Part 1 Planet of the Ants

Space was dark, space was quiet. A star ship is sailing through space silently. It is the scientific star ship Firefly, sent to catalog uncharted planets, moons and stars not yet reached by mankind. As Firefly’s crew is in hybernation, the ship’s computer, called Nelly, is running the ship. It sails further and further away from earth, doomed never to return. But then suddenly something happens; the hybernation chambers open and the crew awakes. Nelly has woken up the crew as an unpresidented situation has occured. Slowly, Firefly is coming to life again….

CHAPTER 1

Paul Stevens yawned and stretched in the hybernation chamber. He felt so tired – awfully tired. His mouth was dry like dessert sand and the downfaded light in the hybernation room hurt his eyes. It was strange to sleep without dreaming. It was like when you go to hospital and they put you under for an operation. Then you wake up, not knowing where you are or what day it is. Stevens looked curiously around as he smoothed out his mustache. He suddenly realized he had grown a beard. He sat up quickly- too quickly- and felt dizzyness flood to his head. The face of a tired young woman with long curly hair looked at him from another chamber.

– Did you sleep well, captain? her sweet voice sounded.

Paul thought to himself. That’s right! He was the captain of a star ship! He was not on planet earth anymore, but way out in space. And that sweet young woman smiling at him was Carol M. Brickman, the ship’s medical officer.

– I think so, Carol, he replied, scratching his beard.

– What about you?

Dr. Brickman was already standing up.

– Oh, I’m fine, she exclaimed.

– Mind you, I’ll be checking everybody out as soon as possible!

A coughing noise was heard behind captain Stevens. An almost baldheaded man sat coughing, then suddenly trew up outside the chamber onto the floor. Charles Ryder was the scientific officer on the ship.

– Sorry about that, he almost whispered.

– I feel seasick!

Brinckman laughed. She grabbed an injection tube that she pressed against Ryder’s neck.

– This will help you, she said, pressing the small button at the back.

A small hissing noise was heard, and soon a sign of relief spread across Ryder’s face.

– Thank you! he sighed.

– That feels so much better!

– Glad to help! Brinckman smiled, going further back to check on the other members of the crew.

Tina Albiston, the ship’s pilot, was just standing up. She had a scowl on her face. She didn’t say anything, but simply pushed Brinckman away. It was plain that she wasn’t feeling too good, but she didn’t want any help. She brushed her long blond hair away from her face as she staggered out of the room. The two engineers, Sam Devonshire and Harry Nickleson, was still laying in their chambers. The two of them were both black, but Sam was big and wide shouldered with huge muscles whilst Harry was thin and gangley. Sam pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket and lit it. Harry felt his rastafarian hair and his beard. Slowly they also got up. Stevens stood up facing everybody.

– Okay, people! I will go check with Nelly what’s going on. In the meantime; let Dr. Brinckman check you out real quick. Then we’ll meet at the mess hall for breakfast. Okay?

Some people nodded, others grunted, but they all agreed to the captain’s orders. Carol Brinckman led everyone into sickbay where she scanned everybody. Stevens went into his personal office.

There were all sorts of food smells in the mess hall. Some had egg and bacon, some had sausages and beans whilst others had cereal or toast. Everybody were different, and everybody wanted something different to eat. Captain Stevens entered the room and stopped still to take it all in. There was a long table that would seat all of them and more in one half of the hall, and in the other half of the room there were several small tables. Everybody was sitting down at the big dining table, and it seemed like they were trying to get to know each other. Sam and Harry had already had a shave, and the women had newly washed hair. everybody seemed to have freshened themselves up, except for the captain. The chair at the top of the table was still free, so Stevens walked over and sat himself down.

– If I may have your attention, please, he started.

The humming around the table suddenly died down, and all the eyeballs fixed on the captain.

– We have received what we believe is a distress signal from a M-class planet. The signal has stopped transmitting, but we are on our way to the planet. Our long range scanners tell us that the planet is indeed inhabited. There are complex canal systems on the planet, and the air is very much like ours on earth. We should be able to breath without our T-suits. The only difference should be that the gravitational pull on the planet is almost twice that on earth. In other words….

Charles Ryder finished his thought for him…

– In other words, if you weigh 60 kilos on earth, you will weigh almost 120 kilos on this planet. Where are we located, captain?

Ryder didn’t look happy, but then again he had never smiled since Stevens had met him. Stevens breathed deap.

– We have left the American arm and passed the big gulf of space that we knew we had to pass. We are now in a totally different galaxy, and whatever we encounter may be totally…. well…. alien, or unknown. We don’t know anything about these planets. We have to be careful. Nelly has given a numbercode to this planet – I can’t remember what it was – but I thought we could name this planet ourselves. Have a look at the planet on your workstations, and see if you can come up with a suitable name for it.

– What is the plan, captain? Albiston wanted to know.

Stevens smiled as he reached for some müsli and a cup of coffee.

