They were gone. Straightening, I groaned as my back protested. Should I move on, try to find a camping spot?
“Wonder if they left any grubs?” Maybe I could preserve one. A small one. The big ones looked like they had pincers that could break a specimen jar if I didn’t get them sedated fast enough.
I stepped around the tree, eyeing the deep hole the big one left behind. A progenitor, most likely. Older siblings rarely had the patience to spend that amount of time feeding the young of a pack. That role typically fell to parents while adolescents had mock battles to hone hunting skills or supervised during downtimes.
That was, if the creatures were a pack animal that congregated in larger groups than a solitary parent who reared a litter and then pushed them out when they grew old enough to fend for themselves. Based on the size difference between the ones I’d just seen, that wasn’t happening soon. I spread my fingers over a slashed claw mark on the edge of the hole in the tree; they barely covered the wide tracks.
Well, claws I didn’t have, but the metal gloves of my suit were indestructible—at least by anything on this planet. Certainly some rotted wood was no challenge.
Grabbing my pack, I gathered my supplies and prepped the jar. I could camp here in the clearing.
I dug my fingers in. The top layer crumbled, but then my fingers were stopped. Grunting, I leaned into it, arcing my fingers and pressing my full weight into the wood. It snapped and cracked under the force. I grabbed a fistful of pulp and yanked it out.
The wood crumbled as I drew it out. I tossed it aside. Peering into the hole, I looked for a grub. “Aha!” One was squirming in a furrow by the hole I’d dug. Grabbing a specimen jar and forceps I’d packed, I plucked the wiggling insect out of the wood.
The purple grub had pincers, or maybe mandibles might be a better description. Something had to be making those furrows, and it didn’t have legs or claws. It ate its way, and with how strong that wood was?
I wasn’t going to touch that mouth. It writhed around the forceps, whipping its body back and forth. “Sorry, buggy. It’s all about the science.” Into the jar.
The chemicals paralyzed it instantly, and it went still. Capping the jar, I lifted it. No eyes, but pits near the mouth could be sensory organs. The hard shell certainly wasn’t porous. So it breathed and ate from the same hole—the mouth. And yes, a tiny excretory hole.
I ran my scanner over it, but rattling in the bushes distracted me from the readout. A branch broke. Then another.
Dropping the jar into my pack, I reached down to my thigh and pulled out the shock wand built in. Twisting the edges, I extended it, activating the power cell. Both ends popped open and spread apart. I panted, cursing my stupidity. Yes, camp next to a known food source. Seriously.
One day in the field, and I’d forgotten the basics in staying alive. I was an idiot. I wouldn’t have to worry about Captain Sonez, my own stupidity would keep me from getting to explore planets. My first one was going to be my last one.
I’d be the dumbass biologist who was found next to the newly-discovered bug. They’d name the grub after me so I’d live on in infamy… Essell Idiotus Grubus. Or some other such horrifically humiliating thing. A red snout poked through the bushes, and I stepped back. Screw the pack, I’d come for it later. The head was next, held super low.
Was that a hunting posture? Head down, flanks up? About to leap? Could it leap? “Oh fires of Hell….” That was the creature that was here before. There were the multiple eyes, the large ears. This time they were swiveled forward, aimed at me.
At my heartbeat? It was racing fast enough. Like prey. Panicked, jumpy. My breath sped. It couldn’t smell me, not through the suit, so it must be the sound with those ears.
Spikes ran down its neck as it stepped forward. I stepped back instinctively. It wasn’t quite as dark red as before. Maybe that was the light fading. Or a hunting mechanism. Fade into the background? Mute its colors as camouflage?
Both front legs were out now, and it stared at me with those dark eyes. Black on black, solid centers. A white membrane nicked over the outer pair and then away. My brain wouldn’t stop categorizing the damn thing’s features, but I should be thinking of a way of using my shock wand against it. The skin looked armored, pebbled along the head, legs, and shoulders, with a thicker plating along the upper neck and spine as far as I could see.
Maybe the underside of the neck? It was paler there. Those eyes. I’d have to avoid those claws; they looked sharper than tenstanim alloy. The creature crept in, now more than halfway into the clearing, and I took two rapid steps backward.
It hissed, baring short, sharp teeth and fangs at me, and I gasped. I stumbled, falling backward over a spongy root. I clutched the shock wand as I fell, trying to face one end up.
I was down, vulnerable, as far as the beast knew at least. This would be it. I held my breath, but the pounce didn’t come.
I wasn’t the target. The creature went to the log, to the hole I’d dug, and stuck its snout inside. It snuffled, then whined. Then it reached in and scraped the edges of the hole, pulling back a grub slightly smaller than the one I’d taken for a specimen.
Chirping, it tossed the grub into its mouth. Those sharp teeth cracked through the shell, a line of pink ooze dribbling over its chin.