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Ten miles of walking across the hot, arid land had baked Bota’s lungs and torn his muscles. He stopped and squinted through the shimmering air, hoping to see nothing moving in his direction. Then he wrestled his two packs over his painful shoulders and slumped onto the hard ground.
Lying flat, he gulped from his water bottle and peered ahead again, towards outpost Theta, waiting a mile away. But getting to the tiny structure was a big problem.
Little things mattered on planet Mega. Staying horizontal was better than vertical, to reduce one’s target. Moving quicker was better than slower, as the planet’s large, reptile-like predators, preferred easily caught prey.
But Benjamin Bota laughed all the same. He spewed his breath into the rough red earth and pulled in dust as he inhaled. It was what he had wanted—to explore Mega. He just hadn’t counted on being stranded here—he and the other survivors—with little chance of help or return to Earth.
Faster than light travel had finally catapulted Terran pilots into roaming the vast reaches of space in the hope of discovering other habitable planets. Mega had been one of the first. But the explorers’ ship had crashed on arrival, two years earlier, and there’d been no contact with other ships or remote beacons since then.
Furthermore, he was now cut off from his planetary cohorts as well. All he could get on his com-pod at this range was static. His rover-sled sat dead—ten miles back. The colony-made battery had refused to revive. It could self-charge, with a solar panel for emergencies, and it should have lasted to outpost Theta and then on to the next outpost—Epsilon. But, like a lot of things on this planet, it just stopped working.
Bota had volunteered to extend the base system from the crash site. A paleontologist by trade, he dreamed of discovering a new world’s amazing fossils, and bringing them back to Earth. But a colony struggling just to survive needed no fossils, rendering Bota and his specialty useless. His current duty took him well outside the home base, travelling as far as he could, to leave supplies or build a shelter, and then return. But he’d screwed up. He’d pushed the envelope too far in his zeal to be useful. The summer season had arrived early, increasing the danger. He was a week overdue; his sled lay abandoned; and he might collapse soon. He imagined Commander Chang’s irate voice, ordering him to start for the Epsilon station—50 miles past Theta and half-way to Home Base—even if he had to walk. Except the radio gave only static.
In any case, he was walking. Bota pulled himself up to his knees. A warm wind blew, and he rubbed his long, hang-dog face. Scanning 360 degrees, he flipped his goggles into heat sensing mode, but animals had to be within 50 feet to show distinctly on the lenses. And by that time, it might be too late.
The flat land surrounding him rested in a wide valley between two mountain ranges hundreds of miles apart. Patches of leafy trees swayed like mirages in the heat. Few sounds came from anywhere, and little movement. But that was deceptive, because for six weeks the worst of the planet’s creatures would rule the plains: the swarm. They’d already killed two of Bota’s companions the year before. At least the colony assumed that from the frantic radio calls—no bodies had been found. The creatures would come without warning—anywhere on the plains. A good shelter offered the best defense. Assuming he had one.
Bota dragged up his packs and lurched forward again. The long metal augur thumped against his back in its plastic tube. Part of his search involved ground water, and whenever his electronic gear had found water, he had drilled a hole and left a life-giving shaft into the dirt. But he’d found few of these holes—that’s why he had pushed his orders.
He tried to jog as the packs and utensils thumped around his body. Mega was slightly smaller than Earth, making him a little more buoyant. That and the higher oxygen in the air sometimes gave him a heightened feeling of hopefulness. Sometimes. But every step brought him closer to Theta. Every moment gave him a better chance to reach it. Every yard became a small, painful victory.
At half a mile to go he could barely make out the small shape of the outpost; it galvanized him, and he trudged harder, pushing through the pain. With two hundred yards to go he could see the little mound he had built, nestled beside a small grove of bushes. But something seemed different; it seemed a different shape. His heart sank as he dragged himself the last hundred yards.
Finally, he trudged through the perimeter of stones, and stood in front of the little structure, his chest heaving, sweat pouring down his face. He forgot to drop his equipment. The little hut had been smashed to pieces. The adobe walls were crushed, and the wooden roof beams were thrown askew.
