By Joseph Hirsch
The Tritonite was a rebuilt amalgam of fused steel transport tankers that looked more like a dirigible than a proper spaceship, and the thing tended to rattle. It was hard enough to get a decent bearing under the best conditions. Private Goban and Specialist Hasa were making it harder, still arguing behind Corporal Koblenzik, trading barbs about who switched food profiles on the Big Bertha so it only produced spirulina and soy meals.
“You think I can’t tell when my protein is real?” Goban shoved Hasa. It was a playful push, but horsing around near equipment was dumb. Especially now when something good might finally be in sight. “Knock it off!” Koblenzik took his eyes from the scaffold, the rising steel straight edge lined up perfectly with the peaks of the mountains on the moon.
“Got anything good?” Hasa had asked as if whether he obeyed the order depended on the haul offered.
Goban and Hasa watched Koblenzik walk to the rainbow-lighted strip that flowed around the room in a liquid crystal band like the stripe on the side of a racer.
A prismatic show of greens, blues, and reds bounced off Corporal Koblenzik’s face. The other two observed him like ancient hunters studying the countenance of their shaman in a dream state, as he was the only one who could read the instrument panel.
“Definitely graphite lodes in among the rocks on the surface.”
Goban sneered, snorted. “I didn’t sign off on a six month haul to pick up pencil lead.”
“Probably diamonds as well.”
Goban stopped sneering. “That’s different.” He looked over at Hasa, or where Hasa had been a second ago. But his teammate had already migrated back to where the scaffold platform sat before the ship’s viewing window. The bubble portal took up half the wall, a thermoplastic globe letting in the bluish-green light of the moon. The cyanic veil around the cold ball held the two men rapt. They not only forgot their previous argument, but all the worries of their race.
But then they blinked and the aurora of greens, blues, and golds was no more. The world was back, and with the world its problems. Chief among them, the only real one–
“Money,” Goban said, licking his lips. “Big money.”
Hasa looked back to Corporal Koblenzik. “Any life?”
Koblenzik shook his head, knowing their fates were in his hands. “No heat signatures.”
“Probably no life.” Goban hit Hasa with one of his friendly slaps, though it landed in the same spot so frequently it made Hasa’s chest tender.
“Either that,” Hasa said, rubbing his sore sternum, “or life that’s smart enough to hide or too strange to put off a signature.”
But the money that haul might bring… It loomed, weighed them down as they stood on the top tier in the center of the gallery’s stepped deck.
Goban wanted his piece of the haul for less than noble reasons. To rut for a couple weeks in a pile of silicone, statuesque ersatz females who lacked a will to protest or the discernment to mind his ugliness. Hasa was thinking of a stake on a piece of terra firma, a ranch on a reseeded, perlite-rich caldera. It wouldn’t be Earth, but it would be better than living out the rest of his days in ships, suffering the joint aches that came with vitamin deficiencies that all merchant marines knew well.
Koblenzik had no problems spending the rest of his life on ships, but only if he could finally buy his own. Then he could do something besides collect precious minerals and metals for an alien race that despised him, escape the quest-conquest-colonize trance in which so many species were trapped. He’d explore with his own vessel, pay for the mass driver launch. Hit the retrorockets, slow down to see the stars. Enjoy the view of the universe through the oculus window like it was his personal planetarium, the Tokamak engine humming behind him like gentle whale song.
He didn’t look at either man, because he knew what he would see: eagerness, fear, and yes, greed.
Democracy was dodo so it wouldn’t make sense to poll his soldiers.
“Suit for six,” he said. “I’ll lead.”
“Who are the other three?” Hasa asked. The pressure was great, for whoever the Corporal picked, the reward could be untold riches or the booby prize of a cruel death in the middle of nowhere, sans casket and among soldiers too callous to mourn.
“You pick,” he said.
Democracy, apparently, was not total dodo. At least not in the form of delegation.
Hasa and Goban turned, moving with quick and solemn step, speaking in hushed tones as they returned belowdecks via the skeletal steelwork of the helical staircase.
It was strange to hear the usually uncouth Goban talking sotto voce. Corporal Koblenzik didn’t know he had it in him.
