Spanner Jack: Chapter Three

Creative Commons LicenseSpanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.




If you missed it…

Introduction information

Chapter One

Chapter Two




Chapter Three

Bodyrider


The man inside the stolen van tipped his cowboy hat back and watched as the big Chevy truck charged from the driveway and swung a hard left onto the street, singing to him with the scream of tires and the rumble-menace of a heavy duty engine. He ignored the challenge. He was not one for car chases. Besides, he could sense the dark energy radiation from one of his nopauk worms leaking from inside the escaping truck, leaving an energy-tell he could track at his leisure.

He pushed another hot stuffed cherry pepper into his mouth, closed his eyes, and reveled in the spicy burn, the tastes of provolone and prosciutto ham jittering on his tongue. Vinegar drooled down his chin and he wiped it away.

So it seemed the brane-jumping little anarchist Brenna McLain had survived his special present. Disappointing. He’d gone through so much trouble to accomplish this with style—the portal-birth, incubating the nopauk worms in the chaur as a failsafe, having the package delivered especially for her—that he felt the failure most keenly. Unfortunate. He’d gambled that she’d be so surprised to face the same breed of creature which had crippled her, so paralyzed by terror, that there’d be neither hope nor chance of escape.

He’d underestimated her and he was shamed. It wouldn’t happen again. He was of the Matriquin Lon, granted the name Citirict when he’d been exalted from his home on the graphite plains, near the black cliffs over Kalsk, the great sea of churning liquid hydrocarbons. His history was proud, his lineage of note. The Prime had seeded the multiverse with DNA variations an age ago, and Citirict was proof that the vertebrates, especially the mammals that infested this particular planet, held no monopoly over magic. He would redeem this…slip.

Citirict climbed out of the van and stretched his body, running his tongue over his teeth to catch the last hint of stuffed cherry pepper taste. Mammals from this side of the brane did not fit particularly well and were not comfortable to ride, but he did enjoy eating. Yes, very much indeed.

His boot heels clomped on the pavement as he strolled toward the dirty grey cinderblock mass of the Chell lab. Decent camouflage in this area of rundown buildings and old warehouses for a project so…destabilizing. No matter, he’d found the lab anyway, using his current host’s mind like a computer for access to information and concepts, language and mores. This was not unique to the Matriquin. Many bodyrider species did the same, controlling a bigger host as though it were a mix of armor and computer database for missions in hostile territories. The key, and a process Citirict handled exceedingly well, was to immerse one’s existence within the host’s mind-culture-language matrix, partially morphing into that species through a…a marinating in the pattern of thought and all the complex interactions and traditions that shaded something as chaotic as a culture. This aided in navigation through strange and obscure societies and mores. Adapt or die.

He tried the building’s front door, found it locked, headed to the back and discovered an unsecured access door. An open invitation. Delectable. He peered at the hash mark prints of blood from the anarchist gate jumper’s silly artificial legs, and then at the blood smeared on the door. He pushed his cowboy hat back out of the way. He leaned close to the metal and opened his host’s mouth as wide as his jaw would allow, sucking in the scent, then he flicked his host’s tongue out to lick a dark splatter from the metal. His first taste of his quarry’s lifeblood. Interesting. She’d been afraid, near out of her mind with worry about her… friend? No, about her pet mammal…dog…Labrador. Yes, Labrador Retriever. Named…Towel, or something close. But he could read nothing else. No specifics about the box or her anarchist puppetmaster, the Dr. Annabel Price. He sneered. Dr. Price, an internal and external disruptive. No matter what light Price was exhibited within, she remained a destabilizing disruptive.

He slipped inside the workshop and smelled the death. Nopauk worms lay curled into crescent moon shapes all across the concrete floor. Two of them had been smashed. The rest had died for lack of hosts. Unfortunate, but the nopauk could not live free of a host and out of octadecene for long. He sympathized, but he had others to replace these. That didn’t mean he could risk incaution with scarce resources. In their true ecosystem, nopauk eventually turned a host into a hollow, mindless creature that would shamble toward the nearest pool of octadecene and drown itself so the nopauk could breed in a bloated, long-chain hydrocarbon-soaked corpse. But until that final stage, they were susceptible to the telepathic urging of a Matriquin Lon. The same held true in this dimension, on this planet with its arid atmosphere, so miserly with moisture, and no octadecene oceans or free mineral oil pools to be seen.

