by Richard A. Conine
“I do know you,” she said suddenly. “You’re Rip Novak. I love Lonely Planet. That last guy was a douche. I knew he wouldn’t make it two shows. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be on some world full of lava pits?”
He swallowed hard. “Um... I... got away. I escaped. But the Interplanetary Police will catch up with me soon. I’m sure of it. Then it’s right back to the grind, you know, death-defying escapes and hair-raising danger on alien worlds and all that stuff.”
“Well, gosh,” she said admiringly. “It’s great to meet you, Mr. Novak. We’ve never met a real murderer before. We don’t have murder where we’re from. What’s it like to kill somebody?” She snuggled up to him and placed her furry chin in the crook of his arm. Her dark liquid eyes studied him eagerly. It was so sweet it just about broke his heart.
“Yeah,” he said. “About that. It was self-defense. I’m very misunderstood.”
She seemed to smile. “I think you’re handsome.”
He cleared his throat and attempted to change the subject. “So you guys are... what? I’m human. What about you?”
Someone said, “We’re not human, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Rip was amused. “Then I guess you’re a smartass. It’s an interesting species.”
One of the little beasts leapt from his chair. “You wanna go, monkey? We can go right now. I don’t care if you are Rip Novak. I’m not scared of any monkey. And why don’t you get your hands off Bubbles while you’re at it.”
He chuckled. “Bubbles? Could you guys be any cuter?”
The lemming was so enraged he sputtered. “Cute? You want cute? You’re messin’ with Biscuit now, buddy. You’re about to get a Biscuit beat-down.”
Rip laughed out loud then clamped a hand over his mouth.
Bubbles interrupted a fresh tirade by the enraged lemming. “Knock it off, you idiot. Jeez. Stop acting like I’m your girlfriend. I don’t belong to anybody. I’m sorry, Mr. Novak. He doesn’t mean anything by it. We are pretty loveable. It’s the curse of our race. Nobody takes us seriously.”
He smiled at her. “Well, I do. I think you guys are amazing.”
She blinked at him slowly and deeply.
He could feel himself melting inside.
Then Bubbles reached for something he couldn’t see. After a moment of muttering and shuffling around, she produced a sharp knife, a wooden platter and a loaf of cheese. She handed these items to him wordlessly and with great ceremony. He studied the objects with an intense gaze. Then he looked up. “Oh. I get it. You want me to cut the cheese.”
The creatures giggled uncontrollably.
Things were easier after that. He learned that their race was indeed a distant cousin to Earth’s lemmings. They were called Rummytumtums. Once they had ruled a galaxy-spanning empire and seeded many worlds with their DNA and technology. They had been visiting Earth for billions of years on and off, mostly because they found the place very amusing.
They especially loved how humans took everything so seriously. They first arrived during the Cretaceous Period, when many of the planet’s earliest mammals appeared. Thus, many cute and fuzzy species were added to the animal mix, and the oh-so-grim primates learned to relax a little and cuddle.
It was probably the only thing that saved the big dumb apes from wiping each other out with ass jawbones and rocks. In truth, it wasn’t intellect that preserved the species. It was all those warm kittens and bunnies.
Eventually, the Rummies felt that galactic domination was far too much work. So they went home to get high and hang out. Their former empire shrank to a couple of dozen stars which were pretty loosely run. Nobody had much ambition anymore.
At one point Rip asked, “My friends... there was this explosion.”
Bubbles said, “Oh, right. That. We checked it out. Nobody survived.”
“You’re kidding,” he blurted.
She patted his shoulder. “I forgot. You guys have a hard time with the whole death thing. Listen. It’s no big deal. Life is like going to Carnival, lots of pretty lights and fun stuff to eat and ride. It’s really great. And sometimes it sucks. But mostly, it’s very exciting.
“Then they turn off the lights, and you have to go home. And what’s so bad about that? Home is safe and warm and you belong there. Might not be a lot of sparkly lights and weird stuff, but it’s your place. Home is good.”
He nodded his head. “I never looked at it that way, Bubbles. It makes sense.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “So stop being so gloomy. What is it with you monkeys?”
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. You folks should have stayed in charge. I think things would have been a lot more fun.”
She laughed. “For you maybe. But not for us. Who wants to rule the universe? What a headache.”
* * *
The dawn was wet and cool. Rip woke refreshed. Bubbles had cuddled with him all night. It was a platonic thing of course. Her sweetness, simplicity and happy nature gave him a real lift.
He told everyone about the beacon over a breakfast of psychedelic ’shrooms and black coffee. He only had the coffee because the camera was watching. They agreed to drive him to the evacuation point. They were going to a big party in the southern hemisphere, and it was on the way.
Biscuit argued against the plan strenuously but he was shouted down by Bubbles, Skittles, Booboo and Pickles. Everyone had come to like the big monkey and saving him a long walk seemed like the right thing to do.
