SFReader 2003 Story Contest
Second Place Winner
Jaret Lazarus forced his eyes to remain open as the Pantheron burned through the entry atmosphere of Socorro. He rested his hand on his upper thigh, a few centimeters from the two rows of five buttons on his belt. The interior of the ship smelled like rotting fruit, sulfur, and sweat, thanks to the proximity of the members of his squadron. He shifted his weight, pulling his gut free from where his belt always pinched his skin, and yawned. He’d never been to Socorro, but he knew it had been one of the first colonized human planets outside of the original solar system. As a man with a past he’d rather forget, Jaret cared little for history.
The conscripts that made up his squadron twitched fitfully in their locked harnesses. Half of them gaped mutely at the scratched metal floor of the ship, as if their brains were shut down, or at least on standby. The other half stared at him with varying degrees of contempt and disdain. Along with their shimmering gray and green uniforms, each wore a thick black collar lined with a band of corrugated metal. None of the ten members of his squadron made eye contact with him for more than a split second.
“Get everyone focused,” he called out to Anda, his second-in-command. He unlocked her harness and turned his back on her before she could reply.
Anda stood a foot taller than he, but Jaret knew that as long as he had his belt and she wore her collar, Anda would never turn on him. She was the only other human on board; the rest of the squadron was made up of beings from defeated worlds. Conscription had fulfilled the dual role of keeping the ranks of the Alliance filled, while removing the strongest and ablest bodies from the colonized worlds. As a result, resistance to the interplanetary government was kept to a minimum.
In addition to Anda, Jaret was in command of four Hadras, two Mannatanks, and three oversized, four-legged creatures whose name could not be pronounced by humans without extensive throat-clearing and a series of glottal stops. Jaret called them Bob.
Next to Anda, the only conscripts Jaret could stand were the two Mannatanks. Thick-headed bipeds with dense, bruise-colored bodies, they knew how to fight for a leader, and that’s all Jaret needed. The three younger Hadras were too stupid to warrant his time, coming up to him to whine or mewl at him while their flaking scales got caught in the air intake pump of his flight suit. The eldest Hadras simply watched Jaret in guarded silence. The less Jaret had to think about the three Bobs, the better.
With yellow-orange light cutting through his window on his left, Jaret tried to catch Anda’s eye.
Forget about her, he told himself, in a voice that sounded far too much like his father’s, the weak-minded sot. Then the ship lurched down through the grimy clouds, banking hard to the left before righting itself, and Jaret could see the planet below.
From the few ancient images of the planet he’d been able to view with the aid of his information worms, it was apparent that Socorro had long since seen its better days. The blue-green ocean had become a sea of yellowish phlegm, surrounding a cluster of brown land pockmarked with craters and slashed with ragged mountains. No cities, no high-speed carrier lines, no signs of civilization anywhere, just the occasional hint of trails cutting through the barren rocks and rubble, leading to a handful of dirt-clogged ruins. In the middle of the brown lands was a massive crescent-shaped lake slightly less yellow than the surrounding ocean. The smartpilots were aiming toward this lake.
In the past year, it had come to the attention of the inappropriately-named Native Alliance that Socorro’s sun was well on its way of burning itself out, and the natives of Socorro had to be evacuated. Evacuated, then conscripted, Jaret knew, though his superiors hadn’t mentioned that.
He squinted out his tiny window at the unhealthy orange light coming from Socorro’s sun and grimaced. On this mission, they had at least thirty remainders to recover.
Chasing a Hadras’ tail again, Jaret thought, catching himself before he sent out his thoughts to his crew, then wondering an instant later why he bothered. The mission was pointless.
The crusty edges of a dark brown land, shot through with ashy mountains, rose up to meet them as the ship dropped the final few kilometers to the surface. Jaret turned from the window.
“Bunch of rubbernecks,” he muttered, repeating it inside his head, for all of them to hear via translation.
With a soft hiss, the ship bumped down onto the ruined ground five hundred meters from a yellow lake. Jaret glanced into the empty cargo hold behind the harness area, hoping there was room enough for whatever remainders they might find on the planet.
