Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
by Keith Melton
To my best friends, Craig and Ben. Remember the road trip where our car overheated in Death Valley? Or watching from the top of Table Rock as a midnight lightning storm charged across the horizon?
I miss you guys. All the best to you and your families forever.
Everything went to hell after she lost her wrench.
Of course, the wrench was Brenna’s favorite, a ten-inch locking adjustable. She’d left it somewhere in the workshop. With all the tools, spare parts, half finished rebuilds, and special projects strewn everywhere like wreckage from a bomb, it might take halfway to forever to find it. She had a vague memory of holding it as she’d wandered to the mini-fridge, while her thoughts churned over possible reasons a second recirculating chiller had crapped out this week. Bad compressor and solenoid valve on the first one. On the second, she had the pump motor disemboweled and spread out like mechanical entrails for some gear-god prophecy. She’d been elbow-deep in the guts of the thing when Tau had distracted her, begging for a treat and trading attention for dog breath-flavored face licking. Brenna had been holding the wrench…
…and then it had vanished. Stolen by ninja gremlins right out of her fingers. Or aliens fascinated with primitive spanners. Though her personal favorite possibility was a kleptomaniac ghost. She’d always wanted to live somewhere haunted.
Brenna grinned and blew dangling hair out of her face, for the first time aware that her lower back ached as though someone had smacked a steel chain against her spine. She groaned when she stretched. Too much time spent crouched on the floor beside that damn chiller. Killed her knees too. Long past time for a break.
She wiped her grimy hands on a rag, carefully stepped on the pedal to raise the lid to oily waste trash can, and tossed the rag inside. Her J-shaped Andurgo prosthetic legs made echoey thuds on the concrete, the servos whispering, sending feedback through fiberoptic cables and nanofibers to her nerves, allowing her to feel the ground as she walked to the sink. Her legs might be missing below the knee, but the advanced design gave her full freedom of movement, even if she wouldn’t be modeling pantyhose anytime soon. She smirked and scrubbed her hands with Lava soap to clean off the gunk from the motor. Not her favorite soap scent at all, but Claus Porto liquid lavender really failed to cut through the grease.
Tau scrambled out of his dog bed and hurried over to her with his favorite tennis ball in his mouth, whipping his tail back and forth, looking hopeful. Every other step, one of his legs gave a soft clang, similar to hers but quieter. He was a yellow Labrador retriever and was missing his right rear leg.
She’d adopted Tau after finding him listed online at a shelter in Atlanta, victim of a car hit-and-run, and she’d driven him back to Denver. After consulting with a vet and a biologist at the University of Colorado Denver, she’d fitted him with a harness and prototype rear leg she’d designed with AutoCAD and had built, based off current carbon-fiber prosthetic legs that would allow him to run. Tau’s leg was nowhere near as advanced as hers, but it held its own with current Earth tech. Quite a pair they made together. When she took him with her on her morning run they always turned heads. She’d long since gotten over her irritation at all the “bionic woman” and “bionic dog” comments. People were people. She wouldn’t go through life pissed off because they failed to come up with fresh and amusing material.
She scratched between Tau’s ears. “No time for fetch yet.” He dropped the tennis ball at her feet and it bounced away with little wet splats on the concrete. “Ugh, did you marinate that in drool? You’re out of luck, boy. I just washed these hands.”
She retraced her steps to the fridge, searching for the missing wrench in all the places she might’ve left it. Almost every flat surface was covered with tools and parts and the disassembled internals of something she’d been working on or designing at some point. She’d have to tell Annabel about how the second chiller had gone belly up and—depending on the availability of replacement parts—wouldn’t be fixed for a few days, if that. As always, Annabel would have a highly intelligent mental breakdown over the delay. Because an “Einstein-Rosen Bridge didn’t build itself” and “Space-time waited for no woman” and “Negative energy needed positive attitude.”
Or she’d say something like that anyway. Strange platitudes aside, space-time would have to wait at least forty-eight hours.
