by J. Kelley Anderson
The half-buried thing hadn’t moved once, but I didn’t have to include that in the story when I got back to base. The great, gray mass of it rose at least ten feet out of the red earth, tucked close to the sheer wall of the plateau. That part I’d tell. If there had been anything like a head, I would have shot it, but it just looked like a giant, lumpy football, oozing a viscous yellowy liquid here and there.
The non-military personnel tried to remember their instructions, looking away from the muzzle of my rifle as the metallic squeal of the charging weapon warned of an impending discharge. The moment the noise ended, a pencil-thin beam of white light leapt from the gun and bored another sizzling hole into the motionless mound of wrinkled gray flesh. There was a sound like someone cooking giant bacon in a giant skillet.
I just can’t describe how much I love photon rifles. They’re big, noisy, ugly, unapologetic things that leave your hands shaking and the entire area smelling like ozone. They were shit on stealth missions but, then, so am I—that’s just one of the many reasons I got this gig as the Army equivalent of a galactic janitor.
Sergeant Wroblewski and I made eye contact as I turned to address the science team, and I noted the silent “high-five” look on his face.
“Well?” I said smoothly to Science Officer Neely. “Doesn’t get much deader than that.” I tried to look nonchalant.
Neely raised some sort of high-tech monocular to his eye and peered at the creature.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, shaking his head.
“What? That’s the fourth direct hit. What the hell is that goo bubbling out of it, if it isn’t dead?”
“Well, I’m not certain captain, but that ‘goo’ was bubbling out of it when we arrived.”
“Christ, the thing has four holes through it that weren’t there when we got here. I may not know much, but I know dead. And that thing is dead.”
“Captain, we all have the same orders. We can’t establish a construction base, let alone a settlement, until we clear the indigenous flora and fauna from this sector. It is fortuitous that, on this occasion, there is only a single life form here. But, I’m telling you, that organism’s life signs have not changed since we arrived.”
“Look,” I said slowly, “I put holes in things. That’s how we kill things. It’s a tried and true method that has worked for humanity many, many times. What do you suggest I do next?”
“That isn’t really my area of expertise, but explosives come to mind.”
“I would agree with you, if I had brought any.” (Truthfully, I didn’t have the clearance to handle explosives.) “I was told ‘one, big sedentary critter.’ Didn’t think I needed to bring detonators.”
“Well, then might I suggest. . .”
Neely’s lips kept moving, but it suddenly seemed like the sounds just plain weren’t reaching my ears. There was a strange subtle pressure building behind my eyes, and a low rumbling steadily becoming louder.
Neely’s mouth just kept flapping and I could tell that neither he, nor the rest of the group, felt anything out of the ordinary. Then, without warning, everything just stopped. I don’t mean the group stood still, I mean stopped—like I had just found myself in the middle of a photograph. The pressure in my head slacked to a general, sustained discomfort. It sorta felt like being in deep water, except that I could breathe and move just fine. I glanced up at a swirling cloud of whitish vapor that was now simply frozen motionless against the pinkish backdrop of the sky.
“Uh. . .” I said thoughtfully to nobody in particular. “That’s probably not good.”
“What, you mean you can’t do that?” Asked a voice behind me.
I whirled around, bracing the stock of my rifle against my shoulder as I moved.
“Seriously? That’s your plan? You’re really gonna shoot me with that thing again?”
I could see that the mound of grayish flesh had not moved, but the mystery of what the thing looked like had been solved. I was facing a semi-translucent image of a creature, like a large, gray, naked man, lounging casually on the ground, propped up on one elbow maybe ten feet in front of me. Even lying on his side, the man must have been fifteen feet tall at the shoulder. Its phantom skin still oozed the yellowy fluid. Large greenish eyes, under heavy brows, were focused intently on my rifle.
I lowered the gun and stood staring with my mouth open in an, uh, heroic pose.
“Right, I can see I’m dealing with the brains of the group,” said the creature (though its mouth didn’t seem to move). “Look, I’ll make this easy for you. This isn’t the planet for you. It’s going to be your job to convince the others. Or you can keep shooting at me. That seems to be going pretty well for you, huh?”
I composed myself. “What are you?” I said in a manly sort of squeak.
The thing sighed. “Did you hear any of the things I just said?”
“Ummm. . . yeah, convince the others to leave. . . I heard.”
“Well, uh, sir, if we leave, others are going to come. It doesn’t really work like that.”
“Uh huh, that’s why I’m talking to you and not just forcing you all to eat rocks until you explode.”
