Escape Pod 382: They Go Bump
Special thanks to user esperri at FreeSound.org who created and/or recorded the sound effect used in this episode!
They Go Bump
by David Barr Kirtley
Ball placed his feet carefully. Walking on rough terrain was treacherous when you couldn’t see your feet — or your legs, for that matter, or any part of yourself. All he could see was the uneven ground, the shady stones outlined with sharp sunlight, drifting eerily beneath him. His boot caught and twisted, and he pitched forward, falling and smacking his elbows rough against the ground.
From somewhere up on the hilltop, Cataldo’s voice laughed. That voice — smooth and measured, with just a hint of sharpness. Ball had never paid much attention to voices before, but now voices were all he had.
Cataldo’s shouted, “Was that you, Ball? Again?”
Ball groped on the ground for his rifle. He felt it, grasped it, and slung it over his shoulder. He clambered to his feet, and wavered there a few moments, unsteady.
Cataldo’s voice again: “How many times is that now? Twelve?”
“Eleven.” Ball groaned, stretched, and looked around. “Where are you?”
“By the rock.”
Ball sighed. The rock. There was nothing but rocks, nothing but rolling expanses of rocks and more rocks, stretching to the horizon in every direction. The orange sky was littered with rocks, too, rocky moons. “Which rock?”
“The big, triangular one.”
Ball squinted up the hill.
“See the tall peak?” Cataldo’s voice prompted. “Follow the gully down. There’s a patch of boulders, and then at the edge of those there’s this big, triangular –”
“All right, I see it.” Ball took a deep breath. “I’m coming.”
He scrambled over the boulders and picked his way carefully among smaller stones. He tried to picture Cataldo’s face — slick black hair, long, narrow face, oversized nose. Ball hadn’t seen that face all day. Now there was just the voice. “OK, I’m here,” he breathed, finally.
The empty spot of nothingness that was Cataldo said, “Where’s Sweezy?”
“I don’t know.” Ball shook his head, though he realized Cataldo couldn’t see it anyway. “He hasn’t said anything all day. I’ve tried talking to him.”
Cataldo groaned. “Sweezy! Hey, Sweezy! Where are you?”
The vast plains of boulders were stony and silent. There was no answer.
“He might have fallen behind,” Ball said. “Maybe he got lost, or hurt his ankle.”
“He’s out there. Goddamnit, Sweezy! Sound off.”
Finally, a plaintive voice, from far down in the rockslide, called out, “I’m here. What?”
Sweezy. His voice tended to waver as he spoke. It always seemed tired and prickly, that voice. Ball shouted, “We’re checking to make sure you’re still with us.”
“Just go,” Sweezy’s voice said. “I can take care of myself.”
Cataldo grunted in disgust, and said to Ball, “Come on. Let’s catch up with the others.”
Ball turned wearily, and moved to follow. He walked in the direction he thought Cataldo had gone.
Invisible soldiers. Ball chuckled tiredly. Invisible soldiers on an important mission, invisible soldiers with invisible feet.
He tripped again, and fell.
The week before, Ball had been safe, tucked far underground in the winding, humid, steel — rimmed tunnels of Fort Deep. He had been sitting on a hard bench outside Captain Schemmer’s office.
They were giving Ball a mission; he wondered if he was going to die. Cataldo had come and gone already, but Sweezy was still in there. Ball could hear the voices through the door.
Sweezy’s voice, prickly and desperate: “Why me? I’m a good soldier. You know I’m a good soldier. I train all the time. I study all the intel, hard. I don’t deserve — ”
The captain’s voice, female, too low and gruff to hear the words.
Then Sweezy again, “But — ”
Then the captain, and so on.
Finally, the door opened and Sweezy emerged. He was skinny, with a huge, lumpy head, and big eyes rimmed with darkness.
“Hey Sweezy,” Ball said softly.
Sweezy, sweaty and pale, nodded and walked on past.
Captain Schemmer called, “Private Ball.”
Ball stood and entered. The office was spartan: one desk and two chairs, one chair for the captain, one for Ball. The walls were made of hewn boulder and plate steel. Schemmer wasn’t made of those things, but she could have been.
Ball sat down. “Nice to finally meet you, Captain.”
Schemmer nodded. “You’ve been picked for an important mission. Earth Army is conducting field tests of the new phased camouflage.” She stared at him levelly. “You’ve seen the reports?”
