We Have Not Come to Save You

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A team of special forces contractors lands on an (no quite) deserted planet to track a mysterious distress signal from a lost cult.

Submitted: July 10, 2016

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Submitted: July 10, 2016

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We Have Not Come to Save You

  "Are you absolutely clear on your mission?"

  "Yes, Commander." The Captain knew how to read between lines. There were things headquarters could not risk sending: missiles, robots, the truth. They could send only men.

  They had already failed once.

  The screen returned to the default of deep space, his reply flying past brown dwarves and black holes and rainbow clouds of million-degree gas, bending gravitational "S"s to arrive at Para-Rescue Headquarters in fifteen days. Thirty-day round-trip, by which time they would've either succeeded or died. Like the wars of the Ancients, he chuckled, a general alone in the world. The Ambassador of Night breached the planet's gravity. Thirty-six egg sacs swayed behind him, each holding a human tadpole. His soldiers.

  For months, they had slept, while the Captain contemplated the stars alone. There were more of them than men. By that measure, each man was more valuable than a star.

  The Captain thought of deliberately crashing into the eerie blue world growing below, like some monstrous fetus. His hand wandered…

  And pressed the WAKE UP button. The egg sacs begin to stir.

 

  The last man ripped himself free of his gooey womb and got in line for the shower. The same water recycled from drain to spout, again and again, for this world was a billion years dead, cobbled from the bitter motes of exploded stars. On the other side, they were given a towel and a gun.

  They gathered around a machine with six hoses and fed, six at a time, on nutrient slurry like piglets at a sow. Amphetamines, to counter the lethargy of hibernation. Weeks worth of fiber, to stop further digestion. The dreams of men. They were racehorses designed to die at the finish.

  Each hopped outside and fired two shots at a target hologrammed on the red sky. Like re-tuning a long-stored rifle.

  The Captain didn't tell them that he would be the only one to go home alive.

  He issued gas masks for the methane-heavy atmosphere and a warning to conserve ammo. They would meet far more targets than they had bullets. He checked his remote control. Nothing moved nearby. Not yet. He aimed it warily at the alien wasteland.

  Nothing. Yet he felt eyes.

  Then they marched across the soundless blue desert.

 

  There was no wind because the sun had gone insane.

  They watched the sky as they crept deeper into the waste, their ship fading into a blue pigeon in the distance. Camouflage exoskeleton. No markings. In the eyes of the universe, they did not exist.

  The sun circled like a vulture, every sixty-three standard minutes. Sunset, sunrise, like a trapped hamster chasing a thousand butterflies across the painterly sky. Even the brief nights were not dark, but luminous purple, clouds of pregnant methane glowing like ghosts above. This planet was larger and denser than the solders' battle-scarred homeworld, yet it spun so fast the gravity was less, like a carnival ride trying to centrifuge them into space.

  The wind did not blow because the sun cooked the atmosphere evenly, like a rotisserie chicken-world. No hot or cold fronts. The sameness and the silence disturbed the men, glancing at the ever-shifting shadows. Volcanic ridges layered the horizon in a great ringed bathtub, sprouting razor-sharp horns and fangs and bones that had never known erosion. Stone whirlpools presented strange faces locked in agony, hewn by the hand of some celestial Da Vinci too eerie to be random. Some resembled primordial eggshells, as if the very world had given birth in its loneliness. Nine billion years old.

  This was an old world, slave to the red sore of its sun. Even the shuffling of thirty-seven men stirred the stagnant air until it whistled in their wake, every tine of unbroken rock carving at their ears.

  They dared not start a fire. With the methane sky, the whole world would burn.

  Yet somewhere in this Technicolor hell, a distress beacon beckoned.

  Three hundred lunatics, that was what they were after.

  Exiled from the now-respectable world of New California, the mad sculptor Jo Guttenberg had led them here, to charter a commune, on a world no one wanted. A world long-considered unprospectable and unlivable.

  Until now.

  The red dot blinked on the Captain's visor like a blood lure, a throbbing wound in his conscience. Space Para-Rescue had never ignored a distress call. No matter how bad they wanted to.

 

  They heard screaming on day fourteen. They had not yet even slept. Now they would not dare.