“Listen up!” he shouted. Even though he had to mentally say the words carefully inside his head for the aliens who couldn’t comprehend his spoken words, vocalizing with this group was a rare treat. “You know your team partner. Each pair is to use the coordinates I’m giving you–” Jaret blinked and sent to each conscripts the maps he’d configured for the mission–“now. Stay within the boundaries of these coordinates, or you’ll have a bitch of a crick in your neck when I’m through with you. Search every standing structure and down every hole. Scans showed there were at least a dozen remainders left here, which means there’s probably two to three dozen. Get ’em, and bring ’em back to the ship. Keep your suit fields on–” the air crackled with static electricity as all ten soldiers flicked on the invisible force fields their flight suits provided them for hostile environments “–and for sh*t’s sake, don’t look directly at the sun. Be back in a hundred minutes, Alliance-time, starting… now.”
On his final word, the locks on the harnesses snapped open and the ship’s two hatches dropped open on either side. Jaret’s soldiers leaped through the hatches, landing on two or four legs, their stun spears gripped tight in hands with five, seven, or–as was the case with the Bobs–no fingers. Anda was the last to leave, and she gave Jaret a long look before dropping from the ship. Last night had been a mistake, he knew, but he’d never tell her that.
Jaret called for the smartpilots to close the hatches and enter standby mode, and then he slid outside of himself to manage the recovery effort of his five teams.
“Here we go,” he said, his voice never reaching his ears.
His legs went weak, and he lowered himself down onto his chair just in time. Still staring at the wall, he let his mental perspective split and shift, split and shift, and split and shift again, until he had established a presence inside each of his conscripts’ heads. His right hand drifted down to the buttons on his belt as he watched the ten different scenes in his mind’s eye.
Management by mental proxy was Jaret’s specialty. Once the Native Alliance realized that some language barriers would never be overcome between human and aliens, they began work to cut out the middleman of language altogether, communicating directly with the minds of the aliens. Going outside of his head gave Jaret amazingly bad migraines for a few hours afterward, but he was good at it, and he liked never leaving the ship.
With a sigh, Jaret forced away all distractions–spacewalking, as his father would’ve called it. His father had been killed by an Aborgan (carrying a handmade rock-firing gun) who definitely did not want to join the Native Alliance; Pop had been stupid enough to leave his ship to help when things went sour.
With all ten perspectives now locked inside his head, Jaret began his rotation, touching the minds of each of his conscripts, reinforcing his orders and checking status.
He keyed in first on the youngest Hadras, whose teammate was the Elder Hadras. The young Hadras–Jaret called it Blue for the color of the design on its scaly back that formed a series of blue infinity signs–Blue and the Elder Hadras were arguing in their native tongue. The Elder had drifted away from Blue, though both Hadra were having to half-hop, half-slither over the rough terrain on its almost-vestigial legs. Neither of them was moving in the same direction. Jaret grimaced. Why the bosses had ever thought the serpentine Hadras would be good for military service was beyond him.
Jaret slipped into the Elder’s head for a moment, and after getting through the simple-minded creature’s angry, impatient thoughts–get the bastard’s fat hand off his belt and bite off his fat head was the general gist of the Elder’s internal monologue–he saw that he was headed for the first in a series of caves. Blue was stubbornly following, at last.
The rugged landscape was desolate, no signs of life other than the hint of an old path leading to the caves. Jaret made a note to come back to Blue and the Elder when they entered the first cave, and jumped to Red Hadras, on the second team.
Take your time, you dumb rock, the Hadras was thinking, following Grunt, the first Mannatank, as they crept around the coast of the yellow lake. The female Red was content to slither along after Grunt, who was lifting up rocks that had to be heavy as a Mannatank to look under them, sniffing everything with its double noses.
Jaret grinned and prepared himself for the inevitable enthusiasm of Grunt’s mind. He flipped. Once there, he could only remain inside what passed for Grunt’s brain for a few moments, otherwise the repetition of C’mander-Lazarus-want-me-to-find-them, want-to-make-C’mander-Lazarus-proud, got-to-bring-’em-back-to-C’mander-Lazarus would have driven Jaret insane.
He flipped from Grunt to Jab, Grunt’s female litter-mate, in the third team.