He hadn’t bothered, actually, but he’d heard of the camouflage. “That stuff the Kraven-Hish mercenaries use.” He suppressed a shudder. “That makes them invisible.”
“We’ve developed our own. You’re going to test it under battlefield conditions.”
Ball blinked. “Battlefield, sir?”
“You’re going to walk across the planet surface, from Hatch E to Hatch A.”
He caught his breath. For months, orbital assault platforms had circled high overhead in the orange-dust sky. They swept over the horizon and launched missile attacks against anything that moved on the surface. “But the orbitals — ”
“Won’t see you,” Schemmer said. “Not if the camouflage works. Just like they don’t see the Kraven-Hish mercenaries.”
Ball stared at the floor.
“We’ve done tests,” Schemmer said. “The camouflage has passed every one. You should be pretty safe. But we need to know whether this stuff holds up under real conditions. We need to send some people outside with it, for a week or more.”
“Me?” Ball glanced back over his shoulder. “And Sweezy?”
“And some others. Yes.”
So they needed a couple guys, some guys who could walk. And maybe these guys would get nuked. So they picked the most useless guys here.
Himself. Cataldo. Sweezy.
“Yes, Captain,” Ball said.
The six suits were sheer, gray and filmy, like a trout’s eye. The elbows, knees, and boots were thickly padded. Air tanks and rifles, all that same dull color, hung from the shoulders. The rifles were linked to the suit by thin cords.
“The cord’s so you don’t lose the rifle,” one of the technicians said. “It’ll be invisible too, once you power up.”
Six suits. Ball glanced around the room.
Private Dimon, rat-faced and sleazy, was over in the corner sucking up to Cataldo. So Dimon was in.
And Ball himself made four. Two more.
A calm, friendly voice said, “Ball.”
He turned. Private Reice, young, soft-spoken and good-natured, stood grinning.
“Damn,” Ball said, “They got you, too.”
Reice nodded. “Me.” He glanced toward the door. “And the corporal too, it looks like.”
Corporal Tennet, tall and brave, walked into the room.
“He probably volunteered,” Ball said, quietly.
The corporal cleared his throat. “All right, everyone. Suit up.”
The technicians helped Ball into one of the suits. The material clung tight around his biceps and thighs. A foggy, translucent mask covered his face.
One of the technicians said, “There are buttons inside the material on the left wrist. You can feel them.”
Ball ran his fingers down his arms. He felt four knobby bumps.
“Punch in your code,” said another technician, demonstrating on the corporal, “like this.”
Light flashed, bright as a signal flare. The technician backed away from the glow. The corporal was gone.
Ball waited, tense, through a long stretch of silence.
Then the corporal’s voice: “I can’t see my hand.”
Reice strained forward, staring hard. He whispered, “Holy shit.”
The corporal’s voice again, “I can’t see my feet either.”
“Move slowly,” the technician advised. “It takes some getting used to.”
Ball heard the soft clomp of the corporal’s first footstep. They heard his voice, chuckling. “Everyone power up.”
Light flashed out all over. Ball shielded his eyes against the glare, and he punched the code on his wrist, and then — He saw the tip of his nose, and the dark interior rim of his helmet. He looked down and down. There was nothing there. Vertigo struck him. He was falling — falling forward — he jerked upright. He dropped back a few paces, and closed his eyes. “How do you power it down?”
“You don’t,” a technician said sharply, “or you’ll die.”
“Punch the code in reverse,” said another.
Ball opened his eyes. He waved his invisible hand in front of his face. He ran his invisible fingers over his invisible wrist, over the knobby buttons. In the end, he decided not to mess with them.
Sweezy’s voice said, “How do they know these things are going to work?”
“They don’t,” Cataldo’s voice said nastily. “That’s what we’re for.”
Sweezy said, “I think they ought to — ”
There was a sudden crash, and a desk rolled across the room, scattering pipes and wires. From somewhere down on the floor, Sweezy groaned.
Cataldo said, “Stop screwing around.”
“Someone pushed me,” Sweezy protested. There were the scrapes and thumps of him climbing to his feet. “It was you. You pushed me.”
“I didn’t push anybody,” Cataldo said.
Dimon’s voice added, “You probably tripped.”
