Spanner Jack by Keith Melton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
If you missed it…
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* * *
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