Black Petals Issue #78 Winter, 2017

Surviving Montezuma
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Mars-Chris Friend
All is As It Should Be-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Clown Attack-Fiction by Paul Strickland
One Hell of an Interview-Fiction by Daniel Clausen
Sacrifices-Fiction by Toney Baus
Self-Immolation-Fiction by Michael Mulvihill
Surviving Montezuma, Ch. 5 &6-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Lucky Break-Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Those Other Guys-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Only at Night-Poem by Cindy O'Quinn
Ouija-Poem by Ramona Thompson
Roadkill Cat-Poem by Ramona Thompson

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SURVIVING MONTEZUMA, Chapters 5 & 6

 

By Kenneth J. Crist, BP Editor

 

Up close and personal

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

Within an hour of their first firing of Montezuma’s single remaining engine, Marla noted a nine-degree deviation in their heading, which forced them to use steering rockets to correct. This would continue until they stopped applying power to the vessel, and she intended to keep the power on for a long time, maybe even until their fuel was exhausted. Of course, this meant they would have no way of slowing when they reached Earth’s pathway through space. Slowing was not her concern.

Since the ship only had one engine, she knew they could not attain the kind of speed the Monty was normally capable of, but if they could get near enough to Earth that their signals could be clearly heard, they could be rescued. Hell, the junkiest space-tug could catch them, no faster than they would be going. But, this course-deviation thing had to be corrected. She knew if she could put a spin on the ship or, more correctly, a roll, so that it spun like a bullet in flight, the off-center thrust of the engine would balance out and they would remain more true to their course.

The problem was that none of the steering rockets that still functioned were the ones that controlled roll. They were all aimed outward at right angles to the hull and were made to control yaw. She and the Gunny would have to work on the steering rockets, and either get the right ones to work or re-mount and re-aim the ones that could still be fired.

This meant more hours of exhausting outside work in space suits, with a minimum of tools and equipment, but they had little choice. Again, it was a question of survival. Besides, it was something to do. Lately, in their quarters, they had been finding less and less to occupy their time, and the boredom, along with the constant fear, was driving her bonkers. She was a tough woman and outwardly showed little emotion but, down deep, where it counted, she was as scared as she had ever been in her life and it was starting to show. She was having nightmares and waking frequently during their sleep periods. This morning she had come awake to find herself wrapped cozily around Billy, her face buried in his shoulder.

She kept reminding herself that she was an officer and he was an NCO. The Corps took a dim view of fraternization between the enlisted and commissioned ranks, and things were getting a bit too informal between them, she thought. It was bad enough that they had no privacy. Being too close in their relationship with each other only made the situation worse, or at least that was what she kept telling herself.

 

Billy didn’t mind EVA work at all. He realized that some people had problems with the fact that when you were outside the vessel there was no “up” or “down” per se, but that didn’t faze him. He had always been able to think three-dimensionally and just thought of close and far away—toward the ship or away from it—terms that could be readily applied. They were wearing tethers, so if they screwed up and did something that sent them spinning away, they’d only go a few feet before being snubbed off at the end of their safety line.

While he worked on unbolting the nose steering rocket and turning it to aim sideways to the hull, Billy thought about Marla. He didn’t quite know what to make of her. Like all Marines who had been in the Corps for a while, she was a tough individual, and their close quarters meant that they couldn’t help but get in each other’s way and on each other’s nerves. They both tried to be careful about their dress, at least turning their backs when they dressed and undressed. But they had both been through boot camp and combat training, so nudity was no big deal. Or it wasn’t, until Billy had seen Marla absolutely starko the first time. She was possibly the most perfect woman he’d ever seen, and he’d seen his share.

Billy had never been in what could be called a relationship with a woman. He’d been with women, to be sure, having made the rounds of the whores’ cribs at every port of call from Luna to Jupiter’s moons, but those experiences weren’t anything more than stress relief and sowing wild oats. Marla wasn’t that kind of girl.

When he woke up this morning and she was curled up and wound around him, he had just laid there for quite a while, afraid to move, hardly daring to breathe. Soon, he found himself becoming excited, in spite of the fact that they both were relatively filthy and stinky. Thankfully, when she woke up and pushed away from him in embarrassment, she hadn’t noticed that he was fully aroused. Billy was starting to think of her in different terms, more as a superior woman than as a superior officer.

 

Billy cranked down the last bolt on the mounting flange of the steering rocket, being careful not to torque it too tight. In the near-absolute zero of outer space, it was easy to snap off bolts made brittle by the cold, and they had no spares. He was ready to go meet Marla, to get inside and eat hot food, free of his suit. As he headed down the length of the Montezuma toward their two tiny rooms, he found himself whistling under his breath.

