Lost on the Last Continent

— Lost on the Last Continent —

or

In the Days of Pangaea Ultima

By John C. Wright

Table of Contents so Far

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Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream

The Diamond Sutra

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Episode 01 The Hole in the Air

 

Colonel Preston Lost did not think of himself as reckless, because he believed in preparation, proper equipment, patience in stalking the prey.

But, if truth be told, he was not a cautious man.

When the stormclouds parted, and he glimpsed the glowing, unearthly craft he chased through the wild hurricane above the Bermuda Triangle, he gritted his teeth in an odd smile, gripped the joystick, dropped the nose of the superhighspeed pursuit plane sharply down, opened the throttle of the jet engines, and ignited his afterburners.

He squinted through the small, sloped, triangular windows of his rocketplane. The solid sheets of rain blocked his sight. The unidentified flying object was disk-shaped, bathed in a nimbus of strange light, and changed course and speed with sudden, strange jerks of motion that defied normal laws of inertia. It moved like no aircraft and no missile known to man.

The flying disk dove into black cloud. At furious speed Preston dove in after, engines roaring. The winds roared louder. Preston had little fear of being spotted. The cockpit vibrated and the hull groaned. More than one of his gauge needles crept toward red.

The magnificent machine was dubbed the Shooting Star VII. She had been built for one purpose. This purpose.

The black hull was bat-shaped, streamlined to the ultimate degree. She had no tailfin, no large surfaces to reflect radar. She was, in fact, an aerospace plane. No ordinary jet, she was driven by a combination of ramjets and liquid-fuel rockets. She could achieve supersonic speeds and low earth orbit.

Equally sophisticated was in her military-grade detection gear. He lost sight of the flying disk amid turbulent cloud and the hellish flares of lightning. But his instruments continued to mark the location of the fleeing quarry.

The altimeter blinked a warning. Sealevel was approaching. Somewhere below the curtain of cloud, the wind-lashed ocean waters were waiting. Preston’s eyes narrowed. Did the flying disk intend to ditch?

The cloudwrack parted. Preston, lightheaded from his dive, wondered if he were hallucinating. For it looked like the cloud had opened a huge, red eye. It was staring at him.

Like a hooded lantern opening, a strange, bright, ruby beam, wide as a highway, spilled out from the center of the apparition and splashed across the knotted textures of surrounding cloud. Perched between the clouds, was an erubescent maelstrom surrounded by streamers of bright vapor, with a tightly-wound spiral of electric discharges circling them in turn.

Into the spotlight beam of red now shot the flying disk, as it jerked into yet another impossible, right-angled turn, and was yanked into acceleration even more impossible.

It flew toward the vortex, directly toward the middle. The eye shaped apparition now grew wide, as if startled at the approach of the disk. Or as if opening in welcome.

For suddenly Preston realized what he was seeing: The resemblance to an eye was accidental. The white vaporclouds formed the sclera; the flares of Saint Elmo’s Fire formed the iris; the red light was issuing from the pupil. But it really was a maelstrom, a whirlpool. And this whirlpool, like that around a bathtub drain, let into a pipe, a tunnel. A tunnel, yes, without walls, and opening into a direction that seemed to have no place to be in three dimensional space. But still a tunnel.

The thing was impossible. It was a hole in midair.

The red pupil was like a porthole, a window. A widow into where?

The vapor he was seeing was flooding toward the opening. Earth’s sea-level airpressure was forcing atmosphere out into some region of lower pressure. The electrostatic discharge was to be expected when two masses of air at different temperatures collided. But where did the hole in midair lead?

This storm had risen very suddenly, and the flying disk, flying serenely over the dark waters off Bermuda under the moonlight, had changed course, unaffected by the rising winds, and darted down toward the gathering stormclouds.

Perhaps the storm had been caused by the sudden drop of pressure?

The flying disk fled into the red beam, and grew suddenly smaller as if with distance. His detection gear went haywire. Active radar said the thing was gone; passive radar said it was present but dwindling in cross section.

The pupil of the apparition began to close. The game was escaping.

There was no time for deliberation. He either had to ignite his rocket engine, and try to guide his craft into the narrowing ring of electrical fire and screaming winds, or he had to abandon the chase and pull up, hoping against hope that he could bring his nose up sharply enough so as neither to rip his wings off nor to pancake into the sea.