The doorbell rang—well, rang was the wrong word, since she’d rigged it through the workshop speakers mounted along the walls to play the sound of an air raid siren. It always startled door-to-door salespeople and proselytizers and generated noise complaints. And it annoyed Annabel. Completely worth it, for the coolness factor alone. The world needed more wacky.
She whistled for Tau and headed for the steel front door. She swung aside the cover on the peephole and peered out. A man stood there wearing gray coveralls and a cap, holding a clipboard and bouncing on his heels as if he needed a trip to the restroom. He was maybe twenty or so, scruffy, his coveralls wrinkled and striped with dust.
She pushed the intercom button. “Yes?”
“I have a really large package delivery.” He laughed and glanced at the clipboard. “For Chell Laboratories.”
She slid back the steel bar, flipped both deadbolts, and pulled the door open. Tau stood by her side, wagging his tail in his best impression of a menacing guard dog.
The delivery guy started to hand her a clipboard, then stopped cold. “Shit, what happened to your legs?”
“Eaten by a shark.” The lies were easy. Sometimes she changed shark to giant squid or piranhas. Sometimes she lost her legs below the knee in a tragic roller coaster accident. Sometimes in an explosion at a moonshine still or while juggling chainsaws. Her answer depended on her mood. Strangers rude enough to ask didn’t deserve the truth.
“Shark? No fucking way,” the delivery guy said. “Were you a surfer?”
“On a cruise ship that sank. I never got my money back, either. They said pirate raids weren’t included in the insurance policy. Who knew?”
“Now you’re all robot-woman and shit. My girlfriend’s not even gonna believe this.” He eyed her black Andurgo legs. “How come you don’t do the plastic fake-leg thing? You like the attention?”
“Because when I kick someone in the balls with these, it hurts more.” She smiled as sweetly as she could manage. “What delivery company are you with again?” She looked at the truck. Standard commercial delivery truck. No name on the side, but there was something written on the door panel that she couldn’t read from this angle.
“UDS. Uppendown Delivery Service. Yeah, I know. The owner’s last name is Uppendown and he’s a real funny guy.” He glanced at the clipboard again, then thrust it at her. “I already X’ed all the places to sign. Scribble something and we’re good to go. Hope you have a man around to move it for you once I unload. This bitch weighs a ton.”
“I’m sure I’ll manage through the miracle of modern technology. We’ve got bay doors in back. Just pull the truck around.”
She took the clipboard and scanned the bill of lading for what was in the box. There were only strange codes and truncated words that could’ve referred to anything. She found the lines X-marked for her signature and scribbled. As she signed, the delivery guy glanced at Tau, who apparently rated lower than her legs for pure wow factor.
“Hey there, boy,” he said. “You a good dog?”
Tau’s tail began to thump against the floor. He dropped the tennis ball and it bounced along the ground. For Tau, the hope of fetch sprang eternal. He also had terrible taste in people—herself, of course, excluded.
“Holy fucking shit, that dog has the same fucking robo leg.”
“I know. The craziness continues unabated.” She handed back the clipboard, ready to have this idiot gone so she could get back to working on the motor. A nice, simple, inoffensive pump motor that could keep its mouth shut. Right now that sounded like heaven.
“How’d he lose it?”
“Fighting cougars. I’ll go open the back.” She shut the door on him and threw the bolts and bar, then threaded her way through the workshop to the rear bay doors where they took large equipment deliveries. She squared her shoulders, chin up, moved with purpose. She hadn’t let the broken pump or the leaking compressor ruin her day. She wasn’t going to let an obnoxious delivery guy ruin it either.
She hand-over-hand pulled the chain that opened the first bay door. The delivery truck beeped as it backed up the wide drive into the lot behind the shop. The delivery guy lined the truck up with the door, opened the back, then struggled with a pallet jack to move a box as big as a range stove to the truck’s hydraulic lift. The lift whined as it lowered. Tau barked at the sound, and Brenna hushed him absently. She didn’t remember Annabel mentioning more incoming equipment. Then again, Annabel lived inside her mind much of the time, wrapped up in hypothesis and experimental theory. Wouldn’t be the first time stuff had turned up unexpectedly.