The corporal flipped the switch on the instrument panel, the rainbow luminous band of light doused and replaced with backups. He sat and brooded in the backwash of a low golden nimbus, a strange mix of the sinister and enchanting, like everything else this far from home.
Goban got stuck with one of the older, bulky surplus surface suits, which gave him the chance to complain. “If any of you need me to save your butt, watch how hard it is for me to even squeeze the trigger of my hydro cannon in this coffin.”
“You look chivalrous in that armor.” Hasa smiled at his misfortune as he and the other soldiers he’d picked wriggled into their silver flex suits. The new suits made sibilant whispers as they slid them over their neoprene under-skivvies.
“Yeah, well don’t expect this knight to come rescue Elder if she gets snatched up by a dragon.”
Elder, the lone female in the contingent, looked up, more pity than wrath written on her face. She shook her head and Koblenzik heaved an internal sigh of relief. Tension on board was a migraine, especially when they reached these horse latitudes and cabin fever set in (some called it “Hate Week”). But such spiteful exchanges on a mission didn’t just overcomplicate. They could kill.
“Alright.” The launcher’s voice came through the overhead system. He was young, and his high-pitched voice didn’t inspire confidence. “We’re going to breach exosphere here soon. Unless you want your Soldier Policies going to your next of kin, girdle your carcasses.”
The ribbed carbon fiber cockpits emerged from their hideaway compartments in the walls, the ovoid berths of the boxes looking like slots for giant eggs in a massive crate.
“Double quick-time, kids,” Koblenzik said. “It sounds like the launcher’s got butter fingers and we don’t need any of you getting sloshed to slurry.”
“Gotta leave the monsters down there some meat to eat.”
No one laughed at Goban’s joke.
They strapped in, Goban having the most trouble in his clunky ruggedized throwback hardware. “Shinola, this chafes.”
“Sound off,” Corporal Koblenzik said.
“Go-Ban!” He made it sound like a chant, urging on someone named Ban in a ballgame. It got a couple laughs.
“Elder.” Her voice sounded steady enough.
“Hasa.” His voice was fainter.
Koblenzik’d had limited interactions with Merther on-ship. He was mostly silent, though his blackish eyes were alert and curious, never more so than when he was devouring some technical manual in his bunk.
“Borgo.” Borgo’s voice boomed, the echo befitting a giant frame that belied a meek heart.
“They can find a suit in his size, but not mine.”
“Shut up, Goban.”
The launcher shut them all up, the ship jolting as the torus spun once before they stabilized, breaking that blue-green methane haze that had glowed like a poisoned jewel when they’d eyed it from the deck.
There was another thump as the boosters kicked on, roaring like an enraged and wounded beast until the supersonic banshee shriek drowned the bass in a wash of white noise. The sound trebled toward the ultrasonic, assaulting their eardrums even through their helmets.
Then there was silence, strangest of all. And then they floated free, the Zylon ripcord pulled. The ship that had carried them down shot back out toward the stars while they drifted lower until there was a plosive, nigh-comical pop as anticlimactic as a failed launch.
The sound of air rushing around them was interspersed with the hiccup-like noises that always came when the soft chambers of the inflatable first filled and then settled.
“Hasa, did you fart?”
“Soy doesn’t give you gas.”
“It was a joke,” Goban said.
“Yeah, but it was another dig at my diet. A man who eats other animals can’t complain if something decides to feast on his car-”
“Shut up,” Koblenzik said. Sometimes it seemed like ninety percent of his job consisted of telling his subalterns to shut up. And still he didn’t invoke his prerogative to hit the override and mute them while giving orders. A smart leader listened to the men and women he led. “Keep quiet,” he said, regretting the Shut up. The hard-ass stuff needed to be doled out in small doses, and even then only when absolutely necessary. None of these joes would fragment him (probably) but it was best not to piss them off, as his life depended on them.
The slightly fart-like noise became more flatulent as the thermoplastic yurt expanded around the ship containing the humans, their rover, their weapons, supplies, and foodstuffs. They had provisions for two weeks. Time enough to find diamonds, dirt, or to die sometime after touchdown.