Can’t-believe-he-put-them-together, Jab was thinking, the words running together with their acidity. Stupid-human-with-the-damn-belt, safe-on-the-ship, putting-me-with-this-snake, wasting-my-time-by-this-lake, and-then-the-other-team…
Jaret winced at Jab’s methodical inner voice cutting his mission plan to shreds with critical precision. Jab was too much like Anda–never satisfied with any of Jaret’s decisions.
He quickly left Jab’s mind and flipped to Green Hadras, Jab’s teammate. Green’s thoughts, as always, were hidden, surprising for a low-intelligence species like a Hadras, but Jaret felt something low murmuring in the back of the female’s mind. Probably planning some sort of chaos, Jaret figured, as a worship offering for her damned church.
After a moment’s hesitation, Jaret jumped to Anda.
Go to hell, Jaret, she thought in a sing-song voice that matched her long strides. And get the hell out of my head, you stupid spacewalker.
At first Jaret thought she was simply mad about being paired off with one of the Bobs, or most likely she was still angry about last night, when Jaret wouldn’t let her take the collar off for just ten minutes of lovemaking on his hammock.
Skipping a leap into the un-mind of Anda’s four-legged partner, Jaret keyed in on one of the members of the fifth team, and the critical mistake he’d made hit him like a blast in the face from a jury-rigged rock gun.
He immediately thought of a list of excuses: this was only his third mission with this batch of conscripts, his time had been short in preparing for this mission, and he’d been so preoccupied with Anda that he’d thrown together the teams quickly, at the last minute, just before the ship left orbit. He’d given no more thought to their makeup, until now.
The fifth team was composed of two Bobs.
Plowing headlong like horses across the cracked flatland south of the mountains Their four slender legs covering five meters with each stride, the two Bobs were still within the search parameters that Jaret had given them. But within twenty seconds, at the rate the big hump-backed beasts were running, they would be out of it. He saw the ridges running down the backbone of the first Bob, running bent over in front of the other Bob. Judging from the wild, unrelenting thoughts of the second Bob, both creatures were in male mode, at the height of their aggression cycle, and they were trying to outrun the range of their collars.
“sh*t!” Jaret said, inadvertently breaking off the links to all but the two running Bobs for less than a second.
All Jaret heard in their un-minds was the angry repetition of the word in the common language of Xeno: Tradrapra. Escape. Jaret gave both Bobs a mentally invasive order to stop; the only other action he could take beyond that was to go for the buttons on his belt.
Nothing. Just Tradrapra Tradrapra Tradrapra.
And then Jaret realized he’d left his other eight conscripts unattended.
For three seconds, the world slowed for Jaret Lazarus.
He blocked out all self-doubt and hesitation in his mind for the first time in years, which allowed him to work at ten times his normal speed. He mentally flipped wide, back to all ten conscripts, reconnecting to the groupmind with a white-hot stab of pain just behind his eyes. Without pausing he went from all ten to Anda, ordering her to cover the Bob on her team (her Bob was fully in female mode, Jaret saw, no ridges on its back and a strangely thoughtful look on its anvil-shaped face).
Then he went to the two runaway Bobs. They were at the perimeter of their assigned search area.
Jaret jabbed the corresponding buttons on his belt. As his first hypercharged second ended, he felt the un-mind of one of the Bobs go suddenly blank inside his head.
Without waiting for the second Bob to pop, he flipped over to Blue on the first team with another jab of eye-watering pain.
One of the Bobs got away, the back of his mind whispered.
Blue and the Elder were wrestling with each other at the entrance to the first set of caves. Rolling on the glass-like shards of black rock, the Elder hammered on Blue with its tail, but Blue managed to squirm away and keep the mad Elder at bay. Jaret ordered them to stop.
A second and a half had passed when Jaret flipped to Red Hadras.
Red, the alpha female of the Hadra, stood quivering on one leg with her tail poised at Grunt. The over-eager Mannatank sat gasping in the thick, unmoving water of the yellow lake. His blocky legs were in the air, and he was trying to hold closed a thin gash that had been cut into his suit. Tendrils of smoke slipped from the hole.
The buzzing in Jaret’s head felt like it was cutting through his eardrums.
