Road Kills: Short Tales of Dark Horror
Right now you are safe. You can comfort yourself by reading this book while curled up on your bed or in your favorite chair. Just don't forget about what's waiting for you just beyond the edge of your driveway.
ROAD KILLS is a collection of short tales of dark comic horror from the mind of Isaac Thorne. These stories are all connected to travel, to the road. After all, it is always lurking there, quiet and dark, just waiting for you to come out for a drive or a walk or a jog. However you next confront it, the road is already there, plotting.
Enjoy the ride.
Release date: October 1, 2017
Publisher: Lost Hollow Books
Print pages: 256
Content advisory: Contains strong language and scenes of gore and violence.
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Road Kills: Short Tales of Dark Horror
Matt’s heart sank.
No one—not even Matt—could accuse his mission partner Grant of being a lousy shot. The smoke encrusted black hole in what had been Matt’s PTT, his sole remaining link to Mission Control outside of the lander, was proof enough of that. The tangy odor of the electrical burn singed the hair in his nostrils, even inside the thin environmental suit he wore.
That was bad news.
His suit was probably punctured as well, which meant his supply of oxygen was dwindling at a faster rate than it normally would. What he didn’t have time to inhale was pouring out of the hole in his suit and into the moon’s atmosphere, where it was of no use to him. It wouldn’t be long before the moon’s poison atmosphere crept in and entirely depleted the supply. That meant he didn’t have long to live.
That was worse news.
Earth scientists had guessed that the thin atmosphere of this desert moon contained carbon dioxide as its primary compound so explorers would not be able to breathe in it without an external supply or manufacture of oxygen. There also was, they thought, strong evidence of some other yet-unknown molecule swirling about in the dust storms that scarred the moon’s surface on a regular basis. Thus the environmental suits. The WGPSN eventually named this place Psamathe, because they didn’t want it confused with the other moon called Nereid, even though this one fit the description of the mythical figure better. Matt typically just referred to the place as Neptune’s butthole.
Technically, all he and Grant needed to move about on the moon’s surface was an external oxygen supply or a way to manufacture it from the moon’s CO2. The atmosphere was thinner than Earth, but there was enough of it and enough gravity to prevent the duo from being crushed or floating away. The suits themselves should not technically have been necessary. They mainly wore them as an extra security measure against whatever untold havoc that mystery molecule might wreak against their vulnerable human bodies. The problem, then, was that the oxygen supply system was built into the suits themselves, to make them lighter, instead of using tanks and mouthpieces like SCUBA divers used to wear, or a massive backpack-style CO2 scrubber.
The lander was a good quarter-mile away from him now, he and Grant its only crew. His partner’s enraged, grimacing face shone down from the top of the sheer cliff wall above him. Grant’s right arm dangled over the drop as well, his silver-gloved hand still gripping the weapon that Matt had smuggled along on the trip. Unfortunately, Grant had discovered the blaster before Matt himself could make use of it. The older man’s cheeks were red, and Matt thought he could see droplets of perspiration drooling down the plexiglass face of his helmet.
The chase across Psamathe’s landscape had been long and painful. In spite of Grant’s favor with the brass who had handed him this mission, Matt knew his old frenemy really wasn’t in great shape these days. A few too many burgers and fries and far too little exercise had taken a toll on the once golden boy. Matt, who was no one’s golden boy, had managed to keep after himself, however. Even these fifteen years after he’d graduated from the Academy. It had probably been twenty years or more since Grant had strode across the stage in his cap and gown. Matt had easily outrun him over this harsh, dusty, and deserted landscape, and had known from the start that he would.
Then he’d had that moment of weakness when he’d looked back over his shoulder. And then that misstep along the crater wall—
Now here he stood, trapped on a small ledge just an arm’s length out of Grant’s reach, the memory fresh in his mind of the edge of the shelf breaking away when he landed there, the rocks at the precipice crumbling away beneath his feet and tumbling end-over-end into the crater before him. He could escape another blaster shot in a fashion similar to that rock, he thought, if he didn’t care to live through it. In fact, there was nowhere to go but the depths of the crater, the bottom of which he couldn’t even see from this height. And his suit was bleeding precious air.
Okay, so maybe he’d brought this on himself. Maybe Grant had suspected all along that Jill was planning to leave his fat ass for Matt when they finally landed back at the station hidden in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter after this years-long excursion into the outer reaches of this dusty red wasteland. Was it really worth Matt’s death to him? Not to mention Grant’s own court martial and dishonorable discharge that would inevitably result from the murder?
Perhaps it was.
