Book: The Moldy Dead
The Moldy Dead
Legend of ZERO
The Legend of ZERO and The Moldy Dead are copyright © 2013 by Sara King. No part of this work may be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the author. For inquiries (begging?), please write Sara King at [email protected].
(Don’t worry, she’s really cool.)
The following story isn’t real. Duh.
But! If you’re still unsure, let’s compare the facts. Fact: This story involves sentient creatures with three legs, sentient creatures with six legs, and sentient creatures with no legs. While I suppose you could MAKE a sentient creature with no legs, it’d be awfully difficult to make, say, one with six. Fact: This story involves interstellar spaceships. Humanity gets really super excited if it gets to the Moon. The thought of going to Mars is like, whoa. The thought of leaving our tiny solar system, which is only one tiny star in a single galaxy made up of at least 200,000,000,000, with billions of other galaxies out there just like it, makes most people laugh or roll their eyes. Unless something drastic happens, we won’t be colonizing other planets for, gee, centuries. That obviously rules out your grandmother being on the spaceship in this story and my devious intent to expose her secret collection of decorative elephants. Fact: In this story, there is no mention of Earth, Humans, McDonalds, or even Wal-Mart.
Really, people. It’s not real.
This story features Congress’ discovery of the Geuji, one of the main antagonist/protagonist species in The Legend of ZERO series. It was written to explain why the Geuji’s history has been so heart-wrenchingly tragic from very First Contact. Though it’s a stand-alone 8,000-word story, The Moldy Dead is best read before Zero Recall to get the full scope of what has happened to the Geuji as a species, and to understand Forgotten’s frame of mind in the Legend of ZERO books.
8th Turn, 193rd Age of the Huouyt
It took eight and a half turns to reach the mold planet. During the envoy’s journey to the Outer Line, seven members of their crew died; three to suicide, two to old age, and two more simply didn’t wake up, their bodies rotting inside substandard Congressional casks.
Esteei had risen that morning to find that only eight of their original fifteen were left. The Ooreiki were whispering foul play, giving the Huouyt suspicious glances, but Esteei was accustomed to the inter-species angst. He was more worried about the other Jahul, whose frozen corpse now drifted somewhere in their wake.
The senior Jahul Emissary was one of the three who had simply put on their spacesuits and thrown themselves into the ship’s backwash while everyone else slept. It left Esteei, the only remaining Jahul on the ship, in charge of an ill-fated mission nobody wanted anyway.
Now, staring out at the clammy, glistening black landscape spread out before him, Esteei wondered if he should have done the same.
The entire planet was covered with mold.
The only areas clear of the glistening ebony organism were along the beaches, where their ship now rested. The rolling black waves halted at the highest flood line, leaving about five rods of shoreline where Esteei and his envoy could set up for their turn-long stay.
It was a pointless gesture. There were no beings here for Esteei to make contact with. Anyone could see the only thing that lived here was mold.
Endless miles of mold.
Grimacing, Esteei stepped back onto the ship to fill out the death reports.
Crown’s peers buzzed with conversation. The ship had descended at an angle perpendicular to the ground, as the Philosophers had thought it might. It meant their visitors were well beyond the aero-based technologies, as they predicted. In fact, everything about their visitors had been theorized long in advance…except for the way they looked.
Not even the Philosophers could out-guess Nature.
Nature, it seemed, had produced at least three other sentient species, each vastly different from the next. Most of them were short, squat, brown things with tentacles bearing long metal instruments, probably some form of energy weapons. They had large brown eyes with slit pupils, the surfaces sticky with clear mucous, their simple intentions clearly written in their expressive faces.
They were the guardians. The brown bipeds spread out in a fan, testing the area, ready to draw enemy fire from their wards, should they encounter hostility.
Of course, they encountered none.
The Philosophers had been waiting for this a very long time.
Soon, they would be free.
The other two aliens were different. The first was tall, with white cilia coursing over its skin, giving it a downy appearance. It alone had the biological compatibility to leave the ship without wearing a protective suit. It walked on three muscular legs and appeared to have some aquatic ancestry, since it had trouble keeping itself upright in the sand.
It was the eyes of this one that bothered Crown’s peers. Those who could see them said the tripod’s eyes were unnatural, blue-white and difficult to read. They determined that he was a leader of sorts, as it was he who struck out along the shore, following the waterline.
The third alien was the one that intrigued them, though. The guardians ringed him, their sticky brown eyes alert and watchful. If he was not the leader, he was very important to their group.
He walked naturally on six legs, though from the way his splotchy green skin folded in the center of its back, it appeared as if he could shift its weight onto the back four legs and manipulate objects with its two front, three-fingered hands.
The hexapod was not physically strong. Like the aquatic alien, it appeared to be struggling under the gravity of the Philosopher planet. Its six legs were spindly, almost out of proportion with its long, dome-shaped body. Its eyes were even more of a mystery. Completely black, yet they somehow conveyed more emotion than the other seven combined.
When Crown learned they were heading in his direction, he grew excited. He knew it was embarrassing for a Philosopher to lack that kind of discipline, but he couldn’t control his curiosity. He was tired of subsisting on thoughts passed through a million others before it reached him. He was tired of listening to second-hand accounts, tired of theorizing, tired of hypothesizing, tired of imagining.
Crown wanted to see them.
They began to explore the shoreline first, putting off wading through the endless acres of black mold as long as possible.
The Ooreiki youngsters, desperate to find some form of life on the planet other than the omnipresent black mold, picked up several odd-shaped stones and suggested they were broken carapaces of aquatic critters, that possibly the dominant species of the planet lived in the oceans and not the land.
Esteei and Nirle, the only two survivors who had been on a Congressional envoy before, gave them the benefit of the doubt, though it was painfully obvious to both of them that the stones were just that.
Bha’hoi was not so tactful.