  They hunched over their shortwave radio-scanner:

  "Ah! Oh Saviour--Help! They're eating, they're eating…(Crunch. The sound of many lips smacking) Oh gaaawwwd no no no…"

  They looked up. Shadows. Each others' faces. The red dot.

  Sunrise. A black toothpick sundialed the horizon, unnaturally vertical against the great red eye. A broadcast antenna.

 

  They skipped through a nightmare world single-file, behind an eight-legged robot camel dragging their 3-D printer. The radio tower neared, as if the very turning of the world was bringing it to them, or them to it, its skeletal finger tickling their brains. Despite the poison rainbows churning themselves to sausage in the sky, there was simply nothing else to look at.

  Their third lungs wheezed methane, genetically impregnated with ancient bacteria from seafloor volcanoes. The whole world smelled like a farted egg.

  They advanced like ballerinas through the slow pudding of the air, sounds distorted in the thickness, crappy gravity letting the blood rush to their helmets, starlight glittering like PCP. Their robot camel crab-walked the moonscape, periscoping its head with canine curiosity. Wheels had no traction in this world, this gravity. Like race cars, they would need weights or fins to push themselves down.

  They bounded over a ridge to confront the antennae, fear doubling, tripling, their amphetamine-soaked heartrates, huffing the farts of a billion bacteria through a ten-million-dollar bong, floating slowly into the waiting jaws of…

  Nothing. The tower was abandoned. No bodies. Not a drop of blood.

  Somehow, that was the most terrifying thing of all. Only weird, wet circles marred the walls, as if pressed by sweaty bodies.

  The Captain found a mouthpiece on the floor. "Hello?" he whispered into the static. "Anyone there?..."

  The sun swept the empty peaks. The shadows scurried away.

 

  They found the main settlement on day twenty-six. Still, they had not slept. Their mission clock glowed red on the robot camel's ass, with the hours and minutes they had trekked through frozen stone. They began to "see blue," to dream waking dreams of blue, to hallucinate the ground moving, blue faces watching. They felt like fish in a bowl, picked up and shaken, eyes watering from the annoying splendor of another sunrise. Counting by the planet's orbit, they had walked for forty years.

  Until they saw greenhouses burning white as diamonds in a distant valley. A mirage? They approached in a wedge, half-fearing it'd vanish back into the blue.

  It was a crappy little place, hardly worth hauling robot-camel-ass halfway across a star-cluster to save. Empty cattle pens. Doors hung off hinges, tractors sat broken in cropless fields of blue rock, and a fuel silo had exploded and flash-frozen into a billion-barbed sea urchin upon contact with air, eternally supernovaing from the silo's missile-shell. A weird blue church pointed its spire ironically at space.

  Quiet.

  They swept the blue houses gun-to-gun, regrouping only when they made sure no one was left alive. "Look what I found." Shoes. Thrown everywhere, all missing their cotton laces.

  "Hey," one man pointed. "Here."

  Their footsteps crunched through disturbed dirt. Fresh graves. They looked around. Graves everywhere.

  "There weren't this many people."

  "So who the hell are we standing on?"

  They hacked at the blue soil, multi-tools ringing in their shoulders. Three feet. Four. Bedrock. Nothing. All the graves were empty.

  Silence. Lungs wheezing. "I wish we had just found them all dead."

  "No such luck."

  Then voices came, from all directions, sweet and angelic: "Repent…Repent…Repent…" The air quivered. Meteors clawed the sky. Still, the loudspeakers looped, broadcasting into their teeth like a dentist's drill: "Hurry…Hurry…Hurry…"

  Doors squeaked in the invisible breeze. Not wind at all, but gravity shifting. Above a black threshold, a sign:

  CROATOAN.

  Below, a hole scarred the ground, like an animal burrow. They gathered, guns ready. A watering can nearby. This was once a tree. It was…gone, roots and all. Every living thing had been scrubbed from the face of the planet. Except them.

  The robot camel squatted on the blue lavastone with a hideous shriek of grinders. Eating the ground. The sound echoed queerly against the hillsides, as if the very planet was screaming. A centrifuge spun to separate the ground rock from the flecks of metal it hid inside. All the settlers' buildings were made of local stone. Everything non-mechanical. Their tractors and solar panels and radio dishes had died for lack of replacement parts. Poor people trapped on a poor world.

