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The Bad News Worm Hunt

by David Castlewitz

part 1

Years of service in paramilitary outfits taught Peter Thorpe not to venture far from base until fully acclimated to a planet’s climate and food. He’d come to Bad News, a Far Rim world, to forge a new role in life. No longer a soldier, he’d refashioned himself as a slam-jammer, one of those daring types, he imagined, recording video clips that a team of creatives would mix with narration and music to entertain the paying subscribers. No more weapons-toting or grinding marches. If he saw a riot, he’d get the story and not worry about being beaten to death if he landed on the losing side of a fight.

His innards rumbled, but he joined an expedition to hunt rock worms, a favorite trophy animal that slithered through the hard clay and porous terrain with the ease of tank worms in a hydro-plantation like those found on every cruiser he’d ever served aboard in the thirty-some years since leaving home at the age of 15-standard.

He popped a quick-fix capsule when new intestinal rumblings threatened to embarrass him. Maybe he had only a few more hours to endure discomfort. Or, perhaps the pill would stop working and he’d make a fool of himself before he had a chance get rid of his nasties.

Eyes forward, he looked past the low railing surrounding the elevator platform on which he was riding, while the video recorders in his lightweight goggles captured the slow passage up through the manmade crevice, one of many that linked Bad News’ surface with the below-ground community.

Three of the men who’d joined the expedition pressed against him when the elevator rocked back and forth. They joked with one another and traded comments with Dr. Harriet Dawn. Peter had met her the night before. An exobiologist, she’d come to Bad News explicitly to study the rock worms. She sponsored this excursion and anyone who joined her got in for half the usual price. Peter had grabbed at the chance to slam-jam the hunt.

The elevator platform stopped, the abrupt change in motion jarring Peter’s teeth. Harriet sidled over to him. Her proximity made him shudder. His stomach grumbled and he popped a pill.

“Too many of those,” Harriet said, “and they’ll lose their effect.”

She struck Peter as one of those space-faring types who’d grown old while spending too much time in stasis, traveling from assignment to assignment. All her home-world friends had died. She had no contemporaries except her fellow travelers.

“So what do you do with the animals you catch?” Peter asked.

“Study them, take still recordings, try to communicate with them if they’re sentient.”

Just outside the platform, Jack Cameron, the expedition’s leader, held on with one hand on a ladder’s rung. There was a problem at the base level, he explained. Nothing important. Just some equipment that hadn’t been packed properly and needed to be secured.

With that, Cameron climbed the narrow ladder and Peter heard him make the same announcement to the platform above. Carefully, so he wouldn’t invoke the nausea he’d experienced earlier, he checked that he’d recorded Cameron hanging onto the ladder. How it would fit the slam-jam he couldn’t say. His job was to make the recordings. A backend team would generate the final product.

A standard year or more might pass before he got any money out of this venture. Hopefully, he wouldn’t outspend the advance he’d wrangled from Slam-and-Jam, his sponsors. He’d worked with them twice before. They were loyal to their employees and he trusted he’d get everything he had coming.

The elevator shook, grinding against the guide shafts as it resumed its ascent. Cameron swung out of the way of the rising platform, his wide face glistening with sweat. At the top of the shaft, the open-air car came to a stop at the unloading dock.

Peter grabbed his carryall and pushed open the guardrail gate. He turned back to offer Harriet a hand, but she ignored him and alighted with a slight bounce. Behind her, the other passengers filed out.

The sky was dark, so Peter adjusted his goggles’ cameras for the lack of sunlight to get pictures of the elevator emptying. Backstepping, he found a place where he could record unobtrusively. Another elevator platform arrived and more passengers disembarked. Supplies came with the final three cars. Around the dock, small groups of men and women congregated in their private cliques. Some were adventurers. Others were hunters. A hand-sized piece of worm hide would pay for the trip to Bad News if the hunter could resist making an early sell. The further out from the Far Rim, the more valuable the booty.

Two tall women were guarding a gun rack, their crisscrossing bandoliers sparkling in the dim light. Peter snapped a few stills. One of the women snarled at him, but he smiled in response. The line in front of the gun rack lengthened. Cameron shouted instructions until the queue straightened. Peter hadn’t purchased a firearms chit, so he’d be unarmed. He counted on the guards, those wearing black and white armbands, to ward off any trouble.

Not that there’d be any. Worms didn’t fight back, but quarrels could break out, especially when everyone was fortified with alcohol and drugs.

Soon, the passengers from the elevator, along with the armed crew, and the laborers hired to transport supplies, formed three distinct groups. Jack Cameron conferred with his lieutenants. Like most commanding officers Peter had ever served under, Cameron had that no-nonsense look that inspired confidence.

Three columns moved out from the dock, each led by a slow moving vehicle with a headlight casting a wide arc. Peter hoisted his carryall onto his shoulders, his arms across the bulky oblong bag. A cold wind prompted him to activate the warmers in his tunic. He turned off the recorders in his goggles, satisfied that he’d gotten enough footage for the day, and put up his hood, sealing it across his mouth and cheeks with a swipe of one hand.