“Those are rocks, you ignorant Ooreiki furgs. Jreet hells, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going back before their stupidity rubs off.” Frustration flaring off of him, the Huouyt Overseer then turned and stormed back to the ship, leaving the seven of them alone on the beach.
The young Ooreiki dropped their prizes dejectedly, their expressive faces wrinkled in shame.
Prime Commander Nirle lifted his rifle and watched Bha’hoi go through the scope, his anger hot against Esteei’s sivvet. Tempers had flared ever since they’d learned their destination, and for a horrible moment, Esteei thought the Ooreiki was going to fire.
“Two hundred credits says I can kill him in six shots,” Nirle said, still watching the Huouyt’s narrow back through his rifle.
Esteei was curious, despite himself. “Why six?” He knew a Huouyt was hard to kill, but Nirle had been trained in Planetary Ops, of the Ooreiki Ground Force. They prided themselves in their weapons mastery.
Still watching the Huouyt with his weapon, Nirle replied, “I’d have to blow his legs and arms off first.”
The younger Ooreiki hooted.
Esteei, who had not been trained in the arts of killing Huouyt, was lost. “Why?”
“Because it would hurt more,” one of the battlemasters answered. “Five for the limbs, then the last one for the brain.”
Nirle grunted and dropped his rifle again.
They moved on, dutifully scouting the empty shore for life—an endeavor that was obviously becoming more pointless with every tic that passed. Eventually, the younger Ooreiki became more animated, their shame disappearing with their Prime Commander’s anger. They even began picking up odd-shaped stones again.
An hour or two later, a sudden, odd rush of anxiety slammed into Esteei’s sivvet, almost knocking him over. He frowned, glancing at his companions. “Is something wrong?”
Nirle grunted. “Yeah. I didn’t pull the trigger.” The squat brown Ooreiki was looking back towards the ship wistfully.
Esteei glanced at the younger Ooreiki, all of whom were watching him with curious, sticky brown eyes. Which one of them was anxious? And why?
His sivvet continued to burn, the acidic-metallic taste right before fear. None of them, though, seemed to be worried. As Esteei scanned the endless expanse of black mold that seemed to be creeping toward them as they stood there, shock hit his sivvet like a cold splash of liquid nitrogen, more powerful than anything he’d ever felt before.
Nirle noticed his glances and frowned, his stocky body tightening. “Boys, let’s get our Emissary back to base. If there was something here, he would’ve felt it already.”
“Wait.” Coldness continued to pound at him, icing down his sivvet, making his whole body tremble.
Nirle paused on the flat, wind-lapped stones. “Wanna give it a few more tics? Don’t blame you. Truly, Jahul, I’d shoot myself if I had to have the Huouyt in my head.”
Esteei frowned out over the waves of mold, feeling the anxiety growing to something bigger. “There’s something out there.”
Nirle’s face hardened with seriousness. “Where?”
Esteei scanned the glistening mass, but saw no break in its rolling perfection. “I don’t know. Maybe underground.”
“What’d you feel?” Nirle asked, coming to stand beside him.
“Shock,” Esteei said. “Fear.”
“So we’ve been sighted.” At his words, every Ooreiki in the group took a fighting position around Esteei, protecting him with their bodies.
There was one rock that kept drawing Esteei’s attention. It was shaped like an upside-down teardrop, weather-beaten to near oblivion. The sticky black mold had crested the top, gleaming in the sun like a glossy black raindrop.
As Esteei watched, the mold moved.
Like wind over a field of grass, it rolled. The rolling spread outward from the inverted tear-shaped rock, until every glistening black surface was moving.
“You see that?” Nirle whispered.
Esteei felt sick. “Take me back to the ship.”
Never in his life had Crown been so impatient. He heard reports that the tripod aquatic alien had turned back, some sort of dispute, and that one of the guardian aliens had aimed his weapon at the aquatic one’s back.
Please, Crown thought, Just let me see you.
As if the universe was answering his prayer, the seven remaining aliens stopped on the beach in front of him.
When Crown saw the hexapod’s face, he flinched back in shock. It was the same face that had haunted his subconscious for thousands of turns, the face that Crown had always thought to be a construct of his own boredom.
But here he was, and it boded poorly for the Philosophers.
Replaying in a tiny corner of his mind for a thousand years, the face had always watched them die.
They’re going to kill us. Crown sent his message out, and immediately the other Philosophers responded. Their fear was increasing, not because of what Crown had said, but because the aquatic alien had changed form.
It had changed form. It had placed a tiny piece of material into a receptacle in its head, swallowing it with squirming red appendages, and then its entire body shifted to something else.
Something that could move unseen under the Philosophers.
And now it was spying on its fellows.
It was a young Ooreiki who finally named the mold.
Wiping it off his boots after another slogging adventure through the glistening black terrain, he wrinkled his meaty Ooreiki face.
“Man, this stuff’s as nasty as geuji.”
Or, in Old Poen, ‘Draak shit.’
The name stuck. It became so colloquial that Esteei even used it in his reports to Congress by accident.
Outraged, the Botanical Committee immediately came up with a new name—something in ancient Ueshi meaning ‘great black sleeper’—but to everyone actually living with it, the mold was known as the Geuji. Fondly capitalized, since it was a lot of geuji.
The Geuji resisted every attempt to control it. With the high tides threatening to invade the ship, Nirle led patrol after patrol out over the glistening landscape, attempting to carve a landing clearing into it with fire and shovels. It was pointless—the Geuji healed in hours, leaving unblemished, glistening terrain behind.
Esteei caught Nirle on his way back from another failed attempt. Frustration emanated from the Ooreiki in an emotional barrage on Esteei’s sivvet.
“Still doesn’t work?” Esteei asked, nodding at the slime-covered shovel the Ooreiki carried with him.
“If you look hard, you can see it growing back,” Nirle growled. He stalked onto the ship. Inside, Esteei heard a shovel clang against the wall, then hit the floor in a clatter.