  They don't know what's beneath their feet. The Captain had recently bought shares in a mining ship. Now all he needed was to survive.

  The robot camel went quiet, then began to print needles with its ass. Ammunition for their railgun rifles. The Captain lifted the deposit tray.

  The needles were solid gold. Row after row like tiny soldiers. The real reason his men were here. Every rocky planet above a certain mass produced enough gravity to heat a liquid core, where all the heavier metals inevitably gathered, like rain into the ocean. Old Earth had a core of iron and nickel, enough to cover the entire surface ten miles thick.

  But this world had a heart of gold, legally chartered to three hundred starving lunatics who had accidentally become the richest human beings in history.

  The camel coughed. Something had jammed the ammo tray. The Captain examined the ground.

  And found a solid turd of human hair. Blond, brown, all braided together. The sun set. The six moons came out, each a different bowling ball of jade. The Captain wearily pointed at the church--

  Then the desert began to howl.

 

  Shadows came. Legs and spines and mouths. Eyes. Too many to be men, scrunched like spiders…

  The valley whistled in their wake, pouring down from every direction, their bodies bristling in the goblin-green glow of the moon-stage. Surrounding them. Lips smacking.

  "What are they?" Men loaded gold needles. Not enough. Not even close.

  "Natives."

  "How? They…They can't be…human…"

  The soldiers looked at the faces in the blue stone. Nine billion years of evolution.

  The Captain swore at his remote. The screen swarmed solid red.

  He looked around, military mind calculating. The church. Of course. "Inside!" He ran for the doors and pulled.

  They were locked.

 

  It was absurd, the Captain realized, in the last moments of his life, to mine a planet full of gold. Same reason that medieval kings banned alchemists from converting lead or boiling their own piss into gold.

  It'd become worthless. Every economy based on it would collapse. A trillion tons of anything was, by definition, garbage. The very existence of this world threatened the wealth and stability of all other worlds.

  So what had his men been sent to die for?

 

  A light flashed in his eyes. The doors opened. Eyes. Hands. The Captain stepped back in shock. So many. Then he was dragged inside.

  His men were pulled in one by one. The whistling rose to a tsunami. Then the doors slammed. Silence.

  They were not alone.

  "Shhhh…" A hand found the Captain's face. His mouth. His air hose. "…They're out there," a shadow whispered. "Waiting…"

  A single flashlight blazed a slow circle. Windows boarded. Bodies. Bodies everywhere.

  Alive. Almost a hundred settlers were still alive.

  Finally, the light froze on the thing holding the Captain. It was Guttenberg.

  Her left arm had been torn off. Eaten, the stump wrapped weeks-old bandages above the elbow.

  CRUNCH!

  The robot camel screamed outside. Metal on metal. Peeled like a banana by smacking lips. Legs dancing in death those. Pounding on the door. Mothers cocooned babies. Jo Guttenberg watched the door. Something sniffed the other side, pawing with a thing that was not a hand. Nowhere left to run.

  The Captain checked his remote. The church was completely surrounded.

 

  "We came for Eden," sighed Jo Guttenberg. "And thought we found it."

  The troubles began three months ago, when a strange message arrived on their only radio link to the outside, offering to buy their charter. When the commune refused, then the monsters came.

  A toddler disappeared one night. They searched for days without a trace. Then another vanished. Then older children. They were learning.

  "They breed at night," Guttenberg glanced at the scratching walls. Searching for a weak spot. "And multiply."

  She had seen a military ship orbiting the planet drop a black canister a week before the first attack, seeding their Eden with death. Then she had seen the ship land. "They're here," she hissed, "controlling the--"

 

  A shiny black forelimb hooked through the breach, and snared a young girl by the hair. Kicking and crying, she rose, a pendulum damning them all to hell, punching the invisible air.

  A head thrust to meet her. Jaws opened. Neither man nor bug nor fish. Fat brown lips like a suction cup.

  The Captain turned away from the red rain. And waited. It never came. He looked up.

  The girl was stuck to the ceiling, body bloating with venom. Being digested in her own skin. Then the suction cup attached like a leech to her unrecognizable face and slurped her clean, bones and all, and finally worked down the skin bag with relish.

