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Death World One
By Dianne M. Williams
       This story originally appeared at The Confabulator Cafe in August 2015. http://www.confabulatorcafe.com/2015/08/death-world-one/
       I finally found the exit. We had to double-back from the Interstellar 405 to find the damn thing. The wormhole was not well marked, let me tell you. Earth is out in the middle of nowhere and there are hardly any beacons out there. It was not a great start to our vacation.
       The kids were in the backseat, hitting each other, pushing, pulling each other's face tentacles. It had been a long trip to the Sol system. But goddammit, we were going to spend two weeks as a family. No vid screens. No comms devices. Just us and a whole planet full of untouched, pristine nature.
       Landing couldn't come soon enough. It was either that, or risk injuring one of the kids when I lost my mind from their fighting. Which is to say that I set the ship down in the first piece of wilderness that I could find. We lucked out and the view outside of my window was breathtaking. We'd parked on a beautiful stretch of tangerine desert dotted with plateaus. A greenish-blue waterhole off to one side supported some kind of silvery-grayish-green shrubs all around us. It was absolutely perfect.
       "Okay, kids. You both remember the protocol when we land on an alien planet. Let Dad cycle the airlock and go first. Then Mom will bring you both out once everything checks out," I said. I was busy flipping switches and turning off engines. I had to check to be sure that the kids were still alive based on the sounds of their enthusiasm. Or lack thereof.
       "You've got this?" I asked my wife, Nura.
       "No worries," she said. "You go make sure there aren't any big scary monsters out there and we'll be right behind you."
       Atmosphere, temperature, everything checked out. I just had to step outside the ship and make sure nothing was lurking that would jump out and kill the kids before we had a chance to bond with the wonders of nature. I wanted anything out there to try to tangle with me first. I was a lot bigger and tougher than the kids. And Emlea was likely to burst my eardrums if anything so much as startled her these days.
       I poked my head under the landing ramp. I looked around all of the ship's feet. If there was wildlife in the area, we'd scared most of it away when we landed.
       "Okay Nura, bring the kids out," I commsed. I took a last look around, enjoying the view before the sulking tsunami of noise that is my kids arrived on the ground. It didn't last long. Nura came down the ramp, pushing the containers with our tents and supplies in front of her. The kids lagged behind. Presumably they were only coming out because I'd turned off the ship's wi-fi when we landed.
       Nura gave me a little peck on the cheek as she went by. She'd been dubious about all of this since I'd hatched the idea, but she would get us through it.
       "Look at this, kids! Isn't it great?" I asked, gesturing wildly to the splendor of nature all around us.
       "I'm hungry," Emlea whined.
       "I was in the middle of a level," Draveed said.
       He followed his mother while Emlea collapsed at the bottom of the ramp. The tears of hunger were sure to start soon. I palmed a pack of cookies from the top of Nura's supplies and sat down with her.
       "This isn't so bad, Emmy," I said as she munched on the sugary discs. "It'll be fun. You'll see."
       "Um... I just don't think I like it here," she said. "Can we go to Ponyland instead?"
       I ran a hand through my face tentacles and stood up to give her some space while she ate. "Give it some time," I said.
       Nura was unloading tent rods nearby. "Can you stay with them?" I asked her quietly. "I'll take a look around and see if there's anything edible around here. The guidebook said we'd have options."
       She was too busy checking the tent directions to look up at me. "Stay near the camp, kids," she shouted. "Mom's in charge for a little while."
       "Thank you," I mouthed as I crept out of the camp.
       I didn't get far. I was watching the trees, looking for any kind of fruits or berries or maybe some kind of edible bark. Anything to show the kids. I guess I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going.
       A spider twice the size of my tentacles was right there, about 20 cm from my face. It didn't even have the decency to run away from me. Though, given its size, I suppose it wasn't used to being afraid very often. We had been warned that some of the creatures we encountered might have venom that could affect alien metabolisms. Given the size of this thing, I wasn't sure it would need the venom to kill me.
       It stared at me. And I stared back at it while I reached for my zap gun. "Damn." I had left it in the ship with the rest of the 'modern conveniences' of home. As though an old model like that could be considered 'modern.'
       I inched away, keeping my eyes on the shifty-looking thing. With each step, I had to hope that it, and whatever friends it might have nearby, had recently fed.
