Tag Archives: science fiction

Year of Stories – Week 21

Check out this week’s free short story, We Dragons.

Mel Yung is a hero of humanity, responsible for the discovery and exploration of three human-habitable planets. When a young, enthusiastic explorer gets a chance to go with Yung to explore planet Glyna, he sees it as the opportunity of a lifetime. But he has no idea what they’re really about to discover…

This story has previously been published by Ray Gun Revival.


We Dragons

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Calvin inhaled deeply through his nose and held the air inside his lungs for a few seconds before slowly releasing it, trying to force his heartbeat to slow to a normal rhythm. Be calm, he instructed himself. Cool. Collected. Sure, you’re about to step onto the surface of a planet that has never before been visited by humanity, but hey, you’re an expert. You’ve got a wall full of diplomas that say so hanging in your office. Of course, that office is sixty light years away right now…

Be calm.

“Everything okay, Calvin?”

“Everything’s fine, sir. Just, uh, giving my equipment a final check.” Calvin tightened the straps of his backpack, adjusted the attached oxygen tank, and lifted the mouthpiece to cover his lips and nose. He sucked in a quick breath. “Good to go, sir.”

Mel Yung smiled, and a network of wrinkles spread out from behind his pale brown eyes, drawing a roadmap of experiences across his leathery face. Yung only really looked his age when he was smiling. Calvin wished he wouldn’t do it quite so often.

“We aren’t in the office today, kid,” said Yung. “Out here in the field, you can call me Mel.”

“Okay. Mel.”

“Is this your first field deployment, Calvin?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes, Mel. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid, watching you do it on TV.”

Mel smiled again, and Calvin cringed inwardly. “Hey, relax,” said the older man. “It’s just a job.”

“I don’t think that’s how the millions of settlers on the three habitable planets you’ve identified feel about it.”

“Three? Oh, you’re including that oversized moon in the Delna system, aren’t you? I don’t really deserve top billing for that one. Herman Nerole did most of the work. I was just the one who made it back alive.”

“Still,” said Calvin, not willing to let his idol off the hook so easily, “you’re living history!”

“The funny thing about history,” said Mel, hoisting his own oxygen tank backpack, “is that it’s all old news.” He flashed another wry smile and palmed a large, flat button beside the airlock. The hatch swung open, revealing a mountainous, rust-colored landscape that fell away from the narrow plateau they had landed on by leaps and bounds, descending to a series of rocky plains that extended for miles until they curved away into a fading horizon. Above it all was a dimly monotonous grey sky.

“Now, before we head out there,” Yung continued, “a couple of reminders. Don’t waste your oxygen until it starts getting tougher to catch your breath. The oxygen from the geyser up here should provide us with plenty of breathable air until we’re about halfway down the mountain. After that, we go to our tanks. The atmosphere on Glyna isn’t poisonous, so you can drop your mask whenever you need to talk, but try not to inhale too much of the local air all at once.”

Calvin nodded. He’d read the briefings and gone over all of the data from the probes. In fact, he was the one who had sent out the probe that found the oxygen geysers on planet Glyna in the first place, and it was that discovery that had earned him a place on this exploration alongside his childhood hero.

“This is your baby,” said Mel. “Why don’t you go first?”

Show him you deserve this, Calvin encouraged himself. Be calm. Cool. Collected. He wiped his sweaty palms on the rubbery fabric of his thermasuit, set his teeth, stepped out onto the powdered, burgundy dust of planet Glyna, and sucked in a lungful of alien air.

Yung followed him out and closed the hatch of their shuttle behind him. Written on the hatch in bold, friendly letters was the shuttle’s name, Peace III, a reminder that wherever they went, the Explorer Corps “came in peace”.

“Well,” said Mel, “let’s go scout an alien landscape!”


Calvin let Yung lead the way as they began their descent of what they’d come to call New Faithful. The mountainous oxygen geyser was the key feature that had brought them to Glyna: it was the clue that had revealed the immense stores of oxygen beneath the planet’s surface that were gradually escaping all over the planet, slowly transforming the atmosphere into a human-breathable environment. New Faithful was the largest, and probably the oldest, of these geysers, and probes had identified the accelerated growth of certain species of local organisms and plant life around its basin, suggesting that parts of Glyna’s ecosystem were already prepared to respond favorably to the planet’s evolution. At the current rate of release, Calvin and his research team had estimated, it would be a thousand years before enough oxygen would be released to make Glyna broadly habitable by humans, assuming the other elements of the ecosystem evolved appropriately.