Esteei glanced down the beach. The Geuji remained in a perfect line above the high tide mark, never dipping below it, following it with extreme precision.
If they grow so fast, why haven’t they grown toward the water?
Suddenly very conscious of being alone outside the ship, Esteei hurried back inside, where Nirle and his grounders were shrugging off their gear in disgust.
Panic was spreading amongst the Philosophers. Something horrible was going on, something they had no control over. The aliens were fast, horribly fast, yet their minds were slow. The aquatic tripod seemed to be the only one to realize what the Philosophers were, but for some reason it hadn’t told the others.
Something was wrong.
Two days later, the patrol came back one short.
It was an odd day, one where the Geuji erupted in constant motion around the ship, coursing with wave after wave of activity that almost appeared to have a pattern to it. Entranced, Esteei had stepped outside to watch it.
It reminded him of the rolling oceans of grass on his home planet, yet here there was no wind. The mold had been doing it since early morning, a few hours after Nirle left with his groundteam. The longer Esteei watched it, the more it made his pores itch, yet he could not look away.
“Esteei,” Nirle called, breaking the spell. He was jogging up the beach to him in a heavy, lumbering Ooreiki gait. With him were four of his five groundmates. All of them emanated fear. “Did Tafet come back?”
“No,” Esteei said, tearing his eyes from the Geuji. The waves had stopped suddenly. They were now as utterly, glistening calm as if they were the fields of ebony they appeared to be. “There’s nobody here but me.”
Esteei had been choosing to stay behind lately. He’d quickly learned that the mold was some sort of emotional magnifier for the Ooreiki, giving his sivvet the equivalent of an emotional beating when he got too close. He could only handle one or two hours at a time without feeling sick.
And now the Ooreiki were afraid. It was as palpable as if someone had opened up Esteei’s skull and wrapped his sivvet in wet, putrescent cloth.
“Where’s Bha’hoi?” Nirle demanded.
“Down the beach.”
“Which direction?” the Prime demanded.
“West,” Esteei said, stunned at the fury emanating from the Ooreiki. “You think Bha’hoi would—”
“You haven’t been to war with the Huouyt,” Nirle said. “I have. They’re smart and they’re psychotic. If he thought he could kill us all and get away with it, he probably would. Just for the hell of it.”
“But we went east,” Nirle said, almost reluctant. “Climbed through a rock formation, and that’s where we lost Tafet. Spent all damned afternoon looking for him. He’s not answering his headcom.”
“He fall asleep?” Esteei asked.
Nirle gave him a dark look.
“What about your PPU?” Esteei quickly said.
Nirle brought it out and showed it to him.
Five small green dots clustered near the point Nirle had marked ‘Slime Removal Station.’
“Where’s Tafet’s?” Esteei asked, confused.
“There’s only two ways the PPU stops picking up the signal,” Nirle said. “Either something fried his tag, or something killed him and removed it.”
None of them bothered stating the obvious—in a land of rolling waves of mold, there was very little electro-magnetic interference.
Esteei glanced out at the gleaming black landscape, fearful now. Tafet was the one who had named the Geuji. Aside from Nirle, Tafet had been Esteei’s favorite Ooreiki, the least likely to assault his sivvet with a barrage of harsh emotions.
“You think the Geuji—”
“No,” Nirle said, harsh. “I think—” He choked off his words with a glare down the beach.
Bha’hoi was trudging toward them from the west, his three muscular legs working awkwardly in the sand and rocks.
Nirle’s sticky brown eyes fell to the Huouyt’s legs, obviously looking for signs that he’d been walking through the mold. One didn’t need to have sivvet to feel the suspicion in the Ooreiki’s gaze.
The Huouyt reached them, then scanned the six faces gathered at the ship. Concern brushed Esteei’s sivvet. “Where’s Tafet?”
“Not here,” the Ooreiki said.
Bha’hoi’s white-blue eyes unreadable. “Where is he?”
“We’ll take care of it,” Nirle said, starting to put his PPU away.
The Huouyt saw the instrument and his gaze immediately sharpened. “Give me that.” He held out a downy, paddle-like tentacle.
The two of them faced off, the shorter, brown-eyed Ooreiki glaring up at the taller, electric blue-white eyed Huouyt.
Don’t fight, Esteei prayed, afraid to move. His sivvet were rated sixteenth in all of Congress for sensitivity. Fighting, especially between two different species, hurt.
Reluctantly, Nirle handed the PPU to the Huouyt Overseer.
Bha’hoi’s mirror-like eyes flickered to the screen only a moment. “There’s only five tags registered on your Planetary Positioning Unit, Prime Commander.”
Nirle wrenched the PPU away from the weaker Huouyt’s cilia-covered tentacle. “We’ll find him.” Without waiting for further orders, the Ooreiki Prime Commander led his grounders back over the moldy black hills, toward the east.
For a brief instant—less than a quarter of a second—Esteei felt satisfaction emanate from the Huouyt. Then it was gone, replaced with nothing.
He’s pleased, Esteei thought, startled.
Esteei was still staring at Bha’hoi as he climbed back onto the ship, leaving him standing on the beach alone.
It was well past nightfall by the time the Ooreiki groundteam finally returned.
When their shambling forms neared the lights of the ship, Esteei’s internal pressures spiked.
They were dragging a corpse.
Esteei ran out to them, stretching his sivvet to capacity, straining to get any sign that Tafet was alive.
“Don’t bother,” Nirle said, bitterness hardening his voice. He and the other four Ooreiki carried their friend aboard and set him inside one of the vacuum-casks set into the far wall. Seeing it in the light, Esteei recoiled.
The corpse was still covered with black slime, and his head had been torn open.
“From now on,” Nirle said, “We go out in twos or we don’t go out at all. Esteei, you won’t be going anywhere without at least three Ooreiki to guard you, understand?”