Corporal Koblenzik was the first out of harness. He walked on surprisingly steady legs over to the captaining console. The three monitors in the bank showed that the launcher had dropped them in a valley rather than near a sharp spire that might threaten to impale the vessel (not that her skin was easy to shred). From what Koblenzik could see onscreen, there wasn’t much loose regolith or scree, which meant the ship wouldn’t even need minor repair work after retrieval. The launcher had done right by them despite the shakiness of his voice.
Koblenzik clutched the black PVC periscopic handle of the holdfast and twisted it on its spindle to get a three-sixty outside. The rover was in the right place, fused to the airlock of their humble igloo like a newborn baby fastened to his mother via umbilical cord.
Koblenzik looked at his five marines, their faces half-concealed by gold-filmed visors. He needed three bodies. Borgo was too big to fit comfortably in the rover (unless everyone else wanted to be uncomfortable so he could stretch his legs). Goban was a bit of an ass but a solid soldier (bad aboard ship usually meant good on terra incognita). Merther was smart but untested, but the test had to come some time. Elder was savvy and well-tried, and would balance out the choice of the newbie, assuming she didn’t get distracted by any bait Goban threw her way.
“Merther, Elder, Goban. Saddle up.”
They stacked as per SOP against the hatchway. Borgo hit the “open” valve and wished them luck in his deep voice that soothed Koblenzik’s nerves.
Koblenzik got seated in the rover cockpit and the other two soldiers settled around him. The third (it sounded like Goban) harnessed up to run the center-mounted hydrodynamic canon.
Koblenzik gazed through the windows bisected by a steel ferrule support grid that gave the pit the feel of a giant insect’s compound eye. “Everyone in?”
He got some unenthusiastic groans, and thrusted slowly, letting the caterpillar treads of the rover engage with the rocks beneath them. A fine powdery moondust rose in clouds around the buggy. It wasn’t Earth but it was ground, a welcome relief from shipboard life.
“Something I don’t get,” Goban said. “Why do our ultra-sentient overlords even want us to do these little beachcombs for a couple sprinkles of diamond dust before they come in with the augur conveyors and magnet rake the surface? What the hell is the point of having some five-fingered carbon-based sacks of crap do this first?”
“We’re recon,” Elder said, as if it were obvious. “If there are hostiles they’d rather lose some humans than their expensive toys.”
“That does wonders for my self-esteem.”
Koblenzik barely heard the banter around him, but he suspected they hardly heard themselves over the thump of their own hearts. It didn’t matter how many off-world jobs someone pulled. The alienness always gripped the gut, a near-hallucinogenic spike of fear-joy roiling the viscera’s waters, a peak experience to rival a wombat suit jump off a Martian cliff or a first sexual encounter.
This was why they all did it, regardless of what they told themselves about being mercenaries like Goban, or curious like Merther. Koblenzik looked over at him. The new kid appeared to be holding his soil.
“There!” Merther pointed out the window, his face suffused in a reddish glow that fluxed toward flaming titian. His visor reflected two shades of red, comingled hemoglobin and crimson, as if the sun had somehow been slit to reveal a core that contained as much blood as fire.
Koblenzik took his foot off the methane and stopped. “Goban, you cover us with that canon.”
“This place is deader than Earth Two.”
Elder shot him a spiteful look, which he couldn’t catch in the turret. Perhaps she’d had family there when the solar wind shockwave sent all those dreams up in flames and lit the heavens so that the fireworks could be seen as high as cislunar orbit.
“Humor me,” Koblenzik said. “Besides which, you shouldn’t have sat up there if you didn’t expect to man it.”
“Roger, Corporal. Though I got to take these mittens off. They make me feel like I’m still waiting to grow a pair of opposable thumbs.”
Koblenzik’s heart pumped, firing on all valves as the DI used to say in training. The rear of the rover fell downward, groaning on a hydraulic jack. Koblenzik checked the GPS coordinates on his wrist readout and made sure they matched what the array showed.
They were synced. Time to debouch.
They stood admiring the red mounds of diamonds, the ruby shine stark against the grey ashen scree and loose black rock around them. The piles rose like stalagmites from the floor of a fabled monster’s cave, as if the Ur-power of whatever created the universe were distilled here.
For the first time in his life Koblenzik forgot about the ultras, felt that a human could be powerful. Have a destiny.
