Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Lost

By Brian Willmott

He sat on a rocky ledge high above the glistening rocks and restless water, regretting leaving the warm safe cabin that was his home on board the ship. His sense of curiosity and adventure had evaporated, leaving him frightened and confused.

Only yesterday the ship had arrived, and he'd slipped off to explore. The crew were busy with their work, and he was attracted by the cries of the strange birds outside. Seeing his chance when no one was near, he slipped from his cabin. Mischievous, he frequently crept about the vessel until a crew-member found him, and he was returned to the safety of the cabin. More often, though, he remained undetected by any of the crew, and then returned of his own accord. This time luck was with him as he carefully made his way through the vessel, avoiding the crew, until he escaped.

At first, the new sights and sounds had captivated him, but realizing that he would soon be caught if he stayed where he was, keeping low he vanished amongst the abundant vegetation. In only a short while he was far enough away to be able to relax, knowing that he would not now be easily found and sent back to his cabin.

His wandering had brought him into the edge of a large tract of timber, and he stopped again to look around. The trees seemed so tall and the greenery of their tops was so far above him that he felt in awe of the immensity of the forest. Before the ship, he had lived in a city, where his contact with the natural world had been restricted to the sanitized areas of public parks, and this tremendous vista made him feel very small indeed.

Investigating the forest took him many hours. He chased the myriad small creatures that inhabited the shadowed world beneath the trees, following the sounds that they made, trying to catch a glimpse of what was making them. Moving as silently as he was able he caught fleeting glimpses of tiny rodents in the undergrowth and watched entranced the numerous birds that flitted through the trees. Being very young, he found it exciting to try catching several denizens of the forest, but they easily evaded him.

Eventually, he tired of that game and, as the light was beginning to fail amongst the trees, he made his way out from under them. By now his feeling of adventure was starting to wane, and he thought about returning to the ship. His wanderings across this strange land had led him far from his starting place however, and now he couldn't decide in which direction the vessel lay.

At first he felt no panic, only frustration. All he had to do was to follow the slope of the land until he reached his destination. That this was wrong didn't occur to him until a little while later, when he suddenly realized that he was going in the opposite direction, back into the trees. He turned around and retraced his path, only to be met by a powerful gust of wind. The sun had vanished behind heavy black clouds, and it was starting to rain. Now, at last, he admitted that he was lost. All he could do now was to keep going in one direction and hope that the ship's crew were looking for him. He didn't like this place any more! It was cold and wet, and the wind was strong enough to buffet him around. He would have much preferred the warmth and security of his cabin back on the ship. Fighting the wind, he faced into it and slowly made his way forward. When he had left the vessel, the then gentle breeze had been behind him, so surely this would be the right way! The route he took lay on rising ground, but he had forgotten now his earlier rationalization that the correct path was downhill.

He began calling out in hope that the crew would hear, and someone would come and get him. He had given up hope of returning to the ship undetected. Instead, he would happily face the certain punishment he knew waited for him, for then at least he would be safe and warm.

Meanwhile, back at the ship, his absence had been noted. "Captain, Jal is missing," a trembling junior rating reported. "I found his door ajar and he wasn't there. He's not on the ship!"

"Have you searched thoroughly?" You know how he likes to hide away at times."

"Yes, Captain. I looked everywhere I could think of. I'm afraid he may have left the ship!"

"Yes, Captain. I looked everywhere I could think of. I'm afraid he may have left the ship!"

"By the gods, I hope not!" The captain blanched as he reached for the intercom. "All hands to the muster room," he ordered. "Secure all bulkhead doors."

When the crew assembled, the captain ordered the crew to do a thorough sweep of the ship deck by deck. With a full search by everybody it would be impossible for Jal to hide for long. Unfortunately, it became all too clear that their quarry was no longer on the vessel, and the Captain reluctantly ordered the search extended.

Jal, though, was several miles away from the ship and going the wrong way. During his erratic investigations of the forest, he had traveled to the South and his present course would lead him further away. He didn't know this, and struggled on, through increasingly violent weather.

Where before he had made his way against the wind and rain, he now had to contend with briefs bursts of hailstones, accompanied by thunder and lightning. For him, the experience was terrifying, for he had never seen nature in its full fury before. He cried out in desperation, pleading with his distant protectors to come and take him home, but his plaintive cries were lost in the noise of the wind and the thunder.

It was growing dark now, and the rain and hail were continuous, making it difficult to see, but he was determined to find the ship. Steadily inching his way forward against the terrible buffeting of the wind, he began to tire. Suddenly the ground beneath him vanished and he found himself in mid-air; he landed on a narrow ledge a few feet lower.