Outside the hut, but inside the foot high, stone-walled compound, two hexapod creatures, the size of large dogs, traipsed warily, watching Bota. Their species, which the colonists called senio-acerfrigus, for six, hot and cold, inhabited the whole planet in various sizes and shapes. Half reptilian, half mammalian, they ate whatever they could find, and the small ones were dangerous if they hunted in packs.
Bota walked into the broken, decapitated hut. He dropped his bags and tools. Taking a long pull from his canteen, he looked around, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
The hut could be repaired. But it would take weeks. His equipment was strewn in complete disarray. Foodstuffs lay opened and emptied—and mostly consumed. Had the hexapods done this? He’d seen larger tracks—perhaps three times the size of the smaller ones remaining—so the larger versions were probably guilty, while the smaller ones had scavenged the remains, like hyenas. He watched the two animals, skulking around the enclosure. Their long snouts made their large, wide eyes appear contemplative, even intelligent. But like dogs their main thoughts centered on food—of any kind. Their gaping mouths and jaws distended when necessary to swallow large chunks at a time. Their gullets bagged out like a pelicans’, so they could grab food quickly. They weren’t very dangerous to humans, not like the big ones. Or like other things.
Bota turned outward. He could see far across the grass and dirt plain. The sheet predators were out there somewhere—the swarm. His group called them Lounguor, meaning Touch and Eat. Or perhaps Longuaie, as plural. Bota just called them the dirt swarm. What they could do to a man, he tried not to think about. But they could erupt at any time. Any moment. His tiny pup tent—still intact and folded up—would be useless. But the adobe wall still had some ragged edges. If he could rig a small enclosure with what remained he might have a chance. Some of the other bricks were undamaged, although he’d have to cut them out. He could drag the roof beams across—lower down, and he could crawl in, to make a kind of crypt. A six-week crypt, or longer. It likely wouldn’t be enough, but it was all he had.
For an hour he worked on his makeshift hovel, glancing back at intervals to watch for small dust storms approaching. He dragged four roof beams over and wrestled them in place around a portion of the intact bricks. Then he dug some of the smashed bricks out of their places and piled them and some broken earth into a mound under the beams, making another wall—big enough only to entomb his body. He had little time to make proper new bricks with water, mud and grass. Finally, he stood back, taking stock. It might do for an emergency. But he doubted it would keep out a determined swarm.
He stuffed what equipment he could into the hut. One of the hexapods ambled closer, the one with a large red spot on its forehead, surrounded by a greenish-blue skin. It huffed and licked its gums as it watched him. Bota rummaged on his belt and pulled out his gun—a standard projectile weapon. He also had a knife, a shovel, a small axe, and two combustible cylinder bombs. The bombs contained picric acid, in yellow granulated powder, a high explosive made from coal gas, extracted from the crude early coal deposits found on the planet.
The colonists had salvaged some rudiments of technology for building civilization; they had a small smelting furnace, a laboratory and a lathe. They had found iron and copper, so they could make metal utensils. From the coal they found they could produce many things including heat, or the building blocks for plastic or kerosene. Or explosives.
Bota pointed the gun at the hexapod, as it shuffled back warily. Bota would need food, and they had already discovered they could eat hexapod meat. But the hexapod reminded Bota of a dog. And he loved dogs. The Mega colonists had brought several dogs with them but only a few had survived. One of the dead had been Bota’s black Labrador, Rolf, now resting in a shallow grave back at the base. He missed Rolf.
In any case the gun was empty; he’d fired all the bullets a month earlier to ward off a giant reptile. He lowered the weapon and sighed. He didn’t want to shoot the little hexapod; he needed a faithful friend. Maybe one day a hexapod would be it—or something like it.
“Good dog,” he said, hopefully. It sounded strong and sure—not at all the way he used to speak. But his stutter had somehow disappeared after the crash. Battered and traumatized he’d spent a month lying on a stretcher. But the planet had given him this one benefit in exchange for the drawbacks.
It might make him less shy and insular, but he was 40 years old, and shipwrecked, without a companion to call his own, so it was a small blessing. Bota stared out and up at the mountains again. That’s where he should be, cracking open rocks and earth and making great discoveries—he and Rolf—and he ached to be there now. Maybe he should try to make it there, to the base of the mountains, for one crazy attempt to find something, before he died. But then he laughed at himself; it was all a dream, slipping through his fingers. He would never get close.
