Alien safari, p.14
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       Alien Safari, p.14

           Robert Appleton
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  On his left, fluid murals move to the speed and rhythm of his walk—slow but steady, several heartbeats to every step. The images depict the twelve labors of Heracles; impossible feats rendered crudely in low-res liquigraphs along the wall of a limestone tunnel. His tunnel. Home. At the end of the corridor, the end of that world. His world. An act so close to madness he could never have imagined himself contemplating it, let it alone carrying it out. But here he is. And there they are. Inside, familiar voices argue, cajole, even laugh.

  God no, not the laughing.

  On his right, bare, untreated limestone full of a family’s graffiti. Every scribble means something, every entry sparks a living, breathing memory. The writing is varied, the scribes easily discernible from one another. Some messages are angry, some cryptic, others proud. The vast majority mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t lived here, been brought up here. They tell the story of four generations of settlers.

  It is the Vaughn family diary. Written in the stone of an ageless, desolate alien world.

  He wipes the perspiration from his palm onto a comfortable new uniform. Too comfortable. His epaulettes bear the emblem of an Omicron cadet—a provisional license. In his holster, an Omicron issue pulse pistol. Nothing provisional about that. But he can’t bring himself to draw it. Not now. Not in this house, the safest place he’s ever been.

  The words he’s been trained to say dig their ice hammers and crampons into the back of his throat, reluctant to go on, to climb any higher without oxygen. He can’t summon them forth. If he goes through with this arrest, a part of him will rise to new heights, professionally, while a part of him will plummet into darkness. It’s an arrest no man should ever be made to make, but DeSanto’s coaxed him into it, promising him...

  No, he can’t blame anyone else. This is his tumor to reach in and remove. To eradicate. In those cryptic scribblings on the wall are the seeds of sedition, angry ideologies reared and nurtured alongside him like a squall of bitter shadows, waiting to take over.

  Well, now they’ve taken over. They’ve colluded with the Sheiker terrorists and the alien Finaglers to wipe out the Vike Academy, ISPA’s training facility for young Remote Vicarious Fighter Pilots, a massive installation at 87z.

  He lets his fingertips drag across the graffiti on the rough wall. Several entries he made himself. A girl he liked. A dream he once had about voyaging so far into the stars that when he looked back, he was lost, and in every direction the constellations formed the words NOT THIS WAY, GENIUS.

  He’s lost now. If he goes through with this, his family will never forgive him. He’ll be alone, an outcast, trapped in a sea of graffiti always saying the same thing: NOT THIS WAY, GENIUS. If he goes back, DeSanto might never trust him again, ISPA might never trust him again. He’s still a part of a family of terrorists. Unless he is the one to arrest them, he will always be under suspicion. DeSanto knows that. He’s forced this on his protégé because he doesn’t want to lose him, doesn’t want ISPA to lose a promising officer.

  And when all is said and done, his family has committed high treason. They’ve never forgiven Kuiper Wells, and later ISPA, for liquidating the border colonies, for imposing their authority on free settlements everywhere. For years he’s heard, at mealtimes, how his parents’ sympathies lie with the Sheikers, those hardscrabble entrepreneurs forced to flee into the unknown systems beyond 100z, to avoid ISPA sanctions. To cast off the yoke of ISPA, the Sheikers had no choice but to fight back, to band together and invade the outer colonies. They are freedom fighters. They should be supported, not condemned.

  If only he’d known those were more than just words tossed idly about over the dinner table...

  On his left, the final labor: Heracles braves the Underworld in order to retrieve its fearsome guardian, the three-headed dog, Cerberus. The mural comes to life as he passes. It’s crude, the characters distorted and stylised, lifted from a faded Grecian vase. The image is cartoonish but powerful in its earnestness. The artist believed in the myth. He had conviction. Ferrix Vaughn has no conviction. He lacks the will to complete this labor and the will not to complete it. Through his veins floods a chilling, whitening realisation that what he does in the next few minutes will be written crudely on walls wherever he goes. Walls that he will never be able to escape. Walls a lot like these.