Later that same day, Marla fired the newly remounted steering rockets and imparted a roll to the wreck of the ship, then spent a laborious hour taking sightings again, to determine if they were still on course. Once she was satisfied that they were close enough, she relit the main engine, and they began to accelerate again. She would make daily checks of their position and course from now on and, as long as all went well, she would let the main engine burn. The acceleration, less than one Earth gravity, when combined with the spinning of the ship, was confusing. They now had gravity of a sort and everything in their quarters wanted to slide to the “low” point, which was the corner to the left of the door, where the wall met the floor. It made sleeping more difficult and merely standing required quite a bit of dexterity. The toilet became messy and almost impossible to use, properly and they were constantly wiping up after themselves. It was hard, though, to dampen their spirits. By God, they were underway, headed home, and there was almost a holiday feeling between them. In the months to come they would have many occasions to remember that feeling and wish they could get it back.

 

Marla awoke to semi-darkness and the constant smell of their quarters, with tears clogging the long lashes of her eyes and a catch in her throat. She had been dreaming again. Lately, it seemed that her subconscious mind was intent on giving her a replay of every bad thing that had ever happened to her.

She had been dreaming about her big tabby tom, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee or, more correctly, about his death. When she was only five, her second father had brought home the cat as a present. Marla had never had anything to do with cats before but had taken one look into the cardboard box her second dad held in his big hands and looked into the big green eyes of the scruffy, skinny, bedraggled animal, and had fallen in love.

They had tossed around every name anyone ever heard of for a cat, but it was not until the animal had raided the kitchen trashcan one night and wound up with a ravioli can stuck on his head that his name had been graven in stone. He had wakened the entire house by running blindly about and crashing into everything that would make noise, until Marla had caught him and got the can off. He had been the Chef from then on.

Early in his life it had been necessary to neuter him, as he was truly a tomcat in every sense of the word, spending every night fighting and screwing himself into exhaustion. After he was made into a “good” kitty, Chef fattened up until he tipped the scales at eighteen pounds. He no longer tomcatted, but he still didn’t tolerate other cats; after a run of eleven years, this was to be his undoing. Marla had been dreaming about how he had met his fate while chasing another cat off his turf. He had run smack under the tires of a truck in front of their house, and she had been right there to see it happen.

She had been shattered at his loss and the horror of the manner in which it happened, her life at that time already having gone into a tailspin. This was the time of daddy number four, the one with the creepy hands, and somehow her inability to get along with her mother and evade his advances had made her feel worthless. The cat had been the only friend she had who was always there for her and on her side, no matter what. In the way of most pets, the Chef gave her his love unquestioningly, no matter what her mood was. Even now, she missed him terribly. In the faint glow of the single dim nightlight, she reached out and found Billy’s hand. Even though he was asleep, she needed the contact of another person.

 

Billy lay perfectly still and worked at keeping his breathing steady. He had heard Marla come awake and knew it was another nightmare. It had been happening more and more lately, and they were becoming more violent, apparently. This one had bothered her worse than some of the others, he figured, because this was the first time she had reached out to him. She must have thought he was asleep or she probably wouldn’t have, he thought. That was okay with Billy. He needed to feel her close to him just as much as she needed him; as far as he was concerned, the sooner they admitted their needs, the better. However, she was the commissioned officer. He would let her decide when she was ready.

In the thick, rank darkness of their quarters, he listened to her breathing as it evened out and told of her sleep, then quietly moved closer to her, curling her small hand into his.

 

The alien vessel, entirely black, had no markings of any kind. It was shaped roughly like a huge paper-wasp nest—a ball elongated at one end. There were openings or ports around its circumference through which patrol and attack craft could be launched. At the rear, nozzles of reaction motors showed.

The outer and inner hulls were made of exuded resin with a honeycomb filler between that acted as an insulator and lent extra strength to the construction. The resin was produced from the bodies of thousands of drones who spent their lives building the ships that, over millennia, had become the hives of the Glassies. Internally, the hiveship consisted of four layers. The bottom layer was given over to engine rooms and power plants. The second layer was filled with soil and with the root systems of the intelligent plants that were integral to the Glassies’ existence. The third layer was a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers through which the Glassies traveled and in which they stored food and raised their broods. The roots of their plants also ran through the tunnel systems to the surface. The top layer of the ship housed a rain forest of huge trees and ferns, vines and blossoms, in which the Glassies spent most of their time. Like the Glassies, the plants were silicon-based life forms, and their foliage had a shimmering, reflective quality never seen in any plant on Earth.

All of the plant life aboard the ship was interactive with the insectile Glassies; they existed in a kind of symbiosis. The plants could no longer exist without the nurturing and care provided by the Glassies. For their part, the plants provided food and were also the nervous system of the vessel. The Glassies provided the control and the favorable environment in which they could all exist.

