Welcome to the August 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
The recent debate about Lovecraft and his influence on the speculative fiction genre reminded me of A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs, a story I wrote three years ago about sort of Lovecraftian aliens attacking a mining outpost.
As I wrote here, this story was my attempt to write the kind of “Pew, pew, let’s kill all the aliens” military science fiction that sells well in the Amazon Kindle store. Though in the end, it turned into something quite different, because it seems I simply can’t write that kind of story and take it seriously. And so my protagonists are not heroic space marines, but security staff at a mining outpost. And while the aliens are scary and alien, they actually have a motivation beyond “Kill all humans” to do what they’re doing. There is plenty of shooting and explosions, though.
So join Matt and Cally, as they prepare to fight…
A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs
Space-suited creatures stream through the airlock. At least, I think they’re wearing space suits, since those sure as hell don’t look like any space suits I’ve ever seen. There are too many arms, too many legs, too many limbs. Even looking at them hurts and makes me doubt my sanity.
More and more pour into the station, until the entire corridor is just a mess of arms and legs and limbs. Closer and closer they come, relentless, unstoppable.
My finger tightens on the trigger of my plasma rifle, itching to shoot, itching to blow off some of those arms and legs and limbs, blow them to smithereens.
“Hold your fire,” the voice of Security Chief Burnett echoes in my ear, “Hold until they’re at the bulkhead.”
Intellectually, I know he’s right. After all, we’ve only got one shot at this, just one chance. But though my mind knows he’s right, that doesn’t mean that my heart does.
After all, I’ve seen what they can do. I’ve seen the aftermath, the bloodstained floors and mangled human bodies, the charred remnants of outposts where not a single soul was left alive.
At first, we didn’t even know what it was. All we knew was that along the rim, outposts and space stations suddenly went dark. And once the galactic government got around to sending someone to investigate, all they found were wrecked stations and decomposing bodies without a single clue as to what had happened.
Bodies and wrecked outposts piled up, as the attacks increased. And gradually, we found clues. SOS calls, breaking off in mid transmission. Marks and scratches on walls and bulkheads that nothing human could have made. Traces of organic substances that matched absolutely nothing in the known universe. And finally, grainy security cam footage of multi-limbed horrors the likes of which no human eye had ever seen.
We’d thought that we were alone in the cosmos, that the universe was ours for the taking. We were wrong.
But though we knew what we were up against, we still had no real way of stopping them. And so outposts and stations continued to go dark, their crews torn to pieces. Central Government increased patrols along the rim and sent marines to guard and defend endangered stations, but it was to no avail. The enemy continued to strike, evading the patrols and killing the marines along with everybody else.
The enemy. That’s what we call them, cause we don’t know what their proper name is or if they even have one. We don’t know what they want, why they attack us and why now, we don’t even know what they look like. Until now…
Cause I’m seeing them, seeing them with my own two eyes, these creatures with too many arms and legs and limbs. I see them advancing towards us, scurrying like oversized spiders, scuttling like lobsters or starfish, different, terrifying, other.
Very likely, it’s the last thing I’ll ever see.
Cause unlike the other colonies and stations that were hit, we don’t have a large crew. Hyams II just a small outpost, a handful of miners extracting tantalum ore from an asteroid plus support personnel and families. We don’t have marines to protect us, just a bunch of underpaid and underequipped security guards. We’re outnumbered and outgunned and we know it.
And yet we fight, make a stand. Because we have to. Because we’re humans and we don’t just lay down and die. We fight and even if we go down, we’ll make sure those monsters regret ever having come here.
The first of the creatures, the vanguard, are almost at the bulkhead now. It’s the perfect spot for an ambush, a natural bottleneck. Just a few more feet and then…
“Fire. Fire at will,” Chief Burnett yells, his voice echoing in my head.
I press the trigger. I see the flash of fifteen plasma rifles discharging all at once, hear the roar. I see a blast hit its mark, see one of those too many limbs blown off, see green alien blood — of course, it’s green — splatter onto the bulkhead.