Humanity didn’t have the luxury of quite so much patience, however, so Calvin had been trying to gather support for a proposal to artificially widen some of the largest oxygen geysers, drastically speeding Glyna’s transformation. Part of what he was here to discover was whether there were any sentient locals who would be negatively affected by Glyna’s oxygenation. Humanity might be desperate for living space, but thanks to the work of Mel Yung and others like him, it wasn’t xenocidally desperate. Not anymore.

Glyna’s gravity was about half that of Earth’s, and Calvin found himself enjoying the freedom of movement as he leapt and bounced down the mountainside. For the first hour, he and Mel kept up a light banter, pointing out interesting formations in the rocks or stopping to cut samples of the various oxygen-friendly brown grasses they came across. The further they went, however, the thinner the air seemed, the sparser the vegetation grew, and the less breath they had to spare for conversation.

Eventually they paused, panting, under an outcropping, and Mel signaled to put the oxygen masks on. Fresh, cool, breathable air flooded into Calvin’s lungs, and he gave a thumbs-up. After swallowing a bit of water, they continued on, sucking on their mouthpieces and surveying the red landscape around them in silent wonder.


Soon the explorers arrived at the foot of the mountain. Calvin stopped to take a scraping of a delicate brownish mold growing on the underside of a boulder. At this distance from the geyser, oxygen levels were low enough that only the most basic oxygen-friendly molds and fungi could grow.

Within a few miles of the base of New Faithful, plant life almost entirely ceased to exist, replaced by dry rocks and dust. The explorers spent half an hour traversing the dead terrain before Calvin spotted more vegetation, in the form of scraggly bits of bluish grass and moss growing in cracks and crevices. “Non-oxygen-dependent species,” Calvin explained. “The dead zone we’ve just passed through suggests that too much atmospheric oxygen may be poisonous to these plants. That’s one strike against my proposal.”

“Only if we find sentient species that are the same way,” Mel pointed out, “and we haven’t seen any sign of that.”

“Not yet,” Calvin added.


As they continued on, Calvin watched as the moss and grass gave way to scrub brush and small trees, all tinged with the same shades of blue amid the browns and reds of the soil. He had stopped to pull a branch from a twisted, shoulder-high tree with a wrist-width trunk and thin, veiny blue leaves when Mel said, “Look!”

Standing several yards away were a dozen knee-height, hairless, two-legged creatures with wide, terrified eyes, bulbous noses, tiny mouths, and six-fingered, two-thumbed hands. They were wearing clothing made out of some type of fabric that was similarly colored to their pale, reddish-brown skin. Some had brown, crusty paint smeared on their broad faces. One of the aliens, a relatively tall one with a swirling pattern painted on its chin, was holding a thin wooden staff with a pointed tip. The same swirling pattern was painted onto the garment that covered its chest.

Most of the aliens were holding rocks that they had picked up from the ground. Several had their arms cocked, apparently ready to throw at the first sign of danger.

“Try to appear non-threatening,” Mel whispered.

The two men knelt, making themselves small.

The creatures came a little closer, and a few began to speak back and forth. Their speech was a high chittering noise, a cross between the sounds made by a squirrel and a chimpanzee.

The loudest conversation seemed to be between the alien with the spear and a short, squat one with a diamond shape on its forehead and a loud, gruff voice. The squat alien was gesturing excitedly with its hands, speaking very quickly and beating its thin torso with a rock.

Finally the tall alien–Calvin thought of it as the chief–stomped its foot on the ground and the rest of the creatures, including the loud, squat one, all fell silent.

The chief turned to the explorers, raised its arms towards them, and launched into a speech that lasted for several minutes. Yung seemed bemused by the situation, but Calvin couldn’t help sneaking glances at the rocks held in the rest of the tribe’s hands. He had no interest in finding out how strong their arms were…

At length, the chief concluded its speech and stood expectantly, awaiting a response.

“These little guys seem pretty primitive,” Mel said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to learn anything from them through direct communication.”

