Rats Will Run by Marina J. Lostetter

Rats Will Run
By Marina J. Lostetter

Synopsis:

Rats Will Run” is a science fiction story that takes place on a desolate world in an isolated research facility. Are the researchers dealing with an advanced case of cabin fever or have they themselves become part of a larger test study? “Rats will Run” first appeared in Mirror Shards Vol. 2, an anthology from the micro-press Black Moon Books.

 

science fiction short story

Rats Will Run by Marina J. Lostetter

I freaking hate rats.

So I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why Pedro wanted to release a test group in the lab. “Can’t you do it in the observation cube? Why in here? They’ll get their rat germs all over everything.” I shivered, thinking about my tablet with tiny paw prints scattered across it.

“No, no. It has to be in here,” he insisted, pushing up his thick-framed glasses. “Gabby, trust me, you want to see this. I discovered it by accident.” Taking off with a hop and a skip, he went to retrieve a set of cages.

“Accident? What does that mean? One got loose? Geez, man, I had my lunch sitting out here yesterday.”

He let out a disturbing, manic cackle.

Perhaps he’d finally snapped–gone stir-crazy. We’d had a handful go wiggy over the past year. One guy even went outside the base sans pressure-suit. That wasn’t pretty. Isolation can do that to people–and it was hard to get more isolated than HD 10180-4.

We liked to call the planet Cit-Bolon-Tum (Tums for short), after one of the Mayan gods of medicine. It offered thousands of curative prospects, which was why all two hundred base-dwellers had made the trek to its shores.

“Is this what our Saturday nights have come to?” I asked as he hefted two cages–each with three rats–onto one of the touch-tables. “Oh, come on, I have to give presentations with that.”

“You can use the far wall,” he said, rolling his eyes. “How did you get into bio-research if you hate animals so much?”

“Microbiology,” I specified. “Microorganisms. You know, the things that don’t have faces. Or claws, or whiskers, or long, naked tails.”

“You still have to run experiments. Cancer cells don’t exist in a vacuum.”

I shrugged. The teasing from my subordinates was routine. I was the only biologist on the team–to hear them talk, in all of mankind–that hated nature. Well, not all of it. Just anything that scurried, or crawled, or scuttled. Which applied to almost all of Cit-Bolon-Tum’s complex life-forms.

“Get to it,” I insisted. “What’s this great rat-discovery you’ve made?”

“Watch,” he said with a giggle. “These ones on the left have been given compound 0697. The ones on the right are the control group.” He opened one cage, then the other, pulling a rat from each. Proudly, he held up both–a little grandstanding. Then, he turned both loose on the floor.

I leapt up onto a stool near the counter, almost knocking over an irreplaceable electron microscope in the process.

One rat went left, the other right.

I was less than impressed. “So–”

“Not done.” He did the same with the remaining rats. All of those who’d been injected with 0697 ran to the same corner. The control group scampered willy-nilly.

“Uh… Ok.”

“Did you see?”

“Come on, Pedro. What? Did you put something in that corner, and only the test group can smell it, or–”

“No, you weren’t watching.” He went over to the touch-wall, and I retrieved a pair of glasses from my lab coat’s breast pocket. “Wall, on,” he commanded. “Lab six ceiling feed. Replay last five minutes.”

“I don’t need to watch it again, I–”

As the surveillance feed replayed, he marked each rat with a number by tapping the wall. “Trace paths of all subjects, from twenty-four seconds through four minutes and thirty eight seconds. Give me real-space lines.”

The wall displayed each rat’s path as a different color. When Pedro put both hands on the wall the image stuck to them. He tore the picture away and threw it at the room, where the digital lines settled on the floor.

The control group had drawn a series of squirrely lines–like a toddler given a crayon for the first time. The tested rats drew one line–a perfectly straight diagonal towards the corner. So straight as to be clearly unnatural.