  This is his Underworld.

  He steps out of the tunnel into the living quarters—dad’s utility area, full of drilling equipment and dark-stained gloves and boots and overalls, a stack of spare tires for his rover, a cat’s paw prints in the dust. When did they get another cat? Bixby died over a decade ago; Ferrix was there at the vet’s when they put the poor little guy out of his misery. Omicron training has kept him away from home for over two years. In that time they’ve gotten themselves a new pet and several thousand life sentences between them.

  He steps out of the utility area into the living room...or where the living room should be. In its place, a fetid empty space breathes hotly. Its black, gelatinous walls pulse like the valves of a demonic heart. At full dilation, they ripple. A sickly, tarry wind circulates. He spins round and round. There’s no way out. No sign of the family he’s come to arrest. If he looks closely enough, the words NOT THIS WAY, GENIUS appear in the ripples in every direction.

  He creeps around the lips of a giant succubus waiting, mouth open wide, under him. That’s where the sickly wind is coming from. Inside the smell, a whiff of curdled familiarity, of what should be here but isn’t. Not any more. Not ever again.

  Out of the succubus rises a monstrous, snarling form. It has three heads. They remind him of Stopper’s, only these have no eyes and each of their necks is long, thick, snakelike.

  It’s Cerberus.

  Its body is a muscly sack containing thousands of other snakes. It’s so heavy his legs can’t support it. Cerberus has to drag himself out of the mouth of the succubus and around the lips, one set of quivering, straining claws at a time.

  It sits, panting, in front of Ferrix. A pitiful wretch. Abused by its master for countless eons in the Underworld. To others it may be terrifying; to Ferrix it’s just trying to escape. Each mouth has a massive, overstuffed array of fangs that jut at crazy angles, like the mangled teeth of a combine. The snakes inside its belly writhe and jostle, their triple dog heads butt each other and the hairy, membranous sack holding them in.

  Ferrix doesn’t feel threatened. He’s appalled, angry. Hades has forced his pet to linger in this state and hasn’t lifted a finger to ease its suffering.

  He wipes his palm on the uniform once more. This time he draws his Omicron issue sidearm. Aims it at the poor wretch’s middle head. It has no eyes, but it’s somehow looking at him. Through him. Feeling his empathy. He wants to reach up and stroke the dog head before he ends its suffering. But there are two more. How will they react when he pulls the trigger?

  He thinks about turning away, leaving it be. The black pools of its empty eyes narrow in disappointment. All three pairs in sync. They look down at the lip-rim in front of him, and suddenly the entire heaving room becomes livid hot, unbearable. The eyes in the dog heads spark orange, points of flame rising from bottomless pits inside the monstrous skulls.

  The fangs part, ready to bite. But there’s nothing there. Ferrix isn’t their target. He hears a distant yowling, reaches for his pink dog whistle. It isn’t in his pocket.

  Then he sees them, clear and bright and oh-so-vulnerable, on the lip of the succubus.

  Jan and Stopper!

  The three dog heads descend at the same time, vying for the kill. A dread finality worse than anything he’s experienced so far in his homecoming seizes him. He raises his gun. Too quickly. It slips from his sweaty grip and plummets into the mouth of the succubus. He jumps after it, misses. Manages to dig his fingertips into the gelatinous lip-rim, where he hangs, helpless.

  As Cerberus’s monstrous jaws close around Jan and Stopper, the lips of the succubus draw closed around Ferrix. The sickly w
ind flow reverses, as though everything thus far has happened during a single exhalation from the giant mouth, and now it’s time to suck it all back in.

  Banks of spinning, metallic teeth slam together from every side as he falls. Just as they’re about to impale him, he glimpses, in the constellation of their sharp points, the words NOT THIS WAY, GENIUS...

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