by Richard A. Conine
Jim replied immediately. “You’re right about that, old chum. Bad drop by the engineers. I think they were drunk. They missed the landing zone by twenty-five kilometers, put it way too far to the northwest. Then they took off for three days. I didn’t even get a chance to yell at them.”
“They left? The mothership’s gone?”
“Yeah. Said something about a big party on Tantalus. But don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. We’ll be driving most of the way to the beacon. You’ll be riding in the lap of luxury. We got a brand new, armored Mercedes loaded with porn.
“Hey listen, if we get ahead of schedule tomorrow, I’m thinking we’ll go off-world for the night. Tropiko is about four light-years away. You know that planet has six million miles of coastline and nine hundred resorts? The native chicks can mix drinks, have sex and surf all at the same time. And they got these tan lines...”
Rip’s stomach was twisting itself into excruciating knots. “Seems like a weird assortment of stuff to do all at once, Jim. I’m not feeling so great.”
“That’s good. I can throw together something about the dangerous bacteria on this planet already infiltrating your digestive tract. Maybe we should say ‘gut’. Gut is better, don’t you think? More visceral. Anyway, feel free to throw up. You know that always gets sympathy and gross-out votes. It’s all good stuff.”
“It’s not good. I think the shrimp was off.”
“Yeah. Have to talk to Patrice about that. Billy’s puking his guts out down here. Hey... is that smoke? Hey guys...”
A deep rumble worked its way through the jungle toward Rip’s position and then the world simply exploded. A mushroom cloud of fire and toxic smoke rose from the jungle floor and soared to an astonishing height. The follow-on shock wave tore him from the tree and sent him spinning ass over teakettle, right across the treetops like a Rip Novak action figure.
The drone camera followed him doggedly but couldn’t decide whether to film the explosion or his tumbling body. It darted between the two rapidly separating objects with increasing agitation.
Before all the thermal and kinetic energy ran out and he dropped into the trees, Rip felt a terrible wash of heat and saw a scorched, dented Mercedes sail by on the breeze. It was followed by a cherrypicker bucket helmed by a stiff, blackened corpse. It was Jim, now a ghostly nerd-pirate doomed to haunt the skies of Krusibo forever in his idiotic flying ship. He heard himself screaming as if from a great distance. He sounded just like a little girl.
* * *
When Rip woke he was upside down. He was hanging by his ankles from the branches of a tree, just a few meters above the jungle floor. His inverted cranium was engorged with blood and he had a serious headache. He was otherwise unharmed. He thought this was a very small hurt to have been caused by such a terrifyingly large explosion. But he was still annoyed.
The air was smoky. It was dark. But the fires burning all around him lit up the little glade wonderfully. To add insult to his already undignified position, at some point he had thrown up. A great deal of the vomit had run the wrong way down his face, from his lips to his forehead, and dripped onto the leaf litter below. It formed a wide noxious puddle into which he would be forced to drop when he eventually released himself.
He heard a familiar, angry and somehow comforting buzz. The camera from Hell had survived the catastrophe more or less intact. Its bright yellow paint job was heat-darkened and one of its telescoping feelers was awkwardly bent. Still, it seemed to be fully operational. He was almost pleased. It circled him briefly then dashed off to examine something else.
“Thanks for the help,” he said unhappily. “Hope everybody back home got a good look. Yep. This is how Rip Novak does it. This is survival 101. Sleep like a bat and sting like a... Aw, what in grandma’s garters is that?”
A long, low-slung creature moved through the clearing below with feline grace, growling softly, its large paws barely disturbing the leaves over which it strolled. While it was furred and its big head was cat-shaped, the rest of it was a nightmare of bony ridges and warts. It looked like some hellish cross between a wild boar, a humped grizzly and a panther. It weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred kilos and its coat was midnight black.
Rip tried not to breathe.
The thing paused by the pool of vomit, snuffled it, then began to lap up the liquid with a curling purple tongue. The camera buzzed around the beast excitedly, eagerly filming the disgusting spectacle from many angles.
Rip held his breath until he simply couldn’t anymore. Then he released it with an explosive whoosh.