At least that was what Matt thought he could read in Grant’s red-rimmed and bloodshot eyes, which glared down at him from above the crater, above the ledge. And if that wasn’t enough, there were his angry, laborious breaths, fogging his visor like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils. Wait, fogging his visor? Maybe Grant’s suit had been punctured as well. The moon’s rocks were jagged, and some had been sharpened to razor edges after eons and eons of superstorms with no vegetation to cull the winds. He’d taken pictures of some of them for Jill’s solar system geology art collection that she curated back on the station.
Jill didn’t know any of this was happening. She fully expected both Matt and Grant to return safely to the asteroid belt in a few years, where they would resume their little love triangle until everyone felt comfortable enough to bring the awkward situation to an emotional head. Neither she nor Grant could have possibly known about the blaster when he’d smuggled it aboard. Matt’s plan had been to sneak up on Grant while he was digging in the moon’s soil or squatting to take a shit. He’d pick up one of the jagged moon rocks, and slice open the older man’s head with it, make it look like Grant had simply taken a tumble and banged his noggin on the wrong end of one of the moon’s sharp rocks. Matt would relay the report of what happened to Mission Control, who would instruct him to bury the body and continue alone if he could, or abort and start the long trip home if he could not. It’s something every explorer knew was a possibility when they signed up, although it had only ever happened once before. And no one had questioned those circumstances.
He’d only brought the blaster along as a backup, in case the time was never right, or he lost his nerve, or he was somehow magically overpowered by Grant. It might be harder to cover up a blaster shot as an accident if future missions happened to uncover Grant’s body, but at least the job would get done. And it might be a good decade before they sent explorers out this way again. Support for these types of excursions had waned among the public way back on Earth over the years. They were more interested in using taxpayer dollars to clean up their own drinking water sources than finding possible new places to live. Sometimes he wondered if some wingnut new president might pull the plug on them from the home world and just leave them stranded forever in that asteroid belt.
Matt had set his standard issue explorer’s bag right next to Grant’s identical one at the foot of the lander’s entry ramp while they were unloading for the day’s work, but he’d forgotten to stow his camera the day before. It was still sitting by his bunk, so he went back to the lander to retrieve it. His short absence meant Grant had been the first to start searching a bag for tools. Grant must have opened the wrong bag first. He must have seen the blaster, put two and two together, and grabbed it for himself. That didn’t explain how he’d known about Matt and Jill in the first place. Maybe Matt had been talking in his sleep again. Or maybe Grant only suspected because of the puppy-like way Matt and Jill had been behaving around each other before the mission. But none of that really mattered now. He would never see Jill again.
“Grant!” Matt screamed the name inside the insulated globe of his helmet. The word echoed in his own ears but did not carry. It was like screaming into a giant vacuum filled with cotton. “Grant! Stop this! Help me, for God’s sake!”
He was wasting his air.
He stretched his right hand upward toward Grant’s hate-twisted face. His fingers groped for purchase just an inch or two below the business end of his former blaster. Grant’s lips spread open behind his visor in a broad, Cheshire grin, and Matt thought he saw a genuine twinkle in the middle-aged explorer’s pale blue eyes as it dawned on him that Matt was pleading with him for his life. Still grinning, Grant shook his head deliberately. Then he made a slow slicing gesture across his own throat with the hand that was not holding the blaster. Hot rage balled up in the center of Matt’s gut like seething coals of a bonfire.
“Bastard!” he yelled, although he was sure Grant couldn’t hear it. He hoped the old man could read his lips. “I’ll get you for this!” The grin on Grant’s face faded a little at that. Then it resurfaced, and he shook his head at Matt again, mocking him.
The back of Matt’s neck suddenly felt as hot as his gut, as did his cheeks. He breathed in quick, raspy gulps of air, some of which left a decidedly sour taste on his sandpaper-dry tongue. The image of Grant above him wavered a little, and he felt unsteady on his feet as if his knees and hips might give up on him at any moment. That was the exhaustion, no doubt: that particular drowsy feeling that comes from the slow drain of breathable air from one’s environment.
Maybe, if he were lucky, he’d go to sleep there on the ledge without feeling the sting of that blaster again. Grant was a great shot, but he had managed to only knock out Matt’s communication with that first blast. He supposed he was lucky that the PTT was manufactured from a substantive compound that proved to be somewhat impact resistant, especially from a blaster set on stun, which Matt’s had been before Grant got hold of it. It was enough to protect him from the blaster’s ray, even if it couldn’t protect the sensitive electrical equipment inside the PTT. Too bad the environmental suits weren’t made of the same stuff. If not for the PTT, he might already be dead. Grant could have stunned him first, then killed him as he lay there unable to move. It occurred to him then that Grant had perhaps fired at the PTT on purpose.
On the way to retrieve his camera, Matt had stopped to take a shit. “One should always ensure that one’s bowels are sufficiently evacuated when one plans on going for an extended exploration,” his former Academy commander had always intoned with forced gravity in his voice. Funny or not, that particular piece of advice had always stuck with him. There was that counseling and the other more valuable information that he handed to all the testosterone-filled young men who seemed to be applying to the Academy in those days.