  No evidence she ever existed.

  The Captain vomited into his third lung. Oh god. He hadn't known. But it didn't change anything.

  They were all going to die.

 

  Guttenberg's men fired through the ceiling, searing holes with their archaic laser guns. If anything, they were just making it easier for the bugs to get it. Inhuman heads flitted like whack-a-moles, deliberately drawing fire.

  Their ammo dwindled. The lasers went silent. The bugs had chewed through the power supply.

  The blue vault above spiderwebbed with greedy limbs growing like upside-down hair. Crack. A laser bit a support beam--and a man-sized bug tumbled in with a weirdly heavy thump, into the throngs of screaming families, eight legs bicycling.

  The cultists pounced, hacking at its exoskeleton with shovels and spearpoints of blue rock and bare hands, pulling apart lobster-plates holding in cheesy strings of white flesh. Revenge for their families, for their fallen dreams. Human hyenas. Then they recoiled in shock

  The creature was metal inside. Gold. Its dying breath wheezed from a twenty-four carat respirator, servo legs winding to a stop, the exposed camera-lens behind its top left eye oozing a stem-cell tear. Behind a gizzard of garbage-disposal blades, its stomach was a plastic sac, full of industrial solvents. The girl was still inside. Barely. Near the rear, a vague embryonic turd had formed in the thing's thorax. A baby bug. They reproduced like tumors. A bird-crop of blue rock. A 3-D printer-organ.

  The disturbed graves.

  It was silent outside. A funeral.

  "Somebody built this," Guttenberg's finger shook accusingly. "To erase any proof we ever lived here."

  The cultists crowded the walls to get away from it, realizing what the oozing tears were made from, the bug-flesh: Their own dead. Their missing children, mixed in with their livestock and pets and even parts of their crops, all rearranged and sprayed over a lattice of the planet's own gold. The machine moved the flesh like a hand inside a puppet.

  The roof creaked. And peeled. The bugs were working together, eating through the joists, fifty at a time. Loosening the building's seams.

  "We have to get off this planet," Guttenberg mumbled, half-praying.

  Exactly. But the Captain knew a more effective higher power: He finally used the remote.

  The Ambassador of Night stirred across a hundred miles of dark desert. Powering up.

  The whole target screen was an ocean of red dots.

  "I have a plan." The Captain gestured his men to form a protective box around the cultists. "Open the doors."

 

  They ran into the night, six moons burning above in dueling halos. Bugs surrounded them for miles. Silent as the dead. Watching.

  "What are they--?" Guttenberg urged her flock on.

  "Keep moving!" The Captain looked back at the church's open doors. "Further!"

  Yes. It's working.

  The Ambassador of Night landed on a nearby ridge, pilotless cockpit bright as a seventh moon. "Can't you bring it closer?" screamed Guttenberg.

  No. This is perfect. "We're halfway there," said the Captain. And stopped.

The bugs closed in with terrifying speed, blocking their every escape, a vast carpet of mouths and hunter-eyes and clawfeet seemingly covering the whole planet like mold on an apple. One wore the leather stitches of a car seat. Another had eaten a feather bed. But almost all were human, walking on children's hands, sheathed in freckles and patchwork hair, alive behind their mix-and-match eyes. They froze in place, leaving a single thin corridor in their ranks, as if plotted by satellite.

  "What…" Guttenberg looked at the Captain, not believing. Not daring. "Wh-What are they waiting for?"

  The Captain smiled, and raised the remote. "Orders."

  His men slipped single-file through the bug corridor, aiming their guns at the mass of confused cultists. Like cancer.

  "For Saviour's sake!" Guttenberg fell to her knees. The blue earth spinning so fast. "We're people!"

"I know." The Captain waded through the monsters like sheep. They hissed softly, sucking the methane sky, but they were not alive, any more than teeth in a mouth. They felt but did not think. The Captain raised the remote high, bugs parting before him like a sea. "I know that. And that's precisely the problem."

  He pressed the button.