“It was you then,” Sweezy said. “I never trip. Never. I train all the time. I . . . ”
His voice trailed away as the corporal cut him off: “All right, form up and move out. Hatch E. Let’s go.”
“We’re going outside?” Ball said, half to himself. “Now?”
“What do you want, Ball?” Cataldo challenged. “A mission briefing on how to walk?”
They marched out into the hall. A group of heavy-helmeted military police was waiting, their cold eyes tracing blankly over the spot where Ball stood. Ball gave them the finger. No response.
The police led the way down long rock and steel tunnels, then herded the squad through a great oval airlock and out into the cavern beyond. The air was thin here. Enormous steel pipes stretched up to the ceiling, up to a gigantic metal plate. The underside of the plate read: HATCH E.
Ball flinched as the great hatch creaked and shuddered and began to descend — slow, massive and ponderous. It sank and crunched against the floor.
The corporal said, “Move.”
Ball scurried forward and climbed awkwardly up the steep stone faÃ§ade. A voice cursed — Ball couldn’t tell whose. The platform rose, higher and higher. They came out into the open sky and the hatch clanked solidly into place beneath them.
Ball stared. The vista was wide and empty. There was nothing to see here. Not even himself.
“Everybody sound off,” the corporal said.
Ball said, “I’m right next to you.” They had no radios, no locator beacons. Orbitals could track signals like that.
“I’m over here,” said Cataldo. N
ext to him, Dimon. “Yeah. Me too.”
“I’m here,” said Reice.
There was a long pause.
The corporal prompted, “Sweezy?”
Sweezy’s voice came finally, almost too soft to hear, “I’m with you.”
The corporal sighed. “All right. Hatch A is northeast of here. Northeast is that way, between those two rocks.”
Ball squinted toward the horizon. Two large rocks sat heavy and still.
The corporal said, “Move out.”
There were scraping footstep sounds as the squad began to march.
Dimon said, “We’re going to die.”
“Maybe,” the corporal replied. “The first orbital comes up over the horizon in 43 minutes.” He paused. “Then we’ll know.”
Ball traced his gaze over the horizon in a wide circle. “Nine days out here? Even if the orbitals don’t get us, a pack of Kraven-Hish mercenaries will.”
Cataldo said, “Maybe you haven’t noticed, Ball, but we’re invisible. They can’t see us.”
“We can’t see them either,” Ball countered.
“Exactly,” the corporal cut in. “They can’t see us. We can’t see them. No one can see anyone. So relax. And keep walking.”
Ball pulled the rifle off his shoulder and hefted it experimentally. Damned impossible, he decided, trying to aim a gun you couldn’t even see. He sighed.
Again, Dimon’s voice. “We’re going to die.”
Dimon’s voice. It came from somewhere ahead of Ball, and it drifted past, and out away over the hills.
Forty-three minutes passed. The first of the orbitals came over the horizon. Ball imagined he could see it up there, a bright spot shining white against the orange sky. It looked like death.
The corporal said, “It’s time.”
Ball waited, not sure if he was breathing. He waited for a glint of metal in the sky, for a tactical nuclear assault.
Ten minutes passed.
“The orbital’s overhead,” the corporal announced. “It can’t see us.”
Ball breathed out and out. He slumped down low in his suit. Dimon’s voice started to laugh, a little crazily.
“Keep walking,” the corporal said.
The sound of scattered footsteps picked up again.
“And now — ” Ball took a deep breath ” — now we can start worrying about Kraven-Hish mercenaries.”
“Give it a rest, Ball,” Cataldo said. “You’re bringing down my morale.”
“They might be around,” Ball argued. “A pack of them.”
“They might not,” Cataldo said.
“Who knows where they are?” Reice said. “Who knows where the hell they might be? We don’t even know what they look like.”
“They don’t look like anything,” Cataldo answered, irritated. “They’re invisible.”
Reice said, “You know what I mean.”
No one had ever gotten a picture of the Kraven-Hish; they were always invisible. You couldn’t get a picture, even if a soldier killed one, and some guys were pretty sure they had.
Ball glanced around. Imagine the whole squad died out here, who would ever find them? They’d rot. Then the suits would rot. The suits would go visible in rotted patches, nothing left of the bodies inside.
