BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND ANDREW NIENABER IS GIVING AWAY A SIGNED PAPERBACK COPY OF HIS LATEST BOOK, STZ AND PETER SALOMON IS GIVING AWAY A PAPERBACK COPY OF HIS BOOK, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.
At first, when the thing attached itself to the back of Todd’s neck, he barely even noticed. It wasn’t big, about the size of a large spider back home, and it barely weighed anything at all. He ran into the colony in the crag of a rock near the touchdown site shortly after disembarking from the lander.
It was a routine scouting mission for the mining company he worked for, one of dozens he’d done in the past several months. Land on an asteroid or small exo-planet, scan for valuable minerals, check to be sure the planet didn’t have hydrochloric acid for an atmosphere or meat-eating flora, and pop back up to the ship. In point of fact, he’d found very little in the way of life on his trips. Mostly they were just lifeless stones hurtling through space, their cores filled with tungsten and platinum.
But a few minutes into his time on the tiny, rapidly-spinning dustball the company was calling Minos he put his hand into an oddly-shaped indentation in a rock and stirred a nest of creatures he’d never seen before. They were transparent, glass-like, with an array of ten to twelve multi-segmented legs in a perfect circle around a central thorax. The organs were a blueish green, almost aqua, and the things appeared to have no eyes or apertures of any sort. Todd was fascinated and pulled out his scanner to record them scuttling over the surface of the stone.
Having gathered ten minutes or so of video and a wide variety of bio-scans, Todd was satisfied that the animals posed no threat to the potential of stripping Minos of its rich beryllium and, more excitingly, rhodium deposits. He turned his back on the hive and was heading toward the lander when he felt a feather-light brushing sensation on the back of his neck. He assumed it was the collar of his grimy work shirt or a small fleck of stone whisking around in the brisk breeze that Minos’ Earth-like atmosphere provided. He tugged on the bottom of his shirt to straighten it and took another few steps then screamed as he felt every nerve in his body come suddenly, explosively to life. He found himself on the rocky ground, rolling back and forth as though trying to put out flames, the agony abating just long enough for him to take stock of his situation before drowning him in pain again.
It was as though his entire nervous system was on fire. He felt his nerves individually, could track their paths through his body by the burning. His muscles were involuntarily contracting then spasming and jumping, causing him to flop around like a fish out of water in Minos’ lowered gravity. Eventually he passed out.
When Todd awoke he was laying on his stomach on the table in the ship’s mess area. His pilot Anders was sitting at a chair on the other side of the room, just staring at him. The pain had subsided to a hazy but ceaseless throb, and his limbs still twitched occasionally.
“I was worried you’d never come to,” said Anders.
Todd barely had the strength to speak. “What…”
“Something on the back of your neck.” With a great effort, Todd tried to raise his hand to feel it, but he couldn’t get his arm much off of the table. “I wouldn’t move too much right now if I were you. I tried to pull it off, but it seems to have dug into your brain stem. Fascinating little thing.”
“Like a spider, but clear?”
“Yeah. So you saw it?”
“I found a nest of them on the surface. I didn’t notice that one managed to get itself on me.”
“I ran some scans on it,” Anders said, pulling out a tablet and putting it in front of Todd’s face. “I’ll have to leave it to science division to fully parse all this data, but it looks like it’s sending some sort of electrical pulse directly into your nervous system through two of those…I don’t know if ‘legs’ is exactly the right word, but…”
Todd shuddered with revulsion.
“There’s a third appendage that’s also dug in, closer to the spine. It doesn’t seem to have hit any nerves. I think it’s some sort of anchor, something to keep you from just plucking the thing out and tossing it out the airlock.”
“How did I get here?”
“You were gone for hours and not responding to my calls. I finally took the life raft down and found you. I dragged you into the drop ship and brought it back up. Had to leave the raft for now. You can help me retrieve it when you’re feeling better. After we get that thing off of you.”
“Yeah, I wanted to wait a bit to see if you’d wake up before I did anything. It was impossible to tell whether the pain you were feeling was from the thing or from my attempts to remove it.”
“Well, I’m awake now and I’d really like it if you-”
“There’s one more thing, and it’s a doozy. The scans…well, this sounds ridiculous, but…” He swiped a few screens over on the tablet and held it back in front of Todd’s face. “See these metabolism spikes? Each one corresponds with a wave of tremors and screaming on your part. I think…I mean, I’m just a dumb space jockey so take this however you want, but…I think this thing is feeding on your pain, metabolizing it somehow. That would explain why it was so bad at first and then tapered off. I think it…I think it just got full.”