“You’re here to be an explorer and a scientist, not a hero,” went the other. “We don’t send you to space to die. We send you because we want information. If you’re somewhere where danger is imminent, hole yourself up like the scurrying little mammals we all used to be and wait it out. Safety first.”
Matt and Grant had both heeded that advice just yesterday when they scurried back to the lander after noticing one of the moon’s surprise tornado-like dust storms forming in the lower atmosphere.
“Good thing we looked up,” Grant had said.
That next day, after his visit to the shitter, Matt was just about to radio to Mission Control that he was on the moon’s surface and waiting for his partner when he noticed that Grant was already there, waiting for him. What he didn’t pay much attention to at the time was how Grant was not holding his standard issue tool bag by its straps in his right hand. Instead, he was hugging it against his chest with his left arm, his right hand buried inside it. Matt nodded his “good morning” and pressed the latch button that raised the lander’s ramp and locked it into place. They usually closed up the lander when going out to explore. Not for security reasons (there were no thieves on this moon to fly away with their transport), but to keep as much of the moon’s dust and atmosphere out of their temporary shelter as possible. It was also great protection against those storms.
With the ramp secure, Matt bent to pick up his own tool bag. He rummaged through the bag, intending to obtain his excavation tools and ensure that the blaster was still safely stowed. The digging tools were easy to locate, but the blaster was gone. That was when he stood and turned to face Grant, who had dropped his own tool bag and now stood, legs apart and right arm extended, pointing Matt’s own weapon directly at him.
“Planning something?” he heard Grant’s cracked voice say through his suit’s earpiece. The PTT had a short-range component that enabled an unending stream of communication between explorers nearby. You only had to physically press the device if you wanted to communicate with Mission Control in addition to your partner. Matt’s right hand immediately went to his chest to tap the PTT. He had, in fact, already formed the words he was going to say.
“X314 to Mission Control, my partn—”
The sting of the bolt from the blaster against his chest knocked him backward and stole his breath before he could finish. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because he’d started speaking before his fingers had been able to reach the PTT. He supposed he had just been trying to get as much information out as possible before the inevitable, or what he thought was going to be inevitable, occurred. He tried to catch his breath, wincing against the pain of the impact on his chest. When he opened his eyes again, Grant was standing over him, looking pissed. The blaster was aimed at Matt’s head. He could’ve killed Matt right then, as he lay paralyzed on the moon’s dust if that’s what he’d wanted. But he hadn’t. He had paused long enough for Matt to recover and then sweep Grant’s legs out from under him, nearly causing him to drop the blaster as he fell to the ground. Matt had watched him fall. Grant’s right rib cage struck one of the jagged moon rocks. Matt then scrambled to his feet and launched himself on a full-fledged run across the desert landscape. There was no time to press the button and wait for the ramp to come down again. No way to get inside of the lander in time to save himself from being shot again. Instead, he’d had to run and hope for the best.
He didn’t actually want to kill me outright, Matt now thought as he watched the eyes of the man above him, the man who was his partner and who appeared to be struggling to breathe behind that fogging visor. He wanted to torture me first.
Surreally, Matt thought he could see dust clouds twisting in the lower atmosphere over Grant’s head. If that were the case, a new storm would be forming soon. Those things seemed to funnel out of nowhere in an instant, just like tornadoes on Earth. “Tornadoes with a purpose,” Grant had once said of them because unlike the random trails of destruction tornadoes leave in their wakes on Earth, the dust storms on this moon had lightning-like precision. They funneled down from the sky, destroyed whatever was beneath them, and then unraveled, eventually dissipating as they sharpened the stones scattered along the moon’s surface in a strong gust of straight-line wind. If there were a storm brewing directly above them, neither he nor Grant would be likely to make it back to the lander alive. No matter what.
“Go on then,” Matt mouthed to the man on the ledge above him. “Go on. Shoot me. At this point, I’d rather just go ahead and get this done than wait on this godforsaken moon to do it for me. Face it. Jill doesn’t want you anymore, Grant. She doesn’t care about you. Even if you somehow miraculously survive all this, you don’t get her back. My bet is that she’s filing for divorce right now while you’re still six months and a million miles away. That’s funny to me. You want me dead because I’m taking Jill away from you, and I’m dying here for sure. But that won’t get you Jill back, will it?”
Matt doubted that Grant could hear any of this, but perhaps the gist of it had gotten through. From behind his visor, Matt brayed laughter. He made sure that Grant could see him. His mouth was open. His eyes watered, the lids squeezed together with joy. He made sure that every “ha” he uttered visibly bounded in his shoulders. He stomped his right foot on the ledge below him, slapped his knee, and howled in the face of the man who would be his murderer.