Dimon said, “You know what I heard? I heard they’ve got pictures of the Kraven-Hish. Intel has pictures. They don’t want to show us.”
Reice said, “Why would they do that?”
“They don’t want to frighten off new recruits,” Dimon said. “That’s how scary these things are. That’s what I heard.”
“That’s stupid,” Cataldo said.
Ball hadn’t tripped in over six hours. He forced himself to grin.
From somewhere behind him, Cataldo’s voice shouted, “Sweezy!”
Ball turned. “Not again.” He took a few steps back toward Cataldo.
“Sweezy! Damn it, Sweezy. Just say something.”
The rocky wastes were silent.
“I swear, Sweezy,” Cataldo warned. “I swear this is the last time. Sound off.”
They waited, and waited. There was no answer.
Ball imagined Sweezy’s face — tired and petulant, forehead scrunched, eyes staring at his feet, ignoring them.
“All right,” Cataldo called finally. “All right, if that’s how you want it. I hope you break your neck.”
“Let’s go,” Cataldo told him.
They walked up over the next rise. The scattered voices of the others were faint in valley below. It took an hour of walking to catch up.
Those voices, louder now, drifted toward them.
The corporal’s voice: “Reice. You take point for a while. I’m going to check on the others.”
“Yes, sir,” Reice’s voice said.
The corporal’s voice, “You know the way?”
“To Hatch A? Yes, sir.”
Ball walked a few hundred yards. From right beside him the corporal’s voice came: “Who’s there?”
“Ball, sir,” Ball said. “And Cataldo.”
“Anything to report?”
Ball wondered if Cataldo would report on Sweezy, but Cataldo just said, with a trace of disgust, “No, sir. Nothing at all.”
Night fell. The dusty sky turned from orange to brown to muddy black. The cratered asteroid moons shone lovely and red. Ball lay curled up in his soft suit on the hard ground and kept his rifle close. With his fingers, he traced the invisible cord that connected the rifle to his shoulder.
Reice was resting somewhere nearby, and Dimon was somewhere down the hill. Ball wasn’t sure about the corporal, and Sweezy hadn’t spoken since that morning. No one seemed to miss him.
Dimon’s voice burst out, “Cataldo. Get off, it’s not funny. I’m trying to sleep.”
Cataldo’s voice answered, from far down the hill. “What? I’m over here.”
There was a sudden sound, a sharp, breaking sound, like a branch snapping. But there were no branches out here, nothing here to be broken except their bones.
Ball said quickly, “What was that?”
“I thought I felt something,” Dimon’s voice said. There was a short pause. “Never mind. It was nothing.”
“What was that sound?” Ball pressed. “That cracking sound?”
“What sound?” Dimon’s voice said.
“I heard it, too,” Reice’s voice said.
Dimon’s voice said, “I didn’t hear anything.”
Ball rolled up onto his knees, pushed the butt of his rifle back into his shoulder, and pointed the barrel out toward the darkness.
Cataldo’s voice called, “You’re hearing things, Ball.”
“I heard it, too,” Reice insisted.
“Heard what?” Cataldo’s voice said.
“I don’t know,” Reice said. “Kind of a . . . I don’t know.”
Dimon’s voice chuckled.
Cataldo’s voice joined in. “Right.”
Ball knelt there on the rocks. He stared up at the asteroids. They glowed deep and red, like the blood of Earth Army soldiers killed by — Kraven-Hish mercenaries.
Dozens of them could hide out here. Hundreds. Lurking invisible among the stones. They were trained to fight unseen. They could get close to a person, kill a person. Silently.
Or almost silently.
They could kill a person, maybe mimic his voice, and then no one would ever know.
“Let’s get some sleep,” Dimon’s voice said.
Ball shuddered. It was Dimon’s voice. But was it Dimon?
A Kraven-Hish mercenary crouched deadly in the darkness there, settled over Dimon’s invisible corpse. Maybe.
Ball lay still. His ears strained for any sound, but there were no more sounds. And no more sleep.
Dawn burned orange and bright.
“Corporal,” Ball said. “I’m afraid.”
“We’re all afraid, Ball,” the corporal’s voice replied.
“I heard something last night, sir. A strange noise. I think I heard Private Dimon die.”
“I saw Dimon this morning,”
Ball didn’t say anything. The corporal waited.
