The jungle was dense on this toxic planet. Dangerous pits of soupy quagmire added even greater danger. Ten had entered but only five were left, sent to this God-forsaken rock to search for survivors of the ship of scientists lost months earlier.
What new element discovered here was so damn important that Earth was sending civilians to this uncharted and lethal environment? Earth was a wasteland now, that was true, but there were plenty of other planets to explore. Why this one?
Heath was a grunt—a first line officer, sure, but still dispensable to the authorities that sent him here with nine kids right out of boot. Arguing was out of the question and would only lead to worse duty on some other armpit of a world.
There was no sign of the scientists or the five men from Heath’s platoon who had disappeared into thin air. Literally. He looked back and they were gone without a sound. So now he pulled up the rear and let Porter take point. Porter was still a kid, but he was older than the rest of this bunch, and used to jungles.
The only clue regarding the fate of the missing was the horrible screams. Initially, Heath assumed they were victims, their voices distorted by extreme pain and unspeakable torture, but the shrill monstrous sounds seemed more alien as time passed. He decided they were more likely hearing the killer not its victims.
After three days of aimless wandering, Porter spotted a small clearing within the mush. There was a human lying on the ground, still wearing a suit and helmet. Heath rushed to the front of the platoon. He ordered Porter to join him and investigate while the others were to stay behind and keep watch.
The body wore an Earth-issued suit, presumably one of the scientists. He was dead and bound to the jungle floor by a labyrinthine growth of vegetation. The integrity of the suit had been breached. On closer inspection, Heath realized the intricate web of vines and branches was working its way through the remains as well. “Whatever did this killed him quickly, I guess,” said Heath. “Then the jungle took over. What do you think, Porter?”
“Hard to say. It’ll take a while to get him untangled to examine the wounds that penetrated the suit.”
“His face is screwed up like he was in a lot of pain and scared shitless. What a way to go. We’ve got to tell Earth Central to stay away from here until we know more.”
“Sir, look behind you.”
Heath and Porter were alone. The soldiers they left behind to keep watch were gone.
“How the hell does this keep happening?” Heath jumped to his feet. He and Porter were soon in attack posture.
“No friggin’ idea, sir.”
“Nothing is that quiet.” Then, Heath realized since they had entered the clearing the jungle fell silent. The shrill screams were gone.
They were being hunted.
Porter waved a device toward Heath. “I’ll see if he used this.”
Heath nodded. The scientist’s recorder.
Porter hit “Play.”
This was all they heard through static and alien screams: if you are listening . . . get out of . . . run now . . . the . . . is the monster. The pl . . . is the monst . . . the p . . . More screams. Then dead silence.
“What did it say?”
“Plant?” Porter suggested. “The plant is the monster?” Suddenly, he looked at Heath in wide-eyed horror.
The instant Heath saw the alarm in Porter’s expression he felt something impaling the back of his skull. Intense pain seared through him and then all went black.
Porter saw the huge branch swoop down from above, pass right through Heath’s skull like it was cardboard, and pull his body off the ground. The branch whipped Heath up into the air with the dexterity of a squid’s tentacle and sent him hurling into a dense region of the jungle.
It doesn’t make sense, Porter thought. Heath didn’t have time to scream. That is how this thing strikes. So quickly the victims seem to disappear. So why did we find this one?
The reason hit him in a word, but it was too late. Another huge tentacle of vegetation impaled him from below, ripping through the middle of his body. The word suspended in his mind was bait. The victim was used as bait to lure the platoon here.
Porter was sent airborne as well, but unlike Heath, his mind kept him alive a little longer to witness the ultimate destination of the mysterious monster’s victims.
He was dragged down into a deep enormous pit at tremendous speed. Though racked with pain and bleeding out, his mind was still racing, trying to understand the nature of this creature. The walls surrounding him seemed solid, as though made of stone, but were also covered with pink membranous material that appeared organic.
The tentacle flicked Porter free, down to the bottom of the pit. He was covered with a putrid gelatinous fluid that burned like acid. Swirling around him were the bodies of his fellow soldiers, dissolving into skeletons.
The screams they heard earlier now reverberated through this chamber of the damned. Porter’s last dying thought was an understanding of the recorders warning: the planet is the monster.
This entire planet was alive and its would-be conquerors were now all in its belly fading to insignificance.
© George Wilhite
George Wilhite is the author of the short fiction collection On the Verge of Madness. He has numerous stories published or forthcoming in magazines, anthologies and online. He also serves as editor for Static Movement anthologies and reviews books for The Horror Review web site. You can learn more about Wilhite at: www.authorsden.com/georgewilhite.
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