The delivery guy hauled the pallet jack and box into the shop. She could tell from how he struggled to get the pallet jack rolling that he wasn’t exaggerating about the weight. She had him park the pallet holding the mystery box off to the side, near the double fire doors that led from the workshop to the interior lab. A strange scent of something that stank like vinegar reached her nose. She didn’t mention it in case the smell came from the man—she’d never intentionally embarrass another person, not even a jerk—but she started to sweat and her heart rate sped up for no reason she understood.
“Load’s uneven,” the delivery guy warned. “Wants to shift around on you. You got a forklift?”
He nodded. “Good. I’m sure those robo-feet don’t give you much traction.”
Her Andurgo legs had pads on the bottom which gave her roughly the same traction as a good running shoe, though with less surface area. She bit her tongue, hoping icy silence would drive him out the door before his brain caught frostbite and destroyed his last actively firing neuron. It worked, because he laughed awkwardly, patted Tau, and slouched off to the truck. She leaned against the cinderblock wall and watched as he backed out. He threw her a jaunty salute and drove off.
She was about to head inside when she noticed the cargo van. White, with tinted windows, it was parked in front of the abandoned building across the street. The van had RepairPro Fire/Water/Mold Restoration written in sun-cracked lettering across the side. The building where it was parked had been empty, with a mournful For Lease sign dangling in one of the barred windows, for the three years she and Annabel had been here. She’d never noticed anyone parked there before.
Brenna hesitated, because she felt watched. The hair on the back of her arms and neck lifted, and goose bumps prickled her skin. The feeling was too strong to ignore. Someone, maybe several someones, watched her. Tau stood very still beside her, on alert, his tennis ball abandoned.
She turned and retreated to the bay door, uneasy, grateful for Tau at her side. Quickly, she worked the chain, shutting the door and going the extra step of padlocking the slide latch. She was on her way to the front of the workshop to steal another look at the van when the lab phone rang. She’d also rigged the phone to ring through the workshop speakers, this time to play “Weird Science.” Annabel had asked her to change it to classical music, suggesting Holst’s The Planets or anything by Mozart, but Brenna always put it off. The world might need more wacky, but classical music didn’t fit the bill.
She pushed past polypropylene dust barriers and through the fire doors into the lab, certain she wouldn’t get to the phone in time to answer. This wasn’t a bio lab but a physics lab, so the barriers were only to reduce the dirt and noise from the workshop. Tau padded-clanked along with her. She hurried past the helium neon laser and ceramic capacitors, careful not to knock over the CCD camera mounted on a tripod.
She grabbed the phone on the final ring before it went to voice mail. “Chell labs. Brenna.”
“I’m running late.” Annabel’s voice was faint over the connection, but she sounded distracted, harried. “I’m expecting a package delivery today. Has a courier arrived?”
“Just arrived. A massive-huge box. Some delivery company I’ve never heard of with a cheesy name. Can’t we just use UPS next time?”
“What are the dimensions of the box?”
“About the size of a large kitchen range.”
“No, that’s not right. Does the paperwork say Diamont Technology?”
Brenna wandered back into the workshop with the cordless phone and tore the bill of lading off the box. The vinegar reek definitely came from the box and made her stomach feel queasy. She tried to ignore both her nausea and growing unease as she scanned the paperwork.
“No, it says Anahit Industries.” She rested her hand on the box…and something inside thumped against the side hard enough to startle her. Her heart started hammering. She glanced at Tau, thinking he might’ve whacked it with his wagging tail, but Tau stood over by the door. Watching the box. Very intent. His tail definitely not wagging.
“That’s not the box,” Annabel said. “I don’t even remember ordering anything that big.”