“Sir.” Ball heard a strained quality creep into his own voice. “No one’s seen Dimon since Fort Deep. All we hear is a voice. Voices can be imitated.”
“You think our squad’s been infiltrated? Dimon’s voice replaced by –”
Ball lowered his voice. “By Kraven-Hish mercenaries. Sir, I don’t know.”
Ball paused. “And maybe Cataldo, I don’t know.”
“And maybe me.”
Ball sighed. “It’s possible, sir.”
“But you’re still telling me?”
“I have to tell someone,” Ball said. “If they’ve gotten you, well, then we’re all dead anyway. It’s worth the risk.”
“That’s good thinking, Ball.” There was a brief pause. “But you’re overreacting. You thought you heard a noise. Maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was nothing. I wouldn’t blame anyone for starting to hear things out here.”
“Reice heard it, too.”
There was a pause. The corporal’s voice called out, “Private Reice.”
Ball didn’t hear his approach, but a few moments later, Reice’s voice was there. “Sir.”
The corporal’s voice said, “You heard a noise last night?”
“No,” Reice’s voice said. “I mean, I thought maybe I did, sir, after Ball said it. But it was just my imagination. You know what it’s like here at night. The — ”
“Yes,” said the corporal’s voice. “Thank you, private.”
Ball waited a while.
“Sir,” he pleaded softly. “Please.”
“Your mind’s playing tricks on you, that’s all. You know how I’m sure?”
The corporal’s voice sighed. “A pack of Kraven-Hish mercenaries wouldn’t bother to infiltrate us. They’d just wipe us out. We couldn’t stop them.”
That was true, Ball acknowledged.
“You take point for a while,” the corporal’s voice said. “It’ll give you something else to think about.”
“Yes sir,” Ball said.
Days passed slowly, and Ball heard sounds:
Slithering. Slavering. Leathery skin. Loose flesh. Popping joints and hisses and groans and grumbles. And moans, most of all. Soft, predatory moans. Sounds like Kraven-Hish mercenaries make.
“Corporal,” he begged. “Please, we have to do something. I can hear it. Oh God, I can hear them.”
“It’s your imagination, Ball,” said the corporal’s steady voice. “Remember what I said before.”
That night, Ball lay awake again, his thoughts exhausted and mad.
Kraven-Hish mercenaries. Ball was leading the way to Hatch A and they were following close behind. When the hatch opened, the things would burst unseen and unexpected into those safe stone tunnels.
He didn’t tell the corporal these thoughts.
He was afraid. That his squad was being replaced, one by one. That the corporal was dead. That a Kraven-Hish mercenary stood there, somewhere back there, mouthing the corporal’s words.
He was very afraid.
He tried to find Reice, and talk to him, away from the corporal. It was hard. Ball didn’t know where anyone was anymore. The footsteps had become soft — almost ghostly, insubstantial — and Reice and the corporal seemed to group close together, always.
“Reice,” Ball said. “You heard it, that night. I know you did.”
Reice’s voice said, “Ball, I didn’t hear anything. Really.”
An uneasy feeling spread over Ball. What if this wasn’t really Reice? Ball said, “Back at Fort Deep you –”
“Ball, I’m tired, all right? We might not ever make it back. No one wants to talk about old business right now.”
That was a lie, Ball was sure of it. So Reice was gone, too, probably.
Ball felt very alone. Reice and the corporal, and Dimon. All dead, replaced by Kraven-Hish mercenaries, monsters that spoke with the voices of friends.
After that, those three voices always grouped close. Maybe they were plotting something.
And Sweezy? Sweezy hadn’t spoken in days. No one had mentioned him. Maybe he had gotten separated, or twisted an ankle. Ball wished he could believe that — Sweezy, lying back in the rocks, lost or injured, but alive. But Sweezy was gone. Weak, whiny Sweezy, always straggling behind, always alone. He had been the first to die.
Cataldo? Ball wasn’t sure about him.
“Listen,” Ball told Cataldo. “There are Kraven-Hish mercenaries, close around us. I hear sounds. You hear it, too. I know you do.”
“Leave me alone, Ball,” Cataldo’s voice said. “You’re creeping everybody out.”
“You hear them.”
“People imagine things. Things that aren’t there, in a place like this.”
Ball said, “I have an idea.”
Cataldo’s voice answered quickly, “No.”