I removed my glasses to rub my eyes, and the room-overlay disappeared from view. “Ok, what does that mean?”

“They’re following something we can’t detect. There’s something there that the compound helps them find.”

“Weird, I admit, but I’m not sure… What are you going on about? Not that again?”

He shrugged, casually strolled over the lab door, and opened it.

I jumped to my feet. “What are you doing?”

“I want to see where they go.” The test group hurried out, as though drawn by an invisible piper.

“Not cool, man,” I said. Pedro tried to follow the rats, but I grabbed him by the coat-sleeve. “You going to let them into my apartment next? This is a gag, isn’t it? Who put you up to this?”

With a smile and a shake of his head, he brushed me off. “No, Gabby. Pure science, honest.” And he jogged after his new friends.

Thankfully the rodents weren’t interested in the base’s sleeping quarters. They ran through the white-walled halls (once pristine, now covered in doodles the residents dared call ‘art’), towards the eastern airlock. Strangely, they followed the same diagonal they had in the lab, changing halls and rounding corners only when they couldn’t stay directly on the line.

Once they hit the hyper-glass airlock doors they stopped. Rising up on their hind legs, little noses twitching, they pawed at the door-seal like dogs begging to be let outside.

I looked through the four layers of glass to the dangerous beauty that was Tums’ surface. Dramatic hills and sharp mountains made up the majority of the land, creating a terrain more rolling and varied than anything I’d seen on Earth. Life butted right up to the outside of the base in the form of low, jungle-like foliage–most of which was mobile, meaning the scene outside changed constantly. Nothing on the planet stood more than three feet high, so despite the up-and-down of the terrain, we could look for miles before hitting the craggy horizon.

“Oh, look, they want outside,” I said, throwing as much sing-song into my tone as I could. “We just need to get them into their little ratty spacesuits and they can keep playing blood-hound. Oh, wait.” I slapped the side of my face. “Rats don’t have spacesuits.”

“Ha-ha,” Pedro said, scratching his chin.

I patted him on the shoulder. “Sorry, dude. Guess today’s pursuit of directed panspermia ends here.”

A very girly–though distinctly male–shriek emanated from several halls over. “Better go round up your other pets,” I said. “Or else I won’t be the only one raining on your free-range parade.”

“But, they’re drawn to something, aren’t you interested in what?”

I crossed my arms. “Not in the slightest.”

Head hung low, he scampered off to collect the rats, and I made a note to keep an eye on his mental health.

 

#

 

It seemed like there was at least one panspermia nut in every lab I’d ever worked in. The discovery of extraterrestrial life just over a century before I was born ignited a blaze of new believers. I had no problem with the basic theory–that life down here could have come from out there. It was the Seeders I took issue with. Those crystal waving, we-couldn’t-have-built-the-pyramids-without-em shouting, pseudo-scientific doofuses. The guys that thought intelligent ETs guided our evolution.

I was so sad when Pedro proved to be one of them. And he was always looking for any oddity, any abnormality he could point to and say, “Look, this might mean extraterrestrial intelligence was here!”

I had no interest in hearing what he thought the rat-march meant.

After thoroughly searching my quarters to make sure they were furry-intruder free, I settled down for the evening. Though the planet had roughly sixteen-hour days, we ran on Earth time, and it was nearing one in the morning. Sure, the off-set time felt strange when occasionally it was pitch-black out at two in the afternoon, but otherwise it was easier to follow home. After all, we rarely left base. Kind host Cit-Bolon-Tum decidedly was not.

At three in the morning I got a pound on my door and a muffled entreaty. “Mendoza? Dr. Mendoza, are you in there?”

Groggy and slightly pissed, I kicked away the covers, threw on a shirt and went to the door. “What is it?” I said through the comm. box.

“Someone from your team has taken an un-authorized surface walk.”