“And I appreciate that. I really do. . . But, how am I supposed to do that?”
“Well, pal, that’s sort of the fun of delegating. Figuring out how to do it is your job.”
“Okay. . . Don’t take this the wrong way, but what’s to stop me from, you know, just coming back with bigger weapons? We’ve got some pretty big weapons, you know.”
“Look, I just froze time and I’m having this conversation, in your own language, through psychic projection. You really think this is a good time to threaten me? The big magic-y thing that won’t die?”
“I was just trying to be honest.”
“And if I had my gold star stickers with me, I’d give you one and pat you on the head. Hey, remember that magical date you had with Sarah Mitchel in high school?”
“Of course, it was. . .”
“Now, you don’t.”
There was a sharp pain and a popping noise, and Sarah simply vanished from my mind.
Ouch. “Holy shit!”
“Neat trick huh?” said the thing. “Look, pal: this isn’t my first rodeo. I know your type—the tool-building, pioneering types, right? Onward and upward! Yeah? Buddy, this is me giving you a chance. I could blank all your and your friends’ memories and just watch you wander around until you all starve. I could blank the memories of every one of your fellow creatures up on that ship orbiting my world, so they don’t remember what they’re doing here or how to pilot that monstrosity. You see where I’m going with this? And those are just the things I could do without getting out of bed. I’ve got a great lazy streak going, and I don’t want to break it.”
I began to get a funny feeling that this thing wasn’t just using my language. Its voice even sounded like mine. “Could you just make everyone think I’m the boss? Promote me to commander or something?”
“Yeah, that’s what I want to do. Increase the pay grade of the guy that just shot me four times.”
“Hey, just brainstorming. . . the alliance really wants this planet as a strategic resupply point.”
“Uh huh, and I’m guessing you really don’t want to be a sand-eating zombie for the rest of your uncomfortable life.”
“You make a good point space monster. I’m just having trouble coming up with a reason why people would abandon this planet. My people are stubborn. Shockingly, I don’t think that telling them that a mind-eating monster lives here is going to do it.”
“Patience. . .wearing. . .thin. . .”
“Hold on. Okay, what about radiation? If a planet is radioactive enough, we will dismiss it as uninhabitable. Could you make the scientists with me think that they are reading dangerous levels of radiation?”
“Radiation huh? I can do radiation.”
“Ok, so what. . .”
My head swam and suddenly I wasn’t looking at anything but the distant gray bulge of the creature.
“Are you listening to me, Captain?” asked Science officer Neely.
“Errr. . .yeah.”
“As I was saying, it is an unfortunate waste of time, but we apparently need to re-ship and get the proper equipment.”
My head hurt. . .again. But, this time it felt a lot more like your run-of-the-mill headache. In addition, my stomach turned and I felt like I was going to retch. I noticed that others in the group were beginning to look ill too.
“Am I the only one that’s starting to feel like shit?” I asked.
“Now that you mention it,” said Sergeant Wroblewski. “I’m not doing so hot myself.”
“We took readings from orbit,” said Neely. “The surface is viable for human life.”
“You have anything to take those readings again?” I asked.
“Well, yes, but there’s really no point. . .”
The doctor produced a small rectangular screen from his satchel and tapped its surface.
Fifteen panicked minutes later, we were back on the ship being pummeled by an array of decontamination processes. Our technicians confirmed that the planet was dangerously radioactive. Every member of my group began to lose patches of hair and suffered violent, flu-like symptoms for almost a month. There was really no way to tell if it was actually happening or if we were just imagining it. A nice touch, I thought.
On the day I heard that the planet was no longer being considered for settlement, memories of my first date with Sarah Mitchel came flooding back with an odd, déjà vu-ish feeling.
A few years later, I decided it would probably be safe to tell the story to my friend Captain Ferguson. Just as I was beginning to talk about it, I forgot how to use my legs for a good five minutes.
I have one good story. One!
There’s no doubt that the thing could just make me forget the day ever happened if it wanted.
Ugh. Touché space monster. . .touché.
About the Author
J. Kelley Anderson is a fan of comic books, John Milton, tattoos, pulp detective novels, herpetology, folklore, video games, and all things sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up, he wanted to be either a ninja or a maple tree. These aspirations led him to teach college English. He lives in Ohio.
About the Narrator
David Moore is an American role-player, podcaster, and all around good guy. He hosts The Game Master Show and organized the Firefly RPG After Serenity.