I don’t know if it was my blast that blew off that limb or somebody else’s. I don’t care either. I just press the trigger again and again. I don’t even have to aim, cause the corridor is full of creatures now, a solid wall of arms and legs and teeth, giant razor-sharp teeth. I just fire, fire into that living, writhing wall, fire again and again and again.
The creatures scream. Their screams are eerie, like the screams of a doomed soul in hell or the screech of a ship breaking apart in deep space. It’s a scream the likes of which no human being ever emitted and yet I know what it means. These are death screams, the sounds of the creatures as they rage against the end of everything they ever cared about, whatever that might be.
I see the first of them go down, go down in a tangle of too many limbs. The ones that follow clamber over their fallen comrades, but nonetheless their advance has slowed down. And still we fire, fire until the charge of our plasma rifles runs out.
The bodies pile up at the bulkhead, a natural barricade to slow down the enemy’s progress, allowing us to pick them off one by one. It’s a good plan — not mine — but like any battle plan, it doesn’t survive contact with reality. Because the enemy just keeps on coming, wave upon wave of multi-limbed creatures breaking upon the bulkhead, clambering over the bodies of those that went before. And no matter how often we fire, no matter how many of them we take out, there’s always more to take their place.
I don’t even bother aiming. I just press the trigger, again and again, as often as my rifle will let me.
This always looks so easy in the sims. Aim, fire, enemy goes down, repeat. Reality is a lot more messy. Blood splatters, dying creatures scream, my comrades-in-arms are hyperventilating beside me. And the smell — oh God, the smell. Sweat, piss, the acrid stench of alien blood and above it all, the pervasive stench of fear, pure and unadulterated fear.
We manage to hold off the enemy at the bulkhead for a surprisingly long time. At least ten or fifteen minutes, though it’s difficult to tell in the heat of battle. At any rate, it feels as if I’ve been here forever, crouched behind a makeshift barricade of crates full of ore, firing at the enemy.
We fought bravely, that’s what they’ll say at our funerals, provided there’s enough left of us to bury afterwards, that is. We fought bravely and held off the enemy, but in the end we still fell, succumbing to their superior numbers.
And that end is nigh now, it seems. One by one, my comrades-in-arms stop firing as the charge in their plasma rifles runs out. The rifles will recharge, of course, eventually, but by then it will be too late. By then, they will have overrun us.
More and more creatures manage to clamber over the pile of bodies. For now, we’re still stopping them, but they’re coming closer, ever closer. Bodies are lying in the corridor now, limbs twitching, dying but not yet dead.
The creatures don’t care. They don’t pause to check on their wounded, they just press on, trampling over their fallen comrades. It’s this casual disregard for the lives of their fellow soldiers that makes me shudder more than anything.
I ruthlessly fight the terror down and fire, hitting one of the creatures point-blank in the chest or at least, what I think is its chest. The creature literally explodes in a shower of greenish blood and guts. Then it goes down, landing on top of the fallen comrade it had so casually trampled down only seconds before.
My rifle barely has time to recharge, when another suddenly appears before me, directly at the barricade, its squirming limbs reaching for me. I scream and fire blindly at the thing. The creature’s chest explodes, splattering me with its stinking greenish blood. It stings on my skin, like toilet cleaner.
More and more of the creatures reach the barricade. We’re still holding them off, for now, but occasionally one manages to break through, wreaking havoc among our lines.
A tentacle-like limb reaches across the barricade. Right beside me, its spiked tip finds Jenkins and bores itself into his chest. Jenkins screams and I fire, blowing the creature’s tentacle clean off. The thing screeches, as Jenkins falls, impaled by the tentacle, the first of us to go down.
Alvarez is next. She doesn’t even get to scream, for the tentacle wraps itself around her neck, choking the life out of her. We fire at once, but the thing just refuses to let go off her. And when it finally does, Alvarez is already gone, the horror of her final seconds still etched onto her face.