He made his way deeper into the building until he found the ravaged chaur. He squatted beside it and examined the wounds Price’s lackey had inflicted with her crude tools. Again, the human female had been far more determined than he’d expected, given information from the Event Horizon dossier he’d memorized. Though that file had been incomplete and outdated, and the guild was far more concerned about the market anarchist Annabel Price.

Still, Brenna McLain’s competence irked him. Gate-birthing another isikisht would be a highly taxing inconvenience, and doing so would cost him. She’d fought the chaur and won, fair enough, and he was forced to award her a measure of respect. Most mammals didn’t impress him. Indeed, most vertebrates failed to impress him. When one had ridden as many spines as Citirict had, one grew a mite jaded. Understandably so.

Still, his path from this point forward branched significantly. Clearly he needed to birth a new isikisht…a new…“proxy flesh tool”, perhaps would be the best of several rough translations. Bringing another isikisht would cost him this current host body as a blood gate. He’d need access to another body before he could jump hosts. Fortunately he had an idea of a perfect prospect to lure for that task. He smiled.

Brenna McLain was only a secondary objective of this mission phase, Dr. Price the primary. But what if he attempted to achieve his goals through riding Brenna instead of having her consumed, as had been the original strategy? Provocative. Since Price was being shy and elusive, and because he had successful tracking on Brenna thanks to the nopauk worm, it made sense to birth an isikisht which could subdue Brenna until he could attach himself without further damaging her body.

Chipper. He had a revised plan, an evolved plan, though still with a bit of messy work to accomplish before enacting it. He headed back outside and crossed the street to the van. Halfway there he noticed a long black car idling far down the street. A…limousine. He could sense the curving, twisting fields of dark energy and mystigen surrounding the vehicle. Something very powerful was concealed inside. The Emissary, perhaps? What was the appropriate acknowledging gesture to a being of such power? He searched his host’s memories until he found what he hoped was the correct one, raised his hand and waved it back and forth. The limousine slid from the curb, turned around, and drove away. He watched until it turned the corner and disappeared from view.

He wasn’t worried. He would be seeing the Emissary again.

Until then, there was work to be done. He pulled the van to the rear of the workshop, discovered how to work the bay doors, and collected all the dead nopauk worms and loaded them into the back. Next he dragged the chaur corpse onto a large piece of plastic sheeting and rolled it over and over until it was wrapped securely inside, then deadlifted his fallen isikisht into the van. Such tasks took a toll on his host. He had to continually spur the body’s glands into dumping epinephrine hormone into the veins to help with moving the heavy load.

Citirict headed into the lab after finishing with the chaur, bringing along a glass jar that contained a writhing nopauk worm submerged in octadecene to keep it alive. Inside the lab he peered at the equipment, made the requisite sneers at the crude laser, disparaged the primitive cyclotron, and finally lifted the phone. Adapt or die. That was the challenge of any ecosystem. Here he was, adapting. Here he was, talking on a telephone.

He took out the business card for the company that had unwittingly delivered his chaur and dialed the number, though it took several attempts because his host-body’s hands were still shaking from all the epinephrine he’d squeezed into its veins. He reviewed a selection of his host’s memories until he felt confident he grasped the social concepts behind them, then waited until the human he wanted answered.

“Macky here. Business or pleasure? If it’s business, I’m busy.”

“A business follow up that could be pleasure,” Citirict said. “The woman who was at the Chell laboratory on East 49th forgot to give you a…gratuity…for your exemplary service.”

“A tip? Cool enough, because that package was hella heavy.”

Citirict paused, sorting through the slang until he felt comfortable continuing. “Customarily we tip generously, but in your case we would fancy giving…one hundred dollars. I wanted to check and see if you might return to the lab and receive your due. Apologies for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, I will not be here for long—leaving town on business—but if you could arrive in say, fifteen minutes, I could still present you what you are owed.”

“For a hundred spot? Hell yeah, I’ll be there in ten. These other fools can wait. You’re not jerking my chain are you? A hundred, honest to God?”

Again he sorted through the idiom for meaning. “Honest. To make up for having to travel here again. A…productive man deserves a…sufficient reward.”

“I hear that. Look for me in ten,” the man said and disconnected.