“You don’t think…there’s something alive inside it, do you?” She laughed to show how stupid she found this possibility. Stupid or not, her heart still slammed away hard and fast.
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not even close to the testing phase yet. For now, Tau is more than enough mascot for the lab.”
“Right. And we agreed, no lab rats. We’re testing on politicians instead—”
Something thumped again, but softly. Tau growled low in his throat. Brenna edged away from the box, eyeing it, her grip tightening on the cordless phone. There couldn’t be anything alive inside. There weren’t even any air holes.
But what the hell was making those noises?
Annabelle had said something and she’d missed it. “Sorry?”
“I said, if you’re finished making jokes, then perhaps you could check out front. Of course, if they left this package out front, we’re all screwed. This is irreplaceable equipment.”
“No details over the phone.” Annabel’s voice held a rare edge. “Go check for me, would you?”
“Sure thing.” A long time ago she’d stopped being annoyed at Annabel’s random interruptions and cryptic requests. The strangest had been the time Annabel had roused her at one o’clock in the morning from the trailer she lived in behind the workshop and dispatched her to the nearest gas station minimart. At her request, Brenna had purchased four containers of antifreeze for the ethylene glycol, a Three Musketeers candy bar, five large bags of ice, all the sodium chloride in the building, and a bowl of nachos saturated with plastic yellow cheese.
She whistled to Tau and walked to one of the windows reinforced with iron mesh that looked out on the street. The window was filthy, spider webs in the corners, dead bugs on the sills, but she could see the van through the bleary glass.
“What’s taking so long, Bren?”
“There’s a van—”
“A delivery van?”
“No, industrial cleaning and damage repair—”
“I really need you to check on this package. Three years of research might reach its nexus with a single delivery. You’ll excuse me if I don’t give a frigging frack about a cleaning van.”
“Is this the point in our work relationship where I inform you that Dr. Frankenstein is a slave-driver and Igor is quitting? Or hold on, here’s another one you might appreciate. You can take this job and shove it up your wormhole.”
“All right, all right.” She grabbed a large pipe wrench off the tool bench, because it made her feel better to hold something heavy—not much, but a little—and she went through the routine of unlocking the door and pushing it open again. The van’s tinted windows made it difficult to see inside, but she was almost certain a big shape loomed behind the wheel. She felt the eyes on her again. The same being watched sensation.
She idly swung the pipe wrench in her hand as she glanced around, and then locked her gaze back on the van. “No box,” she said into the phone.
“Damn. Can you check out back?”
“I was just out there—”
“Please, Bren. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it important. Check again, for me?”
Brenna sighed and slipped back inside, then locked the door. As soon as she had good steel between her and that van she felt better. Tau stared at her as if expecting her to do something. No tail wagging. No happy doggy grin. Only watching her.
She whistled for him…and something else whistled, mocking her with an eerie higher-pitched, screeching sound. Tau stared at the box and whined. The hairs on the back of her neck started to rise, and a chill wracked its way down her spine, the old mallet-across-the-xylophone gag. That had sounded like… No, impossible, couldn’t be. Still, she didn’t want to open that box. She wished she’d told that delivery driver to take the box and shove it up his wormhole.
“Are you there?” Annabel asked. “Did my call drop?”
“I’m here.” Her voice sounded remarkably calm to her own ears. “Something in the box just whistled.”
“For the last time, we don’t have anything alive shipping to the lab. You heard something else. Equipment. A sound outside. An echo. Now, out back? My important box?”
Nuts. Brenna started across the workshop. She’d been ping-ponging back and forth between the front and the back all afternoon, and she still had a chiller to rebuild and a disturbing mystery box to forever avoid opening. Tau trailed along behind her. This time she used the access door instead of the bay door, cracked it open an inch, checking, then shoved it wide with the wrench ready in her hand. No one was back here. No package either. She told Annabel as much without even sounding smug.
Well, not too smug anyway.
