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Xantar

by Sean Melican

 

Vomit, that tasted of hot saline and stomach acid, found itself stuck in his throat. A few quick uchs-uchs and the liquid expelled itself into the air. He watched, fascinated, as the globules distended first this way and then that, seeking equilibrium and only finding it as a perfect sphere. Slowly the crystal globes, sparkling with light, floated too far from his vision, losing themselves in the brilliant, hazy light that seemed to fill the room. Heaven? It couldn't be: the stench of scorched plastic and melted solder assaulted his nose. High-pitched whistles and chirrups oscillated in time to minuscule red stars that blinked far, far away.

Close. His eyes focused; his hands rubbed the lids and found a yellowish crust coated his lashes. A quick pinch, the crust was gone and he could see clearly. "Mary!" he cried.

His wife was slowly rising from her exowomb. Water clung to her naked body, captured the verdant twinkle of lights on the metal coffin. Grant (he remembered who he was) lifted himself from the chamber, surprised at his strength, surprised his muscles hadn't atrophied to miserable bits of flesh, and lifted himself over the side.

He floated. A gasp caught in his throat. He floated! His body twisted in slow gyrations around the three dimensions, so that he could watch the floor beneath slowly rotate below like he'd watched the Earth from the Moon. Another coffin was opening, a slight girl's body emerging from the fluid. Wet hair clung to her cheek in ragged strands. His daughter.

"Debbie!"

"Daddy!" She lifted up her arms, reached for him.

He found himself giddy, giggling with the sensation of freefall. "Hold on, sweetie, I need to bounce first!" He stretched out his feet so that the toes pointed towards the ceiling (floor? wall?). He was so happy to be alive; so happy to have escaped from Hell. The world spun by. "What? Mary, what about Jeffrey's coffin?" Red lights blinked frantically on the still-closed container.

Mary lifted herself clear of the sides, clinging to the edge as she vaulted over. She aimed herself, pushed, and floated across the space to her son. "The lights! They say-- they say--" Frantically she pushed buttons, first in a desperate controlled sequence, then with wild finger and finally with clenched fists. "Damn it, open!"

Behind her, Debbie covered her mouth in surprise. Her mother never used those words.

Grant's toes found cool dry metal. He moved gently across the space, but quickly and pulled himself to a stop on a nearby handle. Frost covered the plastic lid. He wiped it away with his hand. Beneath, he could see his little boy's face was blue. Ice crystals sprouted from his skin as if a strange mold had found anchored itself to super-cooled flesh.

He turned, saw Debbie floating over and rushed to catch her before she could see. Moving in a tumble, his daughter held tight against his chest, he could see Mary's hands clasped so tight that only white showed though her skin was a naturally dark olive. Mumbled words escaped her lips, too low to be heard over the hum of the machinery.

Wide blue eyes caught his gaze, held him as if in a trance. "Is he dead, Daddy?"

Her hair was still wet beneath his hands which stroked her neck, caressed her cheeks - cheeks that were wet. He kissed her face, the tang of salt a bitter flavor on his tongue. "Yes, sweetie. Jeffrey didn't make it." He held her tight as sobs wracked her tiny frame. She seemed so frail beneath his clasp. So terribly, terribly frail.

He found his thoughts floating away, his nose buried in her damp tresses which carried a faint, clean odor of child-sweat. At some point, Mary joined them and Grant found himself opening his arms and then closing so that two warm bodies pressed against his, comforting and yet strangely empty.

Escape was supposed to have been simple. He remembered looking at the ship through the haze of poisons and his face-mask. The lines were so simple, so sleek, yet it was little more than an old sixties rocket balanced on the gleaming silver of a fusion drive. Steam escaped from vents which kept the drive warming, in case they needed to cold-boot it; the war was so close, he could almost taste the palpable presence of his nation's enemies. Folded against its side were the ram-scoops looking like gossamer wings of an ugly beetle. Only the ultra-rich, such as his family, could buy such ships. The precious few survivors picked from the hardiest stock the failing government could find were also boarded, though they were packed tight and sent first, to settle the new worlds.

