Rusty Nails manoeuvred the damaged helo onto the landing strip at the spaceport at Mansi. The engines shut down and he slumped forward over the controls. His head ached, and his eyes hurt.
“Damn lucky,” said a voice behind him.
Rusty took a deep breath and sat up. He eased the flight helmet from his head. He twisted around in his seat to address his passenger.
“You take the meaning of insane to a whole other level!” he said. “I thought we were going to die today.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t,” said the prospector. “You’re the best damn pilot I’ve ever come across. Want to come and work for me?”
“I don’t think so,” replied Rusty. He glared at his passenger. “I’ll have to be more careful who I take out to the mountains. A psych check might be a good idea from now on.”
The prospector chuckled as he gathered what remained of his equipment and hefted his collection bag. He jumped down from the craft to the tarmac. Rusty watched him trudge towards the spaceport buildings. The bulky cooling suit and breathing apparatus made the man look like an ancient deep sea diver. Rusty was glad this day was over.
He eased himself down to the tarmac and began to assess the state of the helo. Within moments his tech crew were moving rapidly towards him. Jack Hammer and Kee Rench were two of the best techs on the planet Goji. If anyone could repair the damage, they could.
“What in Aquila’s name happened?” asked Kee as he reached his workmate.
The tattoos on Rusty’s arms writhed as he rubbed his bright blue eyes. Now they felt burned, and full of sand. His long black beard, gathered into one large knot in front of his muscular chest shone with sweat. His thin beaded side braids were dripping as well. His shirt was soaked. He could feel his ponytail sticking to his back.
“You’ve heard of the spindrift spiders, haven’t you?” asked Rusty. He reached for the religious icon strung around his neck. His fingers rubbed the worn wooden surface of Aquila, the Goji god of flight.
“Yes,” replied Kee as he pulled a handful of fibres from the twisted rotor blades. “What’s this?”
The fibres disintegrated as the warmth of his hands touched them. His fingers burned. He quickly shook the fibres away, and they fell to the ground in splodges of sticky grey matter.
“That’s how they travel,” said Rusty. Kee and Jack stared at him.
“You’d better explain before we start repairs,” said Jack. “What happened out there today?”
“I can only say that I’m very glad this is a composite helo,” said Rusty. “Without the undercarriage thruster jets we would never have made it back. That Galen Lott is an adrenaline junkie of the first order. And he knew about all about them before we left.”
“So, tell us what happened,” said Jack.
“Alright, alright, just let me clear my head,” said Rusty. “Got any water?” Jack handed him his belt flask. Rusty sucked at it greedily. He handed it back. “Things started to go pear shaped as soon as we reached the mountains.”
“What do you mean, Lott knew?” asked Kee.
“About the spindrift spiders,” replied Rusty. “That’s why he wanted to go there so urgently this morning.” He began to explain.
Rusty received the request from Galen Lott last evening, just after he arrived at his hab capsule at the end of his working day. It was enough warning to get the mandatory seven hours sleep before flying again. When he reached the spaceport early that morning Lott was waiting for him. He was dressed in a high tech cooling suit with the requisite breathing apparatus and safety gear for a trip to the Smarag Mountains. Obviously he had done his research.
In the Ambleby System, the planet Goji was famous for its mining operations. The local population mined, processed, and exported minerals used in ship building and station construction. Goji was also known for the unusual seismic activity that produced the raw minerals. The planet was raked by howling winds during what passed for spring.
The Smarag Mountains were about two hours flight away from Mansi, the largest and most stable settlement on the planet. The glittering emerald tops of the mountains drew the early planetary explorers towards them in the hope of finding something of value.
The high conical mountains were surrounded by a glittering shard field, which in turn was surrounded by sand. The forest came to an abrupt halt at the edge of it. Kilometres wide, the sand looked harmless enough until the first land carrier tried to drive over it. It was almost immediately sucked down into the sand, along with its driver.
The shards were as big as the freighters which plied between Goji and the nearby systems. Kilometres of shards rose from the sand and surrounded the base of the mountains. Their edges were razor sharp, and had the explorers been able to cross the sand, they would have found no purchase on the slippery surface. The only way to reach the mountains was by air. If the flyers got too close to the sand they risked being sucked down into the planet.
The fascination with the mountains grew. The miners wanted to know more about the substance covering them. They wanted to know if it was valuable. The shine and the colour indicated that it was unique. They thought if they could find a way to collect it, they might be able to push their way into the lucrative interstellar gem trade.
Rusty, Jack, and Kee were instrumental in in developing the composite helo flyers. They were used around the mining operations, ferrying workers from site to site. The helo component meant they could travel straight up and down and land in the most difficult terrain. The thruster jets gave them a lightening response mechanism to the constant seismic activity that de-stabilised the ground. They could traverse the surface of the planet quickly.