“Think of it,” Merther said, spellbound, dreamy and sounding faraway though they were all crowded close enough to kiss. “It’s just precipitation, pressure, and carbon. But it looks like a…” He paused, almost said “palace,” mulled over the choices until his mind hit upon it. “Ashram,” he finally said in a voice just above a whisper. Merther’s eyes moved from the red diamond ashram to Elder and then back to the sparkling pile. “You need gliding atoms to make red diamonds.”
“They’re the rarest,” Elder said, in a hushed tone.
Gabon’s microphoned voice came from the turret. “Rarity matters if you’re a mean queen in an old fairytale. The ultras need this for machining. Besides, I think they’re color-blind.”
Koblenzik glanced up at the turret. He was grateful for Goban, as strange as that sounded. The wonder that overcame them when they gazed on the diamond henge was something from which they needed to awaken, and Goban was the only one cynical enough to snap them out of it.
“We’ll hammer a sample,” Koblenzik said. “Report coordinates. Claim our credits. Probably enough for six months’ vacation.”
“I’m putting mine toward a terra firma farm,” Merther said.
Koblenzik nodded in silent approval. The kid was as smart as he looked. Koblenzik would keep his dreams of having his own spaceship to himself, not daring to tell his fellow spacefarers.
“I’m going to get a master course in minerology,” Elder said, as much to herself as them.
“What’s the use?” Goban said. “So you can go rock climbing for the ultras and keep finding them precious jewels? Without–”
“Shitcan it.” Koblenzik had needed Goban to snap them from the dream, but he didn’t need him killing the dreams of others.
“What about you?” Elder asked Goban. “Sleeping with some soulless pile of silicon in a faux tropical paradise. You find that edifying?”
“More edifying than I would find screwing you, yes.”
“Elder,” Koblenzik said. “Mallet and vasculum from the berth.”
“On it, Corporal,” she said, putting bite in her voice as she moved back to the rover.
“Adjust the gravity on that chisel way the hell down or you’re going to smash the rock to smithereens.”
Goban nodded in his bubble. “Diamond will break like honeycomb if you hit her too hard.”
“Could you not gender the diamond as female when you reference hitting it, please?”
The words tossed between Elder and Goban got lost in the nimbus of a new light glowing inside the diamond. They watched, open-mouthed, as a sight more wondrous than aurora rippled through the clustered polyhedrons. What looked like a butterfly flapped its wings within the rose-colored cuts of the diamond.
“Life!” Merther shouted for the second time today. The butterfly grew in shape, its wings beating as it exalted.
But it was a mirage, or more accurately a reflection. Something blurred past them, the form reclaiming its reflected image as it swooped down from behind.
Then Merther was gone, enveloped in vein-covered, leathery wings marked with massive blood-red eyespots. He disappeared in a blinding streak punctuated by a high-pitched insect keen.
There was an acoustical scrape in Koblenzik’s headset so bad he was sure someone had let off a flashbang or concussive round with a shorted primer.
A blast ripped the air as the hydro-canon launched two electric blue tracer bolts through the sky. The shots trailed the thing flying away with Merther. Its filmy wings flapped, beating spasmodically in the low g, the versicolored markings at odds with skin so leathery and wrinkled it looked like an old man burnt to death.
“Die!” Goban shouted, his shouts punctuated by lasered bolts. “Die, you ugly bastard!”
It flew higher, grew smaller against the background of white stars in the black sky. But it did not disappear. Instead it drifted, still within view, so they could watch as it made its final move.
Merther writhed, impaled on the sharp point of the hooked beak it used to carry him through the air. It dipped its beak down, allowing the squirming, unlucky marine to slide along the serrated grooves so that with each stage of his freedom from impalement he got sliced by the natural tines on its sloping nose. He screamed, wriggled and found that, like an animal in a thornbush, any writhing on his part made it worse. His shrieks produced a mad, agonized series of echoes that gave the remaining marines on the ground goosebumps. His wailing stopped as the bald birdman leaned down so that the final razored prong on its nose cut through one of Merther’s short ribs.