“So what do we do?”

“How about a little experiment? You think the oxygen levels of the planet have been steadily increasing over hundreds of thousands of years, right?”

Calvin nodded.

“So what if these guys, and whatever animals they make those clothes out of, have evolved to function on whatever trace amounts of oxygen their lungs can filter out of the air?”

“Why wouldn’t they live closer to the geyser, then?”

“Superstition, maybe. Mountains are highly symbolic to the tribal mindset. Or there might be another, smaller geyser nearby.”

“They might also breathe something else entirely,” Calvin said, “like nitrogen, maybe, or CO2. Oxygen could even be harmful to them.”

The aliens were beginning to whisper to each other as they watched the humans talk. Calvin saw a few of them mime the way the humans removed their oxygen masks whenever they spoke.

“I’ve been to a lot of planets,” said Yung. “I haven’t yet come across anything that breathes nitrogen.”

“Maybe not, but…”

“Listen, kid. One thing I’ve learned is that in the field, you’ve got to rely on your instincts. I’ve got a hunch.” Yung took a deep breath from his mouthpiece, then gently, carefully held it out in front of him, offering it to the chief.

The chief took a few cautious steps towards them, and the squat alien chittered at it ferociously. Turning to the squat one, the chief barked a few short, angry words, then strode determinedly up to Mel, lifted its face to the mouthpiece, and applied its tiny mouth to the valve. Mel thumbed the manual discharge.

The chief’s eyes widened, and its swollen nose wrinkled.

“I think he likes it!” said Mel.

Then the chief choked, retched, and collapsed.

The aliens burst into a cacophony of chittering and the squat one leapt towards the humans, its gruff voice raised above all the others.

“Is it dead?” asked Calvin.

Yung shrugged. “So much for that hunch.”

“Sir, did we just murder an alien? That’s against all kinds of regulations!”

“Relax,” said Yung.

The aliens were getting louder, and coming closer.

Calvin was livid. “We could lose our jobs for this!”

Yung was staring intently at the approaching aliens. “Hey, it’s just a job.”

Suddenly Yung pulled his mask from his face, thumb on the manual discharge, and sprayed a long burst of oxygen towards the nearest creatures. They recoiled in panic, and a few dropped to their hands and knees, retching.

A stone whizzed past Yung’s ear. The explorers leapt to their feet, and Yung shouted, “Run!”

The humans bounded away across the plain, setting their sights on the distant peak of New Faithful. The aliens raced after them. Despite their short legs, the aliens were better adapted to Glyna’s gravity, and they easily outpaced the explorers. As they ran, they hurled rocks, bruising the humans’ legs and backs and pinging shots off the oxygen tanks. Some of the braver aliens grabbed at their feet or hammered at their knees.

Between breaths, Yung sprayed oxygen in the faces of any aliens that got close enough. The aliens retched and gagged, and a few that swallowed direct bursts collapsed and didn’t get up again. Calvin kept his mask on his face, but fought back with his feet and hands, kicking the aliens away and dodging their missiles, doing his best not to hurt them too badly.

After several minutes of running, the aliens fell back and chittered angrily after them. Looking over his shoulder, Calvin saw a few of them kneeling beside one of their fallen friends who had taken a blast of oxygen from Yung’s tank.

The humans slowed their escape, but continued to jog towards their ship at the fastest speed they could maintain.

“Can’t stop,” said Yung between gasps at his mouthpiece. “They’ll follow,” gasp, “they always follow.”

“How do you know that?”


Calvin tried to put himself in the aliens’ place. “Sir,” he said, “they must think we’re dragons.”

Yung looked at him quizzically, and kept on running.

But Calvin couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. To these aliens, the oxygen geysers probably symbolize supernatural dangers. To us, hell is a place of fire, like a volcano. What if their version of hell is a lake of poison instead of brimstone? We came to them from the poison mountain, breathing poison. That would make us dragons, or worse… Demons.

“The geysers are accelerating, Mel.” Gasp. “These aliens are going to get wiped out, and soon.” Gasp. “We can save them!”

“Forget them,” retorted Yung. “How about saving us?”

Calvin ran on, newly motivated. We can’t seal the oxygen geysers permanently, but maybe we can buy them time to build their civilization and technology to the point where they can save themselves.