The ship had six huge plasma drive engines and, in addition, its propulsion system was augmented by devices that could warp gravity, thus bending or folding space. The lighting in the tunnels and chambers and above the rain forest all came from fungi that coated the walls and inner stretches of the hull. It provided a soft glow that was all the illumination needed for the other plants and for the Glassies to find their way around.

The Glassies had no written or spoken language, but communicated their thoughts by movements, sounds and odors, so that their language was actually a total-body language. Their wants and needs were communicated to the plants and thus to the ship through the use of their feelers, touching and caressing the crystalline leaves of the trees. Thus, there was no helm or command deck, no cabins or sick bay, none of the appointments of a human-style ship. The weapons were mounted in specialized pods on the outer hull that were accessed from more tunnels. Ship-to-ship communication was also provided by the plant life aboard, the plants being not only sentient but also sensitive to others of their kind, scattered throughout all of the areas that the Glassies had explored.

The Glassies had no individual names for themselves and no name for their ship. Each of their number knew all of the others by sight, sound and odor. Each had a station and a position within the hierarchy of the nest or hive. Before leaving their own system, it was common for the queen to lay enough eggs to create a new brood that would incubate while enroute to their destination. The larvae were tended and fed as the ships crossed space by workers who, by varying the nutrients and hormonal content of the feed, could create drones or soldiers, or even a new queen, as needed. Upon arrival the brood would be ready and provide warriors needing no training or motivation. Everything they needed was encoded in their genetics. The Glassies were a race that asked and gave no quarter, continuing to fight as long as one limb or appendage could function. Most of the Glassies ever taken prisoner had sickened and died within a few days.

The ship’s Prime Leader awoke from a light doze, high in the rain forest of the ship. He was positioned on a limb, his four heavily clawed rear feet tenaciously gripping the rough bark. The leaves on his perch had shivered with a tinkling sound, arousing him from his nap. His feelers played delicately over some leaves as he learned what the plants had to tell him. An energy source had been detected within a few million miles of their position. It was accelerating toward the sun. Its signature suggested a reaction propulsion system that was different from theirs and could only mean it was controlled by the things that called themselves “humans.”

The Prime Leader thought about the ugliness of the humans and their barren, poisoned, hideous planet and shuddered slightly, then politely requested that the plants cause the ship to send them in pursuit.

 

On the ninth day after the second firing of the single main engine, the fuel remaining in the tanks of the Montezuma at last exhausted itself and the engine went silent. Lieutenant Kinkaid took her sextant to the remains of the bridge and sent Gunnery Sergeant Hatcher to switch over their power, so that she could use the computer.

As soon as it was up and on line, she bumped the steering rockets repeatedly until the spin on the ship ceased and it became stable. By checking their position she found that they had achieved a speed of only forty-one thousand miles per hour, barely making headway compared to what the Monty would be capable of with all engines operable and in fighting trim, but perhaps fast enough to save their lives.

After doing her calculations, Marla told Billy that it would take them roughly a hundred and ninety days to cross the portion of the solar system that comprised Earth’s orbit—two astronomical units. In less than one hundred eighty days, the Earth would already have passed the rendezvous point, but if they were close enough, someone might pick up a radio signal. She said that they might gain some speed as they passed the sun from its gravitational field, provided they could get their course set closely enough to avoid burning alive, if the steering rockets didn’t run out of fuel. And, of course, they would have to be unbolted and set back to their original positions....

Billy and Marla spent the day working outside, making the changes needed to reset the steering system, and then they headed for their quarters, picking up some fresh air tanks on the way. They switched power back to their rooms and fixed a meal of concentrates, then slept the night through, without dreams.

 

In the rain forest the singing of the insectile life forms droned almost constantly as they roosted in the trees. Much like the sound of crickets or cicadas it was a soothing sound. The Glassie hiveship had been closing on the Montezuma for nine days, although time in the rain forest had little or no meaning. Now, the Prime Leader was again summoned by the tinkling of agitated leaves, and extended his feelers to the tree that was the tallest and learned from it. The energy source they had been pursuing had shut down. The object was still there but its drive system now produced no signature. Orders? The Prime Leader suggested they continue to close, and the plants concurred. No extra speed was added, as their closing rate already was sufficient and there was no hurry.

 

Gunny Hatcher woke up to darkness and the hum of their small heater. Since the fuel had run out and Marla had stopped their spinning, they were once again weightless. In the confines of the room, they had drifted together in the center and Marla was pressed against him, her head tucked under his chin and one hand flat against his chest. Her other arm was around his back and his one arm was wrapped around the slimness of her waist. As they drifted half-asleep, Billy was very much aware of her body and its firmness, touching him at hip and breast. Aroused, he moved to ease himself away from her. Then she came awake and a marvelous thing occurred, at least from Billy’s perspective. She not only didn’t remove herself from him, she clung tighter. Then her lips moved up to his neck, just below where his beard started and soon she was kissing him on the mouth.