Citirict pushed the END button on the phone, paused, then licked the receiver mouthpiece, running his tongue back and forth over the plastic. He caught far less than when he’d tasted Brenna’s blood, only vague, fading feelings. Apprehension. Annoyance. Too tenuous and too obscure to be much good to him.

He left the lab. Some minor set up was required for this next phase, so he needed to prepare carefully. He placed the glass jar with the swimming nopauk worm on a suitable workbench and covered it with frayed rag, then walked to the front door to watch for the delivery truck’s arrival. He pulled out his host’s wallet and examined the remaining currency inside. From another pocket he withdrew the steel handcuffs he’d procured after taking this body, checked them over while visualizing how he meant to use them, then concealed them once again. Everything was ready. Patience was all that remained. While he waited, he siphoned endorphins, tweaked the pituitary, and created a hormone cocktail in one of his gland pouches and let his consciousness drift in the bliss streams for a time.

When the delivery truck swung into the driveway, he reluctantly shook off his mind’s radiant ecstasy stupor. The driver hopped out of the truck. Citirict waved him inside with his widest smile.

“Hey man, everybody happy?” the driver asked. Citirict recognized him from earlier, when he’d paid the man a significant fee to unofficially deliver the package containing the chaur. “That woman with the robo-legs didn’t seem jazzed about getting the box.”

“Everyone is simply…ecstatic. Completely joyous.”

The man eyed him, frowning. Citirict realized he must’ve given some tell that had struck the man as strange. No matter. As the Matriquin said, things always grew stranger.

“Please, follow me, then you may continue on your way.” He didn’t give the man time to protest, simply turned and headed deeper into the building, toward the heavy workbench with his hidden glass jar.

“Man, this place looks even worse than before,” the delivery man said, glancing around. “You throw a crazy office party or something? Is that fucking blood?”

“Lubricant spill. Messy, but no source of alarm.” He pulled his host’s worn leather wallet and withdrew a one hundred dollar bill. He put the wallet away and set the hundred on a cleared section of workbench. “For you.”

The man reached for the bill. As soon as he touched it, Citirict whipped the steel handcuffs from his pocket and snapped the bracelet around the man’s wrist. The delivery man had barely started to react to the handcuff when Citirict locked the other wrist bracelet around a steel workbench strut. Now there was no turning back from the path ahead.

“Man, what the fuck?” The delivery man yanked his arm back, but barely shifted the workbench.

“Adapt or die,” Citirict said.

He pulled the rag off the glass jar and unscrewed the lid, then commanded his host body to kneel as he held the jar close to his chest. He began to pump phenolykka through his host body’s veins through his proboscis, directly into the spinal nerves and vertebral artery. Next he reached with his mind to pierce a rift, drawing mystigen from the ovasea, through an expanding wormhole, using it to fuel the gate matrix he sculpted inside the core of his host’s life energy wheel. He sensed the tear opening inside the host’s body, in the center of his chest, and spreading, parting like opening lips, tissue and organs torn aside as the gate expanded. Finally the split gaped like a wound in the host body’s muscle and skin, still ripping wider, ever wider.

The delivery man’s mouth was moving and he seemed to be yelling. Citirict couldn’t understand him because host’s hearing drowned in a high-pitched warbling whine, dots danced in bursting patterns in front of his eyes, and blood sprayed from his nose and ears. Time was limited. He pulled the nopauk worm from the jar, anchored part of his consciousness to it, and threw it into the gate.

Part of his mind followed the nopauk through the wormhole. He shuddered and endured the sickening vertigo as time seemed to stretch, warp and distort, everything around him seeming to drag to a stop. Then he was through the brane, into a place of towering fungus dotted with glowing green and yellow phosphorescence supported by lattices of fleshy, gilled limbs and gently swaying tuber vines, glistening with their trap secretions, and deep pools of octadecene. His mind reeled with joy at returning home, but he caught hold of his triumph, because he was only here for a moment, to pick up an isikisht and return to Earth. He found the one he sought with minimal searching. A tchosok, dangling from beneath a huge fungus cap, its triangular-bladed feet stabbing into the ridged gills, as it fished in the oil pool with a long whiplike tongue, pumping stupor-inducing secretions beneath the surface to catch bvole. Citirict reached out with his mind, and the nopauk worm sang in subsonics that couldn’t affect creatures of Earth, but which paralyzed the tchosok. The nopoak worm continued singing its subsonic, hypnotic song until it slid up the tchosok’s leg and wriggled into its gullet. The tchosok shuddered as his worm drilled into its nervous system and hijacked its brain.