       There was a scream from nearby and I lost my concentration. When I looked back, the spider was gone. I took the hint and ran to whichever of my kids was locked in mortal danger. Emlea screamed again as I reached them. Both of them were standing in front of what was easily the largest snake I had ever seen in my life. Forget about things that could eat the kids. This thing looked like it could devour whole worlds in one swallow. It was like something out of mythology. And judging from the lump in its middle, it had recently feasted on a small moon.
       "It ate that giant spiky animal!" Emlea squealed, covering her mouth with her tentacles.
       "Look! I think it's gonna puke it back up," Draveed added, ever the budding psychopath.
       Sure enough, the snake seemed to be working its meal back to the starting point, slowly but steadily. I moved the kids along before the snake decided on an easier meal. Or used the spiky creature as a projectile of some sort.
       "Okay, let's stay with Mom or Dad when you leave the campsite from now on," I said, vowing to get my zap gun once we got back.
       Nura had both tents up and a fire going by the time I got the kids back to camp. I felt like a louse coming back without anything to eat. We had plenty of stores we'd brought with us, but that wasn't the point of this whole venture. I grabbed a couple of buckets, hoping to make myself useful.
       "Come on, Draveed," I said, slapping my son on the back. "Let's see if that water is any good to drink."
       He rolled his eyes, but he took the bucket without throwing any sort of fit. Maybe there was hope for this trip, yet. I prattled on about something or other while we walked, jumping from one subject to the next with the hope that I could engage him on anything. He trudged along behind me in silence. Unless you counted the occasional sigh.
       I didn't have to test the water to know we weren't going to be drinking it. The smell of salt hit me as soon as we got close to the green pool. Draveed dipped his bucket in, anyway, but I knew it would be saltwater. I made him go through the process of smelling it and tasting it, anyway. Might as well teach the kid some kind of survival skills.
       As he spat the water back out, his attention was drawn by something at the far side of the waterhole. I looked over just in time to watch a crocodile bigger than myself literally jump out of the water. It jumped into the air and pulled something out of the trees, thrashing as it dragged the prey under. We gave up on the water and ran away.
       "They have crocodiles that can eat things out of the trees!" Draveed shouted as we got back to camp.
       "What?" Nura asked. She'd fed Emlea another package of cookies and my daughter was running circles around the tent.
       It took me a minute to get my breath back, so Draveed told our tale. Being sure to play up the excitement and danger parts. Emlea stopped running and settled down next to her mother like it was story time. Nura hugged her close. My wife was starting to look as scared as I felt.
       But some stubborn part of me believed we could still make this work. Now that we knew the dangers, we could surely avoid them. They all seemed large enough to spot easily. This was the turning point. If I could just rally the family, we could surely salvage this vacation.
       "Look," Emlea said, pointing to something behind me.
       I turned to see and came face-to-face with something the guidebook called a 'kangaroo.' It was huge. About two meters tall with powerful hind legs and stubby arms that ended in delicately fisted paws. It balanced on a massive tail. Of all the things I'd seen today, it was the least conventionally-deadly looking thing in the area.
       It was also bounding for our campsite. I've seen a lot of strange things in this galaxy. I wasn't going to wait until this thing was close enough for Emlea to hug it before discovering that it was dangerous.
       I waved my hands over my head, advancing on it as I shouted. "Go! Get! Get away!" I forgot that we wouldn't speak the same language, but it seemed to get the idea. It looked around, confused. I got up close to it, hoping that Nura had my back with the zap gun if it tried to eat me. The creature wouldn't back off.
       "Come on. Shoo," I pleaded.
       I crept forward bit by bit, hoping it would spook. It didn't. I got really close to it, but it wouldn't back off. I started to think that maybe it wasn't dangerous. All I'd seen it do so far was hop, and that's not so bad.
       That's when it punched me. Hard. Right in the face tentacles. I didn't stay there long enough to see what else it could do.
       "Nope. Come on, kids. We'll find a motel with a pool in a safer part of space," I said. We left the tents behind. I think our camping days are over.
       We dropped a beacon on the way out of the system, broadcasting on all frequencies. "Warning! This planet is basically Death World One. Everything here will kill you!" I mean, you can go there yourself and see it, if you want. You don't have to take my word for it.
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