The day went well, and as night started to fall again, he knew that if he pushed, he could reach the plants before he rested. He would get there, sleep, then collect the plants in the morning and start heading back. The plants grew in specific locations that the original colonists had mapped out carefully and the paths to them were well-known to the harvesters like Jarl. There were twelve patches where they grew within range of the colony and one harvester had set out for each one. Jarl’s patch was the farthest, but he had made good time.
The woods were mostly silent during the day, but he kept hearing an unusual clopping sound. Every time he heard it, he looked around and saw nothing out of place. The creatures of the day were harmless but a few were curious about humans and sometimes followed them, so he assumed that was the sound. As the sun sank into the sky again and he put his night goggles on, he scanned the area. There were scattered patches of heat as the day creatures sank into their cold sleep and grew nearly invisible, and soon it was only him again. Only tonight, the silence was broken by the sound of wind.
Jarl shivered every time the wind picked up, waiting for it to infiltrate his mind and lead him to death. His pace quickened. But nothing happened. His nerves were fraying, but he was safe. He tried to assure himself of that over and over again. He was safe. The planet didn’t kill during this single peace. He was safe.
He came to the crest of a small hill and looked down into the valley below. The plants were straight ahead and he let out a sigh of relief. He had made it. He took off his night goggles as the plants were phosphorescent and lit the area with a warm glow. He headed into the final stretch with a light heart and when he saw the dense foliage start to give way to the clearing where the enormous pod-like plants sprouted, the tension drained from his shoulders. Not even the wind bothered him. He grinned as he reached the first of the shoulder-height bloom, but when he stepped into the clearing, his smile slipped. Ice shot through his spine and his heart skidded into a frantic tattoo as his fight-or-flight instincts consumed him. A creature stood there, and it wasn’t human.
Jarl dropped into a crouch and pointed his gun at the humanoid shape. He had never seen a creature of the night and was a little surprised at how human it looked. And it made no moves towards him, though it was looking at him. His hands trembled with adrenaline as he struggled to figure out what to do. If it were any other time of year, he would be dead right now. The creatures could move faster than humans and he wouldn’t stand a chance. But he was safe, and other humans had met these creatures during this brief period of safety and survived.
He took a deep breath. Shooting the creature would do nothing and there was no point in running. He would stand his ground and hope that the creature left. In the meantime, he studied it curiously.
It was human in form, and while it seemed to wear draping clothing of some sort, it appeared to be male. He wasn’t entirely human, but he was more beautiful than anything Jarl could have imagined. He was nearly a head taller than Jarl and his muscular body showed clearly under the cloth. His skin had a lovely bronze tint, as if he spent all his time in the sun, but his fingers seemed unnaturally long. He had a square jaw and strong nose, but his eyes were larger than they should be and entirely black, like an insect’s eyes. Still, he was lovely to look at and Jarl was startled that a creature of the night could be so beautiful. His hands were angled up as if to indicate peace. Or at least Jarl hoped it indicated peace. Then the creature smiled, exposing a full mouth of razor sharp fangs, and Jarl stepped back nervously. Every one of the creature’s teeth were at least two inches long and came to a severe point, curving slightly inward in a mockery of a smile.
“I mean you no harm,” the creature said in perfect English. “Put down your gun.”
Jarl lowered his gun, because he knew his gun was useless anyway.
“My name is Arlen. What is yours?”
Jarl licked his lips. He had never heard of a creature talking to a human before. They ate humans, not conversed with them. He wracked his brain for what the old timers had said about these encounters, but it seemed like they only glimpsed the creatures. He had never heard of anyone coming face to face with a creature like this and surviving. But the creature showed no animosity or aggression. If anything, the creature looked quite curious. And the smile, though threatening given his fangs, might be meant to reassure. But he remembered that once a creature saw your face, it could drag you to your death. His mask was still securely in place and he had to assume hearing a human’s voice had the same weakness. He would stay silent. The creature’s smile faded.
“I mean you no harm,” he repeated. “You’ve come for these plants, haven’t you? I won’t stop you.”
Jarl looked around, wondering if the creature would stay here while he harvested the plants. Would the creature stay until he left? He had been planning on sleeping here, but there was no way he could sleep with this thing nearby.
Cautiously, he went to the first plant and ran his hand over the petals to spark the stamen to extend. It obeyed and he was aware of the creature watching him with that same curiosity. Carefully, Jarl harvested the pollen pods that provided much-needed nutrients and packed them into his bags. He took a bite of one to make sure it was ripe to eat and the honey-sweet taste flooded his senses as he couldn’t hold back a sigh of pleasure. Not only were the plants nutritious, they were absolutely delicious.
He harvested the first plant completely and looked at the nearest plant. The creature was between him and the plant. He wasn’t going to get any closer, but he needed the pollen. The creature smiled again.
“Aren’t you curious why such a perfect plant exists?” he asked. Jarl’s eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t here before you humans arrived. Aren’t you curious about it?”
Jarl was tempted to say the plant must have been here before, since plants couldn’t have evolved since human arrived a couple hundred years ago. Not a plant this large and elaborate. But he wondered at those words, and at the plant itself. It didn’t make sense that there was a plant perfectly catered to human needs on such an inhospitable planet.