Preston Lost, in truth, was not a cautious man.

He had hunted game in India, Africa, and Greenland, on and under the sea. He had climbed mountains and flown experimental planes. But those dangers were known. This was the unknown.

He flung his craft toward the vortex. His ignited his rocket. Three gravities of acceleration pushed smothered him as with a giant, invisible hand.

Beams of red light from some unknown sun, dimmer than the sun he knew, splashed into the cockpit, momentarily blinding him. At the same time, the column of compressed, rushing air being sucked into the closing eye of the maelstrom picked him up like a vacuum cleaner picked up lint from a rug.

The Shooting Star went into a flat spin. A blurred world of cloud and lightning tumbled past triangular windows of the cockpit. Preston’s seat automatically flattened, putting him in a prone position, and his altitude suit inflated. But the acceleration was too great for his body.

The edges of his vision turned black. His hand fell from the deadman switch which kept the rocket thrust roaring. In a strange, sullen silence, the pursuit plane seemed to be plunging down a spinning tunnel of boiling clouds, and blinding stabs of lightning.

He had hunted game in India, Africa, and Greenland, on and under the sea. He had climbed mountains and flown experimental planes.

Preston Lost, groaning, opened his eyes. Had he blacked out for a moment? Of the maelstrom, the storm, the clouds, there was no sign. The horizon was turning in a lazy loop in the canopy windows, earth and sky and earth again. The whistling in his ears told him he was in a stall, his wings at no angle to catch the air.

Below him was a chain of active volcanos. The ground was bright with burning patches of forest, and the air was black with smoke.

The broken landscape rushed up to meet him.

He groggily pushed the stick forward. Tailfinless, the chance of a stealth craft regaining control was slim. But there might be a way. He opened the split ailerons to the full, hoping their drag would pull his wingtip back, and, in combination with the forward wing yaw, would increase the overall drag, and produce a stabilizing yawing moment.

A change in the pitch of the scream of the air told him it was beginning to work. Perhaps not soon enough. He saw tumbled crags, rocks, and patches of forest fire below spin past his view. But there, glinting like a silver coin, was a mountain lake. He worked the controls, uttered a two-word and probably blasphemous prayer, grinned like a maniac, yanked on the stick.

Out of the crimson sky plunged a creature. Its wingspan was equal to that of his plane. Its skin was naked leather. Its wings were triangular sails of membrane. The freakishly narrow head had a miter of bone above and a beak like a saber below. The monster was tiger striped with red, yellow, purple and black; its belly was blue; yellow rings of color surrounded its staring, lidless, lizardlike eyes; a scarlet wattle dangled rakishly from its cockscomb.

Preston’s wings thrummed. He was beginning to pull out of the spin. Had the plane been under control, he might have avoided the collision. The monster was diving headlong, its beak opened like scissors. Preston yanked the stick, poised as if balanced on one wing for a moment, hesitated.

The collision sprayed the black blood of the creature across his small, triangular windows, blinding him. He heard the scream of metal and felt the stick jump in his hand as he lost purchase. He felt, rather than heard, fragments and scraps of wing material peeling off into the air. The ceramic composite of his hull could withstand the heat of supersonic friction, but was not designed for impacts. The wing lifting surfaces had shattered like a china plate.

He heard the ramjet stall out. Particles of bone and flesh, moving at the speed of machinegun bullets, tore into the delicate fanblades of the intakes.

Most jets allowed the pilot to eject from the cockpit. But this rocketplane was a compromise between jet and spacecraft, and had no such feature. He had to land with her or die with her.

But this compromise cut both ways. A safety circuit cut off the ramjet fuel before the debris from the intake tore the engine apart; but he still had power. Solid fuel rockets do not need air intakes. They carry their own oxygen.

The fuel gauge showed only 15,000 pounds of propellant were left. Eighty seconds of flight time. At high speed, even the reduced wing had enough intact surface to provide lift. He felt the stubby wings bite, heard the air scream, and felt the stick respond.

The plane bucked like a bronco. One wing was more damaged than the other. He entered a tight curve, wrestling it into a spiral.

The radar showed him he was above a torn, rocky, mountainous landscape. The infrared scopes gave insane readings, as if the ground below were on fire. But then the scope showed a round, flat surface. From the size and position, it might have been a mountain lake, but the temperature reading was too high.