“Commander, I really don’t need—”
“You’re the most important person on this ship,” Nirle interrupted. “The rest of us, especially that useless Huouyt, are expendable. You’re our best chance of contact with whatever killed Tafet.”
Esteei felt his eyes dragged back to Tafet’s corpse, to the sticky blackness clinging to it. “You don’t think it was the Geuji?”
“It wasn’t,” Nirle said.
“Then what was it, Commander?” Bha’hoi was climbing down from abovedecks.
Nirle glared. “Not the Geuji.”
“Enlighten us, since you obviously saw the tracks,” Bha’hoi said.
Nirle remained silent, loathing filling the ship as he glared up at the Huouyt Overseer.
“You found no tracks.” Bha’hoi did not bother to hide his smugness.
Nirle looked ready to draw his weapon on the Huouyt. Behind him, his grounders fidgeted. “It wasn’t the Geuji,” Nirle repeated, his voice dangerously calm.
Bha’hoi glanced at Tafet’s corpse, which was still visible through the lid of the cask. Black slime still coated his gelatinous body. “Then he simply decided to roll in the stuff before he died?”
Nirle swiveled and left the ship. Alone.
No, this was all wrong. The aliens were killing each other.
The aquatic one, the smart one, was hunting the others. It spied on them from beneath the Philosophers, then, when the others weren’t looking, it had dragged one of them underneath the Philosophers and killed it.
It was framing them.
Crown’s peers were in an uproar, trying to determine what was going on. Was it simply an inter-species scuffle? They didn’t think so. They’d already pieced together most of the aliens’ speech, and from what they could tell, they were on the planet to seek out intelligent life.
Yet the aquatic one was killing its companions.
It was on one of the rare days that Esteei went out with the Ooreiki when another grounder went missing.
One moment, he had been with them, laughing, joking. The next, Esteei’s sivvet were crushed with someone else’s terror. He fell to his knees in the slimy black Geuji, curling into an instinctive ball at the agony in his head.
“What?” Nirle demanded. “Emissary?”
The fear was so thick Esteei could not respond. He simply whimpered and curled tighter.
Faintly, he heard one of the Ooreiki shout, then a commotion and weapons discharging. Esteei could not even bring himself to open his eyes as his chambers purged themselves over his skin.
And still the terror continued to grow. The Geuji magnified it, contorted it, and made it so unbearable that Esteei had to choose between voiding his chambers a second time or exploding from the inside.
Somewhere, he knew he was screaming, but it was a faraway place. Only the horrible pounding in his sivvet was real.
“Get him back to the ship!” Nirle shouted. “Gratii can wait!”
Two grounders carted Esteei back to the ship as fast as their meaty legs could carry them. As soon as Esteei was safely back in his room, they hurried back to rejoin their friends.
It took Esteei several hours to recover. He lay in bed, enduring the pounding waves of the residual emotions like a seasick traveler endured the ebbing waves of a dying storm.
When he finally managed to steady himself enough to look outside, the Geuji was rolling in rapid, eerie patterns, some of which almost made sense to him.
Fearing he was losing his mind, Esteei went back to his room and stayed there.
Later, during the night, the four Ooreiki returned with another body.
It, too, was covered with Geuji mucous.
“That’s it,” Bha’hoi snapped. “Nirle, no more outings. I’m declaring the Geuji a hostile non-sentient. I’m going to request eradication measures.”
“It wasn’t the Geuji!” the Ooreiki Prime Commander roared, turning on the Huouyt. “It was something else. I saw a portion of it, right before Gratii disappeared. Like a Jreet, but thinner, without scales.”
Bha’hoi was clearly irritated. “You saw a worm kill your grounder, Commander?”
“It would explain why there’s no tracks.”
“If it’s a worm, then it’s using the Geuji as cover. We wipe out the cover, the worms cannot surprise us, and no more will die.”
“No!” Nirle snapped.
The Huouyt cocked his head. “No, Commander?”
“I think the mold is…” Nirle hesitated, catching Esteei’s eyes.
Nervousness doused Esteei’s sivvet. Nervousness and suspicion.
He was going to say ‘sentient,’ Esteei realized, stunned. And he doesn’t want to say it in front of Bha’hoi.
“The mold is what?” Bha’hoi demanded, harsh now. When Nirle didn’t reply, he continued in a low, hard tone. “From now on, Commander, you will clear all excursions with me. I will have no more deaths. Your buddy system is obviously not working.”
“Burn you, Huouyt.”
Nirle grabbed his rifle and left.
“Ooreiki, go retrieve Commander Nirle and lock him in his room.”
“No. He can go.”
The Huouyt turned to Esteei. “Excuse me?”
Esteei continued to watch Nirle depart. “Let him go, Overseer.”
“But, little Jahul, military matters are clearly—”
“You will address me as Emissary Esteei,” Esteei snapped, “Not ‘little Jahul.’”
The Huouyt gave Esteei a cold look, then flung a cilia-covered, paddle-like arm at the other Ooreiki, “Put that body away.”
Esteei turned to see the Ooreiki’s figure fade into the darkness.
Suddenly afraid for him, Esteei jogged off the ship and sloshed through the tide after the Prime Commander. Behind him, he heard the Huouyt give orders for the other Ooreiki to stay.
Esteei’s pores prickled at the thought of being out in the Geuji alone, but he kept going.
A strange, percussive sound stopped him. Esteei hesitated outside the threshold of the ship’s light, turning back to glance at the figures on the ship. He thought he saw flashes from the inside.
Is that weapons-fire?
Then, This mission is getting to me.
Feeling tired, Esteei hurried into the darkness after the Ooreiki Prime Commander.
“Nirle!” he called, after the Ooreiki’s lumbering bulk.
“Go back to the ship, Jahul.” Nirle didn’t slow.