The convoy got under way after a second breakfast and a rousing midmorning nap. Rip had really enjoyed the time spent with his new friends and he knew he was going to miss them. Still, he was ready to move on. He was eager to get back. He had never spent so much time alone in the wilderness.
Bubbles fell asleep with her head on his lap and her little paws in the air. He stroked her head and tummy as she napped and felt a great sense of inner peace.
It didn’t even bother him that the jeepney drivers weren’t driving so well. They were all over the place and the previously tight vehicular formation had gone to hell. They veered left and right and drove miles out of their way before realizing they had lost sight of the rest. They spent more time backtracking than driving forward. He thought the ’shrooms must have been particularly potent. He was almost glad he had turned them down. Almost.
They approached the steel beacon at last. Its skeletal structure and blazing red light were baldly alien and unnatural in that environment. The thing was located on the far side of a series of canyons and up a steep grade.
Bubbles snorted adorably.
He realized Biscuit was eyeing him coldly from the front seat. The Rummy had been staring at him for some time. It occurred to Rip that the chipmunk with the chip on his shoulder was the driver, and he was completely neglecting his responsibilities.
“Hey,” Rip shouted. “Shouldn’t you be steering this thing?”
Biscuit snarled and leapt for his throat. Rip stood up to fight him off and Bubbles tumbled to the floorboard with a startled cry. He saw something horrible then. He saw doom approaching at 135 kilometers miles per hour.
The jeepneys were almost all gone. They had driven right over the lip of a cliff, one by one, each following the other straight down like the proverbial lemmings. As he watched, two more went. One of the drivers seemed to be asleep at the wheel. The other had his little paws raised as if he was on an amusement park ride.
Biscuit latched onto him like a feral cat with all his claws out, striking him so hard they nearly tumbled out of the vehicle.
Rip shouted, “You idiot!” He threw himself at the front seat and the steering wheel. Everyone in the vehicle was passed out cold. Though Bubbles was waking slowly, she wouldn’t be of any use in the precious seconds left to them. Only Button’s rage had kept him sober enough to remain conscious. He was slashing at Rip’s eyes and snarling like a mad gerbil. He wasn’t really used to fighting and wasn’t good at it.
The human clamped a hand on the scruff of his neck, picked him up and held him at arm’s length. Biscuit struggled furiously but couldn’t break the monkey’s iron grip.
Rip stretched, desperate to grab the wheel and turn them away from the looming canyon rim. He was a finger-length away when Biscuit sank his fangs into the human’s muscular forearm.
Rip howled in pain and dropped the creature.
Biscuit shoved him hard and he lost his balance. As he was falling he saw Bubbles reach out to him. Though he tried, he couldn’t grab her tiny paw. He couldn’t save her.
Biscuit howled in triumph as the human hit the dirt and rolled. The jeepney struck a rock. It was already airborne when the ground fell away and gravity took charge. He saw tiny bodies tumbling free, silhouetted against the lunchtime sun.
Then the vehicle dropped like the proverbial brick and vanished from sight. A moment later he heard a hollow thud and a series of explosive noises as it struck hard earth, bounced and shattered into unrecognizable pieces.
He lay there for a long time. The camera appeared and circled his prostrate form. It buzzed madly, insistently. And he’d just about had enough of the thing. He was done with ratings and TV. He was over it. He just wanted some peace.
He hauled himself to his feet, seized a rock and threw it as hard as he could. Though the impromptu missile bounced off the camera’s metal hide, the effort wasn’t entirely unsatisfactory. A sizable dent appeared in the thing’s yellow carapace.
Satisfied, he grabbed another rock. The whining camera tried desperately to dodge and flee. But Rip was an accomplished dodgeball player. He gauged its velocity and angle and adjusted accordingly. He heaved the stone with all his might at his ridiculous nemesis. There was a lethal-sounding clank. The thing began to wobble and pitch as if caught in a stormy sea. It slowed down and traveled in an erratic circle.
Rip approached it with a rock in each hand. When he was done smashing the annoying little appliance, it closely resembled the wrecks of the brightly colored jeepneys.
He squatted near the cliff edge and studied the shattered metal and tiny bodies strewn over the canyon floor with morbid sadness. The irony of the Rummytumtums’ fates mixed up with the old urban myth about suicidal lemmings wasn’t lost on him. It was hard to miss such a big cosmic joke. He supposed the furry little critters would have found the whole thing deeply amusing and weirdly profound. They were like that. Serious wasn’t even in their vocabulary.
He thought of Bubble’s wise words regarding death. Then he said, “Carnival’s over. The lights are all off. Go home, little one. Sleep good.”
His trip on foot through the canyons was fast and eventless. But he had the feeling that something was shadowing his movements, lingering behind him and just out of sight. He hoped it was the big, loveable Fuzzieboo. But something about the situation felt wrong, off in a way that he couldn’t quite grasp.