I barely have time to mourn her, then one of them is upon me, its tentacled limbs grabbing for me. I fire blindly and the thing explodes, drenching me in its stinging greenish blood.
“Retreat,” the voice of the Chief Burnett yells in my ear, “Retreat!”
He doesn’t have to say that twice. Those of us who are still standing make a run for it, firing back at the creatures that are snapping at our heels.
When we start to run, we are five. By the time, we make it to the next bulkhead and I hit the “Close” button, there’s only two of us left.
The bulkhead come down, right onto the slithering limb of one of the creatures. The limb twitches and shudders, until Cally blows it to bits.
“That was stupid,” I say, once I get my breath back, “We have to save our rifle charge and that…”
I look down at the severed limb and suddenly realise that I have no idea what it is. Arm, leg, tentacle, something else entirely?
“…thing couldn’t have hurt us.”
Cally collapses against the bulkhead, careful to keep her distance from the severed limb, even though she knows it’s dead, has to be dead.
“I know,” she says, “It’s just… I can’t bear looking at those things. The dimensions are all wrong and all those arms, legs, tentacles, limbs… it’s like something out of a nightmare.”
She buries her face in her hands.
“I don’t know if you understand, but… just looking at them makes me feel like I’m going crazy. Like maybe I’ve already gone crazy and am locked in a psych cell in the med ward and none of this is real…”
She looks up, her eyes wide and filling with tears.
“Do you know what I mean, Matt?”
I reach out, touch her shoulder, gently. “I do. I understand. Something about those critters… it’s wrong. Deeply wrong.”
Cally nods. “Like they shouldn’t even exist.”
I squeeze her shoulder, though I’m not sure if she can even feel it through her body armour. “I know. But you’ve got to pull yourself together, Cally. We’ve got to regroup, decide what to do now…”
“What to do now?” Cally emits a bitter laugh that briefly makes me wonder whether she’s gone hysterical on me. “There’s nothing to do, nowhere to regroup. They’re all dead, Matt, all dead. We’re the only ones left.”
“Maybe not. The other teams…”
“If any of the other teams were still alive, don’t you think we would have heard from them by now? But there’s nothing…” She touches the ear piece of her com unit. “Nothing.”
“Maybe they’re just too busy kicking alien arse to respond,” I say. It’s a lame excuse and I know it. So does Cally.
“Or maybe, they’re just too busy being dead,” she says.
She’s probably right. In fact, it’s very likely that she’s right and everybody else is dead. But someone’s got to stay optimistic around here and since Cally isn’t volunteering, I guess the task falls to me.
“We should try hailing the others, before we jump to any conclusions,” I say.
I’m just about to do that, when I’m interrupted by a dull thud.
I turn around and so does Cally. There is another dull thud, banging against the bulkhead behind us. And another. And another. And then they become a cacophony.
“We need to get away from here,” I say to Cally.
We sprint to the next bulkhead and hit the “Close” button, putting yet another barrier of ten centimetre thick steel between us and them. Not a moment too soon either, because just as the steel doors close, I see the creatures making short work of the bulkhead behind which we’d sheltered only seconds before.
Once the bulkhead slams close, Cally and I exchange glances, just to make sure that the other is still there, still alive, still unhurt.
“God, you look like shit, Matt,” Cally remarks.
I look down at myself, at my battered body armour and blood-splattered uniform. Then I look at Cally who — just like me — is covered head to toe in alien blood and alien guts. Her braid, normally red, is dripping with green.
“You don’t look much better.”
“So what do we do now?” Cally asks me, checking the remaining charge in her rifle. It’s deep in the red, just like mine. We’ll need to plug them in and recharge, before we can do more than get off a few shots.
“We’ll do what we planned to, before we got interrupted,” I say, “Try to hail the others to see what the plan is.”
“And if there are no others left to hail?” Cally asks.