Esteei felt the first bit of Geuji squish under his feet, but he kept moving. Ahead, he could feel Nirle’s pain like hot irons in his sivvet. “Nirle, wait!”
The Ooreiki slowed, his fleshy sudah flapping in the sides of his neck, betraying his anger. “Esteei, was Bha’hoi on the ship when the grounders took you back?”
Esteei flinched, coming to a halt beside him. “I can’t remember.”
“Think! This mission’s lost nine out of fifteen members. Don’t you think that’s a bit odd?”
Insanity, yet… “Why would Bha’hoi kill your grounders?”
Glaring, Nirle turned to look the way they had come.
In the distance, the ship’s lights were drowned out by the darkness of the night and the eerie blue light of the moon.
All around them, waves of Geuji glistened in the night.
Esteei got the distinct impression they were being watched, their every word consumed and analyzed by alien minds.
“It’s sentient,” Nirle said, staring at the Geuji.
The Geuji seemed to shudder, the texture shifting and changing, going from glossy to rough in ripples around them. Suddenly nervous, Esteei started backing toward the ship.
Nirle caught his arm. “It’s not gonna hurt you, Jahul.” He sounded awestruck, like a creature in love.
Esteei had the sudden concern that the Geuji could broadcast emotional energies, much like the Jahul could receive them. It would explain what was wrong with his sivvet.
It would also explain why Nirle was acting so strangely. If they were lulling his fears, preparing him for some symbiotic organism to eat him…
“Sit with me, Emissary.”
Esteei recoiled. “Nirle, I really don’t think—”
The stronger, heavier Ooreiki yanked him down with him, forcing Esteei’s six knees to collapse or break. Reluctantly, he sank into the squishy black mass with the Ooreiki Prime, uncomfortable at the way the Geuji pressed against his belly and legs.
“Look,” Nirle said. He reached out with a tentacle and touched the Geuji in front of him.
A wave of rolling black current spread outward, flowing away from them, disappearing over the hills.
“They’re greeting us,” Nirle whispered.
Esteei found it particularly disturbing that Nirle was communing with the mold so soon after finding another grounder dead. He tried to stand.
Nirle kept him in place with a tentacle forged of ruvmestin, forcing Esteei to endure the tickling sensation of the slime against his belly. He began to panic.
“Be still, Jahul,” Nirle said. “They’re curious about you. You’ve been avoiding them.”
Esteei’s internal pressure climbed until his inner chambers were near bursting. He tried to stand again, but the stronger Ooreiki held him, entranced by the rolling waves of ebony.
“Nirle…” Esteei began, fear burrowing into his soul like poisonous worms. “I don’t think you’re well.”
The Prime Commander released him suddenly, laughing. “Maybe you’re right.” He glanced back at the mold. “But I’ve spent so much time out here—I know it’s not the Geuji killing my boys.” He absently began to draw lines in the glistening surface of the Geuji, symbols spiraling outward from a single point in the Congie style. In moments, he’d written the Ooreiki proverb, “Trust thyself, and thy works will soar.”
Quietly, Nirle repeated it to himself. Then, “Emissary, I caught the Huouyt making a call off planet, short-wave. I thought we were supposed to be alone out here.”
“We are,” Esteei said, frowning.
Suddenly, Nirle’s writing vanished, the surfaces of the Geuji tightening into a glossy blackness. To Esteei’s amazement, the Ooreiki proverb appeared again a couple rods away, and it was not a copy. The words were bigger, with more flourish, and a tighter spiral. It was, in truth, better than Nirle’s writing.
Esteei sank back to his stomach, stunned. “You can communicate with it?”
Nirle looked as shocked as he was.
Emissary instincts taking over, Esteei said, “Let me try.” Esteei leaned forward and wrote a simple note, “Do you understand us?”
“Speak it aloud,” Nirle whispered. “They’ve heard me and the boys chatting enough…maybe they understand our speech.”
Though skeptical, Esteei did. “Do you understand us?” He drew the words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
“Yes,” was the immediate reply. “Yes, yes.” Insistent. Like it wanted more.
All around them, the land was rolling again, like it did when the Tafet and Gratii disappeared. The sight of it made Esteei tense. Is this where it eats us?
Yes, yes, yes…
Esteei wanted to run back to the ship, but now duty bound him to stay.
Nervously, Esteei began his Emissary duties, introducing them and their purpose, but before he could finish, his medium went stiff, erasing his work.
In an enormous, acre-wide spiral, the Geuji wrote, “No trust Huouyt.”
All around them, the Geuji was rolling waves of insistency, flashing patterns that only now began to make sense.
“I knew it,” Nirle growled, tentacles tightening over his rifle.
“How pretty,” a cold voice said behind them. “And they did it with such flourish. Almost makes you think they’re sentient, doesn’t it?”
Even as Nirle was swiveling, rifle in hand, Bha’hoi fired an energy burst point-blank into the Ooreiki’s meaty head.
Nirle collapsed without a sound, his body pooling on the ground in a gelatinous, boneless huddle.
“Well,” Bha’hoi said, lowering the gun. “I can’t say I haven’t been looking forward to that.”
The Geuji began to flash its message, angry, defiant.
“No trust Huouyt. No trust…”
The Huouyt fired into the center of the Geuji’s warning, and the Geuji flinched away from the wound, in obvious pain.
Esteei stared at the gun in Bha’hoi’s grip.
The Huouyt could change form. They could take patterns of other creatures as it pleased them, as long as they had water to negate it afterwards.
It was him all along.
“The Geuji didn’t kill the Ooreiki. You did.”
Amusement wafted over the Huouyt’s sivvet as Bha’hoi looked at him. “What gave it away?” When Esteei did not respond, the Huouyt’s amusement increased. “Because I really want to know. Was it all the suicides? Was it the Geuji flashing warnings these last few days? Or was it the fact I just shot your friend in the face?”