He ignored the readings. The scope must be damaged. The rocket had a fixed rate of exhaust. There was no throttle, no brake. The best he could do was find the moment in his wild, spiral when his nose was pointing in the right direction, and cut the rocket. The craft was flung like a stone from a sling into straightline flight. Now he wrestled with the ailerons, praying for level descent. The proximity alarm screamed. The peaks were close.

Grimacing, he drove his service revolver, aimed, and blew out the bloodstained window. The wind shrieked into the cockpit, blowing fragments of glass throughout the cockpit.

He saw the lake, round as a silver dollar, slide past his tiny window. A rocky texture of mountain peaks of black rock, plumes with volcanic clouds, surrounding the upland valley holding the lake. Dozens of cones were active. Lava crawled in slow, wormlike streams and waterfalls, glowing.

It was an insane world. The moon was four times its proper size. The sky was so purple as to be almost black. Dark green jungle stretched to the horizon. He saw long-necked monsters rear above the trees and bat-winged flying things against the winedark sky. Plateaus lifted their high, flat heads above the canopy. A line of steep mountains reared jagged peaks. Was his altimeter malfunctioning? These mountains were higher than the Himalayas.

The opened the flaps, cutting his airspeed. It was not enough. One last trick was left. His fantastic plane boasted a dozen cold nitrogen gas thrusters: he opened the valves of the four nose nozzles to their fullest. These were meant for zero-gee maneuvers, not for this.

But it was enough, barely. The lake swatted him like an earth-sized hammer. His discovered the scope reading had been accurate. The water, mingled with steam, that sprayed in through the broken window was boiling hot.

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Episode 02 The Unearthly Earth

 

Boiling water gushed in a stream in through the broken window of the rocketplane, and splashed across the faceplate of the pressure suit of Preston Lost.

The visor bubbled and darkened, blinding him. He could feel the flesh-roasting heat of the boiling lakewater through his suit fabric, but the seams were airtight, and so he was not scalded.

Frantically, Preston hit the quick-release lever of his harness, and leaped out of his seat. Underfoot, he could feel the hull of his plane beginning to tilt her nose upward. From the sound behind him, he could hear water gushing in. He holstered his pistol and yanked off his helmet to allow himself to see: it was like sticking his head in a sauna. Steam was filling the interior of the aircraft.

The Shooting Star was submerging.

The deck was at a steep slant and growing steeper. The cabin was compact and narrow. There were two hatches: a round hatch aft and an oval hatch above the wing.

The round hatch led to the service module aft of the cabin. Here oxygen, water, and electrical power were stored. Certain tools, food and potable water and other gear that might have been useful, was also stowed there; but Preston saw that the hull was warped from the crashlanding, and the seam around the hatch had sprung. Water and steam came around the rim, which was no longer true to the frame.

There was a tightly folded uninflated raft strapped against the cabin hull to one side, and a backpack packed with survival gear strapped to the other. Here also was his elephant gun. He threw his backpack, weapon and cartridge belt in a hasty, clattering mass over one shoulder and then put his hands to the wheel of the oval exit hatch.

The wheel turned. He pulled, but the oval hatch did not budge.

The lights of his control panel flickered and died as the electrical systems in the service module were drenched and submerged.

The boiling water was already lapping his boots, and the deck was now slanted almost to the upright. Preston put his toes sideways into the slats ribbing the hull, even as the groaning the deck turned vertical. There came a loud report aft, and the hatch to the service module came free of its hinges. Preston was now inside the narrow hull with a gargling geyser erupting from the rear bulkhead. The ship was going down quickly.

He realized that the airpressure inside the cabin was rising with the water, and this pressure was holding the hatch shut. The screaming whine in his ears were the airpumps, which had automatically come on when the hull was breached. He flattened himself as best he could against the hull, covered his face with one elbow, and pried open the safety tab, and pulled the cord to trigger the explosive bolts.

The ringing in his ears told him he had gone deaf for a moment. The oval hatch soared, spinning, in a parabolic arc across the wing. He did not hear the sound of it bounce against the shattered, glassy surface of the great, curving wing, nor the splash as it fell into the bubbling waters.