Red stood poised to lash out at Grunt again. Again Jaret gave orders to stop and flipped to the next team. The third second began.
Green Hadras was hunched over, tail in the air as she held the head of Jab in both of her small, scaly hands. Jab’s blocky, over-sized body lay motionless next to Green.
No. Jaret risked a glance down at the buttons on his belt as stabbing pain pierced his forehead.
Jaret gave an invasive order for the rest of the squadron to stay right where they were. The inside of the ship was going dim and gray. Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain in his head, he keyed in on Anda one last time.
Die, you brainless pile of sh*t! Anda screamed inside her mind as she jabbed her stun spear repeatedly into her Bob. Jaret! Give me some help here, damn it!
All the Bobs seemed to share one brain, or what passed for a brain in a Bob, and Jaret imagined this Bob had lost control after feeling the head-popping of the two other Bobs. Using the limited scope of mental communication abilities that Jaret had started teaching her, Anda was also beginning to realize what happened to the other Bobs, and Jaret’s fuck-up with Jab.
“We have collar activity,” Jaret said to her.
Jaret! Anda’s thoughts flashed into his head. Pop this shit Bob, will you? I need to go help the others!
“Watch out,” Jaret said, punching the button for the Bob’s collar. He tried to make his internal voice louder, more forceful in spite of the agony blooming throughout his entire head.
“Gather the others together,” he added and then he realized he’d been speaking out loud, not inside his head.
“Shit,” he said. Inside his head, Anda called out his name, telling him she was on her way to the lake to meet up with the others. Three times he repeated that they were having collar activity. But Anda kept shouting the same information at him, not acknowledging his voice.
She could no longer hear him. Jaret closed his eyes to stop the interior of the ship from spinning around him, and the shooting pain inside his head tripled. He could smell his own sour sweat, and the taste of bile filled the back of his throat.
Anda could no longer hear him.
With his eyes closed and his consciousness gone, Jaret saw his history flash by him in a sickening rush.
He had once been a man with direction. Five Alliance years ago, Jaret was given command of a twenty-soldier task force with the mission of taking down an on-surface officer in charge of the incubation clinics of New Jericho, a city on Ardath II.
Jaret himself was a product of incubation. His birth carrier was a faceless, paid incubator on the science vessel Peregrine. She, or it, had been a warm body that Jaret hoped was human. He’d had enough of the aliens in his command; it would kill him to think he’d started his life inside a creature like one of his rubbernecks.
The officer, Ruttgers, was making deals with smugglers and slavers, selling off half of each group of the kidnapped alien incubators. He would send just enough of the incubators up to the science vessels in orbit above Ardath II to avoid suspicion, keeping the remaining females to sell as he pleased.
Jaret and his young soldiers were eager to please, and they raided Ruttgers’ holding bay in the middle of a deal. Jaret hadn’t planned for the slaver negotiating with Ruttgers to bring any firepower, let alone twelve Mannatanks.
His soldiers had been either cut to pieces by their pulse guns or ripped to pieces by the armored Mannatanks. Just before taking off again, the slaver, thinking he’d been double-crossed, drew an ancient sword and removed Ruttgers’ head from his body, an old-fashioned form of head-popping.
Since that time, Jaret had learned not to overextend himself. His squadrons shrank in size, and their composition went from human soldiers to mostly non-humans. Just like his father, Jaret was a head case. But he was staying safe.
That had been his guiding philosophy for years, right up until the moment he keyed the wrong button on his belt, activating the wrong collar and popping the wrong alien rubberneck.
After an unforgivable twelve seconds without contact with his party, Jaret Lazarus opened his eyes and looked down at his bare hands. They were locked into fists and pressing into his knees from where he had fallen to the cold ship floor.
The pain in his head had eased a fraction, and he called up his squadron as fast as he dared. The teams were starting to regroup, thanks to Anda, who was rounding up Red and Grunt by the lake after incapacitating her Bob. She slapped an adhesive band over the tear in Grunt’s suit and pulled him from the lake.
Jaret flipped to Green. Hidden behind a wall of rock, the female Hadras crept closer to the three others by the lake. Green carried a stun-spear in her left hand and Jab’s oval-shaped head in her right. Green, with her cropped tentacles and silver arm bands, was a member of the Chaos Church of Hadras, and she was reveling in this moment of madness.