“What? How do you know it’s one of us?” I could tell it was Sammy–oh, excuse me, Dr. Slavitz–on the other side of the door. Damn formal bastard. “Bet it’s one of your sickle-cell lackeys. Why’s cancer always getting the blame for base problems?”

“It’s one of your suits that’s missing. Inventory already confirmed.”

“Great,” I said to myself before yanking open the door. “Who haven’t you found yet?”

“Doctors Smith, Cohen, and Alvarez are yet unaccounted for.”

“Then I know who it is.”

 

#

 

“Pedro?”

“I told you, he’s not talking–”

“Shut it, Slavits.”

A hoard of us had shuffled into the communications room. I let up on the output button, hoping he’d respond via his suit’s system. I knew he could hear me.

“Dude, it’s Gabriella. If you tell me there’s a rat in that suit with you I’m not letting you back on the base, ever.”

A brief moment of static, then, “Better, Gabby. Even better.”

The whole room let out a collective sigh. Myself excluded.

“What’s that mean, ‘better’? Huh?”

“I injected myself with 0697.”

My nails curled against the control panel. All chatter in the room fell dead. “You’re shitting me.”

“You should see this. It’s amazing!”

Slavitz leaned over my shoulder. “He’s another one. Shut in here too long–he cracked. We need to get him to Dr. Nakamura.”

As much as I hated agreeing with the prick, he was right. Pedro needed a little brain-blending.

“You’ve gotta come back in, Pedro. We’ll make an appointment with the shrink. You’re tripping on the compound–you’re hallucinating just like your rodents.” Wishing I wasn’t in a room full of eavesdroppers I said, “You know that crap isn’t ready for human testing. We don’t even know what it does to the rats yet.”

“Seriously, Gabby, you have to–”

“Get your ass back to the airlock.”

“But it’s so wonderful…”

I tossed the microphone across the room, and the crowd back away. “If the idiot won’t come in alone, I’ll drag him back myself.”

“You can’t go by yourself,” said Slavits. “No fewer than five to a party.”

“You volunteering? No? If we do things by the book he might step into a ground-mouth before we’ve even suited up–especially since he’s hallucinating. I’ll go out. If we both bite the big one, blame me in the report.”

Other members of the cancer research team stepped forward, offering their assistance. “Sure,” I said, grateful to have my team rallied, “But I’m not waiting for safety checks and all that garbage. I’m going now. If you all want to keep to protocol, no worries. Follow when you’re ready.”

After an arduous wrestling match with my pressure suit, I made it through the airlock and out into the twilight. Just my luck the jerk would have to go tromping around during the night cycle. I gave a wave to those inside, then headed down the paved foot-path towards port.

Moving on Tums was like trying to wade through quicksand. The hard skeleton of the suit was supposed to compensate for the planet’s 1.9 gs, but frankly, it didn’t. It let me lift my limbs a little easier, but did nothing for the ton-of-bricks feeling that dropped into my pants once I’d left the artificial environment of the base.

Outside for the first time in months, I let out a heavy sigh, which immediately fogged up the left side of my helmet. Stupid defogging film was supposed to be replaced every three weeks–those maintenance guys were slacking.

The front of the helmet acted like my lab glasses, displaying a whole set of new info and figures over my natural vision. Labels sprang up on various plants, detailing their primary composition and discovered uses. Air pressure figures and weather system stats scrolled across the top. Every time a plant or animal moved a blue line tracked its path (and made me ever-so-grateful to have layers of super durable materials between me and the critters). I blinked them all aside–keeping only the red arrow that pointed me down the paved path in Pedro’s direction.

Each suit contained a homing beacon, so no one could get lost. Now eaten, decapitated, or punctured–those were a different matter. The planet had a million ways to kill a person, but at least we could always find what was left of their suit.

“Yo, amigo,” I called, my voice sounding hollow in the helmet. “I’m out here. Waiting for you to show me this wow-awesome-totally-scientific-and-not-at-all-insane discovery you’ve made.”
“I don’t appreciate the sarcasm.”