When the hilarity (or his miming of it, anyway) had mostly subsided, Matt looked up at Grant again. He couldn’t wipe the tears of laughter away from his eyes, of course, but he blinked away enough of them to be able to see that the man’s arm now dangled limply over the side of the precipice. The blaster hung upside down on his gloved index finger, like a hat on a hook. In contrast, Grant’s head was no longer visible on the precipice. Matt thought he could see a glimpse of the top of the man’s visor gleaming in the light from the sky that was not yet obscured by the oncoming dust storm.
Is he dead? Matt wondered. Oh God, please let him be dead.
He waited ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty. Grant did not move. His hand remained limp and just out of Grant’s reach. If he wasn’t dead, he had at the very least fallen unconscious from lack of oxygen, a fate that awaited Matt himself if he didn’t find his way off the ledge and back to the lander. Matt leaped deftly into the air and slapped the blaster from his former partner’s dangling fingers. He had a panicked moment when he thought the weapon had gone plummeting into the abyss below him, but he managed to wrap his fingers around the barrel before it had fallen too far from his grasp.
He holstered the blaster in a pocket that was meant for his excavation tool. It was too big for the pocket and projected clumsily from it, but it would have to do. For what came next, Matt would need both hands and all his remaining strength. He already felt light-headed from his escaping air, and falling unconscious on this tiny ledge would probably mean plummeting to his death.
The blaster stowed, Matt scanned the precipice wall in front of him, searching for signs of holes or ledges on which he might be able to make a purchase and hoist himself back to the more-or-less level ground. Holds were slim pickings. What wasn’t sheer was either too small or too large to firmly grab. The first outcropping he attempted to put any weight on crumbled away beneath his fingers. Moreover, both the tips of his gloved fingers and the toes of his boots were rounded; no use attempting to claw new places of purchase in the desert moon rock.
All this technology, Matt thought, and no one ever invented gloves with retractable claws.
He glanced at the threatening sky. From where Grant’s face had previously been glaring at him, a sure-enough dust storm funnel was forming. The swirling mass was oddly localized, just like all the previous events the scientists had witnessed through the high-powered telescopes that were housed in the lab circling the asteroid belt. Beyond the crisply defined circumference of the wide end of the funnel, there were no clouds at all. It was almost as if there was some guidance there, some intelligence or collective mind that coalesced dust in the atmosphere to form these precision downward spirals of wind, red dirt, and mystery molecule.
While Matt watched, the rate of the storm’s spin increased, and he thought he could see the first signs of its ground-ward spiral. From his angle, it looked like it was directly above Grant and, thus, directly above him.
So maybe I should just stay right here, for now, he thought. Maybe I’m safer here until the storm blows away. If it’s anything like Earth lightning, it’ll direct itself at the highest available object within striking distance. Right now that’s Grant.
As Matt kept watch, the storm descended, picking up speed as it neared its target. There was enough atmosphere on the moon to carry the sound to his ears, even through his protective suit. The funnel made a high-pitched whining sound, the sound of a large turbine, that he was pretty sure was making his ears bleed. Combined with that was the freight train roar of a tornado and what sounded like a swarm of giant mosquitoes, bumble bees, and house flies. Matt’s hands clamped on the sides of his head, where his ears would have been if he had not been wearing the suit. He was unable to shut out the noise.
Just before the thing landed on the ground above his head (and, he presumed, on Grant), Matt crouched on his knees. He crammed his body tight as he could against the wall of the precipice and covered his head with his hands. The roaring whine was suddenly drowned by a thunderous crash, so near that it temporarily deafened him. He squeezed his eyes shut, afraid to watch what was happening around him as the funnel struck its target and then peeled apart into a long rush of straight-line wind over his head. He thought he could feel the rush of it, even crouched against the wall of rock as he was, but that might have been only his anxious imagination.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before he dared to open his eyes again. When he did, he allowed himself to breathe a single, short huff of relief. His remaining oxygen wouldn’t afford him the luxury of a long sigh. He stood and examined the edge of the precipice above him, blinking against the brightness that had replaced the harsh shadow of the dust storm.
Something was different.
The silver glove that covered Grant’s dead fingers had split open, revealing the right hand of his former partner within. The division ran upward along the interior seam of his arm. In places, Grant’s flesh protruded from the openings, but somehow it no longer resembled human flesh, at least not any flesh Matt had ever seen. Grant’s arm had gone from human pink to a deeper crimson shade, similar to the landscape that had surrounded the two explorers since they’d arrived. More than that, it seemed to have dried out, creating cracks and gullies and jagged edges in what used to be Grant’s perfectly pristine, if a bit meaty, shooting arm. It looked almost exactly like the dust and rock of the moon’s surface as if Grant was becoming a part of the land on which he’d died.