Her friend sighed. “I was certain it would arrive today. Maybe I mixed up the dates. Thanks for checking for me, Bren. When I get back I’m going to run a hypersurface stability test, so if you could set the equipment up, I’d appreciate it. I also need CAD drawings on that mounting framework for the beamsplitter before Friday. Oh, and open that big box and inventory what’s inside. Now I really have to go.”
“But the chiller—”
Dead air. Annabel had disconnected.
Brenna called her back, but went straight to voice mail. She left a short message about the chiller rebuild, then carried the pipe wrench with her back into the lab to return the cordless phone to the base. The pipe wrench had some weight at least, but if she really wanted a weapon, she should open the trunk in her trailer. She’d feel like a fool if she brought out her father’s quad for no reason, but she’d feel like a safer fool. He’d warned her about using the weapon, right before he’d given it to her and had sent her away forever. That van, though…there was something creepy about that van.
And that damn box held something alive.
She was about to mate cordless with recharger on the desk when the phone rang in her hand. She yelped and dropped it. It bounced off the keyboard and lay against the computer mouse. The illuminated screen displayed the words UNKNOWN CALLER.
When she tried to laugh at her skittishness it sounded hollow, forced. Probably Annabel again, calling back with more instructions since the chiller was kaput. Either that, or wanting her to drop everything and weld a new steel frame to support the cyclotron modifications. She grabbed the handset. “Chell Labs. Still Brenna.”
“Good to know you remain Brenna and not some other creature,” a male voice said over the line. She recognized the voice straight away, though she hadn’t heard it often, and had only met him in person once. The Emissary. That was it. No first or last name. Only that strange, pompous-sounding title passing as a moniker.
Damn, this she really didn’t need. What the hell else could go wrong today?
“Sorry. Thought you were someone else.” She cleared her throat. “What can I do for you, Mr. Emissary?”
“I left a message on Dr. Price’s voicemail, however, I believe in redundancy. Did a package arrive at your lab today?”
“I think maybe you should talk to Annabel about that. I don’t want to overstep.”
“I’m certain you’ve been made aware that I own every piece of equipment inside that building. Dr. Price works for me, and, by extension, a spanner jack such as yourself also works for me.” He uttered a depreciating chuckle. “I dislike being so forward, almost gauche, in declaring my rights. I find it demeaning for everyone involved. Yet, in this case I’m making an exception because this is important.”
Spanner jack. A rough translation of a northside Entropy term. A jack-of-all-trades. A wrench for hire. She knew he meant it as derisive, putting her in her place. She felt her cheeks and forehead burn, and was furious at herself for feeling even a smidgen of shame. This from a guy who called himself Emissary. What a jerk.
“A large box was just delivered,” she said, her voice cold. “Annabel—Dr. Price—called a few minutes ago looking for another package she’s expecting. It’s not here yet.”
“My jet is on the runway at Denver International. I have a car waiting and expect to arrive at your lab in less than an hour. Don’t open the box. If the other should arrive, don’t open that box either.”
“You’re coming here?” The thought made her guts clench. The workshop was a mess, as always, but even the lab looked more disordered than usual due to their heavy experiment schedule. Not how one wanted the financial backer to see the state of his investment. “Coming here today?”
“Very shortly. Please watch for the second delivery and secure it. We’ll speak more after I arrive.” He disconnected.
She set the phone on the charger with a shaking hand, the other still clutching the pipe wrench. The Emissary had always unnerved her. That creepy-scary, uber-urbane vibe. There’d been nothing overt. Not to her, not directly, but Annabel was afraid of him. He hadn’t exaggerated when he’d said he owned their lab. His funds had purchased most of the tools in the workshop as well. The drill press, acetylene torch, all the welding gear, the bending brake, and so on, aside from the scattering of hand tools she owned. He might even own a piece of Annabel in some way—rating as something far more influential than merely an employer or source of capital. The possibility unsettled Brenna enough that she’d never found the right way to ask for the truth.