Two of the miners eventually persuaded Rusty to fly out to the mountains. They designed an elaborate fibre line and harness system that allowed them to drop from the helo to reach the glittering surface. They rigged a suction mechanism to their boots which enabled them to grip the surface of the mountain while they took samples. High tensile laser drills cut every other mineral on the planet, so they guessed they would do the same at the Smarag site.
When they reached the mountains they discovered that the heat coming from the cones was intense. From the air they saw that the insides of the cones were sealed by a layer of the glittering substance, which explained the shard field around their base. It became apparent that the sand provided the raw material. It seemed that the planet had its own natural furnace.
The unanticipated heat meant they could not take samples that day. They flew back to Mansi and went back to the drawing board to design heat resistant cooling suits, boots, and protective helmets. The fibre cables were reinforced and heat shields installed on the underside of the helo. Eventually they were ready to try again.
The day before their scheduled trip, the mountains erupted. The internal plug was expelled first, sending massive shards into the air which quickly settled around the base. The new shards smashed the older ones to smaller pieces as they fell to the ground. Quickly afterward molten material roiled up the centre of each cone and spewed down the sides. It hardened as it hit the cooler air at the top and moved slowly downwards. The colour developed from deep emerald green, to jade, aqua and eventually peppermint shades as it hardened towards the bottom. It stopped before it reached the shard field.
The explosions were heard kilometres away in Mansi. The exploration trip was postponed. The mountains needed to cool before they tried again. The delay made it possible for Rusty to learn more about handling the modified helo. The heat shields made it heavy and slower to respond. Adjustments were made to the thruster jets and the power source. Weeks went by before they felt it was safe.
Their second trip was more successful. Rusty hovered above the highest mountain top whilst the miners lowered themselves carefully towards the sloped surface. They anchored themselves with their boots and began to cut. The material had hardened enough for the drills to work quickly and efficiently. It was heavier than it looked. Unlike glass, it had a dead weight to it that made it feel more like gold. They gathered as much as they could carry and winched themselves back into the flyer.
They returned to Mansi and went straight to the chemical analysis labs. Examination showed that the material was composed of silica, sodium carbonate, limestone, iron, palladium and silver. It was essentially a thick and heavy, but slightly elastic, kind of glass.
Some samples contained dark splotches within them. Closer examination yielded something that looked suspiciously like an arachnid. Trying to free the splotch from the glass resulted in it shattering into tiny, dangerous splinters.
A few weeks later, one of the miners was found dead in his hab capsule. Shards of Smarag Mountain glass littered the floor where he fell. A crushed arachnid which oozed with a sticky gold substance was found on the palm of his hand. Tests showed that he was poisoned. The mine doctor thought that the toxin was released when he prised the arachnid from the glass. Word went around the township quickly.
The rumour was that the creatures had been seen before. Named spindrift spiders by the locals, it was said that they could fly, which would explained why they were found on the mountain sides. How they came to be enclosed in the molten glass without loss of form was a mystery.
Suddenly Rusty was overwhelmed with requests to fly out to the mountains to collect the glass. A prospecting tourist trade of sorts developed and the glass became highly sought after. The most prized pieces were those containing a spindrift spider. These gems were not only valuable, but dangerous.
The Smarag Mountains erupted once or twice a year. In the weeks afterwards, while the mountains cooled, Rusty was able to take a break. Once a week he spent an hour at the worship centre in Mansi, where he worked with a youth group and listened to the local choir. His every other free moment was spent flying. Anything, and everything. Calm under pressure, Rusty loved to fly. He was happier in the air than on the ground.
He won a pylon race off Pomadoro, the planet closest to the Ambleby System sun. The prize money funded more work on the helo. It was in great shape before the arrival of Galen Lott. The mountains had been dormant for a while, and the spring howlers had not yet arisen.
Rusty checked the weather maps that morning before he left for the spaceport. The forecast predicted light winds, possibly rising later in the day. He thought they would have enough time to get out to the mountains and back again before the wind became a problem.
He quickly learned that Lott was a collector of rare gems who traded across several systems. He also discovered that Lott was cocksure and sarcastic. He was a mercenary of sorts. Lott explained that he had only recently heard of the emerald glass of Goji. He had specific instructions from his royal client to bring him spindrift spider glass.
After loading their gear into the helo and completing his pre-flight checks, Rusty was cleared for take-off by spaceport control. They rose quickly and travelled above the open cut mine outside Mansi towards the glinting green of the Smarag Mountains. Lott used the high-vis oculars in his helmet to study the mountains as they approached. The colour of the emerald glass was so intense he felt as if he could reach out and touch it.