I shrug. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
It’s a stupid platitude and we both know it. But sometimes, when everything around you goes crazy, stupid platitudes are exactly what you need to keep you sane.
So we try to hail the others. And just like Cally feared, all we get is static, nothing but static. We’re on our own, two of us against hell knows how many of them.
We both shut down our ear pieces and exchange helpless a look.
“So what now?”
A dull thud bangs against the bulkhead behind us, so we start moving again, rifles at the ready, though neither of us has got more than a few shots left. We move deeper into the complex, closing every bulkhead we pass to slow them down. At least, we’ve still got power… for now.
In the middle of an intersection, we find Choi. Though the only reason we know it’s Choi is the nametag on his uniform, splattered in alien blood. There’s not much left of his face or indeed the rest of him. He still has his rifle, though, and it still has some charge, so we take it along. After all, it’s not as if Choi has any use for it anymore.
“They’ve been here,” Cally whispers, “They’ve gotten through the bulkheads and barricades. They could be lurking anywhere.”
She’s right. We can’t just blindly wander through the complex, not when the enemy could be lurking behind every corner. We need a plan and we need eyes.
“If we could at least get to the security centre, so we have access to the cams,” I say.
But the security centre is far from here, on the command level. Lots of hallways, corridors, bulkheads and open spaces between here and there. Lots of places to hide and lots of possibilities to die.
Cally scratches her head. Green alien blood sticks to her fingertips. Disgusted, she wipes them on her uniform.
“Maybe we don’t have to go all the way to the security centre,” she says, “If we find an info terminal, I should be able to tap into the cams from there.”
It sounds like a plan, the only one we have, so we proceed to put it into action.
We slip into somebody’s quarters and lock the door. Cally immediately sits down at the terminal and gets to work, while I shove a chest of drawers up against the door as an extra barrier. Then I take the power packs out of our rifles as well as the rifle I took from Choi and plug them into the nearest bank wall sockets. It’s risky, leaving us defenceless like this, but if we’re going to survive, we need to recharge our rifles. Besides, I hope that the reinforced steel of the door and my makeshift barricade will give us enough time to retrieve our rifles, should the creatures find us.
Once I’ve dealt with the rifles, I take a moment to look around. The bed is made, the duvet tucked in at all four corners, waiting for its occupant who’ll never come back. There isn’t much in the way of personal effects. A ornamental pillow on the small sofa. A holo on the wall, waves endlessly rolling onto a tropical beach. A framed photo of a smiling woman.
My gaze falls on the bathroom door. Once more, I look down at myself, all splattered in sticky alien blood. “I’m going to see if I can clean myself up,” I announce. Cally just grunts, absorbed in her task.
In the bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror. My face is still there, still the same, only that there’s greenish alien blood sticking to every square inch of my skin. Cally was right, I reflect. I really do look like shit.
I try the tap and the water comes on. It’s cold, but at least it’s water, clean, fresh water. My throat, I suddenly realise, is parched, so I bend down to drink. Then I splash the cold water onto my face and my hair, rubbing and scrubbing, trying to get the blood off. I’m successful, sort of. At any rate, I look more like myself and less like someone who spent the last hour bathing in an alien abattoir. Though come to think of it, that’s exactly what I did.
I find a washcloth, moisten it and begin to rub at my body armour. But though the cloth quickly turns green, my armour is still a mess. Those creatures’ blood sure is sticky. And stingy — damn it, my face still stings, even though I washed most of the blood off.
So I rummage through my lost crewmate’s belongings and finally find a tube of moisturising cream. And though I’m not sure if it will help, I apply some of it to my stinging face.
“Matt, come here,” Cally calls from the bedroom, “I’ve got it.”
She must be thirsty as well, I realise, so I grab a glass, throw out the toothbrush and fill it with water.
When I hand it to her, Cally flashes me a quick smile. “Thanks.”
On the screen in front of her, there is a mosaic of security camera feeds. I lean over Cally’s shoulder to take a closer look.
