Days later, the crew of the Jupiter Two had learned a great deal about their new host planet. For one thing, there was a high iron content in the soil. That was what was causing the reddish tints to all the vegetation and, they suspected, why the distant mountain ranges looked red. For another, the day was twenty-six hours long, requiring a bit of an adjustment akin to jet lag. The information they had already gathered on the planet's orbit around its sun was enough for the Robot to extrapolate the rest; it was only slightly more elliptical than Earth's orbit around Sol, which, they supposed, accounted for the Earth-like climate they were now enjoying. The planet also had three moons which wreaked havoc on the tides in the nearby river. There were days the water came as much as a quarter mile closer to their camp.
As yet, they had not encountered any other forms of intelligent life on the planet. Of course, as past experience had taught them, that didn't mean that there wasn't any or that none would come. In fact, given how idyllic a planet it was, they were all but expecting some to arrive any day. But until then, it was their world.
None of them was quite certain who had named it first, but they had come to call their latest stop-over Ingui Fréy.
But, despite all they had already learned and despite giving the planet a name, they still didn't know everything they needed to know about the area surrounding their camp. For the most part, they were surrounded by grasslands, making it all the easier to see any approaching danger. But there was a series of stone outcroppings about a mile to their north which made John and Don rather uneasy. Such geological anomalies could signify a fault line or something else that they couldn't fathom. And so, a week after their landing, John, Don, and Will set out across the waist-deep grasses to go and scout the stones, laser rifles slug over their shoulders.
As most of the rock they had already seen on the planet, the stone formation had an overall red tint to it. Will had brought along his usual pick and rucksack and took a sample almost as soon as they reached it. It only took him a moment to pronounce the stone to be a form of granite. John had joined him in his analysis, running though a number of other geological field tests and pronounced the stone to be free of dangerous compounds and radioactive materials.
While they were doing that, Don set off on a short patrol around the rock formation's perimeter. It was a large formation and a thorough search all the way around it took him nearly a half an hour. He spent that time climbing up and down the rock face where he could, searching in all the little cracks and crevasses and scaring his fair share of local fauna. One in particular creature he came across really caught his eye. It was a short way out from the rock formation, grazing on the grass. No bigger than an Earth house cat, it looked to be something akin to a three-legged rabbit. It froze when they saw each other and it stared at him for almost a minute. Don had made an attempt to coax it over to him, but as soon as he got too close, the thing had arched its back, revealed furred wings, and fluttered off into the sky like a very large sparrow.
One other thing had piqued his curiosity while making his survey. There was one crevice into which he had poked that seemed to go on for quite a way. He had shined his flashlight back into it, but the beam hit a wall at the back. He couldn't be sure, but it looked as if it continued off to the left. He briefly thought about going inside to have a look around, but thought better of it. He couldn't be sure how stable the footing was inside and if something happened, John and Will would have a hard time finding him.
"Funny thing is," he reported to John after he had completed his loop, "it would be the perfect place for any of the local wildlife to shelter in, but I don't see anything that says they do."
"Well, maybe they just don't know it's there," Will ventured.
"No, they know it's there," said Don, "I startled a... well, I don't know what it is. I'll tell you about it later, but there's a million of 'em around here. Anyway, I scared it and it went running. It went looking for cover, paused right before that entrance, then skittered off somewhere else."
"It wouldn't go in," John realized.
"Exactly," Don confirmed.
"Well, it seems the animals around here know something we don't," said John, "and I'd like to know what that is. Sounds like it's worth taking a closer look. Why don't you lead the way, Don."
After a few minutes to pack up their rock samples and small equipment, the three of them walked back around to the north side of the rocks where Don had found the cave entrance. The major led the way, climbing about five feet up the rock face before coming to a small landing. John boosted Will up to him and then followed. John peered inside with his flashlight for moment.
"Yup, it continues on to the left all right," he pronounced, "and then down, from the look of it."
"Should we go inside, dad?" Will asked.
"Well, I don't see why not," said John, "the ground looks sturdy enough. Just watch your footing to be safe, though."
