August 7, 2017
Nellie, Aleisha and Maggie stalked through the white jungle, wielding sticks they’d pulled off of trees. There were surprisingly few dead plants just lying around on the ground the way one would expect to find them on earth. Once, Nellie found a stick half-submerged in the ground, with the sticky white surface slowly growing over it.
They were going after the bubble-wrapper Maggie had seen a short distance away. The plan was for Maggie to attack the creature by herself – she would just need the two of them to pry it off of her if it attacked.
As they walked along, Aleisha asked, “So, what was going on back there? How come your boyfriend blew up the factory?”
“He didn’t,” Maggie said, sighing. “It’s a long story.”
“We got time,” said Aleisha.
“A really long story.”
“That ain’t fair,” Aleisha said. “We’re here – we might as well know why.”
“Okay.” Maggie pondered for a moment, debating where to start. “It started back in the 70’s,” she began. “My dad was just starting out with the Benson Research Initiative - they didn’t even have Benson Medical yet. He was working for Old Benson, Benson I, usually just going on scientific expeditions out to Tearis to learn about the Tearils and see if they had any medical technology that could be used to benefit humanity. That was what the company was all about, then – kind of a scientific and cultural exchange, all in secret, just between the Tearils and the BRI scientists on earth.
“But in ’72, the Tearils got into a war with the people living on the other planet in this star system, Echtectular – those people were called ‘Teur. The problem was that the ‘Teur didn’t just attack the Tearils – they took over the Valleys and went around conquering every civilization they could find. One ‘Teur warlord – a Galeek, they called him - completely enslaved a race of creatures orbiting another star – they were called Xzeejees, and their planet was called Au’wm – and then they turned against the Tearils. Benson wanted the BRI to stay neutral, even when he realized that the ‘Teur were planning to go after earth next.
“The BRI was divided against itself – some people supported helping the Tearils and Xzeejees, and others wanted the company to stay out of alien politics. It got really heated, to the point where a group of people decided to break off and do their own thing. They called themselves the Western Front. Benson did everything he could to keep them from getting involved in the war, but they ended up building a hideout in an uncharted part of the West and using it as a base to ambush the ‘Teur.
“This actually ended up being kind of a good thing – an entire army under the Galeek’s control just disappeared, the Xzeejees were liberated, and shortly thereafter the Tearils and Xzeejees were able to drive the ‘Teur off of Tearis and Au’wm entirely.
“This would have solved everything, but the Galeek got desperate. He had one last trick up his sleeve that he thought might win him the war. It was an ancient machine built thousands of years ago, rumored to be on Echtectular, high up on a mountain called Tchacata.
“Nobody knew what it was supposed to do, but everybody agreed that we had to do everything we could to prevent the Galeek from getting it. In 1978, Benson picked just a handful of Tearils, Xzeejees and humans to go with him to Echtectular through one of the West tunnels controlled by the BRI and try to sneak up the mountain before the Galeek. Benson II was one of those people… he was only 6 years old. Another one was my dad.
“I’ve heard stories about that mission my whole life. There was a skirmish between Benson’s team and the ‘Teur. It was bad for both sides – they made it to the cave, and somehow the whole thing ended up catching fire.”
“The cave did?” said Aleisha.
Maggie shrugged. “That’s what my dad told me. I guess it was booby-trapped. Anyway, Benson II almost died… Fell into the fire and somehow walked away without a scratch. My dad ended up going hand to hand against the Galeek himself… ended up with a huge claw scar going all the way down his chest.”
“The… what do you call them, ‘Teur... They have claws?” said Aleisha.
“Oh yes,” said Maggie. “With acid glands. That’s what they’re known for. Those motherfuckers are something straight out of your worst nightmare. Anyway, in the end, nobody ever figured out if the ‘Teur got what was up there or not. The mission was a failure. Old Benson managed to get the surviving members of his team back to earth, and the last thing they did was seal up all the West tunnels leading out of Echtectular. I don’t know how successful they were – it’s rumored that they still have one or two small tunnels leading to earth – but it was enough to end the war.
“That would have been the end of the story, except that a few years ago, when Benson I got sick, his son took over the facility and put all the lower levels – the Hole, the quarantine zone for off-worlders – on total lockdown. That in itself wasn’t that bad – kind of expected, really – but then we started getting rumors up top that weird things were going on down there. Something involving the West.
“Eric worked as an IT technician for the facility and was able to uncover some of what was going on. They were trying to move Valleys… I think they might have been figuring out ways to access some of the more unstable parts of the West, but some people were saying that they were trying to figure out how to re-open the routes back to Echtectular. Then he started reading about genetic experiments… something to enable people’s bodies to cope with the West’s environment.”
“We were just in the West, though,” said Nellie.
“Yeah,” said Maggie, “for a little while. You can walk through it and you’re fine. People who stay down there for longer than a few days, though… They start getting a little weird. Not, like, sick… they just start going crazy. I mean, wouldn’t you? And that part we walked through… That was one of the most stable zones. There are some areas where people get torn apart as soon as they walk in, and then there’s other places where we just have no idea – people who go in never come back out.