Bota turned and looked back again across the plain. He felt angry now—the swarm angered him. He knew he and the other colonists were the invasive species, but this was his home now, and he was failing at simply surviving here, let alone pursuing his profession.
As his anger built, an idea came to him: a kind of scientific equation. He didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t live with the swarm, so he would have to defeat it. But what did that mean? He squinted at the terrain, thinking. It seemed crazy to take the offensive, but it was the one thing which might make the difference. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, peering around at the ground.
Did he have time? Did he have the resources? The knowledge? He knew little about the creatures. Small, individual organisms, they banded together to form a large sheet of flesh around their victims. No direct parallel applied to an earth species. Each animal was the size of a small leaf, roughly octagonal, with a tough, elastic skin. They erupted from the earth and locked onto a victim, with the rest of the swarm quickly following, wrapping around the poor animal with interlocking hooks. They pulled and squeezed, cracking bones and smothering their prey quickly. Then they gorged on the body at their leisure, ingesting everything but the bones, later consumed by larger creatures.
Although spread out across the plains, they could be anywhere on the ground, blending in with the dirt or foliage around them. They could jump and flap, appearing to fly for short distances as they roiled forward like a thick, brownish cloud.
Bota could run. He could hide. But most importantly he could think. And wasn’t that how he would defeat them? He was a human, after all—he was smarter than an animal with a tiny nucleus of brain cells. Wasn’t he?
He exhaled harshly. What did he know about them? What did he know!? How did they find their prey—by smell? By vibration? They could come from anywhere or nowhere, but they always seemed to come from the earth, and they grouped together for a reason. They lived a seasonal existence. They were due to appear, but from where? From inside the earth? They shared characteristics with some earth insects. Possibly they burrowed into the earth to leave their eggs, which would hatch, and burrow back to the surface. But if so, if the parallel held true, there would be a short intermediary stage—a pupa—which would shed its final skin to become an adult. And in that stage many insects became vulnerable.
Could he find them before they found him, and destroy them? Perhaps he could destroy any of the creatures close to his station.
He quickly prepared his plan.
Five minutes later Bota stood ready. He carried his electronic water dowser—a small box with antennae and a digital screen—as well as his long metal augur on his back; one of his two rectangular cans of kerosene; and one of his two pipe bombs, held inside his jacket, pressed against his stomach. The bomb wasn’t for the swarm—it was for him, in the last extremity; he hated the thought of dying a gruesome death. Maybe he could try to kill the swarm with the bomb, but if not, he could finish himself off and take some of them out with him. The bomb had a wireless trigger that he kept in his pocket. He’d never used it, and he could only hope it worked.
Bota left the rocks of his enclosure and ran the water dowser close to the ground. It worked on movement detection; ground water usually rippled under the earth, as a pool or a flowing stream. Bota knew water flowed nearby but he’d already scouted out the area for that, and a water source supplied the pump in his hut. He moved out 50 yards, and then turned and moved back again toward the hut. Flipping his heat sensor into place on his goggles, he continued with a looping grid, going back and forth, for a tense hour, around the hut. After returning to his starting point, he felt better. He’d found no other signals in the earth. Maybe none of the disgusting creatures lived nearby. Maybe they wouldn’t find him after all.
He pushed out again, this time extending another 50 yards in his loop. The total sweep would take a lot longer as it now covered more total area. His back and legs hurt, but he stayed fixed on the meter.
On his second loop, he saw the meter jump. It blipped with a tiny spike. As he moved it around, several tiny spikes prickled along the meridian. He moved in a circle, and the spikes moved up and down like a musical display. He flipped his heat sensor up and down on his goggles, but it registered nothing. Finally, he took them off. With trembling hand, Bota placed the water meter down. He knelt, awkwardly because of the gear, and put his ear to the ground. He could hear rustling. Slipping off his long augur, he jabbed it into the earth, where it penetrated several inches, jarring his arms. He raked it forward for two feet and then raked it several more times. On his knees he peered at the earth. Translucent pieces of animal flesh writhed in the dirt. Bota’s skin crawled. Some of the pieces of flesh flailed with injuries from the auger; some merely struggled to escape their earthy crypts.