Fuciking Hadra anarchist, Jaret thought. He tried to mentally nudge her toward Anda and the others, but Green wasn’t listening.
Neither of the other two Bobs was responding, but Jaret could feel mental traces of one of them out there; that Bob was probably going to run until it hit the yellow ocean.
Jaret tried flipping to Blue and the Elder to tell them to stay where they were, but neither responded. He could barely get a feel for their minds. Knowing them, they had either killed one another, or they had entered the cave and out of his reach.
“Anda,” he tried again, but she still didn’t hear him. With a long sigh, Jaret looked at the closed hatches leading outside. Pulling himself to his feet, he picked up the pulse gun he’d hidden inside his chair.
Never leave the ship–that was the mantra of all proxy commanders. But he’d fucked up and needed to make amends. Which meant that, for the first time in over a hundred missions, Jaret Lazarus, just like his father before him, was going to do just that: leave his ship.
Already breathing hard, he was half a kilometer from the ship when he realized the futility of his situation. He touched the pulse gun he’d taken from his chair. Jaret was tempted to turn it on himself. It would be so easy, to just end it all, right here. His career was over. Why not?
But something stopped him, something more than just his desire to undo the mess he’d made of this mission. It was Anda–how would she react to the painful, maddening silence his death would cause inside her head? Would she even care?
Oh no, you don’t! Anda’s voice cut through Jaret’s thoughts of suicide. Don’t put all this off on me! We have nothing, Jaret! Go ahead and pull the trigger.
He whirled, thinking she was right behind him, but all he saw was the barren field of rock he’d just passed over, and the Pantheron sitting, wings folded-up, on the other side of it.
I’m right here, Jaret, you fucking coward. Over by the lake.
“Anda?” Jaret felt the itching sensation in his brain again. To test a theory, he stopped walking and created a mental image of Anda on her back last night, wearing only her collar, begging him to let her loose, just once.
Get over here now, Anda shouted inside his head. Don’t think you can hide from me just because you stopped giving orders. And stop thinking about you and me in your quarters last night.
Finally catching his breath, Jaret felt a glimmer of hope form inside his chest in spite of Anda’s rage. He looked down at the pulse gun in his hand, and quickly stuffed it into a pocket of his suit. Not just yet, he thought.
As he moved over the rocks and inhaled the salty stench that grew stronger the closer he got to the lake, he tried not to think about two nagging questions: the first had to do with where Blue and the Elder Hadras were–he still hadn’t picked up their thoughts, but he hadn’t felt their deaths, either–and the second had to do with why the hell he even cared about any of the rubbernecks in the first place.
Jaret collected Green before she could cause any trouble and found Anda, Red, and Grunt gathered next to the lake. From the vile looks aimed at him, it was obvious they’d all figured out what had happened to Jab.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice sharp when he saw Anda. “We still have a mission to complete. And now we have some rubbernecks to track down as well.”
Without waiting for them, ignoring the stitch running up his left side into his armpit, Jaret turned and began a slow jog toward the jagged line of the mountains and the caves they contained. The thud of four sets of feet grudgingly followed him. Above them, the orangish-red sun blazed down at them at exactly midday. Jaret panted and grunted, slipping back in the line to let Anda scamper ahead of him, followed by the others.
Finally they made it to the mouth of the first cave, and the shock of cool air hit Jaret the instant he stepped into the darkness.
“Get your night eyes on,” he said in the Xeno language, hoping his conscripts couldn’t hear how out of breath he was. He slid a finger over each eye to activate the night-vision lenses implanted in his eyes, blinking quickly to adjust them.
None of the conscripts had questioned him using his voice instead of speaking inside their heads. They must have felt the moment when his mind had its meltdown and his inner voice was silenced.
They’re laughing at me and my clumsy damn Xeno words, he thought. I just fucking know it. Spacewalker Lazarus.
The cave walls were scraped clean in an elliptical pattern, with ridges thick as fingers burrowing through the stone like tiny ditches. They didn’t have to go far to find the first missing member of their party. The air was thick with the sickly-sweet odor of alien blood. Twenty paces inside the cave, propped up against a rusted metal hatch, lay the body of the third Bob.