– Nelly will get us in orbit around the planet. Then we will try to locate the signal and if possible establish contact with whatever is down there. If we don’t succeed with establishing contact, you, Tina, will fly a mission crew down to try and find out what’s happened here. Hopefully we should be able to get some more info about the planet and who’s on it when we get into orbit.

Stevens poured milk on his müsli and took a mouthful. Sam and Harry looked at each other. Then Sam opened his mouth.

– How long till we get in orbit, captain?

Stevens lifted up a spoon and let it soar a few inches from his mouth.

– In about two hours.

He took another mouthful and chewed.

– You can do what you want for two hours, then we all meet in the sky-lounge.

The humming of voices picked up again, and people started going seperate ways. Most of them went to get comfortable in their private rooms, but Ryder went to the bridge. Stevens finished his breakfast before he went to get a shave. After shaving he filled up with some more coffee and joined Ryder on the bridge.

As Firefly found it’s orbit around the planet where the distress signal had come from, everybody joined up in the sky-lounge right beside the bridge. Everybody was now in proper uniform that was given to the crew before departure. The uniforms were white with a encircled six pointed star on chest. On the back, “S.S. Firefly” was written over the shoulders. After the two women and the two African Americans had found their seats, captain Stevens came in with Ryder at his heals.

– Hello, everybody! Stevens greeted them.

Ryder found a seat, but Stevens remained standing.

– We have some more information for you, he started.

– The planet is covered by water canals that brings water down from the mountains on the planet. Some of them are broken, probably because they’re old, and where that has happened, the ground has turned into dessert. Other places, it looks like the canals are still working, and there the vegetaion is green and moist.

Stevens licked his lips and glanced shortly at Ryder.

– We have also made an incredible discovery….

Everybody sat up straight. Harry was the one who broke the silence.

– What kind of discovery?

Stevens shook his head and smiled a bit.

– The planet is inhabited by ants, giant ants probably about two or three meters long.

Sam was laughing.

– That’s it! he exclaimed.

– What? Stevens enquired.

– The name for the planet! Sam Devonshire laughed.

– We’ll call it “The planet of the ants”!

Laughter roared through the lounge, and everybody agreed it was a fitting name. Charles Ryder spoke up.

– However, he said.

– We don’t think the ants built the canal systems or sent the distress signal.

– Have we not been able to contact whoever sent the signal? Carol asked.

– No, answered Stevens.

– That means that we need to go down and look. We’re scanning the whole planet as we’re orbiting it. Hopefully something will show up on our scans.

Harry looked doubtful.

– If there’s no signal to follow, we can’t investigate the whole planet, he said.

– That will take ages!

Stevens nodded.

– We need something else to go on. If we find something, I will send down a small team, maybe half of the crew.

– Who will go? Tina wanted to know.

– Well, Tina, you will be piloting the landing craft. Carol will have to go if there are anyone injured down there. As for the last person, I thought maybe Sam or Harry….

Charles Ryder tapped Stevens on the shoulder.

– I would very much like to go if that’s okay. I’d like to take some soil samples, study the nature and the ants pluss the creatures sending the distress signals. I’m very curious about everything….

Stevens laughed.

– Okay, he agreed.

Then he turned towards Harry and Sam.

– We’ve been on our way for a long time. Maybe you two could check out the ship to see if there are any repairs that need doing? I’m sure that if something major was wrong, Nelly would have told us. Still, Nelly could probably help you identify any problems.

Sam stood up.

– We’ll get on it straight away, captain!

Harry dragged himself up from his chair and followed Sam without a word. A ding-dong came over the speaker system, and a soft female voice spoke.

– Captain Stevens?

– Yes, Nelly! What is it?

– A craft has been found on one of the scans. do you want more information?

Stevens turned around swiftly.

– I’ll be right there….

CHAPTER 2

A thud was heard as the landing craft touched down on the planet just a short distance from the space craft they had scanned from orbit. Charles Ryder raised his eyebrows and looked at Tina Abiston. Tina shrugged her shoulders.

– The increased gravitation is influencing my flying, she explained.

Ryder nodded shortly, showing that he excepted the explanation. Carol was seated further back.

– Are there any ants nearby? she asked nervously.

Ryder did a quick scan from a console at his side.

– No, he said.

– There are no ants in the close vicinity.

Carol grabbed a pulse rifle and hung it around her head.

– Just to be on the safe side…. she muttered.

By the time they went out the exit, they were all carrying a weapon. Ryder held a hand scanner and he waved it around, trying to do readings of everything at once. They walked over to the space craft. It seemed damaged and abanded. Ryder scanned the craft before he made a groaning sound.

– What? Carol almost shouted.

Tina looked around nervously.

– Keep your vice down, Carol!

Carol pulled her hand up to cover her mouth.

– Sorry…. she whispered.

Ryder was still doing readings.

– Curious…. he hesitated.

– I was wondering if this craft had crashed, but it must have been whole when it landed.

Carol steared in disbelief.

– What happened to it, then?

– Some kind of acid has melted the metal, Ryder answered.

– Look!