Glancing at the corpse, feeling shamed and scared, Esteei backed away.
“Now, little Jahul, don’t run off. You have a report to make to the Planetary Claims Board. Come with me.”
“NO,” the Geuji flashed, over and over. “No, no, no, no…”
Bha’hoi shot the Geuji again, but this time the message kept flashing. “No, no, no…”
Esteei hesitated, caught between the urge to run and the fear of being alone on this alien planet. Even the Huouyt, who had murdered the Ooreiki in cold blood, was at least familiar to him. The alien blackness was not.
But when Bha’hoi took a step toward him, his electric, white-blue eyes were more alien than anything Esteei had ever known. He ran. And, as an ancestral prey species, the Jahul were fast. The Huouyt, with his three legs, was not.
Behind him, the Huouyt laughed. “I can always take your pattern and do it myself, Jahul!”
Panic powering him, Esteei didn’t stop running.
Once Esteei was out of range, he turned back to look. He saw Bha’hoi’s silhouette against the light of the ship, saw him climb aboard and watched the tiny square of light disappear as the gate drew up. An instant later, the ship began drifting into the night sky, blocking out the stars.
In moments, Esteei was alone with the Geuji.
The hexapod wasn’t listening to them.
Not smart enough, his peers thought.
But Crown was skeptical. The hexapod wasn’t even trying to communicate with them. Like Crown, he was scared.
He thinks he’s going to die.
Apparently, he didn’t realize what the aquatic alien was doing. The aquatic alien wasn’t there to kill the hexapod. He was there to kill the Philosophers.
And, Crown knew with horrible certainty, he would be back.
Bha’hoi returned, two days later. Esteei was burying the dead Ooreiki that the Huouyt had pushed off the ship and was collecting their oorei for transport back to Poen when the ship set down in the same indentions in the sand from last time, startling him. When the gate began to open, it didn’t even cross Esteei’s mind to pick up one of the Ooreiki’s weapons.
When Bha’hoi stepped out, he was dragging a wooden crate. He saw the Ooreiki rifles still strewn on the beach, looked out at Esteei, and snorted laughter.
“What are you doing?” Esteei called, eying the crate.
“Come find out,” the Huouyt offered, disappearing once more into the ship.
Hesitantly, worried at the range of the Huouyt’s weapon, Esteei got just close enough that he could hear something moving inside the crates, then stopped.
“What is it?” Esteei called.
“Vaghi,” Bha’hoi said, dropping a second crate beside the first.
Esteei recoiled. “The vermin?”
“The very same,” the Huouyt said. He boarded the ship once more and returned with a third crate. “I hear they have an appetite for the same molecular makeup as the Geuji. We’ll see.”
Esteei was stunned. Voracious, vaghi could eat six times their own weight each day and breed dozens of times a week. More, if food was plentiful enough.
“But the Geuji are sentient.”
The Huouyt snorted. “Of course they are. It took me two tics after first stepping off the ship to determine that.” The Huouyt tapped its downy head. “Simply because your brain is the size of a pebble, you assume everyone else’s is, too.”
The Huouyt’s cilia rippled over its body, amusement pouring off of him in a wave. “The Huouyt are next in queue for a planet, little Jahul. This one has an ocean absolutely unpopulated by native filth.”
The Huouyt are aquatic.
Terrified, Esteei said, “You don’t need to kill them. The Geuji aren’t using the ocean. You can share the planet.”
“The Huouyt don’t share.”
Esteei stared at him, unable to speak.
“Now,” Bha’hoi said, returning his attention to the crates. “You have a decision to make, little Jahul. Will you hold still while I kill you quickly, or will you make me leave you here on Neskfaat, to starve to death?”
“It’s what we’re naming it. It means—”
Bha’hoi’s face twisted into a frown. “Yes.” He moved to the closest box of vaghi, which squealed when he neared.
“You loose those things on the land and you’ll never get rid of them,” Esteei said, desperate, now. Around them, the empty shoreline stretched miles in any direction, the blackness of the Geuji reaching to the highest flood mark.
Bha’hoi snorted. “We don’t care what happens to the land.” He kicked open the first crate and watched the scaly flood that followed with greedy eyes.
The sudden, intense fear emanating off the Geuji as the vermin coursed over its glistening black body almost drove Esteei over the edge. He stumbled back, toward the water.
Bha’hoi kicked open two more boxes before Esteei regained his wits. He ran forward, intending to knock the Huouyt away from the box.
The Huouyt caught him and held him by the throat, his downy arm like solid ruvmestin.
“Listen to me very carefully, little Jahul.” The Huouyt’s mirror-like eyes were icy cold. “I’m not an Overseer. I never went to Huouyt Basic. I was trained in a different place, one you might know. Does ‘Va’ga’ mean anything to you?”
Esteei’s inner chambers stretched to bursting, pumping rank fluids over his skin.
Bha’hoi’s face twisted. “I thought it might.”
To punctuate his statement, he kicked open another box, to the resulting terror of the Geuji.
“Now,” Bha’hoi continued, “Of all the creatures on that ship, I liked you the most. You didn’t get in my way.” He kicked open another box, allowing the vaghi to course out over the landscape. “In fact, it would’ve been hard to split the Ooreiki up without you taking up Nirle’s cause like that. Truly noble of you, Emissary.”
Esteei shuddered at the cold, psychotic emotionlessness of the assassin gripping his throat.
He was faking. All this time, he was faking his emotions. It was all an act.
“The little Jahul finally understands,” Bha’hoi said, smiling. “Yes. I can switch off my emotions as you flip the incinerator switch on your body wastes.” He cocked his head. “I have the feeling you picked up one or two real ones, but it never worried me. I knew your brain was too small to put it together.”
Absolute, psychotic nothingness emanated off of the Huouyt—so devoid of emotion it was an emotion.