New worlds. The ship would never have birthed them (and the phrase was so hideous he could barely let the words drift across his mind before banishing them) unless it had a new world. His son was dead, and there was nothing he could do but grieve, but his wife and daughter still lived, and damn it all if he wouldn't protect them like he hadn't protected Jeffrey.

Gently he released what remained of his family. His arms and legs flailed around; they had floated to the middle of the space. "Push me towards the computer, would you please dear?"

"Grant-"

He kept his voice level though in his thoughts he ached to scream. "Maybe the other colonists have a doctor that can help Jeffrey." He hadn't realized it, but his teeth had clenched and must have produced a frightening look. Debbie was huddled against her mother, staring at him, fear in her eyes. Immediately he softened his face as best he could. "Maybe not, but down there" - wherever there was - is at least a decent burial."

Together he and his wife coupled, though such thoughts were far from his mind, and pushed against each other. Grant was larger and moved slower, but moved steadily towards the screen. "Escape Clause," he called to the ship, "Show us information on the planet. Where are we?"

A blue-green world not unlike Earth unfolded in three dimensions, projected in the space before him. Only perhaps thirty percent actually showed; the rest was a perfect dark sphere, a template for the computer to map when they flew around. Habitable, the ship said. Oxygen to breathe, though perhaps a tad low, but that only meant they would be breathless until their bodies acclimated.

"Where are the other ships?" he demanded. "The colonist carriers, the other Escapes."

Its frustratingly steady voice, a feminine lilt designed to be the most affable servant, said, "I do not detect any other manmade objects in orbit." An hour later, the holographic map showed a hundred percent mapping of the outer surface of the world. No other ships awaited them.

In answer to Grant's question, the ship said, "I was programmed to birth you when it was determined that we had missed the intended target. I was to find a habitable world with my reserves."

"No, damn it," he muttered. "I mean, why aren't we where everyone else is."

"My memory suggests an unknown gravitational pull influenced our intended path. I could not compensate. Perhaps you would like a star chart for visual purposes?"

"No," he growled and glanced over at Mary and Debbie who sat pressed against a wall, one of Mary's feet wrapped around a handhold. A star chart would have shown him nothing he could understand; and even if he could, he would not have been able to repair the ship in any case.

Debbie sniffled. A tear built up in her eyes; when she brushed it away, it flew across the room and exploded on the far side of the cylinder. My brave little girl, he thought and said, "My brave little girl." Mary's eyes were hard and said many things, the least of which was he could stop ignoring his daughter.

They were alone in orbit around an unknown planet with no means of escape. God only knew what was down there, if God ever came this far from home. It was his choice, he knew; he was the one who had decided to leave, he who had chosen to put all of his faith in the monstrosity that now housed them. Her faith had told them to stay home. The Lord will provide, she'd said. God helps those who help themselves, he'd shot back in anger, and spent the remainder of the night on the couch but come morning she had acquiesced. And, he'd stated as if it were a hard fact, the Yasmin family was far too important to share a rocket with anyone else, even their ultra-rich neighbors. It was the best money could buy, yessirree, and couldn't possibly fuck up, the salesman had said. (Thank God Mary hadn't been there to hear that; she'd have turned and walked away, prim as could be and said nothing good ever came of vulgar language. And damn it, Grant thought, she would have been right.)

Her eyes now bored into him, asking what they were supposed to do now? Of course, they had no real choice. Oxygen and food were in finite supply aboard ship. A small flashing light on the screen (that had now contracted to two dimensions) attested to the ship's automatic beacon. Other carriers, later carriers, carrying God-knew-who, might respond to the beacon, but Grant doubted it. It was a feature implanted only to calm the nervous who imagined a situation like this, a situation that should never have happened. Just like Jeffrey should never have died.

Grant found his fists pounding his thighs. Mary's eyes were as steady as ever, waiting. "We go down," he said.

 *  *  *

The reentry vehicle was little more than an orbital bomb with crash-seats. While Mary and Debbie had strapped themselves in, Grant had carefully maneuvered the coffin (now it really was such) into a small cargo bay a level below the living compartment. He was going to give his son a decent burial if it was the last thing he did. He shuddered at the thought. The computer aboard the RV was dumb as a post; what if something went wrong? He would have no control. He pushed the thoughts from his mind as he pushed his son the remainder of the distance into the hold. Damn, but he was heavy! And dead, and his son, he reminded himself.