Most of the feeds just show empty corridors. Occasionally, there is damage visible, shredded bulkheads, smashed lamps, ceiling and wall panels torn down. Once or twice, I spot a trail of blood on the floor.
“Where’s the security centre?” I ask.
“Here.” Cally enlarges one of the feeds and my heart sinks.
The armoured windows of the security centre — space-rated glass, five inch thick, plasma and bulletproof — have been shattered as if they were nothing but the water glass I just gave to Cally. Inside, every single console has been smashed. The bodies of Chief Burnett and Deputy Chief Moskovitz lie where they’ve fallen, still clutching their rifles.
Unlike the rest of us, Burnett and Moskovitz actually knew what they were doing. Chief Burnett used to be a marine, an honest-to-God space marine, before they kicked him out over some scandal or other, while Deputy Chief Moskovitz spent fifteen years as a police officer in the harshest neighbourhood of Meridian Bay in the Mars colony. These two were the toughest people I know. And yet the aliens made mincemeat of them.
I avert my eyes, because I don’t want to, don’t need to see this. And then I look back anyway, once I realise that there is something missing. For though the security centre has been trashed, the only bodies inside are human.
“Where are the aliens?” I ask.
Wordlessly, Cally switched to another feed. And then another.
Now I finally see the bodies. A whole lot of them, alien and human, haphazardly piled up, until it’s no longer clear where the one ends and the other begins or even what the body was in the first place, alien or human. On the floor, puddles green and red blood run into each other, mixing into a murky, muddy brown.
One thing is certain, however. The bodies are all dead. Not a single limb, neither human nor alien nor something in between, is twitching.
“Considering how many creatures there were, I can’t believe we got them all.” Never mind that they were still chasing us up to a few minutes ago. “So where is everybody?”
“Look.” Cally operates the controls and the cam feeds change. Instead of corridors, we now see mine shafts. And aliens scurrying up and down the mineshafts.
“They’re in the mine? But why?”
“To steal tantalum ore, I guess. They’re just thieves.” She brings down her fist on the desk, nearly upsetting the glass of water I bought her. “Common garden variety thieves.”
“But this makes no sense,” I say, “Why go to all this length, attack so many outposts and kill so many people just to steal stuff?”
“Why do pirates hijack freighters and kill the entire crew just to steal the cargo?” Cally counters, “Because people are arseholes, that’s why.”
“I’m as tolerant as they come, but those… things are not people.”
“Right,” Cally says darkly, “They’re worse.”
For a few seconds we watch the creatures as they pack chunks of ore into what I assume are transport containers. They seem completely absorbed in their task.
“If they want to steal ore, then why don’t we just let them,” I suggest.
Cally shoots my a disbelieving look. “Let them?”
“While the aliens are busy stealing the ore, we just hide out in here and barricade the door. And then, once they’re gone, we can radio for help.”
Cally slowly shakes her head. “That won’t work.”
“And why not?”
“Because there are patrols.” She presses a few buttons and the feed on the screen changes again, showing alien creatures patrolling the corridors of the base. “And when they find a survivor…” She presses another button. “…they do this.”
The scene shifts again to show a room very much like the one we’re hiding out in. The door is locked and barricaded and a terrified man, a civilian wearing the coverall of a maintenance tech, is crouching in a corner. Then the door is ripped aside and a creature bursts in. It launches itself at the trembling maintenance tech. Blood sprays, red.
I avert my eyes. I don’t need to see any more.
“We could’ve helped him,” I whisper.
Cally shakes her head. “No, we couldn’t. Cause it already happened.”
I shoot her a questioning look. Briefly, my eyes touch the screen. Mercifully, Cally has switched it off.
“I set the feeds to record, so Central will at least be able to see what happened, if we don’t make it out,” she explains, “The cams caught that while you were in the bathroom.”
“Fuck,” I exclaim before I can stop myself. But then, given our situation, I doubt anybody would have a problem with a single swear word or five.