With his flashlight shining on ahead of him, John led the way into the cave. Will followed close at his heels and Don took up the rear. It was noticeably cooler inside and around them they could hear the sounds of water dripping down from the cave ceiling and along the walls. They followed the path that led to the left. It sloped gradually downward at first, then began to drop off, steadily. The passage wound back and forth on itself in hairpin turns, sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing. But strangely enough, it never seemed to get smaller than ten feet.
Suddenly, the slope leveled out and opened into a much larger cavern. The space was so large that the trio's flashlights could not see all the way to the back of the cavern. The floor of the cave was perfectly flat; unnaturally so.
"This sure is a strange cave," said Will as they all set about searching the perimeter.
"And getting stranger by the minute," said Don from his place along one of the walls, "take a look at this."
Don had fixed the beam of his flashlight on three deep grooves in the cavern wall, running parallel to each other.
"Call me crazy, but those look like claw marks," said John with surprise.
"But this is the same type of rock that's outside," said Will, "what kind of creature could make claw marks in solid granite?"
"Makes me nervous," said Don.
John nodded his agreement, then moved his light away from the claw marks and toward the darkened back of the cavern. They all began to move in that direction, spreading out somewhat to cover the space between both walls.
"Wait, I think I saw my light shine off something back there," Don said, "it looks like it might be some kind of-"
Suddenly, there was a grinding sound near Don's feet, like stone against stone, then a twang off to their right and a whistle. All these happened nearly on top of each other and before they had ended, something sharp dug into the flesh of Don's right arm. With a yelp, he dropped his flashlight and clutched at the wound. There was a shaft sticking out of his bicep with furry fletching at the end.
"It's a booby trap!" he yelled through a pained voice.
"Everyone stay still!" John ordered. Will instantly rooted himself to his spot and Don did his best not to move and to keep quiet despite the piercing pain in his arm. John and Will set to scanning the area nearby for signs of other traps. Seeing no obvious ones near them for the moment, John slowly walked over to where Don was standing, clutching his arm. "Here, get your hand off it for a sec," he said to the pilot, "let me take a look."
There was already a fair amount of blood around the wound and the arrow had torn a considerable hole in Don's sleeve. John pushed the fabric back carefully while Don ground his teeth in pain and tried not to burst out in a long string of expletives. As gently as he could, John probed around the wound near the shaft of the arrow and found one of the back corners of the arrow head still sticking out from Don's skin.
"It doesn't look like it's too deep in," he said.
"Think you can pull it out?" Don asked, stoically.
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," John answered, "not until I can get a better look at it in the daylight. How do you feel?"
"Well, it hurts like you wouldn't believe," said Don, "but otherwise, I'm all right."
"Okay, I think it's time we got outta here," and John.
"Dad, did you hear something?" Will asked just then, his gaze fixed along the far, dark wall, "it sounded like it was over there."
All three listened for a moment, their eyes scanning the darkness before them in trepidation.
"I don't hear anything," said Don.
"No, wait, I hear it!" John exclaimed, hushing his voice. "It sounds like something on the ground."
"It's coming this way," said Will.
Ignoring the persisting pain in his arm, Don swung his laser rifle off his shoulder and held it at hip level. John handed Will his flashlight, then did the same. The sound got steadily louder, a sort of metallic shuffling along the stone of the cavern floor. As Will swept the flashlights around in the darkness, it suddenly hit something smooth and rounded, looking like a sectioned cylinder of metal ending in three claws which twitched menacingly.
And that was all John needed to see.
"Let's go, everyone out, now!" he yelled.
No sooner had he yelled this than a bright light flared all around them, lighting the cavern in oranges and reds. At very nearly the same time, the metallic form began to shuffle toward them at a frightening speed. It was nearly ten feet tall, a bulbous body of brown metal sporting spiked shoulders and a head that looked like some sort of horned, beaked beast from the nether regions of hell itself. Two arms, each ending in three-clawed hands of silver, sprouted from the shoulders. Two legs, beast-like and standing on their toes, shuffled along the ground, scratching marks in the cavern floor. At nearly every joint and at two points on the head, red pin-holed orbs moved amid hawk-like folds of flesh, as if searching all around. It lurched strangely as it moved and despite its already formidable speed, John's mind refused to believe that this was as fast as it could move. It was upon them before they could take a single step back the way they came. It flung one of its massive arms around in an arc, catching John in the chest and knocking him backwards into Will, sending John's laser rifle clattering along the ground and out of his reach.