He bounced his way back up a level, and entered the hatch where Debbie was perched on the thick cushion of one seat, bouncing up and down with happy, nervous energy. Mary's countenance was locked in a determined grimace; her hands were bone-white, clenching the harnesses around her in a death-grip.

Grant put his hands on his daughter's shoulders, held her still. "Honey, do you remember that time we went to Coney Island and your mother would wait on the ground while you and I rode the old roller-coaster?" When she nodded solemnly, he said, "Well, this is kind of like that, only now your mother is with us and she's really, really scared. And so am I." He tried to look the brave father, but the words were truer than anything he'd ever said. "I know you're excited, but for your mother's sake," and mine, "could you sit still? Please?" She nodded, chastened, and he kissed her forehead.

The ride down scared the hell out of him. He could feel the heat through his thin slippers and hear the wind whistle and buffet the RV like a thousand banshees clambering to get in. There was a tremendous splash, the roar of steam, and the ship rocked gently.

"Computer?" he said.

"Active," it answered in a purely mechanical voice so unlike the natural, almost human, sounds of the ship's inflection that a finger of cold danced up his spine. They were moving further and further from the known. "Land sighted approximately twenty kilometers away. Moving at five point five kilometers. Suggest you prepare for landing." An green light flashed above a locker. Grant unstrapped himself from the harnesses and carefully pulled out their three sets of rugged survival clothes, keeping Jeffrey's from anyone's sight but his.

Silently they donned their gear. When Debbie tried to speak, Mary shushed her, an inscrutable look on her face. Sometime, when Debbie was not around, Grant needed to talk to her. They needed Mary now, he and Debbie, and he couldn't allow her to withdraw into a cocoon. For better or for worse, he remembered from their wedding day. He was decked out in the finest silk tuxedo and Mary was so radiant in her virginal white gown, its gossamer threads clinging gently to her flesh. That day was so far from this, he thought, looking at her lined face and only now noticing a few stray gray strands that floated above her dark locks. Tough plastic clothing, that let moisture out but none in and was designed to withstand years of hard labor without tearing (so much like prison clothes), was what she wore now, and likely what she would always wear from now on. Gone were the days of fine designer dresses, and platinum jewelry, and those silky negligées he loved on her and she loved modeling for him. Gone were the charity balls where he and Mary would dance the night away, laughing and loving; gone were the fancy dinners and the fine vehicles and the ten-thousand yen suits and all that he loved. But Christ knew the long days of hard work were still ahead, if they were to survive.

There was the sound of scraping, a ding and a green light appeared above the hatch. "We have landed," the computer said rather unnecessarily.

Grant opened the door and stepped into the light of a new world. He had to shade his eyes from the sun, it was so bright; he hadn't realized before how dark the ships had been. He turned, lifted Debbie and let her slide down the side of the RV to the ground below. Mary was next, then their backpacks and other gear. He pulled out a laser rifle and checked its charge. It wasn't the rustic look of the muskets he used when he hunted in Scotland with his partners, but it could kill, cook and warm if necessary. He slid the strap over his shoulder and joined his family.

They were on a beach. White sand stretched in either direction, east or west. Silently, Grant named the left side east, because the sun hung over the ocean and it looked to be a new day not the end of one, he hoped. Above the beach was alien flora: giant leaves that sprouted from the ground, with no apparent connection to any kind of tree or bush, which was either azure or aquamarine depending on the tilt of the head. Silver too, decided Grant, if one caught a glimpse from the corner of the eye. The brush, if it could be called that, looked to be dense. Grant fingered the machete he'd belted to his hip.

"What now, fearless leader?" Mary said, with more than a touch of sarcasm.

He was about to sing "Into the Woods" when he noticed that the leaves were rustling though no breeze touched his cheek.

Debbie screamed and cowered behind Mary, who Grant stepped in front of quickly unslinging the rifle, depressing the safety and aiming towards the center of the commotion. Out stepped a monster and he fired and at the same time felt the agony of fire in his right shoulder. He looked down to see an arrow buried in his skin, probably to the bone. When he looked back, he saw that he had missed the monster, expecting it to be much taller, and that they were surrounded by a half dozen of the creatures who had maneuvered into a horseshoe shape while Grant had been distracted by the one in front.