He pointed to the side of the space craft where something yellow seemed to make circles around melted metal. They all looked at it without being able to determine what had happened to the craft. Standing on tip-toes, Ryder and Carol tried to peer inside. There was nobody inside as far as they could tell.

– Where have they gone? Ryder wondered.

Tina sat down on a rock. She was not all that interested in any of it. As far as she was concerned, she was only the pilot. Ryder preformed different types of scans, but there was obviously nothing alive inside the space craft. Carol walked in circles around them whilst she studied the ground. She was the only on board Firefly one who had experience at tracking. About 20 meters from the craft, she stopped suddenly.

– Someone left this way, she announced.

– It looks like somebody on two feet were either were followed or walked along with some of the giant ants.

Ryder snorted.

– Well, unless they were able to communicate with the ants in some way, I would assume that the ants were chasing them.

He sat down beside Tina and put his hands inside his pockets. With one hand he took out some tobacco, with the other one a black and brown pipe. A rather big pinch of tobacco was stuffed into the pipe, and soon Ryder was happily sucking unhealthy tar and nicotine into his lungs.

– You don’t feel it so much, do you? he said, staring aimlessly into the air.

– Pardon? Carol said.

– The increased gravitation, he puffed out along with a long white cloud of tobacco smoke.

– I feel it plenty, Tina complained.

– It weighs me down. It’s hard to move.

Ryder fastened his black eyes on Tina.

– I really don’t think it’s all that bad…. he mumbled.

– Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion, he added before placing the pipe back in his mouth. A clicking noise was heard as he bit his teeth on the end of the pipe.

Carol came over to Ryder and Tina.

– I could track the footprints, or whatever they are, but I’ve better check with the captain first.

Carol got on the comm link, and soon captain Stevens answered from Firefly. Carol explained the situation, and Stevens hesitated.

– We don’t know how dangerous any of these creatures are, so I prefer you just check out what direction the tracks are going, then you can follow in the landing craft and scan everything from above.

Carol chewed on it for a while.

– We wouldn’t be able to see the tracks from the air, but we’d be a whole lot safer, she concluded.

They all went back to their landing craft. Ryder took a few soil samples on the way, and they all moved slowly. The longer they moved around on the planet’s surface, the more they felt that the gravitation was about double. When they came back to the landing shuttle, they got on board, fastened their seat belts, and took off heading north-northwest where the tracks seemed to be heading.

Captain Stevens studied the computer in front of him. It had a large 3D screen displaying the results of Nelly’s scans. A quick command code from Stevens made a larger 3D display on the projector in the middle of the bridge. Stevens walked around it. It displayed some lush vegetation about half way between the magnetic poles. Most of the environment was flat, but Stevens had discovered an area where two mountain ridges were close together. At the top there was a lake and a waterfall, then further down you could see a river winding it’s way further down. Between the ridges the scans weren’t showing anything.

– Nelly? the captain said.

– Yes, captain Stevens! the soft female voice of Nelly answered.

– Is there any way to scan the ravine between those two ridges? What about thermal scanning?

– I can scan the area between the two ridges thermally if you want to, captain.

– Please do!

– Commencing thermal scan – now!

Stevens grabbed his coffee cup as he studied the 3D map in front of him.

– Nelly? Could you put the thermal scan on top of the regular deep scan?

– Off course, captain! It will be ready in about 30 seconds.

– Thank you!

Stevens sat down in his seat, drinking his coffee.

– Thermal scan complete, captain! I will add the result to the main 3D projector!

A huge area of red was placed in the middle of the two mountain ridges.

– What is that? Can we adjust our course so we can deep scan it from above? Stevens wanted to know.

Nelly’s reply came without delay.

– I am unable to adjust the ship’s trajectory, captain. You will have to use a shuttle to preform a scan of the intended area.

– I see….

Stevens got on the comm link and called up the landing craft. In a few seconds, Ryder’s hoarse voice was crackling through.

– Yes, captain!

– We have found something on the thermal scan – a rather large area between two mountain ridges. Have you found anything yet?

– We’re unable to follow the tracks from the air, so we haven’t found anything. We have covered quite a large area already, but alas, nothing explaining the distress call.

– Maybe you should return to Firefly. It is only about an hour till nightfall in the area where you are, and in another three hours you would be unable to contact us from the ground as Firefly will be on the far side of the planet. I will send you the coordinates for the mountain ridges. Is there a chance you could do a quick scan of the area before returning home?

– Certainly, captain! I just had a thought, captain….

Stevens sipped his coffee.

– Yes?

– Ants are cold blooded creatures. They don’t produce heat like normal animals can. They keep warm in the winter and cold in the summer by staying inside their hives. Maybe you have found such a hive, captain?

Stevens rubbed his chin.

– That would be a possible explanation, he mumbled.

– How do ants react to heat?

– They run away from it, mostly. I have to add tough, captain, that we have never encountered 3 meter long ants before. We don’t know if they really are cold blooded like the ones on earth. We will fly over, do some scans, then return to Firefly. What about the tracks from craft we discovered?

Stevens made a sigh.