Of course, before they could do that, they had to make it back to the Peace III and off the planet.


The explorers’ pace had slowed almost to a walk by the time they finally reached the feet of New Faithful. Even in the lower gravity, they couldn’t run forever.

Calvin collapsed in fatigue. Yung’s chest was heaving, and the redness in his face highlighted his wrinkles. In this state, he did indeed look dragon-like. “Can’t afford to stop,” he rasped, but he, too, allowed himself to sit and rest on a moss-covered rock.

A minute passed while they sat, gulping oxygen through their mouthpieces and staring at the ground, heads between their legs.

There was an eruption of chittering.

Calvin whipped around to look behind him. Less than half a mile away, the ground was teeming with what looked like hundreds of the beige aliens, approaching fast. Where did they come from? Calvin thought. Why didn’t we see them coming?

“Camouflaged!” growled Yung. “Run! Run!”

Calvin scrambled back to his feet and took off up the mountainside. The veteran explorer was right: even now, Calvin could only see the aliens because of their movement. Their skin and their clothing blended in to the colors of the landscape. They must have been following at a distance, waiting for their quarry to slow so they could catch them by surprise.

The humans dove uphill, putting every ounce of remaining energy into their legs. Behind them, their pursuers were gaining, gaining. The explorers’ only hope, Calvin realized, was to climb high enough that the atmosphere became too poisonous for the aliens. Even now, it must be having an effect on them… Was it enough?

A stone thunked into the ground ahead of Yung, followed closely by another. One caught Calvin on the hand, and he cried out in pain from behind his oxygen mask.

“Gotta fight it out!” roared Yung.

Calvin spun around just in time as the first wave of attackers reached them. Leading the pack was the squat alien with the diamond on its forehead. It was brandishing the chief’s painted wooden spear in its many-fingered hand. With a blood-curdling screech, it leapt towards Calvin and thrust the spear out in front of it.

Desperately, Calvin pulled the mask from his face and fired off a long burst of oxygen from his tank. The stream of oxygen caught the creature in its open, snarling mouth, and it dropped, gagging and wheezing, to the ground. A dozen more took its place, flinging rocks and jabbing with spears.

Five or six of the aliens gripped Calvin by the knees and held their breath as Calvin doused them with oxygen. Closing their eyes and puffing out their cheeks, they struggled to topple him. Two others dove at his chest, knocking him to the ground. Some of the aliens turned from their assault on Yung and piled on top of Calvin, beating and pounding and piercing.

Calvin fought for his life, lashing out with all his limbs, adrenaline surging, blood flowing from the many places he had been stabbed. “Let me go,” he howled, “or you’ll all be dead in 500 years!” Only as he heard the words pass through his lips did he realize that they sounded like a threat.

Suddenly Yung emerged from a press of bodies, spraying a broad swath of oxygen over Calvin and driving the attackers back for a few seconds. Yung grabbed Calvin under his arms and hauled him to his feet. Together, they ran again.

“Almost,” gasp, “there,” said Yung. His mask was dangling from his face now. The air was oxygenated enough to breathe.

Calvin limped and stumbled. The pain in his legs was too much. He could feel blood oozing out into his suit from dozens of different wounds. He collapsed.

Mel stood over Calvin, taking stock of the younger man’s injuries. “I can’t carry you, kid,” he said. He looked up, and started to back away.

“Mel, please!” Calvin choked. He saw the aliens a few hundred meters down the hill, panting and gasping in the poisonous air as they tried to come up with some way to reach the humans and finish them off.

“You’re a hero, son,” said Mel. “Fifty years from now they’re gonna name this rock’s first human city after you, I promise.” Then he turned and jogged towards the ship.

“Mel, no!” Calvin cried. He tried to stand, fought with every scrap of strength he had left, but the damage was too great. He could only lie on his face and wait to bleed out, as the man he had once called his idol abandoned him and condemned an entire fledgling civilization to death.



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Tenney pressed in on a wide, flat button set into a stone outcropping and a ten-foot-square section of the stony ground shuddered into movement. Gears crunched and spun and a cavernous entrance opened, revealing a tunnel that faded downwards into the earth.