Its four long legs were twisted into two knots, spattered with green clots of Bob blood. It dangled face-down, the metal hatch against its wide, three-sectioned chest. Its collar lay on the cave floor next to its body, unopened, as if the Bob had simply slipped the tight collar over its block-like head.
Jaret didn’t have to tell his conscripts to freeze. They had all either stopped or began the slow process of retreating out of the cave.
How the hell did he end up here? he wondered, touching the Bob’s choke collar. Jaret should’ve felt it the instant the Bob tried to take off the collar–the sensors in the collar would have caused it to automatically head-pop the stupid creature.
The outcome was the same, Jaret figured. Dead was dead.
“Leave him, for now,” he said, looking at the hole cut into the floor next to the open hatch. The Bob’s body was slightly blocking the cool breeze coming from it. They were going to have to go down there. Blue and the Elder were probably strewn out on the cave floor as well, just like the hapless runaway on the ground next to him.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go down and get those damn idiots.”
Jaret wasn’t surprised to see Grunt drop into the hole first, before the others were able to move the Bob out of the way. The Mannatank barely made it through, half-dragging the dead Bob after him when his broad shoulders caught one of the Bob’s dangling feet. With a gruesome snapping sound, the Bob’s foot broke off on the rock-like skin of the Mannatank. More Bob blood flowed down the hole after Grunt, who landed with a noisy thud.
Still hefting the oversized stun spear she’d taken from her Bob, Anda pushed Red and Green after Grunt.
“Staying back here?” she said on her way down, holding herself halfway in and halfway out of the hole by her big hands. She made sure to keep clear of the muck oozing from the dead Bob. “To keep watch, I suppose?”
“Take the rear,” he ordered as he followed her down into blackness. He landed hard and looked up at Anda standing next to him. He hated that she was almost a head taller than him. “Mark our entry spot with a transmitter. We may need to make a quick retreat.”
Jaret pushed Green in front of him and told the Hadras which way to go in the branching passages by tapping on one or the other of its scaly sides. He could feel something in his mind that could have been the minds of Blue and the Elder, and he led his squadron in the direction of that itching sensation, allowing it to grow stronger.
The stink of the dead Bob was gone now, blown away by a cool, salt-tinged breeze coming from the passageway they had entered. The walls here were smoother than the other cave, and occasional symbols floated past in the weak light, images of two-legged creatures walking upright.
Remainders, Jaret thought, glancing at an image on the wall next to him. The female depicted in the image could have been human–should have been human, Jaret thought, remembering his orders–except the proportions were all wrong: shortened legs, too-long arms, and hair that reminded Jaret of snakes.
Then he was past the carving and the smell of salt almost overwhelmed him. At the scent he nearly stopped his party and turned back, even though he was feeling what had to be the Elder’s constantly arguing mind just ahead of them, along with a fear-filled mental impression of Blue.
But before he could say the words out loud that would halt the rest of his squadron, the walls on either side fell away from them, and Jaret’s vision went black.
In the panic that ensued, Jaret pulled out his pulse gun, but when even as it began humming, the gun was plucked from his hand. Jaret fell backwards, never thought he’d stop falling, down through the cavern, until the unforgiving rock floor slammed into the back of his head.
Anda was there, inside his head, before Jaret ever opened his eyes: They took you out first, the instant you pulled out that damn gun. What the hell were you thinking, Jaret?
Shut your fucking mouth! Jaret shouted inside his head as loudly as possible, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hear him.
But a hissing filled the air the instant Jaret thought the words. He heard Anda splutter inside his head, cursing his name again. Jaret looked at the red of his eyelids and realized he was surrounded by light, and his head was pulsing with familiar agony.
He opened his eyes and moaned. The light came from the faces of the misshapen humanoid creatures standing above him. They’d found the remainders.
Don’t make any sudden movements, Anda whispered inside his head. They already made Grunt… go away when he saw you go down.
“Go away?” Jaret began to ask, then the faces of the short-legged, long-armed creatures clustered around him turned bright white, piercing his vision. “Get those lights out of my face,” he ordered without thinking.