With hands and feet on the slippery hull, he climbed to the nose of the craft, which was rearing upward toward a sky the color of rosy wine. The flying monster that had slammed into the intakes, and been partly chewed by the turbine blades, was still lodged there, a tangle of naked, membranous wings, and a gargoyle skull as narrow as a knife. The creature’s large body, easily twelve feet in wingspan, dripping with black blood and white boiling water, was being hauled up into the sky as the Shooting Star continued to raise her prow.

Preston’s helmet was gone: the sauna heat plastered his hair to his brow, and made him blink. The savory smell of boiling meat was in his nostrils.

More by instinct than thought, he shrugged the rifle off his shoulder into his hands, broke it, and inserted two rounds. The weapon was a magnificent Holland & Holland double rifle. The round was a .700 Nitro Express as long as a lady’s finger. The piece handled like a shotgun, with the weight needed for powerful cartridges and heavy bullets.

The nose of the craft was broad and flat. He put his feet under him and stood. He stared, squinting in amazement. The world around him was impossible.

The clouds above were red and dim as if it were twilight, but the sun, a rose-hued bubble, was overhead. The disk was dim enough to look at directly, without wincing.

The heavens were imperial purple. Stars burned pale as ghosts. The moon was also visible, if five times its accustomed width. It looked gigantic, ready to topple onto his head. But he saw the mottled markings: it was clearly Earth’s moon. He had just been looking at it above the Caribbean skies.

About him loomed mountain peaks, white with snow and black with rock. From a near peak poured smoke in vast, inky clouds, giving a heaviness to the hot air as if a storm were forever brewing, forever about to break. It smelled of ash. The pall covered a quarter of the sky.

Closer, he saw this high lake was in the crotch of a saddle between three mountains. The rocky slopes were lush and green, but long streaks of gray where the vegetation was dying formed claw marks across the crumpled knobs and steep slopes.

The verdure was tropical: cycads, palms, mangroves. Lianas, vines, and mosses dripped from heavy limbs in gross profusion. Here and there orchids opened their bright, fleshy blooms. The smell of humid rottenness was everywhere.

Earth’s trees.

But in the sky were a circling flock of batlike, naked flying things, with narrow skull-like faces beneath miters of bone.

Bright against the dark purple sky, was the flying disk he had chased through to this place. It moved across the cloud as quickly as the circle of a flashlight a kitten chases along a dark carpet.

It was coming back this way.

He turned. Streaks of contrail and rocket exhaust reaching across the dome of the dark heavens dove down like a finger, pointing at this spot.

The ringing in his ears diminished, and now he realized why he had so automatically readied his rifle. The sounds coming from the surrounding jungle were as of a stampede of many animals. Here also was the heavier tread, elephantine, of big game. The air shook with roars and calls, the hissing of lizards, the shrill cries of birds. He saw primates, perhaps lemurs, leaping from treetop to treetop in a flurry of motion.

Suddenly, there was a movement in the water nearby, an eddy. He brought this rifle around just in time. A large snakelike neck ending in a head the size of a coffin, with nightmare jaws filled with a clutter of serried fangs, and two round, black froglike eyes protruding topmost, lunged out of the boiling waters toward him. The skin of the monster was white, translucent, like some freakish deep sea creature, but in shape and size, it was a dinosaur. It was a vertebrate. Its bones were visible as dark shadows beneath its flesh.

He discharged his first barrel with a solid roar into the gaping jaws. Pale fluids like the blood of squids leaped upward in a spray. Perhaps he missed the walnut sized brain of the pallid monster, for it drove its white-splattered skull like head toward him. Preston was pulled offbalance by his pack, slipped, skidding down the slope of the hull toward the boiling waters his suit could not possibly withstand. Frantically, he caught himself with one hand, and braced his feet against the smooth angle where the curving wing blended into the curving fuselage. The long neck of the monster was wobbling near. Its motions were blind and awkward, but it seemed to sense Preston was its prey.

The jaws snapped down. Preston one-handedly raised and fired his second shot. It struck the joint where jaw met neck and shattered bone and vertebrae. It was not a clean shot. The recoil bruised his shoulder. He had been holding it stupidly, and the powerful weapon had a kick like a mule.

The great nightmarish head of staring eyes and jagged fangs now writhed. Up reared a massive pale body round as the hull of a yacht, with great flippers like those of a sea turtle flailing frantically against the aircraft wing, as if the monster were trying to climb out of the water.