“We can power down our suits. Just for a moment. For a second. The last orbital went down over the horizon 80 minutes ago. The next one won’t be up for half an hour. We can see who we really are.”
“I’m not risking it,” Cataldo’s voice said. “Because you think you heard something? That’s insane.”
“You heard it, too.”
“I’ll do it, then.” Ball’s heart beat fast. “I’ll power down my suit. Then you’ll see it’s safe. Then maybe you’ll do it, too.”
Ball stared up into the sky, straight up, to where an orbital attack platform floated, bristling dark with missile silos, waiting to attack, if he was wrong about this. His fingers played over the buttons on his wrist.
“Don’t,” Cataldo’s voice growled. “Don’t even think about it. You wait until the rest of us reach minimum safe distance. Then do whatever the hell you want with yourself, I don’t care. But not here, Ball. Not now. You’ve got no right.” Cataldo grumbled and walked away; his voice faded slowly.
Was that really Cataldo? Hard to say.
Ball kept his invisible rifle gripped tight in his sweaty, invisible fingers.
Sometimes, lying on the jagged ground at night, he wondered if any of them had ever been real — Cataldo, Dimon, the corporal — he couldn’t exactly picture their faces anymore. Maybe they had never had faces. Maybe they had only ever been voices. Voices in his head.
Other times, marching exhausted in the sun, Ball thought about fighting them. He hefted his rifle, which was heavy, huge, and worthless. He could have aimed it, maybe, if he could’ve seen his targets. Without targets . . .
Useless. He might get off a dozen shots, and most would miss. Then they would close in on him — Cataldo, Dimon, Reice, the corporal — and however many more were out there.
He could run, slip away in the night, sprint ahead to Fort Deep. But the base was still three days off, and the squad was already marching as fast as Ball could manage. Or he could hide, wrapped up safe in his unseeable suit, hide among the mounds and rocky hills. He had six days worth of air. The others would notice he was gone and they’d come after him, maybe overtake him, or maybe they would go on to Fort Deep and make it theirs. Then Ball would perish lonely among the crags.
So he kept walking, walking and talking, and he didn’t mention Kraven-Hish mercenaries anymore, even though he could hear them.
He kept glancing back over his shoulder, though there was nothing there, not even his shoulder. Why hadn’t they killed him yet? Maybe they needed someone to lead them to Hatch A, or maybe not. It couldn’t last, they’d get him sometime, maybe this afternoon.
Maybe during this footstep — this next tired, tortured footstep — this one. But then that footstep was over, and he was still alive. Maybe the next one then.
The sun sank low and the sky turned dark.
Or maybe tonight.
The squad made camp, and Ball settled down on the ground beneath a rocky overhang, to rest and brood. Footsteps came toward him across the hillside.
“Ball!” Cataldo’s voice whispered. “Ball, where are you?”
“I’m here,” Ball said, softly.
“We’re in trouble. Oh God, we’re in trouble. You were right about them.” Cataldo’s voice paused. “The corporal was asking me things today: How close are we to the hatch? What security do I think will meet us? Weird stuff like that. The corporal, he knows all that better than us.” Cataldo’s voice got lower. “And you were right, I think. I can hear it sometimes. Those sounds.”
Was it some sort of trick? Ball sat still in the darkness.
“What are we going to do?” Cataldo’s voice said. “What can we do?”
“I don’t know. Let me think.”
Ball thought hard, but said nothing. Finally, Cataldo’s voice grunted. “I’m going to get the hell out of here.” His footsteps stumbled off down the hillside.
The corporal’s voice said, “Reice. Dimon. Sound off.”
Ball tensed, and waited.
“I’m over here,” called Reice’s voice, and Dimon, too, “Here.”
Again, Ball had that unsettling feeling, that feeling they were all off together — Dimon, Reice, the corporal — grouped close together, plotting.
“Ball,” the corporal’s voice shouted. “Where are you?”
Ball didn’t answer. The silence was heavy. Finally, he murmured, “Up here.”
“Under the rock,” Ball said. “Under the ledge.”
“OK,” The corporal’s voice said. “Cataldo?”
Again the corporal’s voice: “Cataldo? Sound off.”
Long minutes passed.