He began to wonder if he was actually awake or if he was having another of the fantasies he had been engaging in of late. But then his hand was touching her in places he had only dreamed about and she was whispering to him in the darkness, saying, “Oh, Gunny. My God…Yes. Yes, Billy.”

Her hands were touching him, too and soon their clothing became a restriction neither of them could stand. Gunny Hatcher had only heard from other Marines what it was like to make love in a weightless condition. He found it to be a very inspirational experience.

In all of his dealings with women in the past, he had always been hurried along, in the manner of whore-house, assembly-line sex the universe over. Now they had nothing but time, time to enjoy as best they could their only diversion.

 

Now there was little for the occupants of the Montezuma to do but wait and survive. Lieutenant Kinkaid took her sightings daily, more to have something to do than out of any real worry that they might have drifted off course. Here in the depths of space there was nothing to cause them to change their direction of travel and, if left alone, the Monty would continue in a straight line forever and at a constant velocity, at least in theory. In actual practice, it would eventually come under the influence of gravity from some celestial body and its course might be changed many times before it became a permanent satellite of a star or planet, or crashed somewhere.

During rest periods, Billy and Marla became closer than the closest friends. They became lovers, first almost hesitantly, then with wild abandon, reveling in their closeness and isolation, exploring each other’s bodies as well as their minds and emotions. When in quarters, they no longer bothered with clothing, as it tended to get in the way at their closest moments, never sure when those moments might come upon them. Since they were now in such close physical contact and there was plenty of water, they agreed to each take a daily sponge bath and their quarters gradually became more bearable. Marla even took to wearing a little perfume, some expensive stuff called “Brazilian Encounter.” Supposedly ‘all-natural’, it drove Billy nuts.

Marla’s bad dreams disappeared and Billy was thoroughly in love. He had never spent this much time with any person, let alone a woman, and was enchanted by her in every way. He had stopped thinking of her in terms of military rank. Now she was just his Marla, for she had told him she could never bear to be without him. He viewed their isolation aboard Montezuma as he would have viewed a long term in a prison and was sure he would have gone mad without Marla. The time they spent together when they were not making love was time they used to learn of each other’s lives. Billy opened up areas of his life that had been shut away, and more than once they cried together or laughed together at some shared story or anecdote from their individual pasts.

Billy was able to at last share with another person the guilt he felt over the fate of his best friend, Norman Wahl. He and Norman had gone into the Marines under the buddy system and had gone through boot camp together, then on to infantry school. Norman had remained a grunt, but Billy had been selected to be trained as a pilot. They had separated for a time and then run across each other again on the Wilbur E. Bascombe, when enroute to the Battle of Mars. Norman was already a veteran marine, with two rows of medals, among them two Purple Hearts. He would earn his third posthumously, when Billy dropped him and eighty-nine others into the canyons of Mars, where the Glassies had established a fire base and landing field and were in the process of hiving.

Billy had gone to Norman’s mother’s home in Derby, Kansas on his next shore leave, to deliver the terrible news. Norman had been the last surviving male in their family and thus exempt from military service, but he had wanted payback for his father and older brother.

Billy had delivered his dark news to Norman’s mother and sister, and had later learned that the sister had enlisted in the Space Marines and was stationed aboard the Louis B. Puller. He wished he’d had the chance to at least try and talk her out of that course of action.

 

The tinkling leaves again summoned the Prime Leader to conference with the plant life of the ship. His feelers touched leaves and bark, expecting good news, and he was rewarded. The object of their pursuit would be alongside soon. It was indeed a human ship, but appeared to be a wreck. How could this be? If it was abandoned, how could its drive still function? It would bear investigation. They would need to board it. The Prime Leader asked the plants to scan for any life signs, whenever their approach brought them close enough.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

Gunny Hatcher’s watch beeped them awake in their tiny rooms and, for a while they just floated, half asleep, clinging to each other and unwilling to move. At last he changed his grip on her and kissed her good morning, watching her lovely face in the dimness. Soon her eyes opened and she returned his kiss, then the frown line showed between her eyebrows and she asked, “What time is it?”

“Oh-eight hundred.”

“Yeah. Why don’t we just skip this ritual? We know we’re on course. Nothing’s changed. Let’s just stay here and sleep.”

“Why? Did I wear ya out?”

“Oh, yeah. Right. I seem to remember you were the one who gave up and fell asleep.”

“Okay, how about a return match?”

“Sure. Any time, Gunny. I’ll make you holler Uncle.”

“Yeah, right. C’mon, get dressed. We need to stretch our legs a little.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my legs,” she said, “at least that seems to be your opinion.”

“That’s very true, ma’am.”