She wandered from the lab in a daze. The unending roulette spin of her mind wouldn’t let any thought fall into a coherent pocket. The first and only time she’d met the Emissary in person, he’d looked her over, his dark gaze dropping to her mechanical legs, and he’d said, “Chaur.”
That word had sent ice chips rushing through her veins. A chaur had eaten both of her legs. Ten years ago, when she was fifteen. She’d been mauled along Glasstree Avenue, where the canals met, as she’d walked in the shade of one of the city’s listening towers. Long time ago, but she had the memories, the scars, and the missing parts to remind her. Most days—weeks even—she didn’t think about it. But when the Emissary had said that word, it had brought back all the paralyzing fear that had shadowed her for a long time after the attack.
Tau whined and licked her hand, as if he could read her darkening mood. She grinned and leaned down to hug him. He struggled to lick her face, and she laughed. She meant to go back to the workbench where she had the pump motor pulled apart, even took a couple of steps in that direction. Then something boomed against the box loud enough to make her flinch and shriek. She followed the shriek with a curse, lifting the wrench. Tau scrambled between her and the box, then stood still, staring at it and making no sound.
Something was definitely alive inside the box…and it sounded as if it wanted out. Only an idiot would tear back those flaps and check, even if the Emissary hadn’t told her not to open it. Had he known something was alive in there? And that smell…she recognized it—
The box began to shake and shudder against the two metal bands securing it to the pallet, loud thumps and booms filled the air. She took a step backward. Another sound came through the heavy cardboard sides. That sound…that horrible high-pitched sound that she remembered. Keeeee-kee-kee. The hunting call of a chaur.
Impossible. Insanity. There were no chaur on this side of the brane. They weren’t even native to the city of Entropy. They were from further dimensions, infesting other worlds. The one that had mauled her had broken free from the personal menagerie of a Sidhe noble. Her damn cursed luck—
“Keeeeeee-kee-kee!” came the high shriek from the box, followed by a piercing whistle. Then the box and pallet began to slide across the floor in jerks as the thing inside rammed the walls, which started to buckle under the assault.
She stumbled backward until she bumped against a workbench. Her heart pounded, a hollow boom, boom, in rapid counterpoint to the thumps from the box. The air was full of the smell of grease and metal, of iron-fillings and ozone…and, more faintly, vinegar. The reek from the slime on its body. Tau whined and retreated a little before facing the box again.
She couldn’t get her legs to obey. They were dead. Lifeless metal, worthless mockeries. Run? How could she run? The monster had eaten her legs.
Tau growled. A “Keeeee-kee-kee-kee” shriek answered, then came a huge echoing boom. Cardboard began to tear and shred, eaten away from inside. Chunks of brown cardboard flew through the air and bounced along the cement floor. Tau began to bark.
This couldn’t be happening. A sick nightmare—
The chaur shoved through the side of the box in an explosion of shredded cardboard. Its muscular back legs scrambled for purchase on the concrete, two thick white claws veined with red screeched across the floor. It had moved too fast and smashed into one of her big rolling toolboxes, denting the side and knocking the whole thing over with a resounding crash.
The world went strange—sounds faint, distant, full of echoes, the overhead track lighting showed halos. Her mouth dry, her heart hitting so hard her fingertips trembled. That stink like vinegar…she should’ve recognized that smell right away.
The chaur staggered upright, snorting and whistling, the size of a large dog. Two powerful digitigrade legs propelled it forward, its body low to the ground, its long, thick tail held straight out for balance. Its head was a bright cerulean blue, an ice-white body covered with a sheen of gelatinous milky slime. One large muddy eye protruded from each side of its head like a frog’s eye. Neck as big around as the mouth of a 5-gallon pail, massive jaws with rows of serrated teeth. Two small forelimbs sprouted from its body just below the neck, whip-like, hooked on the end with a single curving talon, each about a foot and a half long. The chaur would snag them in prey to hold it still while biting—she had the scars on her upper thighs to prove it. It radiated warmth like a furnace, waves of heat washing against her skin, making her want to shiver. And the stink like vinegar, but sharper, almost…burned.