Then a sound from somewhere down the hill, a sound like a spine splintering. A sound like a voice — Cataldo’s voice — coughing blood and gurgling it and choking on it. A sound like Cataldo dying. It cut off abruptly.
The corporal’s voice called out once more, “Cataldo.”
A few moments later, Cataldo’s voice answered, calmly, “I’m here.”
Ball shut his eyes very tight and tried not to move, or breathe. He wanted to be more invisible — so invisible that no one would ever see him again, or ever hurt him. He wanted to be so invisible that he wasn’t even there anymore.
He waited half an hour, then stood, slowly. He crept across smooth stones to a narrow crevice 100 meters down the hillside. He lay down there, curled up tight. He wanted to fall asleep and wake again alive. He wanted for the horrible Kraven-Hish mercenaries not to find his sleeping spot. In the morning he awoke.
His rifle was gone.
Ball traced the invisible cord very, very carefully. It was broken halfway down. He felt around on the ground. He crawled back and forth. He checked again slowly, methodically, inch-by-inch. He wished he could believe it was an accident; that the cord had worn down and the rifle had fallen away sometime in the night. But he knew it hadn’t.
The whole squad started marching again and Ball trudged on, defeated. Tears rose up behind his eyes and spilled down his face and he was too tired to stop them. He was still alive and he didn’t know why and the others were all dead.
Reice had been decent and good. He had never done anything to deserve this.
The corporal had been brave, and had tried so hard.
Dimon had been a shit. But what did that matter, out here?
Cataldo had been too angry, too mean. But Cataldo had kept checking on Sweezy, when no one else bothered. That was something.
And Sweezy. Ball had almost forgotten him. Sweezy had been harmless. It wasn’t fair.
Nearby, Cataldo’s voice said, “Ball. I want to talk to you. About last night.”
“You’re not Cataldo,” Ball said slowly, evenly. “Kill me, if you want, but don’t lie. Not anymore.”
Cataldo’s voice laughed. “Jesus, Ball. Take it easy.”
“I heard Cataldo die,” Ball said. “I heard it. You killed him.”
“I tripped, Ball. It startled me, and I must have gasped, or something. That’s what you heard.”
Ball didn’t answer.
Cataldo’s voice chuckled. “Come on, Ball. I just tripped. Haven’t you ever tripped before?”
“No,” Ball said. “Never.”
And he waited.
And then Cataldo’s voice said: “Well, good for you. I trip sometimes, all right?”
Ball felt weak and dizzy. He closed his eyes and red shapes swam in the darkness behind his eyelids. A long, low moan rose up from somewhere inside him and he couldn’t stop it.
He said, “I tripped 12 times the first day and Cataldo was there. He laughed at me. You’re not him. Don’t lie, don’t say anything. I won’t believe you.”
Cataldo’s voice sighed a long, hard sigh. Ball said, “Get away from me. Get away or I’ll shoot. Even if you are Cataldo, I’ll shoot you.”
Cataldo’s voice said, “Shoot me. Without a rifle.”
“I have a rifle,” Ball lied.
“No,” Cataldo’s voice said. “I’ve got yours. I’m pointing it at you. I could pull the trigger, if you don’t believe me.”
Ball backed slowly away. The invisible cord that had held his rifle waved loose from his shoulder. He reached for the buttons on his wrist. “I’ll power down my suit,” he warned. “I’ll do it, and the orbital will kill us all.”
“Go ahead.” Cataldo’s voice was unconcerned. “Power down. It’ll make it easy to shoot you.” He paused. “The last orbital went down an hour ago.”
Ball tried to figure if that was true. It was. He waited, he said softly, “You need me to lead you to the hatch.”
“No,” Cataldo’s voice said. “Cataldo told how to get there. Yesterday, before he died.”
Then it was over. Why didn’t you kill me? Last night. Whenever.”
It was the corporal’s voice that answered. “That’s a good question, Ball.” There was a pause. “Why don’t cats kill the mice they catch, right away?” Ball shuddered. That voice, the corporal’s — that proud voice. It wasn’t right that it should say such a thing.
“For fun, Ball,” Dimon’s voice burst out. “That’s the answer. For fun.”
Ball waited. They were all together there, all grouped close, arrayed against him.
Reice’s voice assured him, “Don’t worry though, you won’t be killed.”