“Let me go,” Esteei whispered.
Bha’hoi released him. “Stay within sight. If you attempt to call the Claims Board, your death will be much more horrific than the simple one I have planned.”
“Please,” Esteei said, backing away down the beach. “Let me go.”
Bha’hoi laughed. “You want to stay on Neskfaat? What will you do out there? You have no food, unless you wish to eat your Ooreiki friends.” He motioned down the beach at the half-buried corpses, laughing. “You’ll die slowly, Jahul. If I do it, at least it will be painless. Besides, you’ve got time. I’ve still got three other continents to visit.” He kicked open another box.
Esteei continued backing up. He could outrun the Huouyt. With six legs, running was one of the only things Jahul could best other species at. Seeing that, the Huouyt paused, a darkness settling over his narrow face.
The Huouyt assassin sighed and started toward him.
It was all around him.
The Philosophers were being eaten alive.
Crown flinched as the tiny jaws ripped at his flesh, burrowing into it, consuming him as he lay there, unable to fight. Crown’s memories were disappearing with the agony in his body; the connections, the conversations, the theories that he had made during his lifetime slowly being devoured with his flesh.
Crown endured it, but many others couldn’t.
Around him, Philosophers were losing their minds along with their bodies. They rambled, they pleaded, they cried.
The vermin continued to devour them.
When the first Philosopher died, it was the most horrible experience Crown had ever felt. It broadcast its final, terrified moments outward to all the others to help the others understand, maybe prevent their own deaths.
Crown wished he had kept it to himself.
In time, they would all understand.
Esteei stumbled along the shoreline, plagued by guilt, weak with hunger. The vaghi were spreading across the planet. When Esteei could catch the squirming, biting beasts, he ate them.
Jahul did not eat living creatures.
Yet Esteei endured the emotional anguish in his sivvet and smashed the vaghi’s scaly heads open to reach the tiny clump of edible flesh inside…anything was endurable now he had to listen to the Geuji’s constant emotional scream.
They were being eaten alive.
Esteei was sure it was ‘they,’ since the Geuji along the coast had been whittled down to patches, now. Each patch gave a different type of emotional scream. It built to an unending crescendo in his head, driving Esteei to the very brink of sanity. He had nowhere to escape, trapped between the ocean of water and the ocean of Geuji.
After two weeks, Esteei turned back, praying the Huouyt hadn’t left, willing to die to avoid the Geuji’s scream.
Bha’hoi and the ship were gone.
“Please,” Esteei whimpered, slumping against a Geuji-covered, tear-shaped rock. “Please. I can’t take any more.” He didn’t know how far he had traveled, or how long he’d been going, but his legs would no longer carry him.
Slumped against the rock, Esteei trembled from the pressure in his sivvet. He slid into a ball, as he had countless times the last couple weeks, knowing it would do no good against the torment, but instinct taking over.
Suddenly, Crown understood.
The Jahul can feel us.
He passed the message outward, sending it to everyone he could still reach.
Immediately, the Philosophers silenced their emotions. They knew the chance was slim, that the Jahul would be more worried about his own life, but it was possible that he could help them.
Could. But would he?
From what Crown had seen of these creatures, they were not like the Philosophers.
They were nothing like the Philosophers.
The emotional anguish stopped.
Esteei tentatively unrolled.
His eyes fell upon a single patch of Geuji, a ring of vaghi around it, eating it.
The Geuji was clearly alive, its glistening black flesh flinching away from the gnawing teeth as they chewed towards its core.
Turning, Esteei saw another, only a few feet away. It, too, was being eaten.
And another, further up the hill, bore its own ring of vaghi.
But the Geuji weren’t screaming.
The silence in his head was as absolute as if someone had removed his sivvet.
Given the first peace he’d had in weeks, Esteei’s mind was suddenly very clear.
“Get away from them!” he screamed, diving at the vaghi.
They scattered, only to resume chewing on another patch of black, further away.
A heavy, palpable fear hit his sivvet from the Geuji that was now being eaten at twice the speed, then disappeared just as quickly.
“Get away!” Esteei shouted. He ran at the vaghi, making them flee over the rise. Esteei felt the sudden fear of the Geuji on the other side before it was contained.
They’re doing it for me, Esteei realized, stunned. They’re dying silently so it doesn’t hurt me anymore.
Behind him, another vaghi had found the Geuji the others had fled.
Furious, Esteei reached down, plucked up a rock sticky from Geuji residue, and threw it.
It hit the vaghi, making it shriek. It ran over the hill and disappeared, needing no further encouragement from Esteei.
Amusement coursed through the air around him, coming from many directions at once.
“You understand, don’t you?” Esteei said.
“Yes,” the one upon the tear-shaped rock flashed. It was the only one that was still mostly whole, saved by the shape of its perch, but even that wouldn’t last.
“I can survive,” Esteei said. “You don’t need to endure it.”
But, as one, they continued to hide their pain from Esteei, allowing him peace.
“I can’t save you,” Esteei whispered.
The Geuji sent him an emotion that broke his heart. Understanding.
Fury uncoiled in Esteei’s soul.
He picked up another handful of rocks, and this time he aimed to kill.
Esteei went back to the Ooreiki’s bodies and collected their rifles. He staked out a territory encircling the tear-shaped rock and patrolled it during the day, when the vaghi fed, and gathered surviving clumps of Geuji from the surrounding areas at night, bringing them into his circle.
When Esteei’s nightly journeys grew too long, when he began collapsing from exhaustion, unable to focus during the day, Esteei whispered apologies to those he couldn’t reach and stopped seeking out survivors. He knew there were more out there. He felt them die, even as he felt gratitude from the ones he protected from the vaghi’s gnawing mouths.
The vaghi eventually moved on, finding easier pickings deeper inland.
Without vaghi to eat, Esteei began to starve.