They began putting on underwear, struggled into their jumpsuits, and then they assisted each other into their pressure suits. At last they shut down the heater and air tanks and cracked the valve on the outer door, after closing the inner one. When the pressure was gone, they stepped outside their quarters and made their way to the bridge. On the way, Billy stopped at the electrical service panel on Deck 3 and switched power to the bridge, while Marla continued on.

Billy heard her call on the radio and knew immediately that something was wrong. It was not what she said, just the tone of her voice. There was a quality there he didn’t like, a tightness that scared him. All she said was, “Gunny, get up here.” But it was enough. “On the way,” he responded, and started heaving himself through the shattered corridors of the Montezuma.

 

When Billy arrived on the remains of the bridge, he found Marla standing at the gaping hole in the deck, staring straight “down”. He stopped beside her and peered downward also, expecting the usual dizzying view of stars and infinite space. Instead, he saw only blank blackness. It took some time to register, but it finally got through. Something was blacking out the stars on that side of their vessel. They had company.

Billy motioned Marla closer to him and deliberately switched off his suit radio. She saw him do this and she did the same. He placed his helmet against hers and yelled, “No more radio traffic, ‘til we see what it is.” She nodded her understanding and watched Billy as he carefully knelt on the deck, right at the edge of the hole and pulled himself downward, placing the blackness above himself. As he started through the ship he glanced below his feet and saw that Marla was following.

It took several minutes to carefully drift through the ship, avoiding sharp edges of metal and dangling wires that might snag tanks or entangle them, but at last they reached the far side of the Monty and had a better view of the object they now shared space with. Neither of them had any trouble recognizing the shape of the Glassie hiveship.

Again their helmets touched. “Do we hide or fight, Ell-Tee?” Billy yelled.

“Either way, we’re screwed if they board us,” she hollered back. “We don’t have any heavy weapons and there’s gonna be way too many to fight.”

Billy looked back over at the hiveship, pacing them perfectly, a half-mile away, and saw a panel in its side slide open. From the opening, a series of silvery objects shot out, headed their way. They continued to emerge until there were fifty or so, darting off to cover the entire structure of the wreck. The objects were warriors, suited up for boarding, weapons at the ready, their reaction packs jetting them across the void to the Montezuma. Their speed was sufficient that Billy immediately knew he and Marla wouldn’t even have time to get back to their quarters before they were caught. He had no weapon with him and the Lieutenant didn’t, either. They were about to die and Billy was powerless to do anything about it except hide. He grabbed Marla’s hand and took off, taking her deep into the bowels of the ship, looking for a place to become invisible.

At last they wound up on the deck where they had found all of the space suits. He again placed his helmet against hers and yelled, “Get into one of the lockers and close the door. I’ll do the same and we’ll hope for the best. I love you.”

He looked into her eyes and saw they were filled with tears. Their helmets no longer touched but he saw her mouth the words. She told him she loved him, too, and that was enough for Billy. He yanked open a locker and helped her inside, then closed it. Then he set about finding another hiding place for himself. Their tanks were fresh and so were their batteries. They could last another five hours, with low activity. They would survive. He crawled inside a locker and pulled the door shut.

 

It took the Glassies just forty minutes to discover their hiding places and to take them into custody. Billy had no indication that they had been found until the locker door was suddenly wrenched open and he was facing several Glassie warriors in full battle gear. Their compound eyes glittered through the transparent material of their helmets and their mandibles made chewing motions as they sized him up. Even though he had fought them in many arenas of battle, Billy had never been this close to them. His role had always been that of a gunner and later a pilot, dropping others into the fray. He was immediately intimidated by their size. They stood about seven feet tall when raised up to their full height, and their long bodies and arms made them look even taller. Their faces wore no expression that Billy could read. Their battle suits were filthy and of no particular color that he could discern. Their helmets were shaped to a point behind their heads, to accommodate their antennae.

He closed his eyes, expecting the searing pain of a laser shot to pierce his suit and his body, expecting death at any moment, but instead he found himself seized roughly and yanked out of the locker.

He was tossed about like a rag doll as they looked him over, quickly discovering that his left sleeve was empty. He caught glimpses of Marla as they examined her also, turning her roughly this way and that, then apparently satisfied that they were not armed, the warriors dragged them back through the ship and jetted across to their own vessel.

As they shot across the void between the ships, Billy realized that he and Marla were in very serious trouble. The Glassies never made any attempt to recover their wounded or dead, but always took live prisoners. Marines who had boarded Glassie hiveships after battles had seen how those prisoners were used. He surreptitiously moved to turn on his suit radio and spoke into the mike. “Ell-Tee? You there?”

“Yeah, go.”

“Whataya think about this shit?”

“I think we’re goin’ aboard.”

“Yeah, and I don’t like it.”

“You suppose they’re gonna feed us to their young?”

“Who knows? But I can’t believe they’d bother with just two of us.”