Holding his arm in front of his face to block out the blowing sand, Tenney scrambled back into the driver’s seat of the crawler. He slammed the door shut, dulling the howl of the desert wind, and shook the dust out of his beard. “No wonder they built everything underground… It’s terrifying out there!”

“And double the radiation levels of anything we’re used to,” added quiet, brooding, clean-shaven Raltar from the back seat.

Tenney shuddered, fidgeted in his pocket for a small plastic tube, popped the cap off, and turned it upside-down over his open mouth. A fat, wriggling worm fell out and he swallowed it smoothly.

“Careful how many of those things you take in at once,” said Boss Osman, who was checking over some paperwork in the passenger’s seat. “We don’t wanna run out on the way back.”

“Not much point making it back if we’re getting bombarded with deadly radiation the whole way,” said Tenney, “so it’s a few more of these things or a permanent home in a HazMat suit. Besides, we’ve got dozens of boxes full of grubs stowed in the back. We can always keep a few extra.”

“Those aren’t for us,” said Osman. “Those are for the client.”

“I know,” said Tenney, “but—”

“But nothing. We don’t consume our cash crops. It’s bad business. Get us inside. I can feel my skin burning darker every second. If the radiation doesn’t kill me, the sun might, instead…”

“Yeah, Boss,” said Tenney. He put the crawler into gear and drove it forward, down the ramp into the gaping maw of the cave. As the entrance whirred closed behind them, shutting out the sand, the wind, and the sun, artificial lights flickered on, illuminating their path.

“Anyways, kid,” continued Boss Osman, “you don’t want to suck down one of our mod-worms. We haven’t tested this batch enough yet.”

“Ah, what does it matter?” said Tenney. “They all come out the exact same, even at the genetic level. Isn’t that the whole point of the process? We couldn’t mass-produce ’em otherwise.”

Boss Osman shook his head. “If they all came out the exact same, then how did the worms start absorbing radiation from hosts’ cells in the first place? They had to change to get this way, and it only took them a few years after the wars to do it. Put ’em in a lab environment like we have and who knows what’s been happening to their innards from generation to generation… Not like we test ’em each individually or anything. No, I wouldn’t eat one if you paid me. Give me the natural ones from back home, I say.”

Raltar chimed in from the back seat. “But you’ve got no problem selling mod-worms to someone else?”

Boss Osman shrugged. “The way I see it, we’re doing them a service. Way too dry out here for the worms to breed on their own. These poor souls are so desperate they’ll take any kind of grub they can get.” Osman chewed on his beard for a minute while Tenney drove, glancing down occasionally at the paperwork in his lap. He spied a side tunnel up ahead and pointed it out. “That way, Tenney, then take the first left afterwards.”

“Yeah, boss,” said Tenney. The whispering hum of the crawler’s electric engine echoed faintly along the cave walls.

Raltar was quiet as he massaged his bare cheeks and chin. He fidgeted with the radiation monitor hanging around his neck. “I still don’t get why we couldn’t just can some natural worms and bring ’em out here, like other traders do. There’s plenty of good money to be made in that.”

“Oh, sure, plenty of money,” said Boss Osman. “And you’ve gotta spend weeks and weeks crawling around among the tree roots to gather the grubs, and then fill out something like thirty-five separate forms to get the trader’s permits, and pay tax on your earnings…”

“Eugh, taxes,” said Tenney. “Don’t get me started on taxes. You know what taxes are? They’re oppression, man. They’re what—”

“Tenney,” said Boss Osman, “shut up.”

Tenney swallowed his diatribe. “Yeah, Boss.”

They soon came across a branch in the tunnel. To the left was a low cavern lit by long strings of fluorescent lights; to the right was a steeper slope heading down towards the main network of tunnels that made up the underground city of Hwanij, the largest remaining population centre this side of the ScrapTop Mountains.

Tenney turned the crawler into the cavern and parked along the wall.

Boss Osman checked his watch. “They should be here in a few minutes. Remember, leave the talking to me. Your job is to unload the crates and inspect the cactus mush. Just keep smiles on your faces and make sure they can see that you’re packing heat.”

Tenney nodded and reached into his pocket for another worm tube.

“Put that away,” growled Osman.

“C’mon, Boss!” said Tenney. “Have you checked your monitor down here? The rad levels are off the charts!”