– Brinckman will have to do the tracking on the ground, but not after nightfall. And I want backup as well. We’ll formulate a plan after you get back. Stevens out.

Ryder’s voice disappeared from the comm, and Stevens got up from his chair. He slowly walked around the hologram at the middle of the bridge whilst taking long deep sips of his coffee.

Stevens greeted everybody in the mess hall. Everybody were present and accounted for. Dinner was served. The crew did not have a cook, but the food was all stored in big compartments close to the mess hall. The food was frozen in a special way so that it would not go bad although it stayed frozen for several years. There was more than enough food for all of them, and they could all chose what they wanted to eat. The food was okay, kind of like buying a frozen pizza from a shop. It could not, however, replace a proper home cooked meal.

They all ate, and some even burped after the meal was finished. As everybody got coffee or tea and some cake to go with it, Stevens called for everyone’s attention.

– Okay, he started.

– What did your scan reveal, Ryder?

Ryder slurped his tea.

– Between the two mountains there is a gigantic ant nest. It is built over what looks like an underground city. There are some spires and towers visible, but from how they are placed, I would guess that there are more buildings underneath.

Stevens put his cup down.

– Maybe the creatures that built the canals built that  city as well, he said thoughtfully.

– Did you see any movement in there?

Ryder put his second piece of strawberry cheesecake on his plate.

– Oh yes, he nodded.

– There were worker ants running around everywhere, and soldier ants were watching the city walls and gate. There didn’t seem to be too many outside the gate, though.

Stevens drank some more coffee.

– No matter, he said.

– We’re not planning to get inside the city just yet. However, we need to track these tracks from that space ship we found. Brinckman, are you up for the job?

Carol looked up from the piece of chocolate cake she had just put on her plate.

– Certainly, she said.

– But what do we do about the ants if they should attack?

Stevens breathed deeply.

– My thought is that you follow the tracks with somebody on the surface whilst others are monitoring you from the air.

He turned around on his chair, facing the two engineers.

– How is Firefly keeping up? Do we need any repairs?

Sam and Harry looked at each other with a puzzled expression.

– Well, Sam started.

– A couple of relays had burst, but we’ve fixed that already. Why?

– Because, Mr. Devonshire, I want you to accompany the good doctor when she goes tracking tomorrow. Furthermore, i want Albiston and Ryder in the shuttle in case the ants should attack. Everybody should be armed. What would be effective against these critters, Dr. Ryder?

Ryder swallowed his last piece of cake.

– Ants are afraid of heat. Maybe we could use flamethrowers to scare them away? If we all have a laser pistol on our hip, that would certainly be enough to kill ants if the heat should not work.

– Sounds good, Stevens agreed.

– I suggest we try to get some sleep before the sun rises again tomorrow where that space craft is. I want everybody to get at least six hours of sleep. Okay?

Grunting was heard and nodding was seen, and one by one the crew left the mess hall. Ryder went into his study where he looked up material on ants. He sat reading a while before he realized that he was quite tired. Stevens popped his head in the door.

– Are you going to get some sleep, Ryder? he asked.

Ryder rubbed his eyes and turned off the light on his desk.

– Yes, he mumbled.

Then he actually smiled for the first time that Stevens had seen.

– Wouldn’t it be great if we could capture one of these ants and study it in the lab? he almost whispered.

Stevens didn’t think he was joking.

– That could be very dangerous, he answered.

CHAPTER 3

The landing shuttle settled down again beside the alien space craft. The area around it was grassy green with bushes and trees spread around. A few hills were spread here and there, and in the distance a water canal could be spotted. Dr. Brinckman and Sam Devonshire came out of the landing craft. The sun was shining high in the sky, and it was quite warm. Sam was wearing an open short sleeved shirt with green and white stripes on it, whilst Carol Brinckman covered herself behind the Firefly uniform, zipped up all the way. It was obvious to everybody that she was a friendly but shy person who did not like to reveal too much skin no matter what planet they were on. Sam Devonshire, on the other hand, would have been happy to work with just a pair of shorts, showing off his muscular body. He did, however, try to keep decent whilst he was working.

The landing shuttle took off, hovering above them. Carol and Sam started going north-northwest, Carol leading the way. They walked along for an hour, stopping once in a while to have a drink of water from their canteens.  The birds were singing in the trees, and the green grass was easy to walk in. The area were getting denser, and they came to a forest. Small hills were spread all around, and there was a river flowing slowly and silently through the forest. The tracks they had followed went by the river all the way. After nearly another hour’s walking, they came to a small hill on the left hand side of the river. The river had turned at that particular place, leaving a small plain between the river and the forest. In the middle of the plain, something red could be spotted from quite some distance. Carol stopped and looked around. Sam cleared his throat.

– Why are we stopping? he wondered.

Carol pointed to the small plain.

– If I’m not mistaken, she sniffed.

– Then I’d say that it is blood we’re seeing over there….

She grabbed her comm link.

– Charles? Can you please scan for ants or anything else?

The comm link crackled.

– This is Dr. Ryder speaking! You are clear to proceed….