He reached the beacon at last, opened the breaker panel and flipped the transmit switch. The signal would bring the mothership fast, but probably not fast enough. He figured out what was wrong.
Gigantic pale insects like albino scorpions scuttled out of the canyon mouth and headed directly for him. The old Rip Novak would have run until his legs wouldn’t work anymore. Then he would have been eaten. And he would have screamed like a girl through the whole ordeal. But he had been through a lot. And he was no longer afraid of death.
In another time, a soon-to-be-dead Billy had asked mockingly whether he thought he could really survive on a hostile world. Now he had an answer. There was no longer any question about his natural abilities and skill sets. He didn’t have any. He wasn’t a survival expert by any stretch of the imagination. But he did have one quality real survivors require: he was determined to stay alive.
He remembered the cheese knife in his pants pocket, the one Bubbles had given him as a joke the night before.
He drew the blade and waited. If he had to die, he intended to go down fighting.
As the creatures approached he heard them communicating with one another in sibilant whispers. Their extended claws began to open and close, snapping together in a rhythmic parody of hungry anticipation, clicka-clicka, clicka-clicka.
Hundreds more swarmed out of the canyon, literally crawling over one another in their eagerness to reach him.
“Come get some!” he roared.
The foremost creature charged, accepting his invitation happily.
He swatted at it with the tiny knife and missed. He backed away, circling the beacon. Then it occurred to him that he could climb the damn thing.
A moment later, he had scrambled up the steel latticework and was hugging the topmost beam. He was so close to the pulsing red beacon that he could feel its heat on his face. The colorless scorpions surrounded the tower like a living, moving sea of bland exoskeletons, whipping tails and snapping claws. As he watched, more and more of them rushed up from the canyons, joining their fellows in a crazed quest to taste monkey meat.
He supposed they had been sleeping when he first entered the canyons, buried deep in the cool earth. He had walked right over them, and his heavy footsteps had roused them to wakefulness. They were all so hungry. Thankfully, they couldn’t climb.
His thankfulness didn’t last long. Their combined mass and motion was forcing the tower to shift and sway. It wasn’t bolted down. It was only a matter of time before it toppled over. He would be finished then. He would die horribly. He gritted his teeth, anticipating the moment.
The beacon leaned badly, and he shifted his weight to compensate. Somehow, he managed to right the thing.
His hands were growing sweaty. He was beginning to lose his grip. He extended a leg to give himself a boost, and one of the insects leapt for the exposed limb. Its claws snapped shut just a hairsbreadth from his curling toes.
He shouted, “Bastards! You’re gonna have to work harder than that!” He threw in a few curses but he couldn’t hear the last words that tumbled from his mouth. A loud noise was drowning out all speech and the clicka-clicka chorus that was slowly driving him mad.
The pale scorpions began to scramble backward, away from the tower and their vulnerable prey.
A cool shadow fell over him. The evac pod was directly overhead. He was saved! He grinned and flipped the scorpions the old bird.
Weirdly, hundreds of them returned the salute, each raising a single claw with great slowness and solemnity.
* * *
He was placed in quarantine for a day. His exposure to the local wildlife apparently presented a danger to the crew. After he was judged bacteria-free and fit, they led him all the way to the back of the ship. He found himself in a tiny berth with a warped cot and a metal sink. It looked like a prison cell.
“Hey,” he said to the uniformed steward with the network logo on his sleeve. “What gives? Why can’t I have my normal quarters? Are they redecorating them or something?”
“Show’s canceled,” the man said indifferently. “The network’s not paying for you anymore. You’re lucky we came back for you at all.”
“Canceled?” he asked, bewildered.
“Yeah. Some explosion on the set or something. The feed cut out and nobody could see the show. The editors tried to put together a montage episode really quick but it wasn’t compelling enough. There wasn’t a whole lot of footage to work with. Hell, you’ve only done nine shows. Anyway, your ratings dropped through the floor and that was that. Tanked. Canceled. Gone.”
“Everybody’s dead,” he complained bitterly. “Shouldn’t they bury the bodies before they kill the show? I mean, hell, don’t they give a crap?”
The man shrugged. “I don’t think they do. Business. You get it. Nothing personal.”
“Wait,” he said remembering suddenly. “The drone camera was running the whole time. It was streaming live footage for two days. Didn’t you guys get that?”
The man snorted derisively. “That thing stopped working right after the explosion. We didn’t get any film at all. But don’t worry so much. Your agent called. He says he’s got a margarine commercial lined up for you already. Should be great.”
“Awesome,” Rip sighed, sitting on the cot and staring at the peeling bulkheads. He could feel the throb of the engines beneath his feet. He thought of Bubbles and Biscuit and Blinky and whatever the hell their names were. He missed them all. He was down, depressed and worrying about the future already. But he knew he would survive. He knew it without a doubt.
Copyright © 2014 by Richard A. Conine