“Can you feel that?” he asked Rusty.
“What?” he replied, concentrating on the air currents and wind speed as they flew.
“I feel as if the mountains are pulling me towards them,” said Lott. “If I reached out now I’d be standing on top of one of those cones.”
“People often say that,” replied Rusty. “Can’t say I’ve never noticed it myself. Just remember, if you put your bare hand on the glass it will burn you. It takes a while to cool once it’s been collected.”
“So I must wear gloves and use my collection tools,” said Lott. “I remember, I read all about it. Do these suckers on the boots really work?”
“Oh yes,” replied Rusty. “Once you have a grip you can work quite freely. Provided the wind doesn’t come up.”
“Worried about that are you?” asked Lott.
“A little,” he replied. “It’s starting to gust now. But I’ve flown in worse than this, so I think we’ll be fine. Just work fast when we get there, alright?”
“We need to get to a place where the spindrift spiders are trapped. Can you do that?”
“Sure. The survey equipment will indicate where they might be,” said Rusty. “But I won’t be able to tell until we’re hovering over the main cone. That seems to be where most of them are found.”
“Excellent,” said Lott.
He returned to studying the terrain as they approached the sand wasteland that marked the perimeter of the mountain region. The reflection from the mountains was strong. Rusty’s face had a pale green tinge to it that made him look nauseous. The shards at the base of the mountains were enormous glittering knife edges.
“I didn’t believe they’d be this big!” exclaimed Lott as they flew over them.
“You should see it when the mountains erupt!” chuckled Rusty. “You don’t want to be anywhere near here then. Get hit by one of those, and bye bye birdie.”
They rose until they were hovering over the main cone. The survey equipment ticked as it searched for the spindrift spider rich faces. Lott busied himself with his descent rig while they waited. He opened the side passenger door. Rusty moved the helo over the location identified by the survey.
“We’re here,” he said.
“How are you at handling bouncing prospectors?” asked Lott. Rusty turned to look at his passenger.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m going to bungee out of here,” replied Lott. “That’s why I was asking about the suction mechanism on the boots. Thought I’d add an extra thrill.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when he launched himself from the helo towards the mountainside below. He touched the glass with one gloved hand and bounced up towards the helo. He pushed off from undercarriage and hurtled back towards the mountainside. Fury passed across Rusty’s features as he turned to his instrument panel. He fought to hold the helo steady from the onslaught of travelling weight.
On the second drop Lott put his feet out and attached himself to the mountainside. Rusty battled to hold the helo in place with Lott’s weight anchored below him. He swore quietly and asked for help from Aquila to keep calm.
“Work fast!” he shouted through his helmet coms.
Lott ignored him and proceeded to take his time cutting several pieces of glass. The spindrift spiders could be seen easily through the emerald shine now that he was close enough to it. He cut and gathered, adding more weight to his total.
Rusty felt the weight below him mount. Then he felt the wind change. He hazarded a glance towards the wind and saw a number of small dark clouds heading in their direction.
“Lott, get back up here now,” he yelled at the prospector. “The wind’s changed, and there are some odd looking clouds heading this way. If you push off hard enough I can move down a fraction to meet you.”
Lott holstered his drill and closed his collection sack. He felt the weight of it. He estimated the distance to the helo and readied himself to release the connection mechanism in his boots. He pushed off and bounced upwards. The helo dropped as his weight travelled up. He grabbed an external support rail and heaved himself back inside. He slammed the door shut.
The wind picked up. The odd looking clouds came closer. Lott stared at them through his helmet oculars as he settled into his seat.
“Strangest looking clouds I’ve ever seen,” muttered Rusty.
“They’re not clouds,” said Lott. “They’re webs. Confirms what I suspected. Excellent!”
“What? What are you talking about?” Rusty asked.
“I’d suggest you get us as far away from them as quickly as you can,” said Lott.
Rusty turned the helo towards Mansi. But he was not quick enough. A spindrift spider landed on the windscreen right in front of him, anchoring itself to the plexi-glass with the tiny suction pads on its feet. The creature was the size of Rusty’s hand. It moved rapidly across the windscreen and disappeared from view. The web it had travelled on became entangled in the rotor blades. The helo dropped towards the shard field below.
Rusty pounded the thruster jet controls. For a moment nothing happened, then the jets roared to life. They had some lift.
“Don’t let that get inside,” he shouted at Lott. “It’s poisonous.”
“I know,” replied Lott. “Is there any way it can?”
“Through the air intake vents,” Rusty replied. “I’m closing them now. I’m hoping it’s too big to fit through.” Movement to his left caught his eye. He glanced down and saw black legs waving at him from the air vent. He slammed it shut. Severed legs fell to the floor. A second web settled around the rotors. Rusty couldn’t see where its passenger went.