“And I don’t appreciate being dragged out of my beauty sleep because some member of my team decided to go on an unauthorized walkabout.” Each step reminded me just how out of shape I was. My scrawny build was not Cit-Bolon-Tum compatible.

“I don’t have cabin fever, Gabby.”

“Ok. Whatever.”

“There are lines on the ground. Natural overlays.”

“Will you at least agree to stay put until I find you?”

“Of course,” he said. “Because you have to see this.”

 

#

 

Forty minutes later we were reunited. But not happily. At least he hadn’t left the path.

Little critters and plants had followed me off and on along the way, giving me the willies. A poisonous cephalopod–possessed of eight skinny legs instead of tentacles, whose fur-slime could eat through every layer of my suit–gave chase for a hundred yards before it decided easier prey lay elsewhere. I thought about getting out my aerosol tranqu-spray and gassing the sucker, but didn’t want to waste it in case something bigger came along.

Ah, man, I’d spend twenty-four hours locked in a room filled with deadly fliangia spores if I never had to see a rodent-reminiscent creature again.

“What is your major malfunction?” I demanded when I turned a corner and found my subordinate crouching on the asphalt.

Pedro had his back to me and didn’t turn around. He waved a gloved hand inches above the ground, as though stroking an invisible animal. “All green here, boss,” he said, giving me a thumbs-up before going back to his air-petting.

No way was he right in the head. “Sure, you look as dandy as a dodo bird.” I crossed my arms, peeved, when he gave no response. “Now tell me you were pulling my leg. Tell me one of my best technicians did not go kamikaze in the name of cancer research.”

Compound 0697 came from the distillation and mixture of several animal secretions–animals all native to Cit-Bolon-Tum. And they each sported monikers that had something to do with death, acid, burning, maiming, etc. We’d hoped the compound–and many others like it–would specifically besiege cancer cells.

Now I had a feeling 0697 targeted healthy gray matter instead.

“I didn’t do it for cancer,” he said, turning in my direction, his movement slow and deliberate. “There’s something out here.”

His visor was up, giving me full access to the manic expression plastered across his face. Pupils dilated to the size of saucers, mouth twitching, small dribble of snot leaking from a nose he couldn’t wipe–I’d seen that expression before. But it wasn’t exclusively the mask of crazy; it was also the look of breakthrough discovery.

But, since he was alone in a man-devouring environment, following invisible lines, and had previously stuck himself with a needle full of cell-destroying chemicals…

“Ok, well, how about we go back to base for now, eh?” I suggested. “We’ll get a team together and come back at a reasonable hour.”

“No can do, Gabby. You go back for a team,” he said, turning away, “I’ll stay.”

No, uh-uh. No off-his-rocker techie was going to talk back to me. “That’s it, mister.” Crouching, I curled an arm through his, ready to haul him to his feet. In the next instant I yanked hard. The suit’s skeleton not only helped in high gravity, but was also supposed to help me lift twice what I could naturally.

It would have worked if Pedro hadn’t had the same equipment. Since he was a good size man and I had the scrawny build of a twelve-year-old boy, I wasn’t going to win any battles of brute strength.

But I gave it a five minute go anyway.

“Pedro, I swear, if you don’t come back with me this instant I’m going to recommend you go into deepfreeze. I’ll put you on a return shuttle and Earth can decide if they want to thaw you out again.”

“Nice try, Gabby. Go back. I know what I’m doing. I want you to see it, but I’ll go on alone. It’s ok.” Shifting fluidly, he stood up. I felt like a kid in an oversized mascot-costume, and he moved as if the suit were a second skin. He walked away from me, down the path.

“But…but what about guillotine vines?” I shouted. No need to raise my voice, of course, but I couldn’t help it. “And ground-mouths?”

“I’ll keep my eyes open.” He gave a casual wave of his arm.