The glowing subsided immediately. Jaret pulled himself to a sitting position, but the throbbing in his head nearly made him fall backwards again. Red and Green Hadras sat next to Anda, who was squatting with her hands hanging loose in front of her, as if trying to dry them in front of a fire. All he saw of Grunt was the Mannatank’s oversized black collar. Jaret had never heard Grunt go silent inside his head.
You did not need the bother, a clear voice said inside Jaret’s mind. Jaret sat up straighter, and his vision went gray for a few seconds. It was not Anda speaking.
Just as we do not need your bother, the voice continued.
Jaret squinted up at the creature that had stepped closer. Its legs were short and thick, and the toes were shaped more like fingers, while the four digits at the end of its long arms were shaped more like toes. The thumbs were just a nub on the side of each of the creature’s flat hands, and the fingers were hooked like claws. At the top of the creature’s oval-shaped head was a mass of hair that was writhing like snakes. A vertical scar sat in the middle of its forehead, above two very black, liquid eyes.
You will leave us, the creature said, still inside Jaret’s mind. But first we require reparation for our losses.
Jaret flinched as images were forced into his mind’s eye: the first runaway Bob–the same one that lay dead in the entrance to the caverns–interrupted a group of the snake-haired creatures and began flailing madly at them in their cave dwelling, killing more than five with its spear before being subdued by the larger, gray-skinned creatures. Jaret could no sooner look away from the spectacle of the Bob’s slow, gruesome death than he could leave his own mind. He felt violated by the mental intrusion at first, and then realized that this was how he commanded his squadrons.
Reparation, Jaret thought. As in repayment.
He looked at the creatures around him, some standing upright on two legs, wobbling slightly like the leader, while most stood bent over, their long backs arched, hands resting on the cavern floor. Their hair never stopped moving and quivering, as if testing the air like antennae.
“Don’t fuck with us, Jaret,” Anda said. So she’d seen and heard everything as well. I’ve taught her too well, Jaret thought.
Relax, he sent to her.
To the tentacle-haired creatures above him, he sent his own message: What have you done with the humans that were once here? Creatures like me and her, he added, pointing at himself and Anda.
The hissing started up again, but this time it was softer and less like a warning. Jaret could’ve sworn they were laughing at him. The leader gave a strangely-graceful bow, holding its long arms at an angle to its own body, and the scar in the middle of its grayish-white forehead quivered. The scar opened, revealing a light blue iris surrounded by white. A human eye, watching him.
Evolution, the voice said. Survival through adaptation. All that remain are changed, forever.
“Oh shit,” Jaret said aloud. “That’s what you did to them–you became them.”
As far as Jaret Lazarus was concerned, this mission was over.
Alone on the rocky ground a kilometer from the yellowed lake, in the shadow of the mountains, Jaret watched his ship begin to rise above the rock-strewn ground. He hit the release button on his belt and pulled it off. With only a moment’s hesitation, he punched in the discharge combination on the tiny pad on the inside of the belt. He imagined collars popping off inside the Pantheron like old scabs covering long-healed wounds, falling to the floor of the hold with metallic clanks.
“Get out of here,” he muttered, even though nobody but the remainders were left to hear him. He let the belt fall to the dead ground. “Get the hell out of here, you goddamn rubbernecks.”
The ship lurched up and away, stirring up yellow foam from the turgid lake. Jaret stood in the blowback from the ship, and in spite of the burning he felt in his eyes, he didn’t blink until the ship disappeared into the orange-tinted sky. Finally, his eyes full of bits of hot debris, his face already burning from the too-hot sun, Jaret let his eyes close as he turned away.
If I was brave, he thought, heaving a long, weary sigh, I’d turn off my suit and let myself burn up in the angry sun.
But Jaret wasn’t brave, not in that way, so he kept walking back toward the caves to fulfill the agreement: his life as reparation for the deaths caused by the Bob, and the rest of his crew could leave untouched. Maybe history would remember his sacrifice. Jaret could only hope.
Sucking in his gut one final time, a beltless Jaret Lazarus walked back to caves where the evolved remainders–not wholly human, not wholly alien–were waiting for him with their sharp, digging claws.Share