And long, low noise like a woodwind issued from the elongated neck. The head flopped down over the wing. The plane tilted in that direction. Preston slid toward vast, pale corpse. But even as the plane slid further under the boiling lake, more of the monster came to the surface. He saw the creature’s body reached to a nearby rocky tussock, covered with moss.

Without pause, Preston jumped onto the pale monster’s spine, and in three rapid leaps went from shoulderblades to pelvis to the tussock. The backpack pivoted on his shoulder strap, and nearly dunked itself into the water, but the straps got tangled in some thorny growth like a coral. Little stingers came out of the coral and scratched the canvass.

Meanwhile his rifle slide down the mossy slope and vanished under the roiling surface. The thing was a work of art, his best friend, and his only hope for survival. Without pause, he plunged his hand after.

The pain was blinding. He gripped the riflestock and pulled it back. With his other hand, he opened the backpack, yanked out one of the bags containing four ounces drinking water, ripped it open with his teeth, and poured it over his scalded hand.

He had two hands, after all. But only one Holland & Holland.

While he was doing that, a snakelike thing issue from a niche in the coral. He caught it between the craggy surface and the butt of his rifle. Drops of boiling water flew up as he hammered the creature to death. The thing struck, but neither bite nor sting penetrated his flightsuit. Blood oozed from the cracked carapace. It was a thing that looked like an armored centipede, except that it was three feet long and thick around as a garden hose. But with a dizzying sensation, he recognized it.

Preston since childhood had been fascinated with prehistoric animals. Many a museum he had haunted, many books collected, and many a paleontologist he had invited to dinner. He often joked he’d been born in the wrong epoch: mastodons were so much grander than elephants, smilodons more ferocious than tigers.

The giant centipede was an Euphoberia. The lake monster was a Plesiosaur, even if no paleontologist had guessed it to be coated with such skin.

Earth, then. But when? No year of prehistory held both dinosaur and flowers. The future? The flying disk implied as much. But then how did ancient monsters come here?

Foolish question. They came as he had: through a vortex.

A hiss from overhead drew his startled eyes. The Pteranodon flock was wheeling lower. The leader had folded wings and was stooping to dive. His hand was hurt and  his fingers not responding. The ammo belt was twisted around and under the coral growth where his pack was snagged. He knew he could not break the weapon and reload in time.

He slung the rifle, drew his pistol, which he braced carefully on his wounded wrist. It was a C96 Broomhandle Mauser firing  9×19 mm Parabellum rounds.

Another hiss, and a second monster swooped, and then a third. The whole flock, like a flight of arrows, their bony beaks like spearheads, plunged down through the dark red air of the impossible world.

There were ten rounds in the clip. There were twelve monsters.

He grinned an odd little grin and took aim.

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Episode 03 The Little Gray Men

Preston Lost fired. Time froze. He did not hear the sharp, stingingly loud report of the broomhandle Mauser, nor the high-pitched, sibilant  scream, half a snake hiss and half a crow call, of the monster he struck.

Preston could not really see the circle of the jungle trees framing his view, nor te smoldering volcano cone above that, nor the strange skies beyond. He did not see the shape of the narrow, naked-winged pteranodon in the lead. He did not really see its slender, bony face, nor its elongated crest, nor its hideous saber-sharp beak.

From below, the belly and wing membranes of the pteranodon were slate gray, but from above, the back and wings were stippled and striped green and black. This detail he did not see until later.

Instead, he saw its right eye. He saw nothing but the eye.

He saw its right eye explode in blood and vitreous humor, as an exit wound, large as a softball, erupted from the narrow skull. The corpse fell at the same rate as its dive, so there was no change in its motion.

But his vision had already moved to the next of the twelve monsters. Two shots. The first missed. The second drove in through the roof of its mouth as it opened its maw in a scream. The bullet shattered its beak and pallet and skull.

Then the third. The head bobbed unexpectedly, so he missed. He centered his aim on the ribs of the narrow chest and sent two bullets through its heart.

Fourth. He struck it in the left eye. Fifth. Struck on the spot where the snaky neck joined the collarbone, and blew the head clean off, so that it went spinning in a spray of blood off into the air, a grotesque boomerang of black, green and slate-blue flesh. Sixth. Another miss, but luckily he struck the shoulder joint, causing one wing to collapse.