The body had four sections, each with two legs, and two of the sections were raised up so that they resembled an ant trying to mimic a human stance, but even so it could not have been more than three feet tall. The two topmost legs, which sprouted around a pair of pincers that glinted like steel in the pinkish hue from the setting (Grant now realized) sun, held a nasty-looking crossbow. Just above the head were two antennae that swayed gently, though there was no breeze. One antenna on each was directed towards the Yasmins; the other was curved back behind. Perhaps, though Grant, they can see somehow with those things, and have three-sixty vision.

The two legs on the section just below the ‘head' rubbed together much like a cricket. The sound that each put forth was the sound of human fingernails on a chalkboard.

"screeeeech skrik skrik screeeeeech," came the noise. Grant fell to his knees, his hands rising to cover his ears. He felt as if they might burst from the onslaught of agonizing, high-pitched tones. He let the gun fall to the sand untouched, for he could see that each of the creatures carried a cross-bow, and only the one who had shot him didn't have a cocked bolt. Even that one was now smoothly moving to reload his weapon.

The two creatures on the end moved towards them, slowly, and Grant reached for his gun.

"screeeeech skrik skrik screeeeeech!" insisted the noise.

"All right, all right!" Grant shouted, holding up his hands.

"Grant," said Mary, you can't-"

"Jesus, what am I supposed to do?" He looked at her, his hands still covered his ears. Debbie clung to her mother's legs, tears welling up in her eyes. "They know what that is. They'll kill me for sure, and maybe you and Debbie too."

"skrik skreek skriiiik" the leader-creature said. One of its lower legs pointed towards Grant's. His hand reached for the machete and--

"screeeeech skrik skrik screeeeeech!"

Grant screamed at the pulsing agony of a child's meanness let loose on a violin. The air seemed to reverberate with the sounds. He closed his eyes tight and prayed for an end to it. When silence came, he counted to ten and opened his eyes. One of the creatures, the end of the horseshoe in front of the reddish sun, was a foot from him, reaching for the knife. Grant let it take it. He could see when it bent over that the pincers hid two smaller pincers closer to what he took to be a mouth. The big ones looked sharp enough to slice clean through his shoulder. The creature took the machete and the rifle and scuttled backwards, back into formation.

One of the others stepped forward with rope, and moved towards them.

"Grant!" Mary whispered urgently. "They intend to hang us."

"I don't think so," he said. "If they wanted to kill us, they could have done that long ago. I think they intend to tie our hands, and maybe our feet." He grimaced as his movements caused the arrow to shift painfully in his arm. When Mary reached for it, he said, "I don't want to take it out. I'll bleed too heavily. Put your hands up."

The creature stepped forward, slowly, and each of the others tensed perceptibly. Grant held up his hands, hoping that it was a universal sign of surrender. What harm could he do? he hoped it said. The creature stepped forward and, indeed, tied their arms together above their heads using its topmost legs. Grant could feel the pincers rasp against his clothing, but fortunately they didn't cut the material. Finished with the three, it turned back to Grant and without further ado yanked the shaft from his arm.

He bit down on the pain and tasted blood; he'd sliced open his cheek so he wouldn't yelp.

The creature pulled some white paste from a pouch hung on a belt between the second and third body sections. The stuff had a pungent odor, like alcohol but subtly different somehow. The creature smeared the stuff on his wound and bound it with a white cloth taken from the same pouch. The salve eased the fire that burned his nerves, but there was no telling what infectious agents had already entered the wound. Was this a field dressing, or was this the best doctor they had?

As they were marched through the monstrous leaves, surrounded by the creatures on all sides, he felt a tug on his pants leg. Debbie eyes looked up at him. "Daddy, what's going to happen to us?"

He bent down so he could kiss her cheek. "I don't know, honey, but I won't let them hurt you."

"Did you notice that they blend in perfectly with the leaves?"

He shook his head, but paid more attention now. Indeed, they were almost invisible; every tilt of the head shifted the colors of the plants from blue to green and back, and the same movements caused the carapaces to mimic the optical illusion. It wasn't perfect, but he would have been hard-pressed to clearly outline the shapes of the creatures. "I wonder if that's natural, or if they're wearing some kind of armor."