“But even if there are patrols in the corridors, aren’t we still safer in here?” I ask, “All we need to do is avoid the patrols. And since we have access to the security feeds, we know where they are.”
“We can’t do that either,” Cally says, “Okay, so we could. But it would be wrong.”
“And why? Cause I really don’t care if the Niob Corporation loses a few hundred tons of tantalum ore. They sure as hell ain’t paying us enough to risk our necks out there.”
“That guy we just saw wasn’t the only survivor. There are others hiding out around the complex. Civilians mostly, even a few kids…”
“…and we can’t leave them at the mercy of the creatures,” I complete.
We’re station security, probably all that’s left of station security. Protecting the Hyams II and its people is our job. And yes, most of the time, it’s about breaking up drunken bar fights, confiscating drug shipments and nabbing the occasional smuggler or thief. I never expected to have to deal with aliens and neither did Cally, I suspect. But even though we never expected a situation like this, dealing with it is still our job. And we will deal with it or die trying.
I pull up a chair and sit down at the desk next to Cally. “Can you show me the feeds of the mine again?”
She presses a button and promptly images of mine shafts and aliens packing up ore appear on screen. The creatures are packing the ore for transport in the same place the miners do, at the entrance of the mine just below the central elevator shaft. The shaft is the only access to the mine. If we could somehow block it, the creatures would be trapped. But how…?
“Cally, can you give me storeroom five?”
On the screen, the inside of storeroom five appears. I see the crates, the crates I myself helped to stack up, when I was supervising them being unloaded from the supply shuttle last week.
“See that? Those crates contain the explosives for blasting the new tunnel.”
“If we can get the explosives to the top of the elevator shaft and blow it, then we’ll bury the creatures.” Of course, we’ll also destroy the mine, but all things considered, I hope the Niob Corporation will forgive us.
Cally looks intrigued. “This could work. This could really work. But we still have to deal with the patrols. We need to lure them away from the civilians somehow…”
“…preferably towards the mine and the explosion. But how?”
Cally is flipping through the security feeds with a nervous tap of her fingers. Corridors rapidly alternate with quarters, public areas, the concourse, the central cafeteria, mine tunnels, store rooms and then corridors again. On one of the feeds, I spot something moving in one of the corridors. Not a creature. No, this is smaller. Much smaller.
The flicker of movement barely has time to register, then it’s gone again, replaced by footage of civilians hiding out in a walk-in freezer at the central cafeteria.
“Could I see the one before again?” I ask.
“Sure.” Cally flips back and then I finally see what the source of the movement is. It’s a cleaner bot, dutifully wiping up the blood stains left over from the battle.
Cally and I exchange a look. “I’ve got an idea,” we say as one.
Now we finally have a battle plan, we put it into action.
Cally has managed to hack into the control system for the cleaning bots — not that it’s difficult, they’re only cleaning bots after all — and uses them to distract the patrols, directing them away from the civilians and us and hopefully luring them to their doom.
“Coast’s clear,” she says. Then she leans over and plants a quick kiss on my cheek. “For luck.”
As I slip out of the door and back into the corridor, armed with Choi’s rifle and my own, I still feel the warmth of her lips on my skin. And suddenly, I feel like one of the knights of old, heading out to slay the dragon, a token of their lady worn close to their heart.
I make my way to storeroom five and the shipment of explosives stored there, dodging alien patrols and crawling through ventilation ducts much of the time. Cally directs me via my ear piece from her base in the quarters of… — crap, I don’t even know the name of the crewmember whose room we requisitioned.
I emerge into storeroom five through a hatch in the ventilation system. The crates of explosives are still where we left them days before, still stacked on float pallets, too.
I call Cally. “Okay, I’m here. Got the explosives and some fuses, too. Let me know if the coast is clear.”
“Wait,” Cally’s voice says in my ear. She sounds tense. “Wait.”
I crouch behind one of the pallets, my freshly charged plasma rifle aimed at the door, while Choi’s rifle is slung over my back. For several tense moments, I wait.