Before he had time to do any further complaining, Tenney was interrupted by the hum of another engine approaching. A long, sleek crawler turned into the cavern and pulled up alongside them. Four people piled out, dressed in colourful vests and flowing pants.

“Who’s Osman?” grunted one of them, a short woman with well-muscled arms and a shaved head.

“That’s me,” said Osman.

“Call me Mara,” said the woman. They shook hands. “You’ve got the grubs?”

“In the back,” said Osman. “Two thousand per box, and we’ve got sixty boxes.”

“So that’s…” Mara calculated quickly in her head. “A hundred and twenty thousand? I’ll give you four tubs of cactus juice.”

“Four?” protested Boss Osman. “Is that a joke? I could get twelve if I took this load to someone else.”

“No, you couldn’t,” said Mara.

“Last trip out here the Durban brothers gave me a tub per ten thousand, no questions asked.”

“Maybe,” said Mara, “but two weeks ago I shoved the Durbans into a mixing vat. I didn’t need that kind of price inflation, you know?” She smiled crookedly.

“Er,” said Boss Osman. “I see. Still, I need at least eight to make this trip worth my while. Any less than that and there’s no point in me coming back again. That’ll drive your prices up, too.”

“Six, and I’m not budging from there.”

Osman looked back at Raltar and Tenney. Raltar shrugged. Tenney, following the instructions he had received, smiled and pulled his jacket back to show off his holstered gun. Osman subtly gestured to him to back down.

“Take it or leave it,” said Mara.

“Fine,” said Boss Osman. “Six tubs, but no guarantees we’ll be back again after this. I gotta make a profit somehow… And before my guys unload anything, I want to make sure sure your stuff is legit. If you’ve watered it down at all, deal’s off. The grubs love the stuff, but they only drink it in high concentrations.”

Mara snapped her fingers and two of her men hauled a massive blue tub out of the back of their crawler. They set it down in front of Boss Osman. Raltar and Tenney came forward and covered their mouths with simple breathing masks. They pried open the lid of the tub and looked inside. It was filled with viscous green sludge. The fumes brought tears into their eyes.

Raltar took a small beaker out of a case and scooped up a bit of the cactus juice. He dropped a pinch of some chemical into it and waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. He gave Boss Osman the thumbs up, and he and Tenney sealed the lid back onto the tub.

“Okay, we’re good,” said Boss Osman. “You can stack the tubs here for now. Where do you want the worms?”

“Not so fast,” snapped Mara. “You tested my wares, and I’m going to test yours.”

Boss Osman held his hands up innocently. “What’s to test?”

“Yeah,” said Tenney. “A grub’s a grub, right? They all come out the same.” Osman glared at him to shut him up.

“Maybe,” said Mara, “maybe not. These are mod-worms, and I always test the mod-worms.”

Osman held his hands out appeasingly. “That really isn’t necess—”

“Save it. Cheefo, bring her out.” One of Mara’s men reached into their crawler and hauled out a woman with a bruised face and tied wrists. She looked pleadingly from Mara to Osman and Tenney, and her eyes opened wide when she saw Raltar. “Okay, Gem,” said Mara, “time to make yourself useful. Just gulp down a couple of mod-worms and see what happens. If you come through okay, who knows, maybe I’ll decide you really aren’t a government rat, after all.”

Gem tried to squirm free, but Mara’s man forced her to her knees.

“Grab me a sample,” Mara ordered.

Boss Osman nodded to Tenney, who stepped around to the back of the crawler and pried open a box of worms. He fished out a tube with a fat, juicy lab worm in it. “Looks like this one’s been nice and hungry,” he said. “All the food in the bottom of the tube is gone.”

“These guys had a long trip,” said Osman.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Mara. She took the tube from Tenney, popped the cap off, and approached Gem. The henchman forced Gem’s mouth open, and Mara took out the worm, which writhed and wriggled madly. “Active little nematode, isn’t it?” She lowered it towards Gem’s mouth.

“No!” shouted Raltar, drawing his gun from his holster. His shout startled Mara, and she dropped the worm into Gem’s mouth. It immediately squirmed straight down her throat.