Mary said, "I think it's natural. Look, there aren't any creases or wrinkles."

Grant silently thanked God that Mary had chosen to speak to him again. Terror filled every corner of his mind (though he wouldn't let it show for Debbie's sake), and he didn't think he could have borne it if he didn't know she'd be by his side like she'd always been. "I love you," he whispered.

"Love you too," she said absently. "Look!" They had just emerged from the towering flora into a clearing. Jutting from the ground were mud huts the shape and color of dirty pimples. "Kind of small, aren't they, even for their size?" In and out moved a variety of the creatures, though most had shells closer to the color of the reddish dirt.

The huts were not huts at all, but simply the covering of tunnels that led deep into the ground. They were small; Grant and Mary had to crawl on hands and knees (no easy trick with bound hands) while Debbie could just barely walk upright. Grant and Mary had decided that she should be between them, with Grant in front, so that she was covered at all times -- though God knew how they could really protect her if one of the creatures chose to act.

As they crawled and stumbled on the dirty floor, they saw that a lush green glowed from globes stuck in the clay walls at regular intervals. It was getting colder the deep they went; the light emitted no discernible heat. "Like fireflies," Grant said. The long corridors were braced with wooden beams every twenty feet or so.

He heard behind him Debbie and Mary singing softly, "I once was lost, but now I'm found--" He joined in, glad to have the distraction from his thoughts that, no matter the path, always returned to his thoughts on where they might be taken, and worse, the claustrophobia that was worming its icy fingers deeper into his heart.

The green hue made the red clay lodged between his fingernails look black as the spaces between the stars; the stifling moisture thick with the musky scent of the creatures and the cloying sweet smell of soil clogged his nostrils until he felt as if he were buried alive.

Jeffrey! God, how could he have forgotten his son for even a moment, much less the hours that had passed? Perhaps he might be forgiven for the time his thoughts had been occupied with protecting his family; but now, deep within this subterranean netherworld of insect-monsters, he could think of nothing but his son, left far behind both literally and (he felt a terrible sense of betrayal) metaphorically.

He didn't even have a single memento of the eight wonder-filled years he'd shared with Jeffrey. He could almost smell the baby soap that had characterized those first few years, and the rubbery smooth touch of new baby skin was still almost palpable if he stopped to rub his fingers together. Then had come school, and the crude drawings of their family. He could remember one that had hung on the refrigerator for nearly two years, the boy had been so proud of it. Their house had been outlined in gray on one side and dusty red on the other, because the picture had been during a time when the house was being renovated. A yew tree, amazingly realistic, had been drawn to the left and on the right had been Jeffrey next to his old sister (in her pink Easter dress), Mary (in denim and a white shirt the way she dressed on the weekends) and himself, Grant, the fourth stick figure, the one with giant bumps on his arms and Jeffrey's voice saying, "'Cause you're the strongest man in the world." And then not a year ago he'd bought a baseball glove and he and Jeffrey had oiled it and oiled it, and even now he could smell the commingling of genuine leather and linseed. Never mind that baseball had to be played indoors now, because the toxins were much too dense, and Jeffrey would never know the dazzle of sun chasing a pop-fly, or the deep shadows of nighttime games, or the feel and taste of real grass on that diving catch he would make, bottom of the ninth, two out, bases loaded and only one run ahead and then the crowd would roar but none louder than Grant himself and then Jeffrey would stand, wave his arms to show the ball and give that white-toothed grin his sister was always chiding him about and tip his cap to his father.

Jeffrey would never know that, not because Generation X had obliterated the Earth, but because Grant couldn't save his own son from a simple malfunction.

The sound of the hymns behind him was suddenly a noise more hideous than the screech of their captors, and he silently cursed Mary's God until he felt the wet tears roll down his cheeks and touch the corners of his mouth where the tip of his tongue flicked to lap up the brackish moisture. Damn you! He didn't know who it was aimed at, but it didn't matter because it made no difference whatsoever.