“Anyway, just like before, the BRI was split between two sides – the people who supported the BRI’s original mission, and those who supported Benson II. Things started getting really bad for those in support of Old Benson’s legacy… people started going missing. Some even turned up dead. And then Eric found out that that machine the ‘Teur had been trying to find on Tchacata – whatever it was - might have ended up in our hands.
“And then… Benson killed my dad.”
The girls glanced at each other in a somber silence while Maggie led them forward, her jaw locked and stern.
They came to the clearing where Maggie had seen the bubble-wrapper. It hovered over the white terrain, dangling three bright pink tendrils along the ground, which it seemed to be using to pull itself along. Maggie crouched behind a blue-colored bush sprouting fans of translucent white material that could have been leaves. “And here we are,” she murmured, keeping her eyes on the wrapper.
“That thing eats people?” said Nellie in disbelief.
Maggie nodded. “It’s more of a parasite,” she said. The creature started gliding away. “I don’t think it sees us…” Maggie stood up and yelled, “Hey!”
The creature slowly turned. Beneath its transparent membrane, its three eyes swiveled to identify where the noise had come from. Maggie stood up and waved her arms. The wrapper flipped itself off the ground with one tentacle and glided across the clearing. Maggie jumped out from behind the bush and charged the creature with her stick, striking at the place where the creature’s tentacles met its eyes. It let out a hollow warble, reared back, and flipped inside-out, wrapping its entire outer body around Maggie from head to toe.
Nellie and Aleisha ran to Maggie’s side and stabbed at the wrapper with their sticks while Maggie tried to attack it from inside. “Go for its nerve center!” Maggie yelled, her voice muffled by the creature’s membrane.
“The hell is that?” Aleisha asked, stabbing whatever she could.
Maggie reached a hand around and blindly tapped at the part where the wrapper’s tentacles connected with its eyes. Nellie grabbed the eyes bare-handed and squeezed. One of them popped, spreading a clear, pleasantly tingly ooze all down her hands. The wrapper warbled again and part of it pulled back just enough for Maggie to stick out her left arm and most of her face and yell, “Don’t let it get away!”
Nellie wrapped her hands around the creature’s entire nerve center and sawed at it with her stick until Maggie was able to pull free. Maggie used her own stick to pry off the wrapper’s tentacles, and Aleisha pulled off the remaining two eyes. The tentacles writhed on the ground as Maggie pulled away the severed membrane.
Maggie, Nellie and Aleisha sat in a circle around the wrapper’s carcass, which now looked somewhat like a popped and deflated balloon. The three of them puffed in relief. Aleisha sat back and laughed until Nellie elbowed her in the ribs.
Maggie gouged off a section of the membrane and used it to contain the ooze from the wrapper’s nerve center. She tied it off with a hair tie from her pocket. “Disinfectant, antibiotic, pain killer… possibly food,” she explained. She dipped some out with a finger and rubbed it into the wounds on her thigh and stomach. “You two haven’t been immunized… you’re at risk for a lot of different diseases out here. You want to make sure you use this stuff if you get hurt.” She draped the rest of the membrane over her shoulder like a cape. “We can use this as a blanket if it gets cold.”
“It won’t rot?” said Nellie.
“It might shrink a little,” said Maggie. “We just can’t leave it on the ground for too long, so it doesn’t get reabsorbed. See how you don’t see anything dead lying around here?” She patted the ground with her hand. “The whole surface of the planet is alive. It’s… kind of like a fungus. Sort of. And, it also tends to absorb anything that sits in one spot for long enough.” Seeing the worried look on Nellie’s face, she added, “You’re good as long as you have a pulse.”
Nellie rubbed her hand across the white ground. It did feel a little like a mushroom. A faint dark spot remained in the place where she’d touched it. There were a few other spots just like it nearby – footprints, mostly, from where she, Aleisha and Maggie had stepped as they’d brought down the bubble-wrapper.
A few feet away, Nellie noticed a blackened spot where the ground dipped and pinched together like a scar. She followed the shape with her finger. Round at the top, then skinny, then two lines sticking out either side, almost like an outline of a person. “What’s this?” Nellie said, pointing.
Maggie knelt down, rubbing a finger across the gouge. “I dunno,” she said. “Something probably just scratched it. Maybe an asbilok.”
“What about that one?” said Aleisha, pointing to a bigger spot a few feet away. It was exactly the same shape. There was another one right beside it, and another, and another… There was an entire circle of them. Nellie, Maggie and Aleisha were standing in the middle.
Maggie crouched at the edge of the circle, tracing her finger along one of the lines. “That’s weird.”
“Found a couple holes,” said Aleisha. There were several of them beside a few of the outlines – most of them were just little round black spots in the whiteness. One of them was still open. Aleisha probed it with a stick of benebit. It only went down an inch or two before it struck something hard. She reached into the hole and pulled out a tiny lump of metal. She held it up. “Do the Tearils use bullets?” she said.
Nellie and Maggie gathered around to get a closer look. “No,” said Maggie, inspecting the bullet. “This was fired recently,” she said. “Otherwise the ground would have closed up.”
“You think whoever shot it is still here?” said Nellie.
Maggie didn’t answer. She stood in the center of the circle, looking around, listening. A gentle breeze began to blow. “Let’s get out of here,” she muttered, and headed for the edge of the clearing. Nellie followed. Aleisha lingered for a moment, staring at the figures in the ground.