It thundered forward, rushed toward Tau, legs pounding the floor.
“No!” She lunged forward, dove, and yanked her dog away from the charging monster. She sacrificed her grip on the pipe wrench to grab and haul Tau, and the wrench bounced away with a loud metallic clatter.
The creature slashed at her with one of its hooked limbs as it passed. The hook-claw ripped through her jeans and scored along her thigh. She smelled blood. A instant later pain flared in her leg as if she’d burned a line into her skin with the blowtorch. She gritted her teeth to keep from screaming.
The chaur rejoiced with a “Keee-kee—” then skidded into a 55-gallon drum of old fluorescent lighting tubes she kept meaning to recycle. The chaur crashed into the drum and shattered all the bulbs, flailed around in the broken glass and drove shards into its slimy hide.
Brenna rolled to her feet, hauling Tau behind her. One of her prosthetic legs hit the concrete at an awkward angle, missing the pad on the bottom, the ankle-joint groaned and the metal squealed against the ground. Everything seemed to stand out in bright, precise detail. The dazed horror and surprise had loosened its grip, or the terror had grown so great she’d shoved right through the paralyzing wall again.
She shifted, turning her knee, and pushed herself into a run. Her legs clanged as she sprinted toward the rear door. The longer she ran, the quicker she went and the easier the movement became, as if her legs wanted to go faster, ever faster. Tau ran alongside her in his lurching gait, toenails clicking on the concrete, his prosthetic leg banging.
She had to get the hell out of here, get to her quad. To the big four-barrelled gun her father had built. Real or nightmare, that pistol would settle things.
The chaur loosed a shrill whistle that spiked through her ears and drilled into her brain. It launched itself into another thundering charge. It was faster than her, had a better angle to the door, and it was going to cut them off.
She slid to a stop before the monster intercepted her, changed direction, and cut for the front door. The chaur was on her, she heard the rapid, heavy thud of its legs, the hard click-scrape of its talons right behind her. She threw a look behind her. The chaur’s blue head was thrown back, jaws yawning wide, alien eyes watching her. Crazy, but she thought she could see her own reflection in those hideous eyes—
It lunged and bit. She juked, crying out, hit her hip on a center workbench and rolled herself onto it to escape. The chaur’s jaws closed on empty air, but it jumped onto the workbench after her. She shoved herself backward, sliding across the bench, knocking off parts and tools to clatter and clang to the floor. The chaur pursued her. Tau, barking furiously, scrambled up onto the workbench behind the monster.
The chaur shrieked “Keeeeeee!” and blew its fetid breath into her face, choking her. Its two hooked limbs whipped out and snared themselves in her flesh, in her thigh and hip. She screamed in agony. It hauled her closer to its huge jaws, opening them wide, showing her the wicked rows of jagged teeth, the black flesh lining the roof of its mouth, the ropes of glistening saliva. Tau was tearing at its tail, biting and snarling, but the chaur sent her dog flying with one contemptuous thrash of the heavy limb. Now Brenna’s scream was one of rage. Her hand flailed for something, anything, to use as a weapon.
Her fingers curled around her favorite adjustable wrench.
She swung it with all her strength and smashed the chaur’s eye. The eye burst in a spray of reddish-brown fluid. The chaur whistle-shrieked and lurched to the side. The big talon on its rear leg barely missed slicing open her inner thigh. She swung the wrench again, breaking teeth this time. They snapped like a candy cane, sent white shards ticking along the scarred workbench.
She hauled herself away, got a leg under her, and kicked the monster in the bottom of the neck with her metal foot. The chaur made a gurgling sound and saliva pattered across her cheek, but one of its hook-limbs had torn free of her flesh. She screamed in anger and pain as she shoved herself backward again, ripping the other out of her muscle. Her blood stained the workbench, mixed with the chaur’s blood.