They were roughly shoved into an airlock that immediately spun shut, the construction of its doors resembling the iris of an eye. Billy felt pressure on the outside of his suit and wondered what the composition of the alien atmosphere might be and whether it was safe to breathe. He quietly spoke to his suit, asking for outside atmosphere check. The readout came after a few seconds, projected on the inside of his visor. High oxygen content, low carbon dioxide, nothing lethal in the mixture. Safe as anyplace he’d ever been. Surrounded by Glassie warriors, Billy shut down his suit and cracked open his helmet. The inner airlock door scrolled open and he found himself facing a dim corridor, fully twelve feet in diameter, lined with twisting roots, the light coming from patchy areas on the walls and ceiling. Prodded forward, he heard the hiss of pressure being released as the Glassies opened their own suits.

He and Marla walked, surrounded by their guards, through a series of large tunnels, sometimes catching a glimpse into a chamber to one side or another. What they saw in the chambers made Billy shudder with revulsion and, soon, he heard Marla crying. We’re fucked, he thought, they’re gonna do us just like those poor bastards.

At last, they emerged from a tunnel into the bottom of the huge rain forest that was the top level of the ship. They could only stare in disbelief as their senses took in the monstrous trees and vines, the huge blossoms and the thousands of Glassies perched and moving about in their world. Their ears were assailed by the droning song of the Glassies as the creatures worked and played, rested and fed, all within the trees, high above.

One of the warriors went to a smaller Glassie and their feelers touched, then the other raced off into the trees, nimbly hopping from limb to limb and was quickly lost to sight. It was back in less than a minute and again the warrior and the messenger touched feelers, then Billy and Marla were turned and roughly shoved back into another tunnel. They walked for some time, being taken deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of the Glassies’ environment, until at last they were shoved into a chamber and the Glassies began roughly trying to strip them out of their spacesuits. When Billy and Marla began resisting, the Glassies backed off momentarily and watched as the two humans took the suits off by themselves. When the suits were off, the Glassies picked them up and one of the insectile warriors moved back to Billy and carefully reached out a wicked-looking claw and tapped on Billy’s wristwatch.

“No way, partner.” Billy said, shaking his head and wearing a scowl.

Weapons came to the ready and Marla said, “Give it to him, Gunny.” There was no mistaking the despair in her voice.

Billy hesitated for a moment, then held out his arm to Marla. She unclipped the band of the watch and handed it over. He was mildly pissed off. His original watch had been lost along with his left arm and he had found this one in a locker. It was an elaborate electronic chronometer with about six buttons and dials and the back was engraved with the name of a Lance Corporal from the infantry unit stationed aboard Montezuma. Billy would have worn the watch for the rest of his life, in memory of the fallen Lance or until he could have returned it to the man’s family. Now it would be gone forever, and they now had no way of reckoning time.

The Glassies backed out into the corridor and across the opening a system of tough roots and vines quickly wove themselves together to form an effective barrier against their escape. The warriors then simply walked away, leaving them utterly alone.

 

Billy looked around their tiny prison cell and realized it was almost exactly the same size as the room they had been living in for months. The chamber was roughly rectangular but had no sharp corners. It appeared to be made of some tough resin-like material, similar to fiberglass, dark brownish in color and not particularly smooth. They sat upon the floor, since there was no furniture. The chamber was lighted by more of the glowing fungus, which covered most of the ceiling.

“Well, whataya think?” Marla whispered.

“I think we’re here for however long they want to keep us.”

“What...what do you think they’ll do with us?”

“I don’t know, Ell-Tee.”

“Did you see—?”

“Yeah, I saw it. And even though I’d heard the stories, I didn’t think it was true until I saw those guys...oh, Jesus!” Billy passed his hand over his face as if to wipe away the memory of the horrifying sights in the Glassies’ brood chambers.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, as each thought about what they’d seen. In the chambers there were hexagon cells, just as in a wasp or bee nest and, in each cell, was a large, white, slug-like larva. Also carefully packed in each cell was a live human, somehow anesthetized but awake and aware that it was being slowly eaten by the large greedy maggot. Billy could not imagine that anyone could retain their sanity more than a minute under those conditions.

“Gunny, I’m scared.”

“So am I, Ell-Tee.”

“Will you make me a promise, Billy?”

“Anything.”

“If they come for us and it looks bad, could you kill me? I mean, I know there’s ways you can kill with your hands... I just don’t wanna get...eaten... Oh, God, Billy!” Her shuddering would not stop until he had held her for quite a long time. At last, he whispered into the good smell of her hair, “If it comes to that, I’ll figure out some way to kill us both.”

For many hours, they simply sat, occasionally talking in hushed tones. Sometimes they would look out the door of their cell and see Glassies, curiously staring in at them. Most of the time they were left alone. After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, three Glassies appeared bearing food and water. They had rounded up some concentrates from the Montezuma, along with some water. They stepped in, left the meal, and stepped back out, all in silence. The doorway once again wove itself shut.