He lured the tchosok to him, singing to it through the worm in mesmerizing subsonic patterns that told it how food and warmth and safety lay through the blood gate.

The tchosok traveled through the wormhole, scuttling from the blood gate in his host’s chest, and clattered onto the concrete floor. It hesitated, its antennae wavering as it caressed the alien metals and concrete. The tchosok was gray, striped with pale glowing white, standing on four triangular, blade-like legs, a long brown tongue wavering from out of its mouth, covered in thick, dark mucus. It had only a single yellow eye atop its oval body, and it seemed to be staring at the ceiling. The delivery man watched the tchosok crawl out of the incubated bloodgate inside his host’s chest, and he started to shriek. Those gasping shrieks bounced and echoed around the room, piercing, frenzied.

Citirick released the blood gate. His host body slowly slumped to the ground, its heart pulverized, ribcage shattered, lungs burst, all torn asunder by the gate he’d used it to birth his new proxy flesh tool. He withdrew one spike from the body’s spine, the other from the artery, and his proboscis from the pituitary gland. His view shifted from the harsh, disorienting glare of what humans called the visible light spectrum and back to sensible infrareds. He climbed from his host’s throat and out through his mouth. This next phase had to be fast. His target host couldn’t run because of the handcuff, but Citirick could still be injured if he wasn’t careful and quick.

He scrambled around the rim of the bloodstained cowboy hat and leapt off. His legs clicked on the concrete as he raced toward the delivery man. The man tried to stomp him flat, but Citirict was too quick. In a blink he was up the man’s coverall leg, climbing fast around his back so this chosen host couldn’t smash him off as he flailed and panicked, then curving around the neck, up the face as the man screamed. He writhed into the open mouth, down the man’s throat, digging in at the back and resetting his spike in the spinal nerves, his sharp tongue piercing the artery, self-sealing against it, pumping in norcalkyl hormones and seizing control of the brain as he shoved the other consciousness into the outer darkness of the mind.

He stretched, settling his way into his new host body, flexing his fingers, licking his teeth. Host switching was always traumatic, for everyone involved, but it wasn’t possible to open a bloodgate to his native world and bring back an isikisht without turning a host inside out. Now he had control of the tchosok he’d need to hunt and subdue the outlaw gate-jumper Brenna without killing her, since she’d proven to be more than a match for a chaur. When he rode her, he’d use her to lure Dr. Price to him. From there…well, from there he’d only have one final step to success. And then, bliss.

He dragged the corpse of his former host closer to him, then searched the pockets until he found the ring of handcuff keys and set himself free. The tchosok watched him, waiting for his telepathic command transmitted through the nopauk parasite. Yes, things were sailing forward smoothly again. He’d adapted, and so he continued.

Citirict knelt beside the corpse. He reached out and adjusted the cowboy hat over the man’s face and empty, staring eyes, so that if one ignored the horrific trauma to the man’s body, one might almost believe him to be sleeping.

“My ever-thanks for the ride,” he whispered to it.

He walked outside again and climbed into the van. The jar of hot stuffed cherry peppers sat on the seat beside him. They resembled green eyeballs with pink pupils floating in cloudy solution. He unscrewed the cap, dug one out, and pushed it into his mouth. Juice squirted as he bit down and sharp, tangy heat flooded his mouth. He closed his eyes and groaned. Because that was a divine sensation. That was pure gastronomical delight. He grinned, wiped away a bit of vinegar-tinged drool that had escaped his lips and ran down his chin. What he loved most about riding a human was eating things. Eating and eating so many varied things.

He started the engine and went to pick up the trail of his nopauk worm, eager to hunt down the anarchist Brenna with her assumed Earth surname McLain. Events were still moving in a direction he liked, despite a few setbacks. Tantalizing. Sometimes he felt as if the whole world lay spread upon a table before him, waiting to be eaten.



* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *


Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish! Likes/dislikes, mistakes, etc. No pressure, though. You have my thanks for reading!