Finally, Cally breathes a sigh of relief. “Coast’s clear. Go.”
Now comes the difficult part. I have to move one of the float pallets full of explosives from storeroom five into the space above the main elevator shaft. The distance is not that far, but I have almost no cover and the float pallet moves slowly. Thankfully, the explosives are so powerful that one pallet should be sufficient. Because I don’t even want to imagine having to do this more than once.
As before, Cally directs me via my ear piece.
“Go.” — “Wait.” — “Not yet.”
I flatten myself against a wall and clutch my rifle, the float pallet hovering expectantly beside me, while one of the things scurries past, not three metres away. But once more I get lucky and the thing never even looks my way. It just moves past, trailing its too many limbs.
Getting the explosives into the machine room above the elevator shaft is the next challenge. Sure, there is a discrete side door set into the tiled wall of the miner’s showers of all places. And thankfully, the aliens are not interested in the change room and showers. But the access door is too narrow and the float pallet does not fit through. So I have to lug the crates with the explosives through a service corridor into the elevator machine room, while Cally keeps an eye on everything. Thankfully, the aliens don’t seem to be any more interested in the elevator machinery than in the showers and change rooms. Their mistake.
Once all the explosives are in place, I lay the fuses and set the timers. Then I wait, while Cally lures the patrols to the mine via the cleaning bots.
I glance at the timer, which is mercilessly counting down.
“Only two minutes left,” I whisper.
“Wait,” Cally replies, “The last two patrols are almost there.”
“If I wait any longer, I’ll get buried along with the enemy. And that wasn’t the plan.”
“Wait,” Cally says.
I watch the timer counting down. 01:39, 01:38, 01:37…
“I have to go now,” I whisper, “Or I won’t make it.”
“Wait,” Cally says.
01:27, 01:26, 01:25…
“Cally, I need to leave. Now.”
“Wait,” she replies, “Just a few more seconds.”
01:04, 01:03, 01:02…
“I don’t have a few more seconds.”
So I run. I run with fifty-six seconds to spare.
I dash out of the machine room, into the service corridor, through the access door, through the showers and change rooms for the workers.
I’m halfway through the change room, when I hear the explosion behind me, followed by the rumble of hundreds of tons of rock coming down and burying the enemy.
A second or so later, the shock wave gets me. I’m thrown flat to the floor. Lockers collapse all around me. One lands on top of me, pinning me down.
I must have passed out, at least for a few seconds, because when I come to again, I hear a voice yelling at me from far away. The voice gradually comes into focus. Noise coalesces into words.
“Matt, do you copy? Are you okay? Matt, what’s going on?”
It takes me a few more seconds to find my tongue and persuade it to form words. “I’m alive. But I can’t move. Trapped.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you. Where are you?”
“Change room,” I manage to say, spitting out a mouthful of blood, “Did… did it work?”
“Yes, it did. You brought the ceiling down on them. All of them. We made it, Matt. We buried the enemy and saved everybody.”
A little voice at the back of my head tells me that I should try to free myself from the locker that landed on top of me. But considering that Cally and I just saved the surviving civilians and managed to beat back the enemy for the first time ever, I guess I have earned a moment of rest.
Besides, it’s not as if I have much of a choice, since my mind decides to pack just that moment to pass out.
When I come to again, I know not how much later, the weight of the locker pressing down on me is gone as are the hard tiles of the change room floor. Instead, I feel something warm and soft all around me, almost as if I’m floating.
It’s a pleasant sensation, so I decide to enjoy it some more.
Finally, I open my eyes, only to close them again at once, when I’m hit with a light so searingly bright it burns my retinas.
“Turn the bloody lights down,” I mumble or at least I try, for what comes out is an unintelligible garble-garble, even to my own ears.
Still, someone seems to have understood, for when I try opening my eyes again a bit later, the light is gone. It’s still there, of course, just not shining straight into my eyes any longer.