His dwindling oxygen temporarily forgotten, Matt stared, confounded, at the fingers of the hand dangling above him. The thing inside Grant’s environmental suit was expanding, or growing, or evolving, or eroding, or something. He didn’t know what. He knew only that he could see the rip in the seam widening and that the fingers seemed to be getting closer to him as if the arm was growing longer over the edge of the precipice. The fingers also weren’t really fingers anymore. What had been Grant’s index finger and middle finger had fused together into a solid obelisk-shaped form. His thumb had dried up and broken off somewhere. Maybe, Matt thought, it had already tumbled into the void below them.
Seconds later, the thing’s growth slowed and appeared to come to a stop an inch or more above Matt’s head. Grant’s glove was long gone, shredded beyond recognition, but the cracked and hard thing above him still bore a smidgeon of resemblance to a human hand, albeit with fewer fingers and sharper edges. Fleetingly, Matt toyed with the idea of grabbing hold of it and attempting to use it as a rope to climb off the ledge. He reconsidered when it occurred to him that he didn’t know what the state of his former partner’s feet was on the other side of that cliff. They could be flesh still, for all he knew, and anchored to nothing, which meant that pulling with his weight against what had been Grant’s arm might end up sending them both tumbling into the abyss. Best to test it first.
He retrieved the blaster from his pocket and examined it. The slider was on its highest setting, the one that only specially (and illegally) modified blasters could achieve. He was sure he’d stowed it at its stun setting, which hurt and might cause temporary paralysis but was not fatal. It was the weapon’s only safety feature. Many were the blaster nuts who had accidentally disintegrated themselves or others by attempting to demonstrate the shock, only to discover to their horror that the blaster had been set to kill instead. Grant must have changed it after he’d shot Matt in the PTT out by the lander. There could be no doubt now. He’d meant to kill him.
Matt slid the bolt all the way back to the stun setting. Safety first. Not Grant’s, of course, but his own. He tilted the weapon so that he could see the other side of the barrel, the side with the charge meter. He had one or two shots left at the highest setting before the thing would need to be recharged. The stun setting would be less apt to drain all the energy in one gulp.
Matt clenched the blaster by its grip and nudged rock Grant’s longest “finger” with the tip of the barrel. The block of sharp red matter did not budge. He tapped it again, harder. Nothing, although a small crescent moon-shaped dent, slightly less red than the surface of the thing, did appear where the barrel struck.
He stowed the blaster again. Then he pressed his back firmly into the wall of the precipice and grabbed hold of the thing’s longest finger with his right hand. He wrapped his left hand around what looked like it used to be Grant’s pinky. Then, carefully, he picked his feet up off the ground and allowed his back to loose itself from the precipice wall. He hung there by his arms, all his weight supported by what had been Grant’s shooting hand, like a butterfly cocoon dangling from the branch of a tree. When it became difficult to breathe, he let go, landing on the soles of his feet, his back again to the wall of the precipice.
Maybe it was possible to climb out, then.
Matt allowed himself a few seconds to recover. He was still bleeding oxygen from his suit, but there was no use trying to reserve his breath or strength. The more he sought to save his breath, the more oxygen he lost to the atmosphere, and the longer he waited to get moving on a plan to get back to the lander, the lower the likelihood that he would ever make it back at all. The lander, with its working communication, its practically infinite manufacturing of breathable air, and its ability to get him back to the asteroid belt, is what made his race against time worth running.
Steeling himself, Matt crouched cat-like on his haunches before the thing that had once been both his partner and his rival. He inhaled deeply through his nose, held it, and sprung from the ledge with his calf muscles. He exhaled through his mouth as he flew the distance between the ground and the dangling stone arm. The middle of his torso struck it first. He felt the destroyed PTT in his suit bury itself in the thin covering of flesh over his solar plexus. He thought he felt himself beginning to slide and reflexively knotted his arms around the arm of rock and bear-hugged it. A second after that he actually did slide against the arm and began to struggle to maintain his grip. Panic rose up in him when he realized that a fall from here would most likely send him sailing over the ledge on which he’d been stranded and into the darkness below it. Then, to his surprise, he felt…something…cradle him between the legs. He chanced a look down and, for an instant, thought the moon’s gravity was playing tricks on him. His perspective was changing as he clung to the arm, from the moon’s sky in the distance to the open maw of the abyss below. Then he noted that his legs were dangling wrong. They were no longer hanging vertically from his hips, but at a right angle to them, as if he were laying face-down on a steel girder at a high-rise construction site like the ones in those ancient Looney Tunes cartoons they watched in school. Gravity wasn’t changing. The moon-rock “arm” he had latched himself onto was moving.