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Spanner Jack: Chapter Two

Creative Commons License
Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Spanner Jack

by Keith Melton


If you missed it…

Introduction information is here

Chapter One is here



Chapter Two

Fight or Flight




The chaur’s legs hammered the floor, the talons that curved from its rear legs scraping the cement as it charged Brenna. It loosed another chattering keee-kee-kee cry—savage, joyous, and utterly alien.

She waited, trying to time her move as the monster closed. Adrenaline ripped through her veins. Her breath came fast and harsh, her heart revved full-bore, and everything seemed to happen at speeds both very fast and exceedingly slow, her world changing into a Mobius strip of time-lapse photography, one curve fast forward, the other slow motion.

Only one chance at this. If she missed she was dead.

The chaur’s mouth gaped wide. Brenna pivoted at the last moment and threw herself along the chaur’s flank. Its jaws snapped shut where her thigh had been an instant before, wicked teeth closing like scissors snicking shut.

She shoved the reciprocating saw toward it, pressing the trigger so hard it creased a dent in her fingers. The saw shuddered to life and the blade ripped into the chaur’s slime-slick flesh. The monster’s forward momentum almost dragged the saw out of her hands, but she tightened her grip and wrenched the saw along its body. The blade ate through muscle and foul skin, spraying the chaur’s red-brown blood. More blood and fluids seeped into the saw’s motor, and a new smell competed with the overwhelming vinegar reek—a ghastly burned-sugar stink that made her want to vomit up every piece of candy she’d ever eaten.

The chaur wailed. Its heavy tail smashed the legs of a workbench, sending parts and metal shavings and screws flying. They rained to the concrete in pings and clangs and ticks, an arrhythmic steel hail. The chaur tried to pull free from the saw blade and clamp its teeth on her arm. Those teeth would’ve taken her arm off at the shoulder but she half dodged, half fell out of reach. Its hot, fetid breath gagged her. Red-brown blood stained her to the elbows, but she kept her finger on the trigger, forcing the saw deeper into the monster, grimly remembering how it had attacked her dog. How another of these bastards had taken her legs off at the knees. She screamed, a sound of pent up fury and rage, so loud that pain flared in her throat.

Her reciprocating saw died with the blade lodged deep in the chaur’s flank. She’d cut a wound halfway along its body before her forward motion had yanked the cord out of the electrical outlet. Tau was barking—furious deep-throated barks—and trying to reach her side, but the chaur blocked him. She scrambled to her feet, ready to distract the monster or attack it with her bare hands if it turned on Tau again.

The chaur staggered and collapsed. Blood poured from its side, more seeped from the eye she’d smashed with her wrench, while the blood dripping from the drill hole was lost in the general gore. Her stomach did a queasy somersault. The chaur uttered a strange grumble, shuddered, and went still.

She tried to edge past the monster to reach Tau but only managed a stumbling sort of shuffle. The wounds on her thighs blared agony to her brain in strident shrieks. Those pain-shrieks gained in volume as the adrenaline fled and exhaustion washed through her, turning her muscles loose and rubbery.

Part of her brain was certain the chaur would snap back to life and lunge at her like the non-quite-dead monster at the end of a horror movie, but the chaur remained motionless. She’d opened a window into the guts of the damn thing as if she’d been on a psychotic remodeling rampage. Bob Vila would be proud, and good old Captain Ahab had nothing on her. The wacky thoughts made her cough out a laugh. She reached Tau and knelt beside him, groaning at the flare of pain from her wounds. He licked her face as she hugged him. She was shaking. Tau was shaking. She’d never loved her dog more, though. The emotion was so huge it blanked out every other thought.

The corpse shuddered, and a rasping sound filled the air, as though a double-cut file ran along a two-by-four. She flinched and nearly lost her balance. No way. There was no way that monster was alive.

Tau started to growl, trying to wedge himself between her and the vinegar-reeking corpse. The chaur’s rightside flank began shift and ripple as something alive squirmed beneath the slimy skin.

She stood, slowly, because her strength seemed to pour out of her through a hundred drill holes. Strange gore-streaked eels slid from the jagged hole in chaur’s body and hit the floor with wet plops. A dozen or more of them. Her vision washed out in varying grays, the world turning to concrete slush. She bit down on her tongue, the pain bringing the world back into sharp focus, blood filling her mouth.