Carol sighed. She was the first to have addressed Ryder as “Charles”, and from his reply it was obvious that he didn’t like it.

– Thank you, Dr. Ryder, Carol said, putting away the comm.

They approached the red area slowly, like there was something dangerous down there. Finally, they arrived at the low turf by the river that looked like it was painted red. Carol took out a hand scanner.

– It is blood, she almost mumbled.

– And quite a bit of it too! If this had been from a human, I would have been sure that person in question had bled out already!

Sam looked at Carol.

– But we can’t assume that this is from human. Could it be from an ant?

Carol shook her head.

– Ants have blue blood, she stated firmly.

– At least those on earth do….

Sam just stood and watched as Carol walked around, searching in the grass.

– What are you looking for? he asked.

Carol stood up.

– A body, or at least a body part. If there was that much blood, the damages would have been massive, like in a massacre. But there’s nothing here from the victim besides his blood.

Sam picked his nose.

– I see! he mumbled.

– What do we do now?

Carol walked around, still studying the ground.

– Wait a minute….

Then she stopped.

– The ants have continued northeast, she said.

– There is no sign of the other creature. They must have killed it and taken it with them.

– In heavens name why? Sam shouted.

– Well,  Carol started.

– You have seen ants on earth. They take food and building materials back to the nest.

Sam made a face of disgust.

– You mean to say that the creature from that space craft has ended up on these ant’s dinner table?

Carol smiled a crooked smile.

– That’s the long and short one of it! she confirmed.

– Yuck!

Carol gave a small giggle.

– I’ll contact the others, she said.

– We need to decide what to do….

– Harry has worked on the scanners so that we can intensify our thermal scans, Stevens explained.

– Then we should be able to scan for hives in your area. I would appreciate if you waited for that scan to be completed before you go on. If you’re safe where you are, then stay there. If not, have the shuttle pick you up and take you to a safe location. Do you have enough water? It looks like it’s quite warm down there….

Carol smiled shyly.

– I am burning up, she admitted.

– I might have to change into something cooler.

Sam raised his eyebrows, looking surprised at Carol. When he saw Carol blush, he turned his face away.

– It is also quite hard to walk, Carol continued.

– I’ve never weighed 120 kilos before. I bet we have both lost a kilo or two just from these two hours walking.

Stevens laughed.

– I’ll get back to you  as soon as I have any news.

– Okay, captain!

Carol turned the comm off. Sam was sitting on a stone by the river, looking into the water.

– I wonder if this river has any fish in it, he mumbled.

Then he straightened up and turned towards Carol. His brown eyes met her bright blue ones.

– So, we just sit here and wait?

– Basically, she agreed.

– But I need to get changed into some more comfortable…

Sam looked down to the grass grinning. Carol pushed him hard.

– Don’t you make me blush again, Samuel Devonshire!

Sam started laughing.

– What did I do? he inquired.

– How did I make you blush?

Carol hit him on his muscular arm.

– Simply by being here, she added.

Then she started laughing too. They laughed and laughed till the comm link suddenly came to life again.

– Dr. Brickman? Are you there?

Carol giggled and grabbed the comm.

– We are both here, Dr. Ryder, she smiled.

– How are things looking from up there?  If we are safe, maybe you could land for a spell? I need to get changed.

Sam started laughing again, and Carol flicked his ear with an angry look on her face.

-It looks clear from here, Ryder answered.

– We’ll land in just a few seconds. Over and out!

The shuttle began descending, and soon it sat down with a small thump.

– Tina is doing better with her landings, Carol nodded.

Sam put up a devilish face.

– Maybe she could change into something more comfortable as well, he grinned.

– Samuel! Carol shouted, trying to hide her smile from Sam.

Why do they always go for the blonds? she asked herself. Then she shrugged, wondering why she had thought that. She was not looking for a partner at this time anyway. Then she realized that her going on this voyage meant that she would never get married, and if she was to get involved with someone, her only choice was the four male crew members on Firefly. Chances of meeting a nice hunk out here in space is probably very close to zero, she told herself. Her thoughts made her blush again, and she saw that Sam had noticed. He probably thought it was because of what he had just said to her. He made his usual grin as he was leading the way to the shuttle that had just opened it’s doors. Ryder and Albiston put their heads out the door.

– You want to get out of the sun for a little bit? Tina asked.

The sun was high in the sky, they noticed. It must be a bout midday here on this strange planet inhabited by giant ants. They all went inside and had a little refreshment. Some sandwiches had been brought along for lunch, and they eagerly ate them as the chatted about this and that. Just after they finished, the comm link started crackling again.

– Hello, Dr. Brinkman? Carol, are you there?

Carol cleaned her teeth with her tongue as she grabbed the link.

– Ready and waiting, captain!

– We have found several hives on the planet surface, thanks to Harry. The closest one to you is about five clicks east of you.

– What are we to do, captain? Carol wanted to know.

– I was thinking a flyover where the nest is. It might be to dangerous to go into the hive on foot. If we can’t find any sign of life except for the ants, I’d say that the creatures that sent out the distress call has probably been eaten already. I think we have come way too late to rescue anybody. I’ll see you back  here when you get back. Okay?