Just like that, as if it knew it had been found out, the rocky Grant arm catapulted Matt into the air. He watched helplessly as the ground on the moon below first went hurtling away from him, and then, following his apex, came back at him like a jungle predator closing in on a kill.
He managed to twist his body toes-down on the descent, landing hard on his feet. He balled himself up like a boxer trying to protect his midsection, and then flattened and rolled on his back, just as he’d learned way back in basic training. Lucky for him, Matt thought, the Academy won’t send a person into the air without first teaching him how to get safely down again. He thought he might have felt a twinge in his right ankle when he came down, and he’d definitely heard a ripping sound. It could have been his suit. It could have also been a muscle or a tendon. His adrenaline was pumping too hard to be sure, and there was no time left to focus on such things as physical discomfort or further threats to his oxygen supply. Not now.
Matt scrambled to his feet. His blaster, which had fallen from his suit’s excavation tool pocket while he was mid-flight, lay between him and the rock creature that appeared to be clawing its way from the edge of the precipice along the moon’s surface. Crawling towards him.
The thing that had been Grant rose to its knees and then stood, shakily at first, on two “legs” resembling pillars from Earth’s Stonehenge that had been dusted with red moon soil. At full height, rocky Grant was easily twice Matt’s size. The “arm” that had hurled Matt through space a moment before was gigantic and asymmetrical to the smaller and more razor-like rocks that formed the monstrosity’s left arm. The left arm ended in something that looked similar to a hand, except with long, sharp fingernails formed of rock.
A glove with claws, Grant thought.
The giant’s face bore no resemblance to Grant at all except, perhaps, for the broad, crescent-shaped smile that had spread across its lower half. It was pretty much the same mocking grin that was on Grant’s face when the dust storm or sand lightning or whatever the hell it actually was hit him. Except it was larger, more pronounced. And only blackness lay behind it. As far as Matt could tell, the thing had no eyes. Grant’s environmental suit was gone, shredded to dust, but the only evidence of his former partner’s nakedness was a pointy nub of rock that jutted from between the two pillars on which it stood.
“Guess the molecules can only work with what you give them,” Matt said, and then it clicked with him what must have happened to Grant. The mystery molecules, he thought. They’re not just any old molecules swirling around in the atmosphere looking for the right conditions to coalesce and strike. They’re lifeforms.
Lifeforms. Not randomly striking targets like lightning on Earth, and not just blowing around like debris in a tornado. Lifeforms. Not trying to destroy, at least not at first. Trying to combine with other things to create new lifeforms. Trying to reproduce. Trying to evolve. Whatever Grant had been before (human, partner, rival, would-be murderer), he was now Grant plus moon mystery molecule. He was Molecularly Moon Grant, and he was just as alive, twice as big, and (out of proportion pecker aside) a dozen times harder than Matt. And that meant that Matt needed to get the hell out of there. Now.
He launched himself at his blaster, looking away from the creature at the edge of the precipice only long enough to ensure that his gloved fingers were wrapped around the weapon’s grip and not some random moon rock that was laying on the ground beside it. When he looked up again, the creature that had once been Grant had taken a single step toward him that halved the distance between them.
“One small step for Grant,” Matt said as he snatched up the blaster from the moon’s surface and bolted in the direction of the lander, “one giant squish for little old me.” He squeezed off a single shot from the weapon as he ran. The beam hit its target but appeared to have no effect.
Stun setting, Matt thought. I just tried to stun a pile of rocks. Safety first. I’m a fucking idiot.
With his thumb, he slid the blaster’s settings bolt to its highest level, the not technically legal one. He then turned his attention to the run ahead of him. He didn’t fire again. Not yet. There was no way he could accurately aim the deadly blast at the monster behind him while simultaneously trying to get away from it, and any shot at the highest setting might deplete the blaster’s charge. He needed to be accurate.
He could feel the thing’s thunderous steps shaking the ground beneath him. It was getting closer. No time to turn and aim, especially if he had no guarantee that it would slow the thing down. He hoped that the Grant creature’s size and Grant’s own historical lack of physique would work against the creature’s ability to close the distance. Sure, it had fewer steps to take, but the steps it did take would be slower and more lumbering than Matt’s mad dash to the lander. Hopefully. He had already outrun Grant once that day.
A quarter of a mile of moon dust was all that lay between Matt and escape unless he ran out of air first of course. Or the creature caught up to him. Or the lander ramp didn’t come down fast enough. Or the creature was able to damage the lander even if Matt could get aboard in time. Best not to think about all those things right now. A quarter of a mile: he could run that in his sleep. At the lab, he’d once run a 5K in 20 minutes. Back then he’d done the math and figured that he had averaged about 6.25 miles-per-hour. If he could get anywhere close to that speed across this rocky moon’s surface, he could make it to the lander in less than two minutes.