The eels had eyeless heads vaguely shaped like drill bits, covered with rippling feelers no wider than a hair, skin so pale it was translucent, showing dark roadmaps of veins and shadowy hints of interior organs. Their sleek, slimy bodies made moist little squelches as they undulated across the floor. A groan of utter revulsion escaped her. One eel thrashed toward her metal foot. She lifted her leg and smashed it flat, leaving a bloody smear of crushed eel.

Tau started barking again, now with a panicked edge. She glanced at him. One of the pale eels snaked up his leg. He snapped at it, but the eel seemed to anticipate this and writhed into Tau’s mouth.

“Tau! No!” She grabbed at the eel’s tail and missed because Tau was shaking his head, trying to dislodge the foul worm. The eel disappeared completely into his mouth, vanishing like a strand of spaghetti sucked down fast. She dragged Tau away from the other eels slithering toward them. He was making strange coughing, choking noises that ripped the heart out of her, blanked her mind of everything except horror.

“Spit it out!” she pleaded, opening his jaws, but the eel had gone. Oh God, down her dog’s throat.

Tau whined, then sagged back on his haunches before rolling onto his side. He started panting, his sides heaving. She gave a helpless sob, seeing him in pain and she couldn’t do anything to help. The damn eels seemed to zero in on him, gliding faster with snakelike wiggles.

She stooped down and heaved Tau into her arms, all seventy-plus pounds of dog with one clean jerk. Her legs shrieked in agony, her back twinged, and her muscles stood out in hard ropes under her skin. She nearly overbalanced and fell on her ass, but caught her center at the last moment. Another eel made a rippling lunge for her foot. She ground it into the cement with a twist of her Andurgo leg, bearing down with all her weight. The remaining eels relentlessly closed on her, a few slithering over the top of the first eel she’d smashed.

She backed away. She had to get Tau to a doctor—no…a surgeon. First she had to get her hands on something with more deterrent power than a hammer drill. If she didn’t, she had a cold, greasy feeling tumbling around in her stomach that she and Tau wouldn’t be escaping here alive.

Brenna turned and ran for the rear bay doors. Her right leg threatened to give out with every lurching step. That leg had the deepest of her three wounds from the chaur’s claws. The muscles in her arms had already started to burn. Tau’s artificial leg bit into her underarm where she cradled him. He whined. Every time her foot came down it jarred him. She gasped out apologies and soothing, incoherent words until she needed to save her breath just to keep going, fighting off the wave of dizziness that threatened to send both of them crashing to the floor.

She left a trail of bloody smears and prints everywhere she stepped or touched. Her blood, and the chaur’s blood all intermixed. Thank God the chaur’s claw hadn’t hit her artery, or she’d already be dead.

When she finally reached the back of the workshop, she ignored the bay door chains. No chance she could work them while holding Tau. She blindly fumbled with the knob on the access door, her line of sight blocked by the mass of dog in her arms that she struggled to balance. She finally managed enough grip on the knob with her blood-slick hands to turn it, then shouldered the door open. She glanced outside, scanning for any threat—another chaur, whoever was hiding in that creepy van, some other vicious nightmare eager to gnaw off her face.

Nothing out of the ordinary, only the back lot, cracked asphalt decorated with weeds, more parts and equipment she didn’t need but couldn’t ever find the stomach to toss.

Her truck was parked next to the beat-up travel trailer where she lived. The trailer sat on cinderblocks over a strip of weed-choked dirt, flanked by a wooden fence that slowly rotted in the sun. The door to her trailer was still shut, the windows unbroken. She didn’t think anyone had broken in and waited to ambush her…but could she be certain?

No. She’d have to risk it.

“Hold on, boy,” she whispered to Tau. “One more run for all the doggie biscuits.”

She shoved herself all the way out of the door. She wanted to run, but she no longer trusted her upper legs or her ability to carry her dog without dumping them both face first to the asphalt. Her thighs and biceps and shoulders were trembling from strain. Bright agony pulsed from her wounds, and reaction to adrenaline dump left her feeling sick and exhausted. Ironically, her Andurgo legs were solid as an engine stand, even with blood in the servos and ankle joints. Her J-shaped feet left a trail of bloody hash marks behind her.

Almost there. Almost. Her breath gasped in and out of her mouth, her throat burning like a blowtorch. She kept throwing glances over her shoulder, at the driveway and the door. Sweat streamed down her arms, stained her shirt’s armpits. Her mouth tasted as if she’d been flossing with a hacksaw.