They passed through a cathedral-high chamber teeming with a dozen different colored insects. He could hear Mary's breath hiss as she sucked in air, frightened by the sheer number and seeming chaos of the monstrosities to the side. He heard the frightened yelp from Debbie who, he imagined, immediately shut her eyes so tight they watered. He turned to comfort her and found the razor-sharp pincers of a guard inches from his face. They clacked together once, warning him, and he turned back. Damn. Somehow he'd let one of them between him and his family. Stupid, stupid. He let his weakness get the better of him, and now he might not be able to protect the remainder of his family either. He swore under his breath, hoping Mary wouldn't hear.

Then they went back into another tunnel, and they then went down one branch and another and another until he was thoroughly lost. Any hope of escape fled his thoughts. They were halted at a hexagonal room that would barely hold the three of them, and certainly wouldn't allow anyone but Debbie to stand, and they were brusquely pushed inside and a thick translucent amber door was shut.

Around them were the greenish lights, and they cast a dreadful pall on their faces.

Debbie knelt on the floor and laid her head against Grant's shoulder. "Daddy, what's going to happen to us now?"

He smoothed her hair, smoothing it as best he could, now and then picking pieces of dirt from the tangled mop. His other hand sought Mary's and gripped it tightly, his wife squeezing reassurance back. "I don't know, sweetie."

"I miss Jeffrey," she said and burst into a terrible weeping.

Mary said, "Me too," and shuffled around them so that the two adults might hug their daughter between them and so take comfort in the ragged gasps that burped from Debbie's lungs.

 *  *  *

Several times the door opened, each time Grant holding his breath, praying that they might finally be released but the door was opened only so that a bowl of a some thick substance might be passed into the chamber.

The first time, Mary looked at it doubtfully. "We don't know if this is poisonous, Grant."

He took the bowl from her grasp. "If we don't eat something, we'll starve. I'll try a little bit and if I'm okay within the next--" He glanced at the radium-covered dial of his watch, "If I'm all right in twelve hours, then we'll assume its safe enough." Strangely, it had the texture and consistently of molasses or honey yet had the clean taste of water and a scent of orange.

Nine hours later, the door opened the second time and by then Debbie was so weak, complaining of an empty stomach and a mouth, "Dry as the desert," that Mary grudgingly allowed Debbie to eat it and reluctantly dipped her fingers in, then when the flavor, as she explained it, "Exploded on her tongue," she took hearty scoops on index and middle finger and sucked off great globs of the stuff, stringy bits hanging from her chin. She stopped midway into one swallow, saw Grant's face aghast at seeing his prim and proper wife eating like a ravenous dog, and burst into laughter, accidentally spewing a few strings of food across the room.

Satiated for the moment, the Yasmin family leaned back and clasped hands over their bellies. The two adults stretched themselves across the floor so that they lay together while their daughter stood and studied the ceiling. Grant noticed a few wisps of hair clung to the tacky yet spring substance that made up the sides of their cell. Debbie pushed against the ceiling, tenderly at first, then with a grunt shoved all of her weight against it, managing only to make two palm-sized indentations that quickly righted themselves. Sighing, she sprawled on the floor next to her father, who wrapped an arm around her and kissed her cheek.

"What's going to happen to us, Daddy?" she asked. She sniffled. "I miss Jeffie."

"I do too," Grant said and pulled her closer. On his other side, he could feel Mary's face pressed against his arm, and felt warm liquid trickling down his skin. She shuddered a few times against him and then lay still, her ragged shallow breathing turning to the deep sighs of sleep.

"Mommy's asleep," Grant whispered in his daughter's ear, her hair tickling his nose. "Are you tired?" When she shook her head slowly, Grant said, "Do you want to play a game?"

"Okay."

"Do you remember, in second grade, when you did that report on Amerigo Vespucci, and we stayed up all night working on that map? Well, now you know what its like to be an explorer. And the game is, you have to figure out how you want your adventures to sound in the history books. And remember," he waggled his finger, "Little girls like you are going to have to study you, so you want to make sure that your chapter is interesting.

She giggled, an altogether pleasant sound after the nightmare of the last two (three?) days. "Well the first thing you have to do is name the place, and I don't want some boring old name. Besides, this is a whole new planet and totally weird, so I think we should give it a really weird name." She pursed her lips and seemed deep in thought for a moment. "How about Xantar?"