Todd’s mind was spinning. Anders was not a man prone to humor, but the whole experience was nearly impossible to process as anything other than an elaborate prank. It did, however, explain why a creature would evolve the peculiar talent to inflict instant and thorough agony. At the thought, Todd felt an echo of his previous torment shoot through his limbs.
“Pull it out, Anders. I don’t care what it takes.”
“It’s in your brain stem, man. I’m worried that if I move it too much you might end up paralyzed or worse.”
“I need you to get this thing out of me before it gets hungry again.”
Anders nodded and reached for the pair of tweezers sitting on a tray to his left. As he walked to the table, Todd closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. The second Anders touched the thing a new wave of pain shot through him, and his legs shook uncontrollably. Anders leaned hard on his back with his left forearm to stabilize him and got a solid grip on the creature.
“Oh fuck, Anders, I think it’s defending itself. It’s like hot metal is pouring through my bones.”
“Do you want me to stop?” Anders asked, his voice trembling slightly as he backed away from the table.”
“No, I want you to get the fucking thing off of me right fucking now.”
Anders leaned on Todd’s back again and gripped the thing with his tweezers.
A fresh round of hell hit Todd. He screamed.
White spots overtook his vision. Anders’ voice sounded a mile away. He could hear the rush of blood through his eardrums, feel every single nerve ending in his body vibrating like a bell.
It was six more days before the trip ended. There had been some persistent discomfort at the site where the thing had attached itself – a bit of mild swelling and an itch that refused to go away – but Anders had done a thorough job of getting all of its appendages out of Todd’s neck. They spent a day letting him recover, then retrieved the life raft and continued on with the mission.
Todd had experienced the occasional headache and, every so often, a Tourette’s-like spasm in one of his extremities, but on the whole he felt worlds better. The other four objects they scouted – two asteroids, a tiny moon and an unusually slow comet – had shown little promise for minerals and absolutely no life, much to Todd’s relief. When they at last docked back at the depot, he checked himself in to the medical unit to make sure no lasting damage was done to him.
The doctors put him through a battery of tests, some of them nearly as excruciating as what the creature had done to him. They examined its carcass and probed the red, swollen spot where it had pierced his brain stem. Finally, they did a series of resonance images. As Todd was changing out of the hospital robe and back into his street clothes, a doctor knocked politely on the exam room door then entered, tablet in hand.
“Mr. Ahrens, I’ve got the results of the resonance images here and…” He cleared his throat.
Todd’s palms began to sweat. He felt a headache stirring. “Something wrong?”
The doctor held out the tablet for him to take. He looked at the picture but couldn’t make out a thing. “What am I looking at here?”
“That’s the area around the wound. That comma-shaped thing taking up most of the screen is your brain stem. See the small cluster of red dots about two-thirds of the way down?”
“Yeah, I see it. What is that?”
“Mr. Lund told us that there were three points of ingress where the creature punctured you. The two that went into your nerves seem to have been there to stimulate pain. The third, we thought, was an anchor. It seems that that was a mistake.”
“So…” Todd felt a jolt of panic that made his stomach flip. “So what do you think it was?”
“We think…we can’t be sure, mind you…but we think it was an ovipositor.”
The doctor leaned over and pointed at the cluster of red dots on the screen.
“I’m sorry to have to say this, Mr. Ahrens, but I don’t think you’re quite finished with this yet. These? These are eggs.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Nienaber has been an ice cream truck driver, a bartender, a teacher, a writer, a blogger, a director of operas, and all-around theater professional and a long-time observer of the human condition. He is one of the founders of FatalDownflaw.com and his short-lived blog about his experiences selling ice cream, The Ill Humor Man, drew hundreds of hits per day. Andrew’s premiere novel Truly, Deeply Disturbed was nominated for novel of the year by both Pulp Ark and his story “What We Found” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can receive periodic updates about his work – as well as a huge amount of snark – through Andrew Nienaber’s Grammar Correction Institute at http://facebook.com/ANGrammar.
They met deep in the woods behind Billy’s house, following the map he’d sold them in lunch. Nothing much every really happened in Elk Grove Middle School, and promises of something dangerous and unusual ran like wildfire though the cafeteria. The rumor started in recess, that Billy had a secret he refused to tell. Could be anything. No one knew, and Billy wasn’t the sort to kiss and tell.
Not that anyone knew anyone who might have kissed Billy. But it was a rumor, of a secret, of a promise, of something dangerous. The four of them had pooled their lunch money, offered it to Billy in the bathroom, and Billy had taken the money with a smile. He drew a map on the back of a napkin, told them to bring their most prized possession in trade and then left, whistling while he counted his newfound wealth.
