Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The clouds are limned in blood. Carmichael said it was a trick of the light; I have to take it as a warning ignored.

We came to Acheron – actually Acheron IV, but as the rest were uninhabitable, we dropped the designator – to build a paradise. The planet was the right distance from the sun, had oceans, freshwater lakes, gloriously rich loam, and no creatures bigger than a sparrow. The bird-drop seed cycle was handled by a beautiful, green avian that fell perfectly between Swift and Hummingbird. It was also the fastest bird ever recorded, routinely achieving speeds in excess of 180kph as it shot through the night.

Acheron was to be the utopia that Homo sapiens deserved. The omen of seeking to build that fabled ‘no-place’, and the abysmal history of previous attempts, did not matter: we were the ones who would succeed.

Eight months and our cattle were breeding spectacularly. A second harvest was in. Our log haciendas had already been featured on lifestyle feeds. We had completed acclimatisation for all Terra-originated organics. The start of our ninth month would be marked by the atmo-dome being dissolved so we could finally experience our new home properly.

We were all outside, champagne in hand, when Teleon released the collapsers. High above, a tiny, bright circle appeared. It spread rapidly as the nano-nibblers consumed the dome, repurposing the ‘stem’ material into more nano-nibblers. The ring expanded until it dropped to the ground all round us and we cheered, raising our glasses in toast to our paradise home.

Our noisy cheer masked Teleon’s death. His wife found the pockmarked slab of bloody ruin that he had been. She screamed loudly, then even louder after a cloud dropped on her. Most of us stood about in confusion: that deadly moment of hesitation. But those who acted were the first to fall. Clouds rained down and the dying began.

I got to watch from the single greenhouse as my friends were consumed by nebulous entities that looked like clouds, pounced like leopards and fed like frenzied sharks. The scientist side of me noted a pack order in feeding, with some ‘clouds’ circling slowly while the killer fed. After the killer rose, multiple ‘lesser’ pack members would swarm the remains. They were all messy, wasteful eaters.

I knew my mind was using clinical observation to distance itself from the horror, but could not stop. My heart raced as my brain sought survival options, whilst I calmly observed that these were obviously the apex predators of this planet’s trophic hierarchy. They were why the Emerald Proto-Swifts were small, nocturnal, and ridiculously fast. Why there were no large fauna. It seemed like paradise was guarded by monsters of suitably legendary nastiness.

A cloud has squeezed through the skylight into the greenhouse. It’s a small one, probably last in line for the feast hogged by its bigger kin. Did it’s finding of me indicate an improved hunting ability, or was it a common trait?

I smile. Ever the scientist. As the cloud slowly approaches, I lift a ground sensor and ram the half-metre spike through my heart. Sweat runs from my forehead. I bite my lips to stop myself screaming: I suspect a scream will make the monster lunge. To die quickly, I need to pull the impaling spike out. The sensor beeps, determining my temperature and mineral content.

The scientist inside howls as the observer yanks the spike from between my ribs.

That hurts even more. I look up.

The clouds are limned in blood.


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