– Okay, captain! Over and out!

Silence fell like a blanket over the shuttle, lasting for a couple of minutes. The Ryder broke the silence.

– Could I please see the blood, Dr. Brinckman? I would like to take a sample of it and see if we can find out who shed it.

– Please, Carol replied.

She led the party of people towards the river where the red blood was all over the grass, only Tina stayed  at the shuttle.  Ryder took a sample of blood whilst Carol examined the ground again.

– It seems like there has been a struggle her, she reasoned.

– No kidding? Sam exclaimed.

–  So would we if we were attacked by giant ants. I hope that….

– Quiet, Ryder said in a whisper.

– We’ve got company…

Three large ants about three meters long came around the front of the shuttle. Sam went in front of Carol and Ryder.

– I’ll try to scare them away with the flamethrower, he whispered.

– Keep your laser pistols ready if it doesn’t work.

The threesome walked slowly towards the three ants who were now between them and the shuttle. Sam sent a ray of burning fire in front of the ants, and they stopped dead in their tracks.

– Hey ants! Sam shouted.

– We’re from the planet earth! We come in peace! We don’t want to hurt you!

Carol looked at Sam with wide open eyes.

-Are you kidding? she said with a low voice.

– Are you expecting them to answer back?

– Hey,  Sam smiled.

– It works in all the sci fi movies. Didn’t you know they speak English all over the universe and in other galaxies too?

Ryder stepped closer.

– I don’t think these ants speak our language, Samuel. Try some more fire and see if they will pull back. If not, we must try to circle around them.

Sam sent out another ray of fire, but the ants remained standing as if the were frozen still. Their antlers moved slightly, and their double jaws seemed to be grinding back and forth, but otherwise they stood completely still. Ryder waved at the other two, and they started to go in a wide circle around the ants. Suddenly the ants moved, once again placing themselves between the three explorers and their landing shuttle. Sam sent a long flame towards the ants, but they didn’t move an inch. Sam wiped the sweat from his forehead.

– The fire makes them stop, but doesn’t scare them away. We will have to shoot our way through….

They all readied their laser pistols.

– On three…. Sam whispered.

– One…. two…. three!

Tina Albiston was standing in the doorway with a laser rifle, starting to fire away as soon as the others did. As soon as the three started running towards the shuttle, the ants started moving as well – towards the three. One of the ants fell down on the grass, blue blood squirting out from it’s scaly body.  Sam reached one of the ants, fired into it’s body several times, but still it kept coming. Ryder shot the other one through the head, and it sank down on the ground in a pool of blue. Suddenly, a piercing scream was heard. The last ant had Sam’s left arm in it’s jaw, and red human blood was running down to the ground. Carol was there in two quick steps, shot the ant through it’s head, and the ant released it’s fangs falling to the ground. Sam fell down to his knees, his face distorted in agony. Ryder looked around quickly, seeing several ants coming over the hilltop. It must be at least 30 of them, and there could be the sane amount on the other side of the shuttle.

– Get inside…. quickly! he barked.

Carol helped Sam up, and they ran as fast as they could to the shuttle. Tina was already in the pilot seat, starting up the engines. Sam threw himself down onto a seat, holding his arm as hard as he could, but he was still loosing blood. Ryder looked out a window.

– Now would be a good time, Albiston! he shouted.

The ants were incredibly fast, and when the landing craft took off, they were only a couple of meters away. The shuttle buzzed as it rose from the ground, and soon they were high in the air, hovering over the ants.

– Where to? Tina asked.

Carol was studying Sam’s arm. She lifted up her head, shouting.

– We need to get Sam to Firefly straight away, Tina!

– Okie dokie! Tina mumbled as she piloted the shuttle even higher.

Sam’s arm had turned black around the bite. A yellowish liquid was on the wound, and the blackness spread further and further up the arm. Carol could see the black crawling higher and higher up Sam’s arm.

– Ryder, can you please hand me the medical box under your seat?

Ryder found it out.

– What are you going to do? he asked as he noticed that Sam had fallen unconscious.

– I will have to take the arm off straight away! Carol said with her most serious voice.

– What? Ryder exclaimed.

– Can’t we treat him  when we get him to Firefly?

– He’ll likely be dead long before that!

Carol pointed to the blackness crawling up Sam’s arm.

– If that reaches further than the shoulder, there’s nothing I can do for him. I need to cut his arm off NOW!

Ryder handed over the medical box, and Carol took out a laser cutter.

– This will cut his arm off, and at the same time burn off and seal off the rest of the arm so that he doesn’t suffer any more blood loss.

A humming sound was heard as Carol turned on the laser. The black had now reached above Sam’s elbow. Carol lifted up the laser cutter and started cutting though the arm. Sam was out cold. Nothing could be read on his face.

– Will he live? Tina asked from the pilot seat.

– I don’t know why not. He is a strong and healthy man, but he will be in sickbay for a while.