The monster looked up at him, rolled large brown eyes in his direction and sniffed. It was done with the puddle. Now, Rip assumed, it was time to eat something more substantial.
The creature reared up on its hind legs and draped long arms over the branch above his head. Then it extended its tongue and began to lick his face. There wasn’t much he could do about it. In point of fact, he was too scared to move.
The damn camera was recording it all, happily circling them and buzzing away. Rip wondered what the viewers back home were going to make of that particular footage.
At last, mercifully, the monster completed cleaning him, purred contentedly then dropped to all fours and ambled into the jungle. He sighed with relief. Then he worked his ankles around and dropped heavily to the floor of the clearing.
He stood, brushing himself off, and found himself eyeball to lens-ball with the camera. He said, “Well, folks. You saw it here. Not all animals want to eat you. That’s a lesson I think we can all... er... learn from. So in a confrontation you must remain calm and...”
The camera flew away.
“Hey,” he complained. “Come back here. I wasn’t finished.” It didn’t come back, of course. It was content to stick around as long as he looked idiotic. But when he was up to something worthwhile, it was immediately bored.
“I friggin’ hate you,” he snarled.
He tried his handy-dandy wrist communicator. “Hey, guys? Anybody there?” There was no answer, just the lonely rasp of static. “Guys? I saw an explosion. I think Jim is dead. I’m in the jungle. Can somebody come and get me? Anybody? Patrice? Billy?”
There was nothing.
He considered going back to help. After all, he was Rip Novak. He was damn good-looking, with a hulking muscular body, broad shoulders, a firm jaw and a lionesque mane of silver hair. He was a video hero. And that’s what video heroes do. They go back and pull lesser human beings out of the fire. They don’t care about danger. But he was a fake video hero and he had never done anything noble in his life.
He had pretty much decided to head for the beacon and save himself when the camera showed up. The thing studied him with contempt. Its all-seeing lens burrowed right through his skin, into his soul and sifted through all those layers of guilt and selfishness like sorting disgusting laundry.
“I hate you,” he muttered. Then he spoke up, in a voice directed at his loyal viewers. “I uh... there was an explosion. I don’t know what caused it. Might be a volcano or something like that. I don’t know anything about this planet or who’s on it. Could be native folks back there, badly in need of rescue. You just never know. Could even be humans who were filming a documentary about something completely different from this show, who have nothing to do with Lonely Planet at all. Not a thing, nada, zilch, zero. So I’m going to go check it out. I don’t want you folks back home walking into any flaming jungles. I’m only doing this because I’m Rip Novak. It’s the kind of selfless thing I do all the time. It’s just me. I can’t help that I’m the natural heroic type. Some people might call me a murderer but I’m very misunderstood. You see...”
He was really warming to his subject: himself. The camera whirred and clicked contemptuously then zoomed off, vanishing into the trees.
“Okay,” he said bitterly. “I’m outta here.” He turned away from the fire, and that was when the ground shook beneath his feet. For one terrifying moment, he thought another explosion had occurred. But then, in an even more terrifying instant, he realized something gigantic was moving through the flames and coming straight at him, a thing made of shadows that he couldn’t see clearly. It swatted aside whole trees as it moved, roaring like a tsunami.
He ran, panicked. He bounced off tree trunks, stumbled over roots, splashed through a cold creek and plowed right through a thorn bush thicket. He kept on moving, oblivious to cuts and scrapes and bruises. The thing was hot on his tail. He could smell its horrible hot breath surrounding him like a decomposing cloud.
He brained himself a couple of times on low-hanging branches and was wondering just how much punishment his skull could actually absorb when the trees simply ran out. He found himself in the open, running across a wide grassy plain. The sprawling star fields cast a pale radiance over the sudden flat country.
The thing charged after him, and his terrified backward glances revealed no details. Just as he was losing hope and deciding things couldn’t get any weirder, he heard the whine of numerous motors. He saw headlights and made out a line of open-topped jeepneys crossing the plain at high speed, trailing rooster tails of dust and colorful streamers. They were mud-caked, bulky and rusting, but as far he was concerned they were golden chariots sent by the gods.