Brenna made it to her trailer door without dropping Tau. Somewhere along the way tears began to curve down her cheeks, and anger started to churn deep inside. Her peripheral vision had narrowed and darkened at the edges until she seemed to be staring out a tunnel. She wanted to kill the chaur all over again for hurting her dog, but this time she’d burn the damn thing with fire.

“Hang in there, boy.” She groaned as she set Tau down near the black iron step. She sounded about five hundred years old right now, moaning and gasping, but who could blame her? She stood again, one hand against the sun-warmed side of the trailer to steady herself, then fumbled with her keys and dropped them. She stared at the keys lying in a patch of crabgrass that shoved through a split in the asphalt. Sunlight glinted off the top key’s nickel-plated finish. She wanted to pick it up again, but she only stood there, trembling, sweating, her heart lurching as though she had an unbalanced motor trying to shake its way out of her chest. Nothing felt real. Everything around her felt like a surrealist painting, all softening edges and absurd distortion.

Get a grip. This was shock. She could push through this. Combat stress reaction, nothing more. This happened when people were almost devoured by a nightmare from their childhood and then their dog was…was hurt.

No, she had this. She owned this. She wouldn’t let Tau down.

Brenna stooped and snatched up the keys. She showed the keys to Tau and said, “Opposable thumbs.” Then she laughed like a lunatic.

Maybe she didn’t own this after all. Time was draining away and she was an absolute mess. She had drying blood all the way to her elbows. More blood stained her jeans a dark red. She felt so damn cold she could’ve been a blood popsicle.

The key slid home in the lock on her first try, trembling hands or no. This time she barely managed to lift Tau off the ground, and for a moment she was sure her arms or legs would give out and she’d fall. But somehow she managed to stumble up the metal step and inside the travel trailer with him. Once out of the sunlight and in the enclosed space, she seemed able to focus her thoughts a little better. She kicked away Tau’s collection of chewed tennis balls and set him on his doggie bed. After she locked the door behind her, she hurried to the trunk in her room at the far end of the travel trailer.

The trunk was locked with a heavy, grade six closed shackle padlock, the best she could afford. She searched through her keys until she found the right one while her heart boomed as if her chest were an empty 55 gallon drum. The shackle snapped open, and she let the padlock fall to the floor with a thud. Inside the trunk was a smooth veinwood case, the wood a deep black and threaded with vibrant blue grain that glowed with faint bioluminescence. She touched the wood, which was warm, traced her finger across the ornate silver clasp, then opened the case to reveal the quad.

Her father had been a gunsmith, one of the best in the Cageside Gap. He’d even had customers from some of Entropy’s filthy rich districts, Tchoupau Park, the neighborhoods in Rampart, Vlessa Boulevard, and a few of the big game hunters who scoured the Thread Waste badlands. He’d designed and built this pistol himself, a four barrel break-action, breech-loaded weapon that fired Call flanged cartridges. His rough hands had forged and machined the barrel, every part poured from his molds, carved the stock, assembled and tested it. He’d told her the quad was one of the finest pieces he’d ever produced, but he’d feared the gun too. She’d found that fact disquieting, especially since he’d given it to her when she’d fled Entropy and came to this world.

She lifted the quad free of the case. Though it was shaped like a pistol, the weapon was near seventeen inches in length, too long, heavy and unwieldy for her to hold one handed. She had to use it like a sawed-off shotgun. The stock was also veinwood, that midnight black traced through with the veins of blue bioluminescence. Fifteen shells lay side by side in a lead box, each marked with a rune on the shell casing. She pushed the lever to break the gun open, and it swung smoothly on titanium hinging pins. Next, she loaded each barrel with a Call shell, carefully, because her hands still trembled. Then she flipped the barrel selector lever over to the first of the four barrels shaped in a diamond pattern. The selected barrel rotated above the stock and clicked into place beneath the fixed-frame sight.

Holding the pistol made her feel safer, but also afraid in another, deeper way. There was power here, yes, but some of these shells were exceedingly dangerous, both to the target and the shooter. She didn’t want to use the gun, though she would if forced to protect herself or Tau.

“Almost done, boy,” she called to him. “Hold on for me.”