Ball tried to picture them: a pack of Kraven-Hish mercenaries, standing deadly before him. He couldn’t do it. It was too awful. He couldn’t even imagine it. “What do you want?”
A new voice came, a terrible voice. It was low, hissing and rasping, sickening. It was groaning and gurgling — it filled Ball’s ears — the most horrible, wretched, sound. It was so wicked, and so horribly cunning, and it said in a voice that seemed barely living: “I want you to see . . . ”
Ball waited, tense. Finally, he said, “What?”
“My face . . . ” said the thing. “I want you to see my face. Then I’ll let you go . . . ”
Ball saw nightmares in his mind. A dozen filmy tongues, and puckered tentacles, and rows of fleshy spines. A bulging skull and rotted cords of muscle, claws and soft innards everywhere. Or rows and rows of teeth-stuffed gums, an oozing carapace, a mad cavern of cerebrum and heavy vein. Or eyes that bulged wild, off of tubes like eel bodies.
“I’m worse . . . ” said the thing. “Whatever you dream I am, I’m worse. But you want to live. I’m powering down my suit . . . ”
Ball closed his eyes.
Four gunshots fired in the stillness.
Then a long wait. Darkness, eyes squeezed.
Then Sweezy’s voice, “Ball, where are you? Let’s go.”
Ball kept his eyes closed. “Sweezy?”
“Come on,” Sweezy’s voice said. “Move.”
Ball struggled to understand. “You were gone — ”
“I wasn’t. I was around. Quiet.”
Ball choked, a relieved sob. “And you got them? The Kraven-Hish mercenaries? You got them all?”
“I got it,” Sweezy’s voice said. “The one. It was all of them — Dimon, Cataldo, Reice, the corporal — all their voices.”
“A solitary hunter. Like a cat. Intel was right.”
Ball began to open one eye.
“Don’t look at it,” Sweezy’s voice warned, wavering, uneven. “Just turn around, and let’s go.”
Ball turned away, and opened his eyes.
“Walk,” Sweezy’s voice said. “Until we’re over the rise. Don’t look back.”
They walked. Sweezy’s voice didn’t say anything for a while. When it came, it was very weak, “I wish I hadn’t seen it, Ball. Oh God.” It sounded like he was crying. “I don’t ever want to dream again.”
Hard stones drifted by beneath Ball and he counted paces to keep himself from thinking too much. They went over one rise, and then another. He halted then, and collapsed on the ground. Neither of them said anything for a while.
“I tried to tell the corporal,” Ball said finally, softly. “I tried to tell him. He wouldn’t listen.”
“The corporal was dead the second day. That wasn’t him you were talking to.”
Ball hunched over and held his invisible head in his invisible hands.
“Always take out the leader first,” Sweezy’s voice said. “Basic strategy.”
“The second day?” Ball sat unbelieving. “You knew the second day and you didn’t say anything?”
“It would’ve known about me, that monster, if I had said anything. Then I’d be dead. And so would you.”
“But Reice,” he said. “The corporal — ”
“I saved you.” Sweezy’s voice was sharp. “I could’ve left you there, or started shooting blind, but I didn’t. I waited for my chance and I saved us both.”
Ball lay back against the ground and stared up into the orange-dust sky.
“I’m a good soldier,” Sweezy’s voice said. “I always said I was.”
They walked two more days and halted at the top of a high cliff. Safety waited near, beneath Hatch A, just out of sight beyond the darkening horizon. Night fell. Ball lay awake and thought horrible thoughts.
Like — maybe the monster had known about Sweezy, after all.
Ball hadn’t seen the thing’s body, crumpled and lifeless. He had closed his eyes. Maybe there had never been a body, maybe that thing was still alive.
Maybe it was . . .
Ball slowly turned his eyes upon the empty spot where Sweezy lay sleeping.
“Sweezy!” he hissed. “Sweezy, wake up.”
There was silence. Finally, Sweezy’s voice said, “What?”
Ball trembled, he couldn’t help it. “That is you, isn’t it, Sweezy?” His voice was pleading, desperate. “It is really you? It just occurred to me that — ”
“Yes, it’s me,” Sweezy’s voice assured him. “Go back to sleep, Ball. Of course it’s me.”
Ball took a deep breath. Yes.
He rolled over and closed his eyes. He tried to relax.
Of course it was Sweezy, he tried to tell himself.
Of course it was.