Only one bullet left. Six pteranodons were dead in midswoop, and six more were screaming hideous, breathless screams like the hissing of gigantic snakes. His glance swept the six incoming targets, looking to see where his remaining bullet could be best spent.

But the flying lizards had snapped their wings open like parachutes, slowing their fall. Perhaps they had been startled by the thunder of gunfire. Perhaps they were too stupid, their brains too primitive, to be startled. But now the six survivors were tearing at the flesh of the ones who had been shot. They raked their brother’s wing membranes with savage claws.

Like sharks maddened by the scent of blood, the pteranodons fought each other in midair over the scraps of each other’s flesh. Apparently a gaping head wound or a hole in the chest did not slay these unnatural brutes instantly. They clung to life with the cold fury of lizards. The wounded fought back with mindless vigor, insensible of pain or shock, and even the headless body, by some reflex in its nerves, raked its claws wildly when it was struck.

Then the foremost of the six unwounded landed on the body of the plesiosaur, which was still floating in the agitated water, and began to tear gobbets out of the body with sword-length beaks, hissing and cawing hideously. Two more of the sky monsters saw, and grew jealous, and landed, and began bickering.

The pteranodons circled each other with mincing, delicate steps, bobbing their long, bony heads up and down menacingly, and croaking baleful croaks.

The body of the corpse trembled and stirred. The plesiosaur was not fully dead after all. Its jaw was broken and pale blood gushed from its neck and dripped from its teeth, but now it brought its upper fangs neatly down on the quarreling pteranodons, catching two of them on teeth as sharp as spears. One pteranodon was cut nearly in half, but it had the same tenacious, unthinking ferocity and vitality as the sea monster, and so it reared up against its tormentor and drove its vicious beak directly into the dying plesiosaur’s eye.

The sea monster reared back its head, whistling and screaming. The other flying lizards, instead of retreating into the air, launched themselves at the exposed neck with manic bloodlust, croaking and cawing.

Two other of the unwounded pteranodons dove and splashed into the water, ripping at the wounded body of a third pteranodon, the one Preston had shot through the shoulder joint. The boiling water made their narrow bodies turn red and begin to blister, but the horrors were not deterred. Their sole response to pain was to attack ever more avidly whatever was in reach.

So these three were splashing and stabbing and scraping each other with talons, when a gush of water erupted from beneath.

Into view rose a creature larger than a swordfish, with a beaked mouth even longer, and rows of teeth like shark teeth. It had fins and vertical flukes like a shark, not horizontal like a dolphin. But it worked its fins with a paddling, doglike stroke, nothing like the graceful motions of a fish.

The plesiosaur was the size of a submarine, while the pteranodons were closer in size to a hang-glider. This newcomer was roughly the size of a pony.

From books, he recognized this new horror. This was an Ichthyosaurus.

A pteranodon as it beat its wings and launched itself into the air, struggling to rise. The fishlike lizard reared up. The massive shark-toothed jaws closed over the flying monster’s midriff. The pteranodon was not smaller than the lake monster, but it was lighter. Its hollow bones cracked and bent like soda straws. The ichthyosaurus uttered a chilling trumpet of triumph before it dove, carrying the struggling pteranodon down and down. The other fights continued unabated.

Preston had been frozen with horror, but only for a moment. These did not act like beasts from his own world. Few creatures attacked their own kind, and rarely did predator eat predator. Scavengers usually held back and waited for wounded prey to die.

He recovered himself. It would only be a moment before one of them noticed his tasty body clinging to this rocky atoll in the steaming lake water, or the thrashing of the dying plesiosaur sent a wave over him to boil him to death. He looked. The shore was actually not far off, and many mossy trees, laden with vines, bowed crooked branched overhead. It was slightly too far to leap to shore, slightly too high to grab a branch.

A great wind stirred the branches then, and a white light shined from the sky. A vibration too low to hear with the ears throbbed in the teeth of Preston Lost. He looked upward. Now what?

Solemn and silent as a ghost, a disk-shaped machine luminous semitransparent crystal hove into view, coming in low over the trees. It was lens shaped, larger than a cargo plane, with no visible means of propulsion or lift. The main hull was a dark bluish ceramic or crystal or coated by a tightly-clinging layer of pale, translucent substance. The whole was glowing with a dull light that reminded him of the Cherenkov radiation found surrounding submerged atomic piles.