He’d lost track of Harriet. He didn’t care, but he looked for her anyway.

* * *

The dimly lit morning spread across the flat and featureless landscape. Standing on line for a bowl of the morning chowder, a euphemism for the pasty gruel made of insects and moss cultivated near the mines, Peter gazed into the distance. He thought he could see the Tower Rocks, a mountainous region he’d identified while studying the planet after he had come out of stasis, while still aboard the transport ship that brought him to Bad News. Beyond the Tower lay crisscrossing rivers and several lakes and, he supposed, one or more entrances to the underground ocean that bathed the planet’s single continent.

Sitting at a long plastic table with a group of wormers, Peter spooned the warm sweet gruel to his lips, though each mouthful brought up images of crawling roach-like creatures and moldy grass. As he’d learned when he’d been a common soldier, food was food was food. Eat up and don’t waste.

He’d endured routine military life for six standard years. It paid well in experience, if nothing else. The paramilitary outfits he joined after discharge proved more lucrative. In addition to better pay and good accommodations when on assignment, there were chances for finding treasure in the form of ancient artefacts, fossilized alien lifeforms, and evidence of past civilizations on the far-flung planets of the Green Worlds Confederacy.

A breeze wafted through the open-sided mess hall housed in the large, dome-roofed tent. A yellow flag went up behind the serving table. Breakfast would end soon.

When he returned to his tent, the housekeeping crew had already stripped the bedding. Two young women in flimsy gray shifts cinched at the waist with webbed belts silently folded the narrow cots, their eyes downcast. Red armbands indicated their status, telling Peter that the women had been sent to Bad News to serve a rehab-through-work punitive sentence.

Quickly, he collected his belongings, which had been cleared from his cot and left in a corner of the tent. He packed his carryall and dragged it outside. There, he found Harriet arguing with the cleanup crew’s supervisor. The tall, heavily built man stood with his thick arms folded over his chest, a grim look in his dull eyes. A tattoo across his bald scalp indicated membership in some occult club or religious organization.

“I arranged for a private tent,” Harriet said.

“Which you got.” The supervisor pointed at the collapsed white tent near Harriet’s feet.

“I’ve yet to dress. I’ve yet to breakfast. I’ve yet to pack my gear.”

The supervisor glanced skyward.

Peter didn’t know if he should intervene or back off and let Harriet fight her own battle.

“You’re no help,” she snapped, and Peter realized she’d spoken to him.

“The flags are up.” He pointed at the yellow pennant atop the mess hall tent and a similar ensign atop the distant latrine.

“So, I guess those tents are coming down, too?” she said.

“Any time now,” the supervisor said.

Harriet shook her head. Beads of water dripped from the ends of her shoulder length hair, spot-wetting her dressing gown. Peter shook his head, a bit amazed that someone as well-used to exploring native habitats had acted like she was on a five-star excursion through a nature preserve.

“Tell Cameron,” Harriet said to the supervisor, “that I’ve no intention of relaxing my personal standards to fit his schedule. My institute is bearing the brunt of the costs—”

“Lady,” the supervisor said, “I ain’t telling Jack nothing. Tell him yourself.”

Harriet whipped off her gown, pulling it up over her head. Naked, she crouched at the side of the torn-down tent and rifled through her backpack. Peter blinked, surprised and amused. Some passersby stopped to watch her.

“What’s wrong, guys?” Harriet growled. “Never seen an old lady naked before?”

Her taut body betrayed her age in a way that her face and her eyes didn’t. Patches of discolored skin and deep wrinkles coursed along her thighs, like maps depicting the years she’d lived. Scars on her back hinted at some trauma in her past. Peter wondered what story they’d tell, but he suspected he’d never find out. Harriet wasn’t one to confide in casual acquaintances, he surmised.

Realizing that he’d forgotten to put on his goggles to record the brief transaction between Harriet and the work crew supervisor, Peter pulled his recording gear from a pocket of his overalls. He didn’t want to miss another opportunity for interesting byplay.

A cheer rang out.

“Get a good eyeful?” Harriet grumbled. Peter ignored her, more intent on finding out what the cheering was about. He saw people running to the edge of the camp. He followed, joining them in time to see a couple of men taunting a long-haired dog-like creature, a rock hound. Herds of the rat-sized beasts roamed the plains, feasting on the sparse vegetation, especially the moss that grew in surface cracks and narrow crevices.

“Gotta be a scout,” someone said, standing over the snuffling animal. Its short legs twitched when it moved, snout close to the ground. Peter saw that its eyes were closed. He wondered if it relied more on its other senses, less on sight. The whiskers alongside its bulbous black nose tickled the ground. It didn’t react to the gathered crowd. The gritty soil had its full attention.

Cameron pushed forward. He shouted for everyone to line up, guards and housekeeping staff as well as paying customers. Peter tapped the side of his goggles to begin recording.

“What’s going on?” Harriet asked. Her heavy carryall dug into her narrow shoulder; her overstuffed utility belt sagged at her waist. She looked annoyed.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2018 by David Castlewitz

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