Bota jumped up and raked the earth with the augur. The milky blobs of flesh rolled and tumbled out of their holes. He dragged the augur lines farther, digging hard. More and more longuaie appeared, wriggling in the dirt. Bota was killing some of them, but hundreds probably remained, and he couldn’t hope to kill them all with his augur. He crisscrossed the small area—about 10 feet in diameter now—digging and slashing at the earth. They didn’t seem to end, but he hoped desperately to find a limit. Finally, at 15 feet out, the patch of pupas dropped off. But many of them were struggling out of their skins, freeing their new, brownish body, showing a tiny dot near each of their eight sides, and tiny spiked cilia along the edges to act as claws.
Their rapacious mouths gaped on the underside.
Kneeling in the middle of the pupas, Bota pulled out his entrenching shovel. He dug in a circle, chopping into the earth and pulling up whatever lay underneath. Over and over, he pulled up the creatures now wriggling to the surface. He shovelled until his arms ached. Then he dropped the shovel and pulled out his knife, slashing it up and down, chopping and chopping through the dirt. His own ears roared as he cut the creatures into pieces, and a thick, clear ooze dribbled and bubbled around him. He moved like a machine gone berserk. Every piece, every creature, had to be sliced—to be killed. The sweat burned his eyes; his arm ached. He shifted from the center, but found them everywhere. Reaching exhaustion, he stopped and wheezed, and rested. Wiping his eyes brought better vision. A burning on his left arm signaled one of the little blobs stuck on him, digging through his sleeve. He scraped it off and cut it into pieces on the ground. Then he took stock, peering back and forth. It was working; they weren’t forming into a swarm. He was winning—he was winning!
Regaining his breath, Bota set to work again. He lunged back and forth, stabbing and cutting. Finally, he lurched over to his dropped kerosene can. By now he hoped, most of the creatures were crawling on the surface. Popping open the can he dribbled out the kerosene, squeezing it, adjusting the nozzle for spray. The light rain of kerosene dropped over the struggling swarm, and Bota stomped back and forth, trying to reach the whole area. With a few inches of fluid left, he stopped up the can, and with fumbling fingers brought out his lighter-stick. To get the ground flame going quickly, he pulled out his knife and sank it into his shirt, ripping off a huge chunk of cloth. Then he ignited the cloth with the lighter-stick and moved to the middle of the killing ground, where he touched down the flaming cloth, and then pulled it over to the periphery, leaving it there. The kerosene caught and a flame spread slowly in a circle, around the edge, and then inwards, meeting the first flame.
Bota staggered back and watched. A coating of flame now danced over the patch, heating his face and hands. A low crackling squeal came from the ground, and it seemed to wiggle and warp. Several creatures flopped out of the flames and writhed, smoking. Bota chopped them with his knife into pieces. The whole mess smelled oily and dank. Bota lurched around the circumference, stabbing anything that got outside it. The creatures were burning, although the fire couldn’t consume them completely.
Finally, the fire retreated, leaving a steaming mass of gelatinous lumps, still wriggling in places, in a sea of death.
Bota grinned and pumped his fists, elated.
And then, from the side, the ground erupted and swept onto him. He whirled away, stunned, as a mass of slimy objects clasped onto him.
He hadn’t got them all! A pocket still existed, several feet from the rest. How large it was, or how many attacked he couldn’t tell. Still whirling, Bota tore away handfuls, but more took their place, and the others sank their tiny claws into him deeper. He pulled out his knife and tried to scrape them off. They were covering his chest, and up his neck to his chin. Folding into each other, their claws dug through his coat. He stabbed at them, desperate to prevent them from fully interlocking. If this small remnant could envelope his chest, they would squeeze him to death within minutes. He hacked with his knife now, uncaring whether he stabbed himself. Wherever he opened a hole, it seemed another creature took its place. They squeezed his neck now, in double layers, and a tightening rope of longuaie began to strangle him.
Bota fell to the earth and writhed back and forth, hoping to dislodge the creatures but they interlocked like a single organism. He slashed at them around his throat, causing a lot of damage, but they held in place, even as they died.