From below he could hear a loud rhythmic roar of surf breaking against the foot of the cliff, and he could taste the salt spray in the air. He had found the water's edge, but not the ship. He couldn't remember seeing a cliff on the shore anywhere nearby when he began his adventures, so he was thoroughly confused. He now didn't know which way to go, so, tired and cold, he huddled back against the rock face to wait for morning.

***

Sometime during the night the storms had passed on to plague other lands, and Jal had slept. Now, though, the light of the rising sun roused him and warmed him a little. With this increase in awareness came the pain of hunger. The need to replace the energy used up fighting the storm became all-important, and he had to find the ship or a source of food soon.

The sun's warmth increased his activity and he began to move about on the ledge in preparation for renewing his search for the ship. He surveyed his position in the morning light, noticing that he had been lucky to land on the ledge, for the rest of the cliff was a sheer drop to the ocean. He was trying to decide what to do next when he noticed something out on the water. Coming around the headland to the right of the cove was a small boat, just big enough for the two fishermen who worked it.

Jal moved to the edge of the ledge, studying the open boat and its occupants. He was disappointed to see that they were not the crew of his ship, but instead some more of the strange creatures that seemed to be everywhere here. No matter, he was hungry. Gathering himself together, Jal assumed a flattened disc shape, and launched himself off of the ledge.

Back at the ship, the First Officer had just reported back to the Captain after supervising the deployment of the search parties. "All we can do now is wait, Captain. Jal should start to move about again once the temperature rises. He should be easily picked up when he lifts off."

"I just hope we are in time to capture him before his hunger overcomes his fear of being caught," the Captain replied. The possible consequences of Jal being discovered by one of the natives of this world brought a sheen of sweat to his forehead. "We are in danger of causing an incident here. He must not be seen by any of the intelligent inhabitants of this world. If he is, we could all face disciplinary charges."

The First Officer reached out a manipulating tentacle, picked up a damp cloth from the dispenser nearby, and wiped his own purple hued brow. "Talking of charges, Captain, do you want me to include the Squad Leader in the list of those to be punished over this affair?"

"No, wait until we return to orbit. There will be time enough then to decide who should pay. We must concentrate on recovering our mascot right now. That creature could get us all in trouble yet. I have often doubted the real benefits of carrying pets on these voyages, but the psychologists seem to think they help the crew survive the long confinement. On exploratory missions though, I think they present too much of a danger. They are difficult to control, and are too much of a distraction."

Jal was unaware that he was the subject of their conversation. He was conscious of only two thoughts, and they occupied his mind to the exclusion of all else. The first was the pain of hunger that spread throughout his whole being, and the second was that just ahead lay the solution to his discomfort.

Like some great amoeba, Jal had the ability to change his body shape, and was a master at utilizing his variable geometry to ride the gentle sea breezes. He had the added advantage of changing his color like a chameleon, for he was a natural predator. His approach was silent and he was almost invisible against the western sky. The fishermen in the boat were intent on their work, laying their lines carefully, so as to avoid injury from the hooks as they flew over the side, so they didn't look up until he was overhead.

As Jal settled over the two men in the boat, he was preoccupied with the urgent need to feed, and so took little notice of anything other than his prey. His mantle muffled their screams as he enfolded them, and soon they ceased to struggle. It was only then that he experienced a strange feeling of unease. Somehow he felt that what he had done was wrong. The two creatures were alone in the boat, without a master to look after them, and he found that strange.

As Jal settled over the two men in the boat, he was preoccupied with the urgent need to feed, and so took little notice of anything other than his prey. His mantle muffled their screams as he enfolded them, and soon they ceased to struggle. It was only then that he experienced a strange feeling of unease. Somehow he felt that what he had done was wrong. The two creatures were alone in the boat, without a master to look after them, and he found that strange.

He finished the absorption of the edible parts of the two fishermen and was just ejecting the remainder when he was snatched from the deck of the boat by the meshes of a power-net. Seconds later he was aboard a Grav-flyer and quickly returned to his cabin on board the mothership.

"Captain, we have Jal back on board ship," the First Officer reported.

"Thank you. Has all the evidence been hidden?"

"Yes, Captain. The incident never happened."

"Very good. Now let's finish collecting the specimens and return to orbit. Until we do though, I want a permanent guard on the exits. We must leave nothing to chance in future."

***

Hero Lost at Sea

Local hero James Wilder, who last year led the daring rescue of twelve crewmen from the stricken cargo vessel `Torgan,' was one of two fishermen lost on Wednesday in a tragic accident.

Wilder was working lines out of Norporth early in the morning, and failed to return as expected by mid-day. A search later revealed the half-submerged remains of his boat, which appeared to have struck an obstacle at speed. An extensive search failed to recover the bodies of Wilder or his crewman, Peter Vorksan, 23.

The funeral is due to take place at the Norporth Baptist Church at eleven o'clock on Monday next.

Norporth Morning News, 4/20/99.