The flying disk took position just above the boiling lake, and lowered itself. The pteranodons uttered shrill sounds and fled, the hale still clawing at the wounded as they did so. An Ichthyosaur, perhaps the mate or hunting partner of the first one, was hanging just below the lake surface. It turned an expressionless eye toward the descending craft, worked its oddly shaped flukes, and dove toward darker depth.

Preston Lost heard no noise with his ear as the flying disk came closer, but a vibration in his bones set his back teeth on edge. The outer shell looked as hard as diamond, but, even as he watched, it flowed in syrupy motions as if alive. Blisters or pillboxes of the blue hull became visible where the pale substance formed a dimple and pulled away. Small rods and black disks stood up from the blisters, telescopes or something of the sort. A jointed arm unfolded from the craft, elongated, and delicately dipped into the water. Sonar? Thermometer? Camera? There was no way to tell.

The flying disk hung just above the spot where the corpse of the Plesiosaur was floating. Of Preston’s rocketplane, there was no sign on the surface, except for a spreading pool of oil. It must have finished sinking while he concentrated on immediate threats. A pang of anger made him suck in air through clenched teeth. His magnificent plane! The years of work, the countless costs! This cruel world had swallowed the wonderful aerospace rocketplane. He blamed the flying disk, and whoever was aboard.

As if in answer to his thoughts, the outer, semifluid shell of the vehicle rolled back again to expose round hatches ventral and dorsal. The hatches dilated. The interior shed a dull firefly glow.

Hairless and naked gray-skinned men, no longer than children, emerged from the hatches one after another. They had no garments and no ornaments, but some wore belts or harnesses with pouches. Here they carried what looked like instruments fashioned, or perhaps grown, out of crystal, shell or ceramic.

There were over a dozen. They walked upright or crawled like spiders, with elbows and knees held high, palms and soles clinging to the hull. Those emerging from the bottom of the craft ignored gravity. They sauntered or trotted head-downward, affixed to the hull at if it were floor, and craned their necks to look at the lake waters approaching.

They were close. He saw each detail. They had no external ears, and their eyes were black in sclera and iris, more than twice the size of human eyes. A double wrinkle between the eyes hinted at nostril slits; the mouth was a tiny, lipless bud. Albeit nude, they had no sign of genitalia or any sexual characteristics.

The creatures moved with an eerie dignity in utter silence.

Preston took the opportunity to distangle his backpack from the knob of rock where he stood, and shrug his shoulders into the shoulder straps, tighten the belt. Next, he broke his rifle, removed the spent cartridges, and loaded two more of the heavy caliber bullets, and closed the weapon with a satisfying snap.

His motion attracted attention. One of the naked figures drew itself upright and pointed a skinny nail-less finger at him. As one, the other gray men’s head swiveled on their necks, and their overlarge and inky eyes narrowed. The stares were cold and incurious.

None spoke aloud. One drew a lantern of shell from its harness, sent a rapid combination of colored flashes in through the glassy hull.

At this signal, a larger hatch opened, and a score of taller homonids slid into view. These were elongated and lean men with blotchy skin, mottled yellow, brown and white. The smallest stood nine feet high, and had a nine inch long neck. These flexible necks gave the heads a clownish, balloonlike look, as the narrow faces swayed and bobbed high above the slim shoulders. The clownish look was emphasized by dark mottling beneath each cold eye, as tears on a pantomime doll. Their fingers were long and spidery, but their feet were long, thin pads of flesh with no sign of toes. Each had a plume or crest running from the peak of his skull and down his spine, Mohawk-style. Their aspect was docile and mournful.

They wore knee-length brown leather coats painted to match their skin mottles.

Each carried what looked like a harquebus: an overlong barrel of pale ivory with a heavy wooden stock. The lock and triggers were glass, not metal.

An officer in yellow flourished a wooden blade whose edge was a line of sharpened obsidian. The harquebusiers unlimbered their weapons, and propped their barrels atop forked wands to open fire.

Preston was quicker. The Holland & Holland roared like thunder.

 

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TO BE CONTINUED IN OUR NEXT