentioned were translucent, with thin tubes sticking out of unfurled leaves that had a deep vee in the center of each feeding down toward the center. Small holes were bored into each tube. Black shapes circled inside the tube.
“The black things are sindranth?” I leaned in close, and Bouncer crept in next to me, quivering. “No, buddy, I don’t know what these are and if you can eat them.”
Garjah snorted. “Cerops can eat anything.
“Well all right then.” I reached for the tube and yanked, but it stretched in my hand and didn’t come out. The sindranth inside were hard and writhed against my palm. “Oh, ew.” I let go and several round black shapes feel out of the holes in the plant. They curled, uncurled, and writhed in the sand. It stuck to them but that didn’t deter Bouncer. He pounced and slurped two of them up at once.
“Insects are so disgusting.” I should take a sample, but I didn’t want to.
“You study animals.”
“I prefer to study larger predators within an ecosystem and the mammals that are their immediate prey. I’m only doing an overall study on Ardra because it’s an unknown and there was no team on my ship to come with me.”
“Who teams of humans will come here?”
My heart began to race and sweat broke out on my forehead and drops trickled down my back. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but if I said no and they came? They would, especially once Sonez reported my ruse. “They will. At least a ship.” I held up a hand. “I don’t know when but—” My voice choked off.
Garjah’s eyes widened bigger than I’d seen before. “Essell!” He grabbed my wrist in one hand, holding it so tight I could feel it through my exosuit, and then flipped my arm over. “Is that normal?”
In the palm of my glove was a hole.
I tried to answer him but couldn’t. My throat wasn’t working. I couldn’t speak, and the sweat began to drip off my forehead, blinding me inside my helmet. I managed a shake of my head, stabbing at the release for my glove.
A faint clicking marred the smooth retraction, and I stared in horror at my palm. Under the pink skin was one of those black shapes, and it was moving.
I couldn’t feel it, couldn’t move my fingers, and disgust and panic sent my stomach into a churning vortex. I was going to vomit, or faint, or both.
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