Now, they hoped it wasn’t too late as they tried to figure out which path was which on the balled up napkin. A ketchup stain covered most of the white square, making it more difficult that it needed to be. Still, they continued through the woods.
It was a little chilly, not cold yet. October in Elk Grove tended to mild more than anything, as average as the whole town really, where nothing much ever happened and every kid dreamed of nothing so much as getting out and only returning for reunions. The trees still had leaves, orange and red mostly, and they rustled in the wind.
The boys kept going until they reached the spot they thought corresponded to the ‘X’ Billy had drawn.
“Should be right here,” Steve said, pulling the napkin out of Mike’s hands.
“Give that back,” Mike said, but he didn’t try reaching for it. Steve had a good twenty pounds on him, most of it blubber, but still, twenty pounds was twenty pounds.
“Has to be around here somewhere,” Rami said. “Unless Billy just sent us on a wild goose chase and he’s at home laughing his ass off right now.”
“Nope,” Billy said, walking down another path. “No wild geese.”
“So, what’s the big secret?” Chris asked, looking around the woods.
“This way,” Billy said, waving them over.
As they walked, the sun played with the leaves, so they kept walking in and out of shadows. “What did you bring?” Billy asked as they entered a small clearing. A broken down car sat on the side, covered over with weeds. Most of it was rust.
It was the most fascinating thing they’d ever seen.
“Has to be a hundred years old,” Steve said, staring at it.
“My old man says about sixty,” Billy said. “But that’s not the big secret.”
“Here,” Chris said, pulling a baseball out of his coat pocket and handing it over. “I caught it at a Red Sox game when we went last year.”
“Cool,” Billy said as he put it in his own pocket and then turned to Steve.
Steve pulled out a small plastic bag but didn’t let go. He looked at the comic book inside, a small smile on his face as he studied it. “It’s the first issue,” he said, before giving it to Billy. Still, he kept touching the bag as long as possible.
“Spawn,” Billy said, reading the cover. “Who wrote all over it?”
“Joss Whedon,” Steve said with a shrug.
“Joss Whedon didn’t have anything to do with Spawn,” Mike said. “Did he?”
“No,” Steve said. “I just didn’t have anything else on me for Joss Whedon to sign and it was Joss freaking Whedon.”
Everyone laughed at that, except Steve as he watched Billy roll the comic book up and shove it in his coat pocket.
Billy then turned to Mike. “What did you bring?”
Mike turned a couple different shades of red as the sun dipped behind a cloud. Then he fished a piece of cloth out of his back pocket and threw it at Billy.
The fabric smacked Billy in the face and then fell to the ground. Everyone stared at it. Small and pink, with lace trim. No one made a move to pick it up.
“What are those?” Billy asked.
Mike laughed, but it was a little too forced. “Panties,” he said. “Lisa left them at my house after a sleepover with my sister.”
“They’re probably your sister’s panties, you perv,” Steve said, punching Mike in the shoulder.
“No,” Mike said, “I heard Lisa complaining that she’d lost them.”
Billy picked them up, holding them in his hands for a moment. “Nice,” he said before hiding them away.
Everyone turned toward Rami, who shrugged. “Sorry,” he said, before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a handful of scrunched up bills and some change. Coins fell through his fingers to the ground. “It’s $57.43. That’s all I could find.” He shrugged. “Could have brought you a pair of my mom’s panties if I thought anyone would want them.”
“I want your mom’s panties,” Mike said.
“Shut up,” Billy said, as he counted the bills, ignoring the coins on the ground. Then, he turned back to the car. “You can’t tell anyone, ok?”
They all promised.
“No one would believe you anyway, they’d just say you’re insane and lock you up.” He laughed, then opened the door to the car.
Rust flakes fell to the ground, and the squealing was loud enough to wake the dead. Inside, a pile of clothes filled the front seat, the smell of mold and decay strong now that it was open.
Billy picked up a quarter that Rami had dropped and tossed it onto the clothes. Then another, harder. “Wake up!” Another quarter bounced off the clothes before they started moving.
The boys took a step back, staring at the front seat of the ancient car as a thin, bony hand started pushing the clothes aside. But it wasn’t the hand that had them backing up. Not even the long dirty fingernails that looked as though they’d been filed to points. It was the skin. Dark green. Sickly green. Glowing green as the sun hit it.