She almost got away. She rolled off the bench, missed her footing, hit her hip hard on the ground and the world grayed out for a second in a filmy washwater haze of pure agony. She battled through the haze. If she lost it now, that thing would eat her. The thought sent so much horror and revulsion shivering through her that she gave a helpless groan.
The chaur wheeled on her, its sides heaving, thrashing its hooks around, snapping its heavy jaws like a crocodile. It leapt off the workbench at her. She scrambled clear just in time. She still held her wrench, but she couldn’t kill this bastard with a wrench.
Her cordless DeWALT hammer drill lay on a metal bench near her vise. She snatched it up in her left hand, just as the chaur lunged at her, mouth gaping. She kicked it in the side of the head with her foot—no thought, moving in purest reaction—and the metal thudded against its skull. The chaur’s jaws snapped closed and its teeth scraped along the metal, leaving marks. She jerked her leg back before it could clamp down with all its bite pressure.
The chaur stumbled off balance, thrashed its tail and sent tools and parts and boxes of washers flying. She thrust with the hammer drill, pressing the trigger. The motor whined as the half-inch drill bit twisted into its neck. Red-brown blood sprayed out. The chaur wailed like a steam whistle and wrenched away from her, yanking the hammer drill out of her grip as the monster retreated, bleeding.
Her mouth was set in a hateful smile, her teeth grinding along each other, her heart thundering, every bit of her alive with electric rage as she shook with horror and hate. Tau was barking, barking, a hammering-sharp sound that echoed in the workshop as rapid as machinegun fire. The chaur rounded on him, lowering its body as it stalked forward. Blood pulsed from the wounds she’d inflicted. Its head cocked to the side to watch her dog with its remaining good eye. Tau backed away, barking.
Brenna vaulted herself onto the workbench still slick with her blood. The pain flared into bright agony every time she moved. She had no choice but to cut the pain loose, disregard it. She took two running steps, one of them sliding dangerously as the pad on her prosthetic leg lost grip for a second before catching again, and she jumped off the bench. She came down between the chaur and Tau, shock dampers in her feet eating the impact so she felt no jolt, the fiber optics canceling out the sensation of pain before it transferred to her nerves.
The chaur circled around, making the strange “Keeeeeee-kee-kee-kee” sound as though it laughed at her.
“Stay close to me, boy,” she whispered to Tau.
He stopped barking and whined. His warm tongue licked across her empty left hand. All she had for a weapon was her number one wrench because she’d lost the hammer drill. She glanced at the tools around her, keeping the chaur in her peripheral vision at all times. A reciprocating saw lay on a wooden worktable nearby. Thank God for messes and how she never put her tools away.
She dropped the wrench and grabbed the reciprocating saw in her left hand, the plug in her right. The chaur whistled as she moved, and she might’ve laughed if she hadn’t felt like simultaneously crying and screaming. She shoved the plug at one of the drop-down outlets located throughout the workshop. She missed, the prongs skated free of their holes, and she cursed.
The chaur slowly stalked toward them, swaying with predator menace. No more charging, but she knew it came to finish them. She glanced back at the plug. Shoved again with a shaking hand. Missed. Made a helpless sound of frustration and panic. The chaur drew close. She could smell the vinegar stink flooding her nostrils, and she thought she might be sick. Her legs trembled, her hands shook, and no wonder she couldn’t get the damn plug in with her hands shaking and covered with blood and a monster going to eat her—
The plug slipped into the socket. She yelled in triumph and whirled to face the chaur, raising the saw and pressing the trigger. The saw shuddered in her hand, making a hungry rattle, the blade blurring back and forth.
“Come on, fucker!” she screamed. “Nobody messes with my dog! Come on!”
The chaur reared on its back legs, screeched its “Keeeeee-kee-keeeeee-kee!” and came for her.
* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *
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