The body fell with the limp grace of a cliffside suicide in low-g freefall. The birdman
had good aim and better timing. It had let him go just as it glided over the butte, so that when Merther fell, the hole it bored in his belly with its beak coupled with the sharp spire. Merther flinched once more after he made landfall and got impaled.
He spasmed, then slid silently downward, the rock lubricated with his innards that had liquified on impact. He lay motionless, skewered.
There was a whir from Koblenzik’s side and he looked. His eyes went wide. Elder had the chisel in one hand and the sample case in the other.
“PFC Elder, you must really want to take that minerology course more than you want to live.”
She was too intent on engaging the hammer to hear him.
Goban’s pointer finger fluttered just shy of the cannon’s trigger well. He waited patiently for the birdman to lose interest in its prey and come back to gather more morsels for the big feast with all the other migrating birdmen.
The thought was horrible, the idea of a whole flock soon swarming en masse.
Especially as one was probably more than enough to kill them all.
“Come on, Private!” Koblenzik shouted.
Elder ignored him, entranced by the diamond.
He tugged her. She wouldn’t budge. He looked up toward the butte. The winged thing was using its talons to shred the outer hull of Merther’s spacesuit. The fabric quickly went from white ribbed, semirigid sheathing to reddened shreds, all twenty-four super-thin layers yielding to the claws like single ply toilet tissue. The birdman’s black beak dowsed in lazy counterpoint to the clawing of the talons. It no longer tore the spacesuit, but had reached the skin beneath, the flesh yielding like salty strips of bacon cut from a cured whole hog.
There was no urgency in its mincing play. That was somehow the worst part, that it ravaged heedless of Merther’s shrieking and now ate ignoring his friends and fellow humans who were no threat.
Goban could take no more. He aimed the cannon. He fired rounds its way, the white-hot blue discs skipping through the sky like mini flying saucers.
“Goban!” Koblenzik shouted but the sound of the zooming rounds drowned him out, and below that all he could hear was the pneumatic stutter of Elder’s hammer finally engaged and chiseling.
One of the glowing rounds skipped the head of the birdman, touching its bulbous skull. Blood and something shard-like– maybe a suture– flew into the air. The birdman ceased playing with his food, hunched over on haunches as if sensing the arrival of some apex predator that had tracked his scent.
“Nailed the sucker!” Goban shouted.
“Got it!” Elder shouted, quivering with joy and terror, the diamond finally jackhammered free of the precious midden.
“Move!” Koblenzik pulled her.
The birdman raised up, opening its wings to their greatest span to once again boast its eyelike, multicolored markings. A pair of taloned dewclaws gripped the rock underneath it, and its lower limbs bent as if threatening to becoming prehensile coils. Then it released the saurian grapples from its heels and sprang free, leaving the cliff and what remained of Merther.
It swooped down toward the rover. Koblenzik pulled Elder to the ship and then into it. She clutched the vasculum case close to her.
“Die!” Goban shouted.
Koblenzik depressed the inner door hatchway button hard, twice. Tried to breathe through a near-all-consuming wave of panic. If he button-mashed too much, then the depressor might get stuck, and they would be screwed. Because without that mechanism they couldn’t remate with the yurt, get rescued by the dropship, or go through decon.
Meanwhile the Die! litany kept coming from Goban, but it was now less a curse than a plea. He was begging for it to die, for his railgun to be enough to repel it, like a child yearning to awaken from a nightmare.
And the hatch was still only half-closed behind them, groaning as if its hydraulics might be overtaxed, a rusty plaintive wailing. Then it stopped altogether, caught as if held open by a man with a super-strong grip. For want of a can of lubricant…
The only sound was the click-click of an overheated hydro-canon refusing to fire more rounds, a cricket-like fricative chirp. Then the birdman’s syrinx-borne scream sounded again, its rageful squawk indistinguishable from agony. It was the sound of hunger, the need of a babe to eat, but borne on lungs so strong they seemed to create the wind that came from the furious beating of the spread wings.
“I’m out,” Goban said.
The high-pitched yowl rose a few more decibels. The glass faces of several instrument panels inside the buggy rattled and then shattered in a shower of synthetic glass, rice-grain diodes and circular servos losing their icy blue argon glow as they exploded.
The door finally resumed closing again, groaning on its jacks.