"Totally weird," Grant agreed.

 *  *  *

Three meals later, they had hammered out the basics of the "Discovery of Xantar" chapter. Mary had awoken sometime during the glorious moment when they had finally managed to achieve a crude sort of communication. About an hour after the same bland porridge, which is what they had named the sticky-sweet goo after a three-way debate between the names of porridge, manna and slop, the door opened and they were beckoned out.

They meandered through a number of corridors until they were halted before an impressive large door, guarded by two creatures holding large curved scimitars, their carapaces a deep purple. Their guards screeched at the door guards for a moment, then one of the purple guards opened the door and they were ushered in.

Grant felt bile rising in his throat. Before them was the largest of the creatures they had yet seen, but this one had a fifth body section that was four times the size of the other four sections combined, and just beneath the ridged surface of that fifth section tiny bumps writhed with determined frantic movements. "I'd bet those are babies," he muttered to no one.

"The Queen," whispered Debbie.

Two more of the deep violet insects stood between them and the Queen, who beckoned them forward with a motion of her speaking hands that seemed eerily similar to the analogous human motion. When they had come close enough that the guards stepped forward purposefully, the Queen rubbed her arms together.

"skrik skriiik screech skrik skruk"

The assault on their ears was tremendous, the way the sound echoed around the cavernous chamber. Grant held out his open palms, hoping that it was the universal symbol for peace, and said, "Greetings. We-"

He stopped when he saw the Queen's upper sections shudder at his words. The nauseating movements beneath her fifth section increased in urgency so that Grant almost feared as if she might give birth at any moment; and the thought of this room suddenly filled with tiny squirming monsters caused his stomach to wretch violently.

"We," he stared again but only got that far when one of the guards slapped him across the face, effectively silencing him.

"Hey," he said and received another slap. It didn't feel particularly violent or malicious, but their arms were covered with fine stiff bristles that scraped shallow cuts across his face, and burned as if some toxin were released.

"Grant, are you all-" Mary turned and tried to examine the sudden streaks of blood on his face, but she too received a slap.

"Mommy, Daddy!" Debbie too received a slap. She fell to her knees in shock, held her hands to her cheeks, looked at the blood on her hands as if she couldn't believe that she'd just been struck.

"That's enough," Grant shouted and twisted himself so to cover his daughter. He felt himself pulled away, roughly and turned and swung at the nearest guard who easily spun away from his feeble blow and with four arms smashed his head and torso so that he spun dizzily for a moment, and fell to the floor.

He watched as if from outside his body while he was dragged across the sandy floor to the doors, his daughter wrapped in her mother's arms screaming for her daddy, stretching her arms so that they seemed as if they might pull right from the sockets. And he watched as one of the guards took a piece of cloth and wrapped it around her mouth, and around Mary's mouth and he thought that if he could only speak (his mouth could move but no sounds would issue forth) he could tell his family that their voices were as grating to the senses of the Xantarians as human voices were to them. And then he passed out.

He found himself in a cell similar to the one they were in, perhaps even the same one, but neither Debbie nor Mary was with him. He shook his head to clear it, thinking that there must have been some kind of paralytic toxin in the creatures whiskers, and threw himself at the springy but unyielding door. "Debbie! Mary!" he cried and pounded on the tacky door, each hand making scritchy noises every time his fist beat out the steady tattoo. "Mary! Debbie!" He could hear his voice rising, and found himself screaming desperately until his throat was agony and his voice was no more than a scratchy whisper and yet he continued to beat against the wall until blood ran down his finger and palms and dripped heedlessly to the floor, and his knees were soaked with his blood and tears, and his eyes were a burning pain because all of the moisture had long since dripped from his cheeks and chin to join the pool of sticky crimson.

Lying there with his face pressed against the viscid floor , eyes focusing on the few stray shafts of light that leaked through the hexagonal door, he finally understood: understood that he was the alien, he was the one with no rights, he was the one that had invaded their shores naively hoping that his natural God-given rights were universally perceived. There was a phrase for this trespass and he knew it.*

Story copyright © 2000 by Sean Melican <smelican@aol.com>

Artwork "Planet-Egg" copyright © 2000 by Zozzy <zoz@freesurf.ch>

 

 

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