“Pretty cool plants.” Billy said.

“Yeah. Looks like the plants and the Glassies interact and cooperate.”

“Have you seen any pipes or wiring anywhere?”

“Nope.”

“Neither have I. Do you suppose the plants are running the ship?”

“Now that’s a scary thought.”

“If they’re just gonna feed us to...to the larvae, why bother to give us food?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they’ve got other plans for us.”

They continued to discuss what might be in their future, while at the same time trying not to get their hopes up. Billy figured they were just whistling past the graveyard.

 

Hours passed. Meals were brought and consumed. Billy and Marla ate and tried to sleep, but refrained from making love. Somehow, they didn’t feel that they wanted to exhibit themselves in that manner to their captors. The constant singing from the rain forest and throughout the hiveship made it difficult to sleep and sometimes even hard to concentrate. The annoying rasping came and receded like waves on an ocean. It was about as melodious as a chainsaw.

Billy reckoned they had stood it for about three days when the Glassies came for them. They took Billy away first, walking him briskly through tunnel after tunnel, until he was sure they were merely going in circles. They came at last to a chamber with a raised platform in the middle, the entire ceiling covered with the glowing material. He was placed on the platform on his back and the Glassies began removing his clothing. At first, he tried to resist, his heart pounding as he figured they were getting him ready for one of the chambers. But he only earned himself some cuts and scratches from their claws. They were incredibly strong, holding him down with no difficulty. He was thoroughly examined from head to toe, turned this way and that, pinched and probed and peered at. He had tubes shoved down his throat, in his ears and nose and up his ass, and none too gently. He was pierced here and there by needles, and it was apparent that the Glassies were taking samples of tissue and blood. They seemed very interested in the stump of his arm. Eventually, he was allowed to dress and was escorted back to the room where Marla waited. She was whisked away and, as she left, Billy shouted after her, “Don’t resist, Marla! They’ll hurt you if you resist!”

She was back inside thirty minutes and she sat on the floor with her head on her drawn up knees for a long time. Billy was reminded of when he came out from under the anesthetic, after she had finished working on the stump of his arm.

At last, she came to him and he held her with his one arm; she cried for a while, silently, so the Glassies couldn’t hear.

“Did they hurt you?”

“No. Yes. The needles hurt, some. Otherwise, they were almost gentle. It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever been through.”

“Pretty thorough examination, huh?”

“No shit. They looked everywhere.”

“I hope they found out whatever they wanted to know.”

“Probably figuring easier ways to kill us off.”

“No doubt.”

 

Billy and Marla awoke in their chamber-prison and both immediately knew something was wrong. Ever since their examinations, they had found the singing of the Glassies to be more and more soothing and they had been spending a lot of time asleep and dreaming.

Billy had dreamed over and over of a world where the rainforest continued forever under a double red sun. He had dreamed of the trees and the singing, the hunting and the feasting. When he was asleep, he knew of the hiving and the bloodline that went back over millennia. He knew of civilizations conquered and planets occupied as the race moved on.

Now there was no longer any singing. The constant, repetitive song that had soothed them to sleep had ceased or become so subdued as to be inaudible from their cell.

“We’re losing our light source.” Marla said.

“Yeah, it’s getting dim…and quiet.”

“You suppose it’s just sleepy-time?”

“You mean beddy-bye for the Glassies?”

“Yeah. Maybe they only sleep every couple of days, and today’s the start of a sleep cycle.”

“Could be, but I don’t think so.”

“How long ya think we’ve been here?”

“Five days, give or take.”

“I think this fungus or whatever it is, is dying.”

“I think everything is dying...”

At the end of another day, their chamber was entirely dark. No Glassies had come to feed them, and they were getting pretty hungry, in spite of the fact that they weren’t doing anything physical at all. The strain of being aboard the Glassies’ ship as prisoners and the uncertainty of their fate was keeping them in a highly nervous state and, therefore, in spite of their inactivity, they were burning calories.

“Have you noticed we haven’t seen any Glassies coming by?”

“I haven’t seen any activity at all. I’m gettin’ damn hungry, too.”

“Hey, look at these plants,” Marla said. She was at their door. “They’ve wilted. You suppose they’re dying, too?”

“I don’t know, but something’s definitely wrong.”

“I think, if we work at these vines, we can get out.”

“And go where? I mean, it’s their ship. They’ll just catch us and put us back or kill us.”

“Hey, wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like the Gunny Hatcher I know. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, Ell-Tee. I just don’t think we have much of a chance...”

“What? A one-armed Marine Gunnery Sergeant and a non-combat female Lieutenant?”

“I didn’t mean...”

“The hell you didn’t, Gunny. I know exactly what you meant, and I don’t care for your attitude. Now get up off your ass and get over here! Help me with these goddamn plants.”

