Commander Shepherd dropped the last rock sample into the basket and retracted the claw on his gathering baton. The shaft of the baton collapsed like a telescope and hooked onto his belt. He trundled the basket over the alien landscape with its blue dust and gravel, retracing his steps to the landing craft. He radioed ahead to let the others know he was on his way back.
“Kettle on!” he forced himself to be cheerful, “Daddy’s coming home!”
All he got for his trouble was static. He repeated the message, the cheeriness more forced this time. “Come in, come in!” he added but there was no coherent response.
He rounded a huge blue boulder, striated with purple, and exhaled in relief at the sight of the landing craft with its glittering gold chassis and its rotating satellite dishes, keeping them in touch with Home, always broadcasting, sending continual updates of the mission out into the void.
There was no sign of the other two. Shepherd checked his time coordinates. He was on schedule. Always made a point of that. In this line of work, you couldn’t afford to fritter time away. The knock-on effect could mean delays or even failure. You didn’t want to be most of the way home and come to a dead stop in the empty blackness of space.
He couldn’t believe this was the beginning of the end. With the last sample collected, it was all about packing up and going home. The first manned mission to this planet – to this sector even! He anticipated a triumphant return. He – and his team – would show the doubters, the bean-counters and the sceptics, that space exploration was a worthy investment opportunity. There are countless worlds out there, just waiting for some enterprising species to strip them of their natural resources. Shepherd couldn’t be more proud of his achievement. Despite what Luna had said. His ex-wife, at the time his ex-wife-to-be had warned him of the folly, of the dangers of the expedition.
“Remember, there hasn’t been word from the last probe they sent up. Or the one before that. Or the one before that!”
“Bloody robots,” he had laughed in her face. “Forever conking out. Batteries running down. And with no one up there to fix them, what did she expect?”
She had left him soon after that. Oh well, not to worry. He’d have his pick of the ladies when he got back a hero. And a rich hero at that.
As he approached the landing craft, he noticed something puzzling about the dust at his feet. It had been displaced when they had landed; the footprints they made when they got out were still visible. You could see where Atkins had gone in one direction and diametrically opposite, the route taken by Smith. Smith’s feet were smaller and the prints closer together; she only has short legs, Shepherd reflected, considering briefly what those legs would be like over his shoulders… Come to think of it, Smith was a very attractive woman. Perhaps they should hook up? It would be a pity to split their reward…
But those tyre-marks he could see among and over the tracks of his co-workers… Too wide to be the standard-issue collection baskets and too deeply impressed into the dust…
Shepherd tried his com-link again.
“Uh, guys, anyone know anything about this?”
He followed the path of the tracks with his eyes and soon found himself following them with his feet away from the landing craft and around a rocky outcrop. The dust felt different under his boots. Moisture readings flashed up on the inside of his helmet. Analysis was calculated at lightning speed.
Blood, his sensors concluded.
Shepherd stooped and felt the dust with his glove. The fingertips came up red from the indigo dirt. A cold shudder of panic ran along Shepherd’s spine. He followed the tracks as they looped around back to the landing craft and beyond. He picked up his pace, struggling against the confines of his cumbersome spacesuit, his heart racing, his whole body sweating as he raced to find Smith.
He was too late. Smith was dead. Her body dashed against a cliff wall, her legs torn off and chewed, it looked like.
“Oh, no, oh no!” Smith sank to his knees.
A whirring sound behind him made him turn. He caught a glimpse of a towering metal structure, a thing of arms and claws and sensors and cables, with a bank of red pulsing lights where its eyes would be. He only caught a glimpse before the beast that used to be the landing probes lashed out and lopped off his head.
The monster trundled back to its hollow, satisfied it had rid the planet – its planet – of the intruders. There was no way it was going to share its precious life-giving blue dust with anyone.