The available air alarm in his suit buzzed in his ear. Two minutes. It was more than enough time under normal circumstances. The alarm was supposed to sound when five minutes of air were left in the suit. His suit had a smoky hole and was possibly breached in other ways by his fall, so his air was actually bleeding faster than that. He forced himself to assume that he still had five minutes remaining in spite of his leaking lifeline. It was easier that way. It made him feel less apt to panic.
The terrain he had to cover was rugged, dusty, and treacherous. It was like trying to run across a thin layer of sand that had been spread over a dry bed of coral. The good news was that he’d already figured out how to make the run without hurting himself. He’d learned that much when he was running away from human Grant. Keep your head down. Look at the ground in front of you, not at the horizon or the lander. If you keep your eyes on the moment instead of your destination, you’re less likely to do something stupid, like trip over your own shoelaces and twist your ankle or cut your boot open on one of the moon’s razor rocks.
Or look over your shoulder to see if the thing chasing you is gaining on you and falling over a cliff, Matt thought.
He tried to think of something besides the thing behind him, something to prevent himself from looking over his shoulder. Math, maybe. Like the 5K. If the thing really was twice his size, that meant it had twice his stride length, so it was able to cover twice as much ground in a single step than Matt could. The giant could cover in one step what took Matt two. That was if it was walking regularly, like a human, and not actually chasing some running prey. Scratch all that then.
He felt the ground shake again with one of the giant’s footfalls. There was a better measurement, one based on reality instead of guesses about proportions. If he could count the number of steps in a sprint between the giant’s footfalls, Matt would be able to calculate whether the giant was gaining on him, losing ground, or keeping pace. The longer his sprints between the giant’s moonquake steps, the more likely it was that he was outrunning it. He waited for the next moonquake and started his count as soon as he felt it.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine—
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, ni—
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight—
It was gaining on him, no doubt about it. Matt tried to put on an extra burst of speed but found that his breath couldn’t keep pace. His heart was pounding faster than he could count and there was a stitch in his side that threatened to double him over. His lungs felt like they were going to explode inside his chest. He suspected that his environmental suit had only seconds of oxygen left. He’d hear the oxygen depletion alarm any time now. He might have a few more seconds of consciousness if he kept running after that. Then he’d be down. He’d be rocky Grant food.
He glanced toward the horizon. The lander was growing large in his field of vision. Good. High in the sky above it, a new dust storm appeared to be forming. Bad. He’d need to be inside the lander and preparing to launch before Grant could squash him and before the mystery molecules in those dust storms transformed him into a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot just like his former partner. Just a few more sprints and he’d be at the ramp before Grant closed the gap. Maybe even before the dust storm could start its descent.
The ramp. Shit!
He’d closed it. To keep the dust out.
He was close enough to see the latch button on the lander’s leg. Then he was upon it. He pressed it firmly and had to fight to prevent himself from pressing it multiple times, like those types who don’t trust the light behind an activated elevator button and need to press it again even though the elevator is of course already on its way. One press on the lander’s ramp latch and the ramp starts to lower. If you pressed it again before it had completed its descent, it would stop dropping and go up again, wasting precious seconds.
Helplessly, he watched its slow decline. The muscles in his legs thrummed in anticipation, trying to prepare him for his sprint from the dusty moon to the safety of the lander. Depriving those muscles of the oxygen they needed now was no help. Grant’s thunderous steps grew louder, and the ground beneath Matt’s feet more tremulous as the moon monster approached. Above him, the dust storm swirled.
Come on! Hurry up!
Earfuls of oxygen alarm interrupted his thoughts. His suit was empty. If he waited, Matt would not have enough oxygen left in his system to run from the Grant thing when it got too close. And it was close. It would be upon him before the ramp was low enough for him to climb on it. Out of options, Matt raised his blaster and fired at the Grant thing with the full intensity of its not technically legal kill setting. In spite of his own shoddy aim, the blast hit its target. The Grant thing’s “chest” exploded in a volcano-like eruption of chunks of rock and crumbling red debris.
When the dust cleared, Matt saw that perhaps predictably, the Grant thing was not destroyed. It stood against the landscape in front of him looking stunned and confused by the new hole in its body. But it was still very much alive. It was still very much able to get to him.
Matt glanced at the ramp. It was finally low enough for him to touch the lip of it with the fingers of the hand that was not pointing the blaster. He reached for it, pulling on it a little, trying to urge it lower. He was afraid to put too much weight on it. If the sensors detected what they thought was a person standing on the ramp, the ramp would stop where it was so as not to harm the rider. It would neither rise nor continue its descent then.