He was losing! Dammit!
Breathing came hard; his ribs were cracking, and he knew he had only seconds before an agonizing death. But at least he wouldn’t go like the others. He reached into his pocket and found the small rectangular wireless transmitter.
This was the end of his dreams and his adventures. But he’d tried; he’d fought. With enormous pain racking him, Bota flipped the transmitter cap open and pressed the button.
And nothing happened.
He groaned as the failure sank in. He was going to die horribly.
But then he heard a sharp explosion far behind him and a tremble in the earth. It puzzled him but he was too busy dying to pay much attention. He rolled again and slashed with his knife in a futile effort to go down fighting.
And then his neck came free. And then his chest was free, as the creatures flew off, detaching themselves and whirling away. He gasped for air, sucking it in gratefully. Only a few of the creatures remained, still stuck to his coat, where he’d slashed them.
His body burned with pain. Blood flowed from hundreds of tiny punctures on his throat and lower face, as well as from the stabs in his throat and chest. He rose to his knees and peered back towards the sound of the explosion.
What the hell had happened?
Bota lurched up and peered at a small cloud of dust and smoke back at the station. He staggered towards it. Should he go back? Wouldn’t he have to be crazy? But something told him he had to.
Grabbing his tools, he lurched back towards the station. In 10 seconds, he reached the stone border, and the sight there astounded him. The swarm was undulating around an object outside the hut, smothering it just as they had smothered Bota only seconds earlier. Bota spied a couple of legs sticking out of the mass and realized it was one of the hexapods—or what was left of it.
Bota watched, in shock. He realized the hexapod had swallowed the second canister of picric acid, and it had blown up when Bota triggered the wireless signal. Bota had mixed up the two switches in his haste.
He stood, swaying, bleeding and gasping, watching the swarm consuming the half of the hexapod that hadn’t blown up.
But why had they given up on Bota and attacked the hexapod? Did they smell the fresh meat? Or the burned meat? Was a native species far tastier than an alien life form? Maybe Bota tasted bad, and given the choice of real meat, they had scrambled for it.
It needed further study.
But for the moment he still had to kill the bastards.
Stumbling to the enclosure, Bota pulled out his second kerosene can. He sprayed the fluid over the mass of rippling milky flesh, emptying the can as quickly as possible. Then he held his lighter over the disgusting mass. In seconds it took flame, and Bota reeled back as it burst into a larger yellow bonfire, singeing his hands and face.
The longuaie jerked and shook, but they didn’t break up. Bota stayed close, knife drawn. The ball of flesh rolled and swayed, but it seemed unsure what to do. Several tiny bodies popped as their skin burned off and their insides oozed out. More oozing followed, and finally, as the flames died down, several creatures detached and flopped away. Bota followed them and stabbed them viciously. About twenty of the creatures sprang off the smoking mass and Bota finished them all off. The others stayed, squeezing their prey as they died.
Bota found a large rock, turned and smashed it on the composite organism, over and over, mashing it into a gooey mess. His eyes blurred, but the mess seemed to stop moving. Then he dropped the rock and stumbled to the edge of the makeshift hut, collapsing against it. He sat, breathing hard, watching the smoking lump.
The hexapod had been a faithful dog after all.
Bota coughed and spewed out a stream of red and clear fluid. He started laughing and crying at the same time. The second hexapod peered around the corner of the ruined hut, sniffing and huffing. Bota wondered if he could train the hexapod to carry his tools. Or even fetch. Anything seemed possible.
This story was previously published in Lynda Williams’ Megan Survival Anthology (an Okal Rel Universe book) in 2017.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Craig Bowlsby lives in Vancouver Canada. Recent fiction includes, “The Day the Earth Didn’t Stand Still” in Neo-opsis science fiction issue 32, July 2021; “The Last Run of Old 248” in the JayHenge science fiction anthology, June 2021; “The Last of the Shamrocks” in Aethlon, issue 36-1, 2020; “One Day in Tom’s Life with Ice Cream,” in Neo-opsis science fiction magazine, issue 30, 2019; and “Translate This,” in the science fiction magazine, Polar Borealis, issue 6, 2018, re-issued in a Tall Tale TV Podcast in 2021.