“What’s happening back there?” he asked as Lott moved from vent to vent, making sure nothing else could crawl through. Lott scanned the interior of the helo, satisfied that they were safe from the creatures for now.
“All the vents are closed,” he said. “But there’s another web approaching to our left.” He watched, fascinated, as it moved gracefully towards them. He could see the spindrift spider centred on the web, its legs splayed out around its dark body as the wind gusts lifted it higher.
Rusty manoeuvred the helo away from the advancing web. They had dropped close to the shard field. The thick, sticky web fibres around the rotors had shut them down completely. He knew he needed more height to cross the sand safely. His mind went into overdrive as he calculated weights and thrust needed to lift them higher.
The wind gusted again, and the web was blown against the mountain top where it stuck fast. The spindrift spider remained perfectly still.
“So that’s how they get there,” said Lott. “But why don’t they move when the mountain erupts?”
“Damned if I know,” replied Rusty. He thumped the control console in frustration. “We’re too heavy. You’re going to have to jettison the glass or some gear if we’re going to get out of this alive. Get your heaviest stuff out first, the drill equipment might be enough on its own. Just make sure we haven’t got any more eight legged passengers.”
“My gloves should protect me,” replied Lott as he separated the Smarag glass from the rest of his kit. “Ready? I’m opening the door now.”
“Just get on with it,” said Rusty. He focussed on his control console. The only advantage he could see from flying this low was that the approaching webs were higher than they were. One after another they came to rest around the top of the highest volcanic cone. The wind was getting stronger.
Lott pulled the door open and heaved his expensive equipment out. It smashed onto the shards below. The helo jumped as the weight suddenly lessened. Rusty hoped that they were now high enough to avoid the internal pull from the planet as they crossed the sand.
Lott slammed the door closed just as the second spindrift spider made a run for the interior of the helo. It split in half as the door closed on it and poison spurted towards Lott’s face. He ducked and turned his face away as the poison sailed over his shoulder and onto the seat behind him. The hard covering sizzled and shrivelled on contact. He slumped onto the opposite seat, staring at the spot where the poison had landed.
“Hold on,” Rusty yelled. “We have to do this quickly.”
The helo jumped forward as he applied maximum power to the thrusters. The nose tipped downwards and the drag on the immobilised rotors made it difficult to control the craft. Rusty held his breath as he watched the tachometer reach its upper limit. The kilometres ticked past as they flew the shortest possible route across the sand.
Lott watched the mountains recede. The top of the highest cone was now covered in webs and he could see the black forms of the spindrift spiders sitting exactly where they landed. Nothing moved. He frowned as he studied them closely.
The helo dropped closer to the sand with every kilometre they travelled. Rusty had almost forgotten to breathe. His chest grew tight as he pushed the helo closer to the safety of the forest. He could feel the pull of the planet below.
“Come on,” he urged as the forest came closer. Sweat ran down the sides of his face. He was hot and uncomfortable. They reached the edge of the sand, and the helo suddenly popped upwards, the pull of the planet released. Rusty breathed deeply. He slapped the control console.
“We’re not going to die today!” he shouted. “Thanks be to Aquila!”
Lott started to laugh.
“Come on, this had nothing to do with Aquila. It had everything to do with your skill. Because of which I am alive, and I’ve kept my bargain to deliver spindrift spider glass to my client. I could charge you for the loss of my equipment, but I’ll get over it. Sooner or later,” he chuckled as he settled into his seat.
Rusty offered up a silent prayer of thanks for their survival and sped towards Mansi.
“And that’s what happened,” said Rusty. He rubbed the back of his neck. He was exhausted. Kee and Jack stared at him.
“So that’s how they get there,” said Kee.
“It seems that the emerald glass does something to their feet once they’re on it,” said Rusty. “They can’t move, so when the mountain erupts they’re caught in the molt. Lott thinks that the poison protects the carapace, so it keeps its shape despite the heat. Not a pleasant way to die, even for a dangerous, poisonous spider.”
“Slamming a door on it isn’t a pleasant way to die either,” chuckled Jack. “At least Lott was quick about it.”
They studied the helo. Web fibres coagulated and dropped in clumps to the ground. The wind had changed direction while they were standing there. It was stronger now. Bits of flotsam eddied around the landing gear. It stuck to the web fibres and waved at them like seaweed.
“I reckon we can wait until these have dropped off,” said Jack. “Then we can wash and repair. Let’s not interfere with what’s happening by itself.”
“Sounds like plan to me,” said Rusty. “I need a drink, food and rest. Let’s go.”
He turned and walked towards the spaceport buildings. Jack and Kee followed close behind. They did not notice the odd looking clouds rapidly approaching them from the west.Start writing here ...