Ryder took a deep breath.

– Do you think we’ll be able to put the arm back on again?

Carol shook her head.

– I think all the tissues on his arm has been either burnt out or withered away. Maybe you could examine it in your lab, Dr. Ryder?

Ryder looked thoughtful.

– You can call me Charles, he said slowly.

– I was going to stay on a professional basis with all of you, he said.

– But with things like this happening, we don’t need professional associates, but we need a family. I suppose you are my family now.

Carol smiled.

– I’ll call you Charles on one condition, she said.

– And what might that be?

– That you call me Carol.

Ryder gave a weak smile.

– I think I can accept that, Carol….

Tina was sitting in the front, smiling and shaking her head.

CHAPTER 4

Sam Devonshire opened his eyes slowly. He was lying in bed in sickbay, first staring at the ceiling. He lifted his heavy head and saw Carol sitting beside the bed. She had fallen asleep, head bent foreword with all her dark curls covering her face. Sam cleared his throat. He was obviously sedated pretty good. His head was swimming with dizziness, and he felt heavy like led. He tried to raise his arms, but was unable to do so. Carol raised her head up and looked straight at him.

– Hi! she whispered.

– How are you feeling?

– Hey, Sam replied.

– I’m ready to party.

Carol smiled.

– I’m afraid it will be a little while before you’ll be partying, my friend.

Sam got a sore expression in his face.

– Only friends? he asked.

– After all we’ve been through?

Carol laughed her soft laugh.

– We could be GOOD friends, she said.

– I suppose, Sam answered.

He looked around.

– What happened? How long do I have to stay here?

Carol sighed heavily.

– Do you remember the ant biting you? she asked softly.

– Yeah, but you killed it, I seemed to recall.

– Don’t I owe you my life?

Carol smiled again.

– I suppose, but not for killing the ant!

She breathed heavily once more.

– You became unconscious, and this unknown black stuff was eating it’s way up your arm. I realized that if I didn’t  stop it,you would be dead. Sam, I had to amputate your arm….

Sam’s eyes opened wide.

– What the….? You took my arm? Which one?

– It was your left arm. It’s amputated at the top. If I hadn’t caught it when I did, you would have been dead now.

Now it was Sam’s turn to sigh deeply.

– Oh well, he said.

– I suppose I owe you a big thanks. I’d give you a hug, but I’m unable to right now.

– That’s okay, Carol smiled.

– You can owe me….

– Boy, Sam continued.

– It was good it didn’t take  my shootin’ arm….

Carol laughed.

– You will be fine, almost as good as new. I will monitor you here in sickbay till you get well enough to get up and about.

– Thanks, doctor, Sam smiled.

– I’ll be the perfect patient for you….

– You’ll better be, Carol said.

– I could always slap you again….

– Mercy, Sam shouted.

Stevens came into the sickbay.

– How’s our patient doing, doctor? he smiled.

– He’s his usual cheeky self, captain, Carol blinked.

– Okay, Stevens said with a loud voice to catch everybody’s attention.

– We will not set down on that planet ever again! We will do a last flyover just to see if there’s any sign of survivors from the space craft we found. Tina, you are our number one pilot. I want you at the helm. I want Carol to stay with Sam. Ryder, maybe you could do the scans. I want you to get this done as fast as possible. I can’t wait for us to put this planet behind us. Do you require any help, Ryder?

Ryder shook his head.

– No, he said.

– As long as Tina can do the flying, I can do the scans. It would be nice if Firefly would be ready to take off as soon as we get back.

Stevens smiled.

– I suppose you don’t want to take a specimen with you for studying, Dr. Ryder?

Ryder shook his head again.

– Nope, he answered quietly.

– I can’t see how that could  be done safely, captain.

Stevens jumped up from his chair.

– Well, we all have something to do, I hope. We’ll have continual radio contact with the shuttle, just in case.

Chairs scraped the floor as everybody got to their feet.

– How are you doing, Charles? Tina shouted from the pilot seat.

They were circling the ant hive from high altitude whilst Ryder was doing all sorts of scans from the panels in the back of the shuttle.

– Not very well, I’m afraid! he replied.

– We are too high up for the scans to be accurate enough. We need to get lower for the scans to be good enough. Can we safely go further down?

Tina shrugged her shoulders.

– Your wish is my command, Dr. Ryder, she said, but not load enough for Ryder to hear.

They circled further and further down.

– Can you let me know when we’re low enough? Tina shouted.

– That’s fine now, Ryder replied.

– Just keep us at this height for a few minutes, then we can get out of here.

Tina kept flying in circles, making sure that they didn’t go any further down in altitude. Ryder checked his readings and scans, looking for signs that there might be someone trapped inside the hive that was not an ant. There was no indication of any other creature than ants inside the hive, cold blooded ants that preformed their duties.

Suddenly a big bang was heard, and the shuttle tilted to the side.

– What in grandma’s long johns was that? Ryder shouted.

Tina was fighting to gain control over the shuttle.

– We’re being attacked by giant flying ants, Tina shouted back.