He headed for them with all the speed he could work up, suddenly aware that the creature had fallen back. It was either confused by or afraid of the loud vehicles.
He waved desperately. One of the drivers saw him and veered in his direction. Shortly, he found himself on a hard bench in the jeepney, surrounded by human-sized, chittering, fur-covered mammals. They had small, dark eyes, patchwork coats of brown and black, and small round ears. They were simply adorable.
Adding to the cuteness factor were the outfits they wore, charming little jean pants and t-shirts with slogans like, “Obey the Lemming.” He noted groovy hippie sandals, peasant blouses, tie-dyed scarves and lots of cool sunglasses, though it was very dark.
One of the critters passed him a joint. He took a hit and handed it off to the next individual in line. He exhaled bitter blue smoke and coughed roughly. “Whoa,” he said. “What was that stuff?”
Another of the creatures leaned over. Based on its midriff blouse, painted claws and long lashes, he decided it was a female. She had to speak loudly to be heard over the engines, “One-Hit-Face-Melter. Hoo-mon?”
He nodded. “Human. Yeah.” He heard a few remarks, some even in English, but the combined roar of the engines made conversation almost impossible. So he just leaned back and savored the view for a while, perfectly happy to be out of danger and sitting still. He didn’t recognize the race, but they seemed fuzzy and friendly enough. Most extraterrestrials were. They didn’t get hung up over the minor crap that human beings took so seriously.
After a while he heard a familiar buzzing noise and noticed the camera flying alongside the jeepney. Its all-seeing lens studied him with cold intensity.
He frowned unhappily. Since he was being filmed, he had to watch the joint go by, several times. Good old Rip Novak was a convicted murderer, but he didn’t do drugs.
“That’s right, kids,” he heard his internal announcer’s voice saying. “Rip’s body has always been a temple dedicated to the god of survival. Even when hanging out with natives he never allows himself to participate in any rituals that might impair his judgment, you know, all the fun stuff.”
Eventually, the jeepneys pulled to a halt in a patch of savannah with only one distinguishing feature, a large tooth-like stone that jutted to a height of 7 or 8 meters. It was covered with carvings and brightly painted runic inscriptions, many of them fresh, as if some Earth gang had been tagging the rock for years.
He was beginning to think of his new friends as very large lemmings. They spilled from the vehicles, unpacked their gear and began to set up tents. Within an hour, and after much good-natured joshing and play, they constructed a rude but very comfortable encampment. There were picnic tables and bug lamps and sizzling lanterns. The tent entrances circled a roaring bonfire. Camp chairs and ice chests full of beer and food were everywhere.
Rip joined in where he could, but he really wasn’t very good at such things. He was much better at running up bar tabs and mini-fridge bills in hotel rooms. He could find his way around a bottle of Scotch and open a box of cigars, but otherwise he was pretty useless. He felt bad about it, but the lemmings didn’t seem to mind.
Meanwhile the camera continued to display an inordinate amount of interest in his laziness and ineptitude. He was now certain the thing detested him as much as he loathed it.
At last they were all settled around the fire and relaxing. The camera circled away and began chasing bugs out on the periphery of the campsite. The female lemming who had spoken to him earlier pulled her chair close to his and said, “I know you, right?”
He shrugged. “I’ve met plenty of folks from other worlds. But I don’t remember everybody.”
She chewed her lip, which was so cute it made him want to pet her like a fuzzy kitten.
Someone else said, “Ainglish. It’s an Earth monkey. Can’t tell one from the other.”
He thought that was pretty rude and more than a little racist, but he didn’t complain. After all, he was a guest, and they had saved his life. He raised his beer and said, “Thanks for picking me up back there. That monster... it would have killed me for sure.”
There was a round of derisive giggling. The female lemming said, “That was no monster. That was a Fuzzieboo.”
He squinted at her. “A Fuzzieboo?”
“Yeah... you know, like a big puppy. It just wanted to play. They come from subspace. They can’t quite exist here but they really want to. They come from a very happy place and they love being with us. They think we’re awesome.”
He shook his head disbelievingly. “Well, it seemed horrible.” He could have sworn he heard the camera snickering.
Copyright © 2014 by Richard A. Conine