As the two Robinsons fell to the ground, Don squeezed off a shot from his laser rifle and began moving, heedless of any other traps in the area. He went toward the back end of the cavern, toward one of the eerie orange light sources, an orb floating in the center of the space. He hoped to use the thing to shield himself from the creature's attacks.
The creature wheeled about and was upon Don in a moment, charging straight toward the orb. Don backed off as best he could, bracing himself for the sound of the creature's impact against the light source. But, impossibly, the creature continued toward him, though the orb. Don let loose another laser bolt and was dimly aware that John was readying a volley of his own. The bolt had little effect on the creature and it continued his way so Don vaulted back as quickly as he could.
But the creature was already within range and swung a blow Don's way, arcing around from Don's right and catching him in his wounded shoulder, hard. He went flying to his left and into the wall where he crumpled to the ground, dazed. As he shook his head to clear it, the creature came upon him again, launching one clawed hand into the cavern wall just above his head. A moment later, and the creature's other hand was speeding directly toward him. Don clenched his eyes shut, awaiting the worst.
It was a moment later he realized he was still alive. Cautiously, he opened his eyes and saw nothing but the three silver tips of the creature's claws. Slowly, they moved to the side and Don found himself staring into what he could only assume were the creature's two main eyes, on its head. All of the red orbs pressed forward, looking directly at him as if studying him.
Panicked, Don began to feel around him for his rifle, never taking his gaze off the creature as if to do so would break whatever spell was now holding it. His hand found something smooth and cylindrical, tapering. Not looking at it but hoping it had a point, he brought it up and thrust it into the creature's mid section. The creature's eyes cast about wildly for a moment, then it fell backwards sliding off the make-shift weapon, away from Don, into a heap on the floor.
Shaking with adrenaline and pain and breathing wildly, Don watched it for a moment for any signs of movement.
"Don, are you all right!?" John asked, rushing up to him a moment later.
"Holy jumpin'..." Don said in reply as he shakily got to his feet, realizing a moment later that John had hoisted him up by his good arm and was holding on to his elbow. "What the hell is that thing?"
"I dunno, but I don't want to find out if it has friends," said John, "c'mon, we're getting out of here."
Will had already gathered up both laser rifles and now handed them to his father. The boy took charge of both flashlights and led the way toward the cavern exit. They took off at a full run, not stopping until they found themselves outside the rock formation, amid the grasses and under the mid-day sun. They watched the entrance for a few moments while they caught their breath and finally relaxed when it was clear that nothing was following them out.
"Everyone all right?" John asked between breaths.
"I'm okay," Will gasped out.
"I've been better," Don wheezed, swaying for a moment, then falling forward onto his knees. John caught him before he could fall any further. "Brought you a souvenir, though." Still clutched in his right fist was the thing he had used to dispatch the creature. He handed it to John.
It was a very narrow cone of silver metal. Toward the wider end was attached a shell-shaped cup with two spikes aligned perpendicular to the cone, each a perfect 180 degrees apart from each other.
"Almost looks like a sword," said Will.
John was less concerned with the artifact than with his pilot. The younger man had gone ashen white and his entire right arm was now covered in blood. Worried, John took another look at the wound. The arrow had snapped off in the fight, which didn't surprise him, but he was more concerned with the arrow head.
"It looks like the arrow head got pushed in deeper in that scuffle," John said, "and the shaft broke off pretty close. That's gonna hurt coming out."
"Hurts already," Don said, half in a fog.
"You're losing blood," said John, "we better get you back to the spaceship." He handed Will the alien artifact and stood, hauling Don to his feet and putting the pilot's good arm around his own shoulder. Will gathered up their rucksacks and the two rifles and they were off, heading back across the grasslands as quickly as they could.