As weakness overcame him, Esteei propped himself against the tear-shaped rock and continued to watch his tiny domain, rifle across his lap.
Esteei’s days became a haze of sunny delirium, followed by a night of rest. When he was lucky enough to kill one of the vermin, he crushed its scaly skull open immediately and sucked out the flesh raw. Killing no longer bothered him.
Neither did dying.
Esteei was barely conscious most of the time. Several times, he lost a Geuji in broad daylight, too weak to protect it from the now-starving vaghi.
Give up, a tired voice in his mind told him. No one’s going to come.
Then, a louder, angrier voice said, I am the Emissary of this planet. I’m sworn to protect these people.
And so it went on. His inner arguments grew longer, what he remembered of his days shorter. He lost more and more Geuji, the vaghi growing bolder with every passing hour.
I’m going to lose them all, Esteei realized.
Just hold on.
Just a little longer.
Esteei wasn’t sure if the words were forming on the Geuji’s glistening bodies, or if he was imagining it. Either way, he somehow found the will to stay alive.
Every horrible day, Esteei stared up at the sky, felt himself slipping away, then dragged himself back to shoot more vaghi.
Just a little longer.
The planet was dead.
Except for their tiny patch of survivors, the entire planet was dead.
Crown knew it as surely as he knew the Jahul was dying.
Soon, maybe only days, the respite from the vaghi’s gnawing jaws would end.
Crown wished he could do something. In the beginning, the Jahul had communicated with him, scribing in his flesh, giving him words to show their rescuers, if they came. Then, over time, the Jahul had stopped responding.
Now, he said nothing, wrote nothing. He just stared out over the tiny patch of ground, killing the vaghi, losing consciousness in broad daylight. The other Geuji were failing with him, no longer connected, no longer having anyone to speak to but themselves.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
Fury overtook him when Crown realized his people would not have the bodies that they had hypothesized, had waited for. He knew that somewhere, this alien culture had the power to grant them mobility, but they were never going to get it.
They were all going to die here.
He could only watch as the Jahul began to slip away.
And somewhere, over the rise, he heard the vaghi.
Please, Crown wrote. Please stay awake. Just a little longer.
10th Turn, 193rd Age of the Huouyt
“A Jahul, sir. He’s clearly mad. He’s staked out an acre of land inside our claims territory and is refusing to leave.”
Pingit put down his pen and sighed. “Who’s he with?” Just what he needed—another trade dispute.
His assistant gave him a nervous look. The slowness with which he responded suggested the kid knew more than he was saying. “Sir, he’s been here a very long time. He’s been eating vaghi to stay alive.”
Pingit recoiled. “Vaghi?”
His assistant nodded. “Has piles of corpses around him. We think perhaps since the first exploration. He matches the description of the Jahul who went missing.”
Pingit snorted, thinking the kid had lost a few bolts along the wretched trip out here. “Jahul don’t kill their food.”
Reluctantly, the kid said, “He was starving, sir. He’s been starving a very long time.”
Pingit sighed and glanced at the ceiling. Why couldn’t mineral extraction at the edge of the known universe be easy? Why did it have to involve politics originating thirty turns away? “Bring him here.”
His assistant’s headcrest started to tremble. “He won’t leave the area, sir.”
“Why the hell not?”
“He’s defending a patch of Geuji against the vaghi.”
This time, Pingit’s own headcrest quivered with surprise. “Some of the mold survives? Congress registered it as extinct two turns ago.”
“A few patches still live inside his territory,” the kid assured him. Again, Pingit got the idea he was…nervous. Holding back.
“It’s our territory, now,” Pingit reminded the furg. “We’ve leased it from the Huouyt.”
Headcrest trembling harder, his assistant finally admitted his mistake. “The Congressional recon force stayed to help him fight off the vaghi. Sir.”
Pingit scowled. “You let him commandeer our troops?”
“The Ooreiki decided to help him,” his assistant babbled. “Everything he mumbled was gibberish—I don’t think he even knew we were there—but he had rank, sir, still pinned to his tattered atmosuit. An Overseer of some sort. I couldn’t stop them.”
Pingit cursed. “So it was the Emissary. Take me to him.”
“That Jahul is dead,” Pingit snapped. It had already released its death-toxins, drowning the place in a putrescent, eye-burning smell.
Yet the Ooreiki continued to shoot the vermin, ignoring him. The multitude of vaghi that had accumulated to gnaw at the edges of the Geuji were quickly being picked off to nothing.
Frustrated, Pingit grabbed one of the Ooreiki by the arm. “What in the hell—”
“Sir,” the Ooreiki said, nodding at the rock against which the Jahul now leaned in death. It went back to firing.
Pingit frowned at the mold spread across its surface. In it, someone had scribed, “Help.”
“Who wrote that?”
Then, before any of the Ooreiki could answer, the impressions in the Geuji’s skin shifted and changed. “Sentient.”
Pingit’s headcrest quivered against his skull.
Beside the tear-shaped stone, his assistant was trying to lift the limp Jahul from the ground. The death-toxins rubbed off on him, and his assistant backed away, gagging.
Pingit’s eyes were torn back to the Geuji covering the rock.
“Help,” the mold said again. “Sentient. Register us.”
Then, “They ate us alive.”
“Someone call the Regency,” Pingit managed, a thin sound in his throat. “We’ve made a big damned mistake.”
About the Author:
Sara King is an Alaskan author who thinks that there’s a better way to do publishing. She’s best known for her Legend of ZERO books, but she’s got plenty of other novels to check out (Outer Bounds: Fortune’s Rising is a good place to start). She’s a certified browncoat (Jayne is her favorite!!), trekkie (Spock for the win!) and aspiring Jedi (though she wishes that they sold better light-sabers at her local comic shop). She is one of the founding members of Parasite Publications, a radical new character-based publishing company that’s completely revolutionizing the stodgy world of traditional publishing.
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