Instead, I see a ceiling. White, bland, could be anywhere. There is a lamp, too, the sort of high-intensity and high-luminosity lamp found in medical facilities everywhere. And suddenly, I realise where I am. I’m in med bay, in bed.
The stain on the ceiling, shaped like a scuttling cockroach, gives it away. As does the face that suddenly appears in my field of vision. White hair, reddish wrinkled skin, intelligent eyes and a chin covered by three days of stubble. Doctor Sternhagen, the permanently grumpy head of the med ward. I’d never have thought that I’d ever be so glad to see him.
“Well, look at that,” he says, “The conquering hero is awake.”
“What happened?” I croak.
“You have a concussion as well as plenty of cuts and bruises, all from being way too close to a massive explosion,” the Doctor explains. Somehow, he manages to make it sound as if that’s all my fault. And I guess to some degree it is. Even though I had an excellent reason.
“You also have a broken leg from having some ceiling panels as well as a locker land on top of you.” Doctor Sternhagen shakes his grizzled head. “It took three men to dig you out.”
At the moment, I’m just grateful that there still were three men left alive in the colony to dig me out.
“Did it work?” I ask, “Did we…?”
“Yes, you saved Hyams II, if that’s what you were asking about,” Doctor Sternhagen says, as if saving the entire colony and everybody still alive in it was no big deal, not bigger than breaking up a pub brawl in the Miner’s Luck Tavern on a Saturday night, “Not sure if you really needed to blow up the entire mine to do it, but…”
“If you have a better idea, I’m open to suggestions,” I manage to say.
Doctor Sternhagen shakes his head. “Not my field, young man. Though I suppose I owe you some thanks. Not sure how much longer Doctor Cruz, Doctor Al Azzawi, Nurse Rockinsky, Nurse Battenberg and I could’ve held out in the morgue locker.”
So that’s most of the medical staff safe then. “You’re welcome.”
“Niob Corporation is understandably pissed about the loss of the mine, but Central Government and the military are thrilled to finally have more info on the enemy, including some, admittedly very squashed specimen to dissect. And guess whose job it is to prepare the mangled bodies for transport?”
“Sorry about that.”
The Doctor brushes me off with a wave of his hand. “Oh well, I did go off into space in search of adventure. Just never thought it would look quite like this.”
He shakes his head. “Anyway, you’re officially a hero now. There’s talk of medals and commendations. Oh yes, and there’s someone here to see you.”
The Doctor turns away and waves at something or rather someone beyond my field of vision. “Come in, come in. He’s awake. Just make it quick, cause he still needs to rest.”
Doctor Sternhagen retreats, his grizzled face replaced by one that is far more lovely. Cally, cleaned up and little worse for wear. Her smile lights up my heart.
“Hi there. My hero.”
“Hi yourself,” I manage to say, “And if anyone’s a hero around here, it’s you.” My hand finds hers, squeezes it. “I couldn’t have made it without you. Thanks.”
Cally returns the pressure on my hand. “And I wouldn’t have made it without you, so I guess we’re even now.”
She pulls away, even though I wouldn’t have minded at all holding her hand a little longer. “Anyway, the military is en route to pick up and examine what’s left of the aliens. They also want to give us a medal. Both of us.”
“Yeah, the Doc said as much.”
“Better yet, they’re keeping the Niob Corporation off our backs for damaging corporate property. And there’s talk of posthumously reinstating Chief Burnett into the Space Marine Corps and maybe even awarding him a medal, too.”
I manage a smile. “That’s good. He’d like that.”
Cally reaches for my hand again, her touch warm and reassuring. “We did it, Matt,” she whispers, “We saved everybody. Well, not everybody, but at least most of the civilian staff. And we beat them. We beat the enemy and proved that they can be defeated.”
I smile up at her. “Yeah, I guess we did. Thanks, Cally. For everything.”
Cally does not reply. She just bends down to kiss me, on the mouth this time, and the universe around me falls away.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.