“Let her go,” demanded Raltar, training his gun on Mara’s forehead. Mara’s men reached for their weapons, but Raltar cocked his gun and again shouted, “Let her go! And drop your guns.”

There were a few seconds of tense silence.

Mara said, “Do it.”

The men placed their guns on the floor, raised their hands, and stepped back from Gem.

“Raltar, what are you doing?” said Boss Osman.

“You, too,” growled Raltar, turning his gun on Osman and Tenney.

“What? But—”

“Guns down and back away!”

Osman and Tenney did as they were told, with puzzled looks on their faces. “This is a pretty stupid place for a hold-up, bud,” said Osman. “You can’t drive away two vehicles at once, and there’s no way you can get everything onto one crawler on your own. Plus you’re outnumbered ten to one.”

Raltar helped Gem to her feet. As he untied her wrists, she said, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you, Vic.”

Mara laughed. “So that’s what’s going on here. This isn’t a hold-up. You’re the Annelid Kid!”

“The who?” said Boss Osman. “Raltar, who are you?”

“He’s an undercover agent,” said Mara. “He busted half our network last year. I thought we had put him down, but I recognize those eyes now…”

“Should’ve made sure I was dead,” said Vic. He pressed a sequence of buttons on his radiation monitor. “Don’t worry, Gem. These tunnels are going to be swarming with agents soon.”

Gem opened her mouth to reply, but suddenly her eyes rolled back and a feral moan erupted from her throat. She dropped out of Vic’s arms and flopped onto the ground, clutching her stomach. “Gem!” cried Vic, kneeling beside her.

Seizing the opportunity, Mara sprang on Vic and knocked him down. His gun clattered across the stone floor, and chaos erupted as Mara’s men came to her aid. They grappled with Vic and tried to pin him to the ground, but he fought with desperate strength. Boss Osman and Tenney yanked open the doors of their crawler and leapt inside, and Tenney fired up the engine.

“Don’t let them escape!” shouted Mara, as her men scrambled for their weapons.

Before they could fire, Gem let out an unearthly howl and sprang to her feet. Her lips were foaming and there was fire in her eyes. One of Mara’s men turned his gun towards her, but before he could pull the trigger she took two swift steps and batted the gun out of his hand. It flew across the cavern and shattered on the wall. She bore down on the man and knocked him to the floor, then loomed over him and sniffed him. His scent didn’t appear to be to her liking: she stomped hard on his chest, cracking his ribs, then shook her head and howled.

“What are you doing!?” yelled Mara to the rest of her men. “Shoot her!”

Gem bounded towards the nearest standing henchman, renewing her ferocious assault. In a matter of seconds, she had scattered Mara and her men around the cavern. They lay bleeding and groaning.

Osman and Tenney watched in horror from the relative safety of the crawler, too shocked by what they were seeing to drive away.

“What’s happening to her?” said Tenney.

“Good thing I didn’t let you eat one of those things, eh?” said Osman.

The back door of the crawler opened as Vic crawled inside. “Get us out of here!” he yelled.

Boss Osman turned on him with a frown. “You can’t just—”

The crawler rocked and Osman looked up to see Gem staring in at him through the windshield, mouth open like a hissing snake. She slammed the palm of her hand against the windshield. It shuddered, but didn’t crack. Gem crawled up onto the crawler’s roof. The three men heard her footsteps as she walked to the rear of the crawler, and saw her drop down on top of the crates of mod-worms. She sniffed at them and seemed pleased. Leaning down, she set her teeth into the straps holding the crates and began gnawing through them.

Tenney didn’t need any more encouragement: he stomped on the gas and spun the crawler’s treads into motion. The crawler lurched forward and Gem rolled off onto the ground. The strap broke, and several of the crates came free, tumbling down with her. Tenney turned the crawler out of the cavern and up the tunnel towards the desert surface.


The government crawlers arrived, sirens blaring through the tunnels as they emerged from the subterranean network of the city. They found Gem sitting peacefully in the middle of the cavern. There was an open tub of cactus juice on her right and a box of lab worms on her left. She was freeing the worms from their tubes one by one and dropping them into the tub.

As the police stepped out of their crawlers, Gem looked up at them with a benign smile. She reached into the tub, withdrew a handful of massive, wriggling worms, and held them out like a gift.

The radiation monitors twitched.