Then, momentum took over and all the clothes fell to the floor of the car. Dust billowed up. The green hand was attached to a green arm, of course. An entire green body, no taller than a couple of feet. A large green head. Too large, really. With big green eyes that stared back at them.
Then, it hissed, exposing far too many teeth.
It reached for them, lunging, but was caught short on a hunter’s trap that bit into both its legs. Green blood dripped over the metal teeth.
The hiss turned into a squeal and the creature opened its mouth in a scream. Green teeth, also filed to points, and a green tongue. The creature’s pain was obvious.
“Master will come for me,” it said, the words hissed out.
The boys shook as the voice crawled over their eardrums, down their spinal columns. It was English, but it didn’t sound like English. It sounded like a snake hacking up a smaller snake it was trying to eat, fingernails on a blackboard, and that threshing sound when the disposal in the sink had a spoon caught in it all rolled up together, then played back too quickly and in reverse. Still, they understood every word.
“Help me,” the creature said, wrapping long green fingers around the metal teeth, trying to pull the trap open. Then it gave up, turning back to the boys with another hiss.
“Feed me,” it hissed. “Master will reward you.”
“It says that a lot,” Billy said.
The boys looked back and forth from Billy to the creature. “What does it eat?”
Billy shrugged, then took the baseball out of his pocket. He underhanded it into the car. It bounced off the creature’s face.
“Hey!” Chris said, but he didn’t make a move to retrieve his ball.
The creature hissed but didn’t pay any attention to the baseball.
Billy placed his hand on Chris’ shoulder. “Sorry,” he said. “Had to test that, you know.”
Chris nodded. “I know,” he said but if he had anything else to say it disappeared as Billy shoved him toward the car. Chris tripped on a root, falling a little short. But close enough for the creature to reach at the end of his chain.
Long bony green fingers snaked out with another brutal hiss, pulling Chris closer. He screamed, but it was drowned out by the wind in the leaves, by the screams of the other boys as they yelled at Billy.
Steve spun around, starting to run away when he ran into someone standing at the edge of the clearing. Behind him, he could hear the hissing slurping sounds as the creature started eating. Chris screamed, but every scream was softer than the one before until finally the screams ended completely.
Steve stood absolutely still. Not that he had a choice as large green bony hands grabbed each of his arms. Steve looked up. And up. And up. At the giant green creature holding him. The creature hissed, dark and deep like boulders rubbing together.
“Master will be coming,” the creature said, dragging Steve back to the car. Other giant green creatures held the other boys. Except Billy, who bent over the creature in the car, pulling the teeth of the trap apart.
The small creature hissed, then grabbed Billy’s hand and limped out of the car.
“Tasty?” the largest creature hissed.
“We had a deal,” Billy said as the creatures started eating the other boys.
Screams filled the small clearing for a few minutes. Then, there was silence.
“Tasty,” the largest creature hissed.
When even the bones had been eaten, the creatures turned to Billy. The smallest one stood in front of him. “Master,” he said, before they all knelt in the clearing.
Billy picked up the littlest creature. “I hope it was worth it,” he said. “All this just to eat a human.” Then he took a bite out of the creature’s skull. He spit out a tuft of green hair before finishing his meal.
The larger creatures hissed and cried but made to move to stop him as he fed.
Finally, he sat down in the middle of the clearing, took out Lisa’s panties and used them to wipe the green blood off his face. Then he removed Spawn from its plastic bag and began to read while the large green creatures picked up the remains of their child and left their master alone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Adam Salomon graduated Emory University in Atlanta, GA with a BA in Theater and Film Studies in 1989.
He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Horror Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers, and The Authors Guild and is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. His debut novel, HENRY FRANKS, was published by Flux in September 2012. His next novel, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS, a ghost story set in Savannah, GA, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2014 by Flux.
His short fiction has appeared in the Demonic Visions series and he was the featured author for Gothic Blue Book III: The Graveyard Edition. His poem ‘Electricity and Language and Me’ appeared on BBC Radio 6 performed by The Radiophonic Workshop in December 2013. In addition, he edited the first book of poetry released by the Horror Writers Association, Horror Poetry Showcase Volume 1.
He was also a Judge for the 2006 Savannah Children’s Book Festival Young Writer’s Contest and served on the Jury for the Poetry Category of the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards. He was a Judge for the Inaugural Horror Poetry Showcase of the Horror Writers Association. He is also the Chair for the Jury for the First Novel Category of the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards and serves as a Judge for the Royal Palm Literary Awards of the Florida Writers Association.
Peter Adam Salomon lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his wife Anna and their three sons: André Logan, Joshua Kyle and Adin Jeremy.