“Aren’t you curious why we give you time to reach the plants every year?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, then bit his tongue. He had spoken. He braced himself, but there was no siren wail to go to his death. He was safe, for the time being. The creature’s smile widened into a grin.
“So you are curious. We’re curious, too. About you. Humans. You’re alien to us and we’ve tried to adapt, but your minds are toxic to us. We want to assimilate you, but we can’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your dreams,” the creature said. “Our planet has tried to communicate to you, but you’re numb to her. Why can’t you hear her? Why does her voice drive you insane?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jarl said nervously, not liking the fact that they were talking about the dreams that might lead him to his death when the planet’s viciousness returned.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
“What’s your name?”
Jarl edged backwards. Was there some power in knowing his name? Well, he was likely going to die anyway. The creature had heard his voice. Was there a reason why he should hold back his name?
“Why do you want to know?”
“You’re intended for me,” the creature said, and Jarl shivered and took several steps backwards. So it was too late. He would be devoured by this creature as soon as the darkness regained its power.
“I hope you survive,” the creature added. “We keep hoping for a human to survive. None ever has, but we thought perhaps if we spoke to you first, got to know you a little, you might survive. I’ve told you my name. It’s only fair for you to do the same.”
“Jarl,” he whispered.
“Pleasure to meet you, Jarl,” the creature said, looking pleased.
“When will you kill me? Will you let me bring these plants back to the colony first?”
“If you return before the night regains her power, then you’ll be safe,” he said. “But once she does, you’ll be drawn to me. It’s inevitable. They can stop you for a day, maybe a week, but eventually you’ll find me. And I hope you survive.”
“Why do you want me to survive? Don’t you want to feed on me?”
“We want to learn to feed without killing,” the creature said. “Wouldn’t you prefer that? If humans could live in harmony with our planet? That’s all we want.”
Jarl considered. He did want humans to live in harmony, but he didn’t want them to be fed on. Couldn’t the planet just leave them alone? He glanced at the plant behind the creature. The creature moved out of his way as if he knew what Jarl wanted, and gestured to it.
“You should harvest all of them,” the creature said. Very warily, Jarl moved to the plant and stroked the petals. He tasted the pollen to make sure it was ripe, then began filling his bag again. When he finished, the creature moved so that he could access another.
“Aren’t you tired?” the creature asked as he finished the third plant. He was tired. He had planned on getting here, sleeping, and then harvesting in the morning. But there was no way he was sleeping with this creature around. “You should rest. Your kind aren’t used to the nights.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
The creature took a step towards him and he flinched back. The creature raised his arms as if to indicate that he meant no harm.
“You should rest. If I didn’t hurt you last night, I’m not going to tonight.”
“You’ve been following me?” he asked nervously, remembering the sounds he had been hearing. But there had been nothing in his goggles. Nothing alive had been near him.
“Look at me with those goggles,” the creature said, gesturing to the night goggles hanging at his neck. Cautiously, he put them on over his mask. And was stunned. There was nothing in front of him. The plants glowed red, but there no creature standing in front of him. It wasn’t even that the creature was cold, because otherwise he would see it outlined against the hot plants. There was no trace of him. He lowered the goggles quickly, wondering if the creature had left. He was still there, smiling. A chill went down Jarl’s spine. No one had ever suspected that the creatures of the night could hide from their goggles.
“You see?” the creature said. “I won’t hurt you. But you should rest before you continue. You’ll have plenty of time to harvest the rest of these tomorrow and you’ll be able to return with time to spare. You shouldn’t push yourself.”
“Why should you care? You’re just going to eat me when the darkness returns.”
“I told you, I want you to survive,” the creature said. “You can’t survive if you die on the way back. And your people depend on this harvest.”
Jarl looked at the plants, then at the ground. He had slept here before when he came to harvest. He had always assumed it was safe. And he did need rest. But how could he possibly rest with a creature like this nearby?
“Would you prefer if I left?” the creature asked. “I won’t go far, but perhaps you would prefer privacy.”
“Yes,” he said, though he wasn’t sure he would trust any privacy he got. If he couldn’t see the creature, how could he know he had privacy? Normally he slept on the outskirts of this clearing so the light from the plants was dimmer. This time he would have to sleep in the middle of them to feel safe and he didn’t now if their light would interfere with his sleep.
“Sleep well, then,” the creature said, and headed towards the woods.
Jarl let out a slow breath, stunned by everything that had just happened. He had spoken to a creature of the night. An extended conversation. And his soul had been claimed, he thought with a chill. When this brief peace ended, his nightmares would drive him out of the colony. The creature was right. The guards could stop most people, but every night at least one person managed to get by. Eventually, he would get by and he would be drawn straight to that creature to be devoured. Unless he wasn’t, he considered. Unless somehow he survived, as the creature claimed he wanted. It was too confusing to think about and he lay down cautiously. Sleep came slowly, but soon he was caught up in an eery wailing accompanied by flashing fangs, a typical dream, and he managed to rest.