His suit’s oxygen alarm died, giving up on him. Matt thought he could feel himself suffocating. His vision clouded over, and it was getting harder to move. Every muscle in his body screamed for a fresh gulp of air. He raised the blaster toward the Grant thing again, hoping against hope that there was still charge available, and squeezed the trigger. The thing’s right shin vanished in a violent avalanche of crumbly rock, and it took a tumble, crashing to the moon’s dust and razor rock surface. Still, it was not dead. Matt could see it struggling to pull itself along the ground with its monstrous outstretched arms. The open end of the blaster’s barrel fizzled and sparked, a sure sign that it had used up the last of its charge. Matt resisted the urge to throw it at the creature closing in on him.
The ramp was nearly down now. Close enough. Faintness overcame Matt, and he collapsed, falling onto the ramp, his feet hanging over the edge. The ramp immediately halted the remainder of its descent because of the new weight of his body on the conveyor belt. With his last ounce of consciousness, Matt stretched out his hand and pressed the ramp’s UP/CLOSE button, just above where his body lay. The conveyor belt started, ferrying Matt to the safety of the lander. When he was dumped off the edge of it, the ramp would detect that his weight was gone and would start closing on its own. Matt figured that as long as the conveyor rolled him off when he got inside, he didn’t really need to be conscious for a while. The lander would fill the entry bay with air as soon as the ramp shut. With any luck, he’d still be alive to enjoy it, and the Grant thing would be unable to get to him.
Unless it still remembers that it was Grant, his mind warned. Grant knew how to push the buttons.
Below him, the Grant thing continued its slow crawl toward the lander. Above them both, the dust storm had formed its striking spiral. Whatever new devastation the mystery molecules were planning was imminent. Matt’s last conscious thought was his hope that the strike would land somewhere away from him and the lander. That it would hit Grant again and maybe complete his conversion to moon dust. Then darkness fell upon him.
He awoke sometime later, still wearing his broken environmental suit, and tried to shake off the remnants of a particularly bad nightmare he’d been having. It was something about Jill, and rocks, and dust. Something he had to hide from her but wasn’t sure how he was going to do that. He shook his head to clear it, and the dream was gone. He pulled off his helmet and felt the cold recycled air of the lander’s interior caress his face.
He glanced at the viewscreen beside the now closed entry ramp. The image there was of the ground outside. Below him, the crusty busted up body of his former partner Grant appeared to be slinking away from the lander, toward nightfall. The dust storm that had formed overhead hadn’t struck him, then. He still bore the same scars of their battle. He appeared to be unchanged. How long had it been? Matt had no way of knowing. His environmental suit’s life support and other features were completely dead. Protecting his modesty was its only remaining function. He stripped it off and tossed it into the refuse that would be collected and studied by his coworkers in the lab when he returned. He already had his story ready.
He would tell them that Grant, in a jealous rage, had confronted him about Jill and had tried to kill him, damaging his suit in the process. He had obviously smuggled a blaster aboard the mission for that purpose. Matt had run from Grant and made it back to the lander just in time to see Grant consumed by one of the moon’s freak dust storms. He’d waited inside the lander but could find no sign of Grant. With no way to support himself on the moon other than the lander, and shaken from the experience, he had aborted the mission and started the ride home.
That’s how it happened. Matt thought it would be easy to convince himself of that on the long trip ahead of him, and that would make it simpler to convince the folks in the lab when he reported to them. Later. He’d get back to them later. After he’d had time to get the lander on course and himself some much-needed rest. His brain still felt foggy. Some side effect of his oxygen deprivation, he figured. The joints in his fingers and toes ached terribly.
He examined his hands while he made his way toward the lander’s captain’s chair, wearing only his skivvies. Were the fingers on his left hand a little longer than they used to be? Maybe. They sure looked like it when he compared them to the fingers on his right. The fingernails on the index finger and middle finger of his left hand looked a bit discolored, too. They were red. Not the pinkish red of fingernails over ordinary flesh, but moon dust red: crimson and flaky. He scratched the surface of one of them with the nails of his right hand. It was like trying to chisel a chunk out of the side of a mountain. Matt grabbed the survival hatchet off the wall of the entry bay as he passed through the door. Perhaps he’d been touched by the mystery molecules in the dust storm after all. Maybe he needed to perform a little surgery before he launched himself back toward civilization. If he could chop off his left hand and toss it back to the moon’s surface by itself, he’d return a hero. He’d have prevented a more widespread infection. Jill would be fascinated by that and love him all the more for it. Of course, she would. Jill loved geology. She’d have to love a story about a geological lifeform.
There was antiseptic, suturing equipment, and enough wrapping to make an adequate tourniquet in the First Aid kit hanging on the wall. Matt grabbed that as well.
Guess I still won’t be getting my claw gloves, he thought.
Safety first, after all.
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