And the blood-soaked beak still aimed for them, as unwavering in trajectory as an arrow launched from a quiver. The thing’s flesh caught reddish light from the diamond midden, the sparkling glow shining through the veined fibers in the wings as they slapped air.
Koblenzik had the overwhelming urge to run, to scurry to the far corner of the vehicle and hope like hell it snatched another crewmember with its claws. But he had the stripes and forced himself to stay riveted to the space through which the birdman remained visible as the door continued to close. It locked eyes with him as it approached, so intense and fixed in its gaze that he felt first hypnotized and then literally punctured by its stare. Stabbed.
It slammed against the entryway, finding its fully spread wings would not allow it to make the final push into the cabin.
Inside the blood-soaked beak the birdman had radular rows of toothlike nubs, like some kind of leech or suckerfish. Koblenz could see gristly bits of flesh and skin dangling there in sizes as large as spiral-sliced meat and fine as cilia.
Its eyes were like those of a predatory fish, reflecting no light or life, a weird merging of pupil and iris into one lusterless black disc. However it sensed Koblenzik, it didn’t see.
It shouted again, unleashing a noise that made the fluid run from their ears, the sound borne on a wind fetid as the cloaca of a giant snake expelling its bowels and giving birth in the same spasm.
Koblenzik and the thing were face to face.
He howled at it, and his traumatized screams merged with the creature’s, something like sympathy passing between them even though each wanted the other dead.
The ultras were right. Man was a low animal, and Koblenzik had never been so grateful to be low. He needed the boost that came from instinct pounding through his muscles that had felt frozen with fear until now.
Except he had no weapon, nothing to help stave off the nightmare teeth or dead eyes.
There was no logic to what happened next. He shouted and its head fell off, the leathery pate severed from the spinal column so that it rolled around on the floor of the rover. The buggy’s treads skittered, and it pulled out and away from the red diamond mound and Merther’s remains.
“The door took his head off!” At some point Goban had dropped down from his turret and now steered. He smiled and stared like a man possessed.
Koblenzik looked around like a good junior NCO. Time to check on his troops.
She held the vasculum case in one hand, the tube brimming with a glowing trove of red diamonds. In the other hand she held the leathery head of the birdman, the grimace still on his face, the point of his bill dulled from banging against the rover’s metal hull. The black beak curled at the previously sharp tip, looking as harmless now as the decaying horn of an ancient stuffed narwhal. Some parataxonomist’s vitrine was going to get quite a trophy. The only question was who got to keep it.
They could fight about that later, though
Fluid flowed from Elder’s ears as fast as tears spilling down a grieving mother’s face. She wore a strange smile, just like Goban. Koblenzik glanced once through the window as they drove in the direction of the white yurt in the distance, then looked back to Elder.
She stroked the head lovingly, admiring this non-taxonomized monster with a flap of man liver dangling from its bill.
“What should we call it?” she asked, benumbed, half-deaf.
Goban pondered as he steered, engaging the cruise mechanism to devote himself wholly to the task of coming up with names. “How about….diamond shrike?”
Elder turned the head to admire it, doing what Koblenzik could not as she stared into its eyes. She seemed to communicate something to it silently, as if asking its opinion of the name with which it would hereafter be saddled in all the domains of the ultras (which were myriad and well-spread throughout the stars).
As she turned the head there was a rattle, a plink light as a nickel coin tossed ono the floor of a tile fountain. Koblenzik looked toward the sound (being careful to avoid the wide open bugeyes that looked the same in death as in life).
He had expected to see a shard of red diamond, perhaps a bit of bone, a finger flange fallen free of the beak that had caused the sound as it rattled around.
Instead, he saw only a glint of something gold, shining despite a hard soak in the blood of a man who’d lost his very last liter.
“Oh,” Elder said, letting the leathery head rest in her lap. “Merther was married.”
About the author: Brief Bio: Joseph Hirsch is the author of numerous published works. His shorter fiction has appeared in many venues, including Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction; Bull: Men’s Fiction; Terror House; 3 AM Magazine and Close to the Bone. He holds a Masters Degree in Germanistik from the University of Cincinnati and can be found online @ www.joeyhirsch.com
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