Another bang was heard, and the shuttle tilted again.

–  We’re getting out of her, Charles, Tina shouted.

-I don’t care if you’re done or not!

Ryder came running towards the front of the shuttle as the shuttle once again was thumped from the outside.

–  We have a breach, Tina yelled.

– Something is making a whole in our hull….

Ryder climbed to his feet again.

– It must be the ants that produce that yellow acid secretion, Ryder half shouted.

–  I bet that’s how they ruined that space craft we found, and how they infested Samuel’s arm, and lastly how they made a breach in our hull. We need to get away from them!

Tina navigated up and down, flying at great speed.

– You’re preaching for the choir, doctor! she smiled as she throttled, braked and gave full speed again.

– I have to avoid them, Charles, she puffed.

– Crashing into one of them could be seriously bad. We don’t know how much damage one of them could do if we rammed one of them.

Ryder sat down beside Tina.

– I think it will be okay, he said.

– They bleed blue, not yellow acid. Just use full throttle and knock your way through!

Tina chewed on her lip.

– Okay, I’m trusting you on this one, Charles, she shouted again.

– But Lord help you if you’re wrong! My revenge will be merciless if you’re wrong….

Tina gave full throttle, and the shuttle forced it’s way through several flying ants, bumping into them with a cracking noise, sending many of them hurdling down towards the ground.

– We’re free, Tina shouted happily.

– Well done, Albiston! Ryder shouted back.

Tina looked sternly at him.

– Sorry, I meant Tina!

Tina smiled.

– Did you get the scans completed, CHARLES?

Ryder gave a short smile.

– I did! Even if they were not completed, I don’t think our dear captain would send us back there again.

Tina lowered her voice.

– What do we do now? she wondered.

– We can’t make it back to Firefly with a damaged hull.

Ryder sighed.

–  Then we’ll have to repair it, or have the captain pick us up.

He turned towards Tina, grabbed her hands and peered into her bright blue eyes.

– To every problem there is a solution, he said.

-We just have to find the solution!

Tina nodded, and Ryder let go of her hands.

– Let’s fix it ourselves! she said with a crooked smile.

Stevens sat in his office, making his report.

– So, he said.

– We assume that the ants attacked the alien space craft, killed some in the craft and took up pursuit of one survivor. Their fangs obviously contain that dangerous yellow acid that almost killed my crewman. The ants followed the last alien to the river by the forest where they killed him. We assume they have all ended up as ant fodder. All scans for the missing alien crew have been negative. The blood sample Dr. Ryder got from the alien has not yet shown what race they belong to. The ants are very dangerous, and it is not recommended that we try to get close to them again. We have gained knowledge of an unknown species that we have not encountered before. The ants are very much like ants on earth if you don’t take their size into consideration. They are cold blooded, have blue blood, build hives, have warrior ants and  worker ants as well as flying ants. There are probably builders and other ants that we have not observed. When the three ants were killed by the landing shuttle, many other ants appeared, indicating that these giant ants also secrete a pheromone  that is detectable by other ants when one ant is killed, just like on earth. In spite of earlier deciding not to take a specimen for investigation in our lab, Dr. Ryder did return to the river by the forest after repairing the landing shuttle. There he picked up one of the dead ants that they had killed earlier. This ant is now safely stored in our lab midships. Soon we will be leaving this planet, and everybody will be glad to leave it behind. Case closed! Captain Stevens reporting.

Stevens stopped the recording. Then he went into the mess hall where they were all going to have a last meal before going back into stasis. Everybody was there, even Sam with his one arm. Stevens greeted everybody.

– How are you, Sam? he asked.

– I’m my old terrible self, Sam smiled.

– He’s doing really well, Carol smiled beside him.

Harry nodded to the captain, and Tina was just sitting down, not paying much attentionn.

–  Where is Ryder?  the captain asked.

Dr. Charles Ryder came in the door from the kitchen, carrying a tray full of pots and pans.

– Everybody, he announced.

–  I have taken it upon myself to cook us a better meal than the frozen food we’ve got in storage! Please be seated!

Everybody sat down.

– I have made you all fried chicken a’ la Ryder, just like my grandmother used to make.

He sat down the tray in the middle of the table.

– You first, captain.

Stevens smelled the wonderful smell from the crispy chicken.

– Thank you very much, Ryder! This looks lovely!

Dr. Ryder smiled to the captain.

– Please call me Charles, he asked, big smile on his face.

– Very well, Charles! Stevens said.

– I suppose you can all call me Paul as well. Now, lets dig in! And Charles?

Ryder looked up in surprise.

– Captain? he said.

– If this tastes as good as it smells, I’m putting you in charge of the kitchen permanently…

Ryder’s chin fell to the floor.

– Just kidding….

Everybody laughed. Then they ate…. and talked. They were like a big family, seated round the dinner table. Soon they would find their hybernation chambers and sleep, maybe for years, maybe for months, or maybe just a few hours. You could never tell what would happen next in outer space. It would not be long,  however, until Firefly was silent again, gliding through space looking for new advetures….

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