Tau peered up at her, and his tail thumped the side of his dog bed, once, twice, but without his usual vigor. She felt like crying, but wouldn’t. She glanced out the window, cradling the pistol in both hands. The lot was still empty. The white van sat out of her line of sight. If it came up the drive way she wouldn’t have any choice. Shoot first and worry later.

The next thing she needed was to stop her bleeding. She stepped into her bathroom which was barely bigger than a closet and pulled open her medicine cabinet. She popped four ibuprofen, dry swallowing each, chased it with a couple of tetracycline pills, then shoved an expired bottle of oxycodone into her pocket. Couldn’t risk taking those now because she planned to drive the hell out of here and needed her mind clear. She grabbed a few handtowels and then opened one of the cabinets in the hall, next to the heater, took some yellow polyester rope and a utility knife. She cut the rope into short lengths, folded a towel against each wound and wrapped the rope around her leg before twisting it so tight she had to grit her teeth against a scream of pain as she tied it off.

Her strength had returned a little…and she wasn’t shaking as badly, though she was still breathing hard, and her heart wouldn’t stop thundering away. The pain had fuzzed a little from the ibuprofen, became more of a dull roar in the back of her mind.

Running out of time. She kept throwing glances at the street, expecting that white van. What was it waiting for?

She staggered back into her room, grabbed her cell phone and hesitated. Her first instinct was to call the cops, but they couldn’t help her…and she didn’t want any innocent officer walking into the workshop to be attacked by those damn eels. This had something to do with Entropy. The police would only think her insane if she started explaining about wormhole gates and vast alien metropolises that existed in other dimensions. She had no idea what they’d make of the chaur corpse she’d sawed open, but she wasn’t willing to risk Tau’s life gambling on the chance they’d believe her.

Instead, she speed dialed Annabel. As she impatiently listened to the rings, she pinned the phone between her shoulder and ear and began to stuff her backpack with random clothes and supplies. Her call went to Annabel’s voicemail. Dammit, where the hell was she? The beep to leave a message sounded in her ear.

“There was a fucking chaur in the box, Annabel. What the hell are we involved in? The Emissary called, said he’s on the way to the lab, but he isn’t here yet and I’m not staying. I almost got eaten by a monster, all the way eaten this time, and that abomination son of a bitch put some kind of…some parasite in Tau. I’m getting the hell away from here, not going to say where. Call me. I need to hear from you.”

She disconnected, feeling sick deep down in her stomach. Still, she went to her cupboards and swept canned dogfood and soup into her backpack, then shrugged into her quilted brown jacket and dumped the box of quad shells and her cell phone into her jacket pockets. Tau looked up at her when she hurried over, backpack in one hand, gun in the other. She was prepared to carry him again, but he clambered to his feet with one of his tennis balls in his mouth.

“Can you walk, boy?” she asked, stroking his head. What would that eel do to him? She had to get him to her friend Lavonne. She’d know what to do, who to call to get that damn eel out of her dog. Lavonne was Entropy-born, another immigrant, just like Brenna. Right now, Lavonne was the only hope she had.

Tau’s tail wagged. He seemed stronger than before. Had the eel-thing died inside him? She clung to the hope that he’d stay better and let him trail along beside her. A glance at the clock on the stove told her only fifteen minutes had passed since she’d first staggered in here. Seemed like so much longer. The fight with the chaur held the unreal quality of a fading dream.

She opened the door and stepped out of the trailer. The quiet grated on her nerves, the constant dread of attack filling her with deep, lingering disquiet.

The wind off the Rockies was cool, tickling along her cheeks and neck, pushing her hair back. She called for Tau and they moved to her truck. The door groaned when she opened it, making her wince and glance around. She held the door as her dog scrambled in, then she tossed the backpack on the floor and followed, keeping the quad near a bloody towel cinched around her thigh.

Her Chevy started right up. She dropped it into drive and rolled out. When she cleared the edge of the building’s cinderblock wall, she spotted the white van parked in the same spot as before. The shadow still hunched behind the wheel, and…was its head all misshapen?

“Hold on, Tau,” she said as she strapped him into a doggie harness. “I’m gonna get you some help. We’ll get that thing out of you, I promise.”

She stomped on the accelerator, turned the wheel hard to the left, and roared out of the driveway into the street. The truck’s rear end fishtailed, but she fought it back under control.

Then she really opened the engine up.



* * *Copyright 2013 Keith Melton* * *


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