Billy jumped up and went to the door and, together, he and Marla fought and forced their way out the door. They had walked only a few yards down the tunnel before they came upon a Glassie. It was sitting squarely in the middle of the tunnel and they could barely see it. The glowing fungus appeared to be dying out all over and the light was very dim. The Glassie didn’t move and Billy eased up to it, looking it over. He saw and smelled its feces and what appeared to be vomit near its mouth and realized it was dead. They moved quickly around it and started to move on, when Marla whispered, “Billy, what about its weapons?”

Billy turned back to the big insect and looked it over, finding a laser weapon and a sword. The laser weapon was like a pistol with an elaborate grip, which didn’t fit a human hand very well but it would be better than nothing. There was a simple firing stud on the side of the weapon that Billy found he could reach quite well with his index finger. There was no safety and the charge packs slid into the bottom of the grip. Billy looked some more, holding his breath to avoid the stench of the Glassie, and found four extra charge packs on the creature’s belt. He handed the weapon to Marla and kept the sword for himself and they moved on.

In a few minutes they came past a brood chamber and cautiously peeked inside. There was no challenge and no movement. It appeared that the larvae had all died and the humans had died with them. Without adequate light, it was impossible to determine how vast the chamber might be, but the stench of decay was overpowering and they quickly continued their exploration.

 

Gunnery Sergeant Hatcher and Lieutenant Kinkaid continued moving through tunnels, working their way ever upward, until at last, they came out into the rain forest. Here, everything dripped moisture and the stench was incredible. It didn’t take any genius to understand that the rain forest was dying and along with it, all of its occupants. It appeared that the only creatures aboard who remained healthy were themselves.

Billy just stood and stared upward through the giant trees and remembered how the leaves had shimmered when they were here before but now had turned black and were rotting. The blackened vegetation reminded him of bats, hanging from the trees—furled, yet somehow sentient. It was almost as if the forest was accusing them, blaming them for its death.

So rapt was he in his contemplation of this forest of sickness, that when Marla spoke, he gave an involuntary start.

“Shit, Gunny. What happened?” she breathed.

“I think we happened.”

“Huh?”

“We’re the only factor that changed, the only thing that’s different. They brought us aboard and didn’t decontaminate us.”

We did this?”

“I don’t know. Maybe so.”

“But, we weren’t the first humans aboard...”

“I know, but we must have brought something aboard that did this.”

“This is horrible.”

“Yeah, but there’s another side to it, too.”

“What?”

“This is how we can defeat them. This is how we can win the war. We just need to get back alive, with this ship, or with samples, to see which germ or virus was deadly to them.”

“You’re proposing we use germ warfare against them?”

“Damn right. They’d do it to us, wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t know….”

“Look, Ell-Tee, they came to our system. We didn’t invite them, we didn’t threaten them. They just showed up and tried to wipe us out.”

“I know, but can we do this…again and again…?”

“After what we’ve seen in the brood chambers? After what I saw in New York? I can kill every Glassie piece of shit in the universe and smile the whole time.”

Just then, the body of a Glassie warrior fell from the trees and joined hundreds of others on the ground. The boneless way it fell told them that it was already dead. The silence of the rain forest was deafening. There were no sounds of animals, no rustling of leaves, and no singing. Only the occasional thump of another dead Glassie landing on the lifeless plants beneath the trees.

“Let’s get out of here, Billy,” Marla said, shaking herself.

“Yeah, we’ve gotta find our suits and get off this ship.”

“How’re we gonna do that?”

“I don’t know, but we’ve gotta try.”

“I’m not sure we can ever find our way around this thing. Have you noticed any markings in any of these tunnels?”

“Hell no. But we can make our own, if we have to.”

“But our suits could be in any one of a thousand places, and how do we know they didn’t tear ‘em apart?”

“Look, Marla, let’s not borrow trouble, okay? I mean, we’ve got enough to worry about. Let’s just stick with what we know and take it one step at a time.”

 

To Be Continued

 

 

Kenneth Crist, blkptls@cox.net, www.blackpetals.net, of Wichita, Kansas, wrote the SF serial (starting in BP #76 with chapters 1 & 2)  SURVIVING MONTEZUMA and BP #78’s “Those Other Guys” (+ “The Big Well” & “Virtuality” for BP #75, “Gift of the Anasazi” for BP #73, “The Weeping Man” for BP #72, “Pebbles” for BP #71, “The Diner” for BP #67, “New Glasses” for BP #61, “Ones and Zeros” for BP #50, & the novelette Joshua) and has edited BP for many years, continuing as Editor Emeritus, then Coeditor/Webmaster. Widely published, esp. in Hardboiled and on Yellow Mama, he also has four chapbooks currently for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.com, Dreaming of Mirages, The Gazing Ball, Joshua, and Groaning for Burial, his latest zombie fiction.

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