  His bugs sprang forward on eight legs apiece, a tidal wave of teeth and vampire eyes. The cultists shrieked and shrank back, a meaty planet collapsing, bugs sucking the ground clean of blood and bodies as they reeled in the noose. One by one, desperate shovels and stone-picks fell before hungry gold skulls…

  Guttenberg broke ranks and ran, clambering over men and beast alike, shoving the dead and dying down into the hungry blue soil. Straight up the ridge. Towards the Ambassador of Night.

  She's going to leave us all to die.

The Captain flew at her heels, dancing through the slowness of the gravity, a million bugs rising behind them, the horizon burning with a fresh-killed sunrise. The ship loomed like some hellish finish line, lights glowing like a caffinated dragonfly. The winner would win a damned life, and the loser an unthinkable death.

  We came for Eden… Guttenberg grabbed the cockpit door--

  The Captain tackled her from behind. Slammed her skull into the glass. Drove her down into a world made of broken blue knives…

  She shoved him, body uncoiling like a snake. The Captain soared as if the very planet bucked him, and landed on a spire of lavastone. The blue sword gushed red. Then white. The Captain's muscles twitched once, twice, and died, his blood watering the blue root of his stone skewer, speared through his chest.

  Guttenberg, pale, opened the exoskeleton of the Ambassador of Night.

  And saw the black canister. Two berths, one empty. She screamed and screamed. Here, here was the thing that had murdered her entire world. She vowed to fly back to the Empire's capital and drop it on its most populous planet, drop it into the ocean where it would breed and breed forever.

  Then the Captain moved. His other muscles…pulling himself down from his gore-splattered spit.

  Guttenberg stared through him. His torn chest.

  The gold lungs and gold heart.

  "What are you?"

  The Captain advanced, his men behind him. Men who were not men. Gold muscles pulling on gold bones. Half-machine, half-god, born from frozen frog-fetuses onboard the Ambassador of Night, a ship that made its own soldiers. They were born for this mission, born with orders copied into their thirty-six brains, and they would die at mission-end to save the fuel-expense of shipping their bodies back across the stars.

  Or at least they were supposed to. Like good little bug-men. Loyal soldiers.

  Like a puppet on a hand.

  The Captain sprayed a hundred gold needles through Guttenberg's body. The bugs gathered to feast. All the other metals would have to collected and dredged into the nearest sun, but the gold could simply be recycled into the ground. Including the soldiers' own bones. A whole tiny civilization murdered clean.

  "Mission accomplished," the Captain whispered to his remote. "Shut down."

  The bug army suddenly shivered and liquefied. Thousands of gold husks winked under the sun like buffalo bones. Extinct.

  "Let's go." The Captain waved his men to run for the open ship. "If we hurry--"

  The cockpit snapped shut. The engines started. The ship hovered, a great black mother hornet.

  Then he heard a sound that was not a sound. His men shivered and burst into white boils. Gold chassises seizured, disrobing their slippery red gore, meat flowering from wire-hanger frames.

  The Captain looked down. His own chest. The broken kill-switch. The Ambassador of Night buzzed overhead like a demonic conductor. Someone's controlling it. The Captain looked around. Everyone dead.

  Then he looked at his watch. Thirty days. Headquarters was sending its reply.

  "No!" The Captain jumped for the landing skids, falling again and again. "I'm the pilot! I-I'm supposed to go back!"

  "I'm sorry, Captain," said the ship. A voice from HQ, itself half-robot. "But it's for the greater good."

  But… The Captain surveyed the vast blue waste. His bugs and his men had flattened every house, every farm, every radio tower. But… I'm a person.

  Then he realized the voice condemning him to death had been recorded fifteen days ago. As soon as they'd heard he'd arrived, they'd ordered his own ship to kill him.

  He ran gibbering, screaming for mercy into his fart tank, until his gold lungs threatened to overheat, and the ship shrunk into a black speck in the sunset, chasing the coming night. He tried to calm himself. The radio tower. He had to rebuild it somehow, from his comrad bones if need be, then trick someone to land with a distress beacon…

  And escape. Escape as the richest sentient being in the known universe. He smiled.

  But as his self-flying ship finally slung into space, it jettisoned a black canister. He stared at where it fell, hundreds of miles away.

  Night was coming. 


© Copyright 2017 Edward Ji. All rights reserved.

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