“Damn you, guys,” I said, switching channels to speak to the base. “Wasn’t I supposed to get backup?”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Mendoza,” Slavits replied. “But a shark-cat’s been stalking around the east entrance for a half an hour. We haven’t seen its posse, but where there’s one–”

“So just come out the north entrance and circle around.” Dumbass. We had two airlocks for a reason.

“Love to…but it’s jammed.”

Well, hell. “Tell everyone on the maintenance crew they’ve officially made my shit-list.”

With that I switched back to Pedro’s channel and stumbled after him. If I wanted his ass saved I’d have to do it myself.

“Ok, dude. You win, for now. Tell me about these things you’re seeing.”

He had his hands out in front of him, like a blind man feeling his way. “The lines,” he said softly, nearly a whisper, “They glow. And pulse, and shift–a stream of light.”

“Uh-huh. And these lines, they just happened to follow the man-made path?” I raised an eyebrow. I had him there.

“No, it runs like this.” He made a sweeping motion from northeast to southwest. “The path intersects it in some places. And it runs right through the base.”

“And it’s straight? Perfectly straight?”

“So far.”

I called up a map of the area on my helmet’s overlay and with my eyes drew the line he’d indicated. It wouldn’t be long before the path and the line permanently diverged.

“And there’s another set of lines over that way.” He said, pointing yards off. “Going almost the same direction. I think it’s angled slightly different.”

The foliage to my right shook violently. I edged in closer to Pedro. “And you’re following the line because…?”

“Because it leads somewhere.”

“Right, and how do you know that?”

“Because of the flow. I told you, it’s shifting like a stream–and I’m getting caught up in the current. It pulls me, just like the rats.”

“You’re talking in circles, bud.”

“I know you’re not a fan of my beliefs, Gabby. But I think what I’m looking at is proof. It’s like a digital overlay–an augmentation–just like the displays in our helmets and in the labs. Only it’s built right into the biology of Cit-Bolon-Tum. It’s augmented reality on a chemical-induced level. Molecular computing–interfacing directly with the brain.”

“Molecular computing? No, it’s one biology interacting with a totally foreign biology to create a hallucination. You are freaking hallucinating.”

“You’re wrong, Gabby.”

“Sorry, dude, you’re off your rocker.”

“No. Listen. The compound itself acts like a computer program. 0697 is hijacking my neural pathways and controlling them like code controls transistors in a processor.

“It takes sensory input–input from a sixth sense, I think–repackages it, then sends it to my visual cortex. It adds that information to the real-world data my eyes are receiving.” He grabbed my hand, “So it’s not a visual hallucination. It’s reinterpreted sensory input. A translation of information my brain was already receiving, but couldn’t interpret. There are real lines of energy on the ground–in the ground–but that’s not what I’m seeing. I’m seeing an artificial overlay, similar to a digital overlay.”

I crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow skeptically. “So, there are hidden computer codes in the genes of Tums’ life forms–is that what you’re saying?”

Neural codes.”

“Right. Whatever. And what do you think you’ll find at the end of this holographic rainbow? Pots o’ alien gold?”

“I don’t know. But, whatever it is, I think it’s been waiting for us a long time.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept my mouth shut. We didn’t talk for a long time after that.

When we hit the point where the hallucination and the path parted ways, I expected Pedro to dive head-first into the wild. He didn’t. He turned just as the trail did, making me wonder if his hallucination had changed. As we’d walked the sun had risen well over the horizon, which helped to ease my tensions. At least now I could see what was eating me before I dissolved into a pile of goo.

“We’re getting an ATV,” Pedro said out of the blue.

Ah, that explained it. He was following the path to its head: our makeshift version of a spaceport, where we stored our modest fleet of vehicles. “Good luck,” I said. “With the way the base has been taken care of, I’ll be surprised if anything still works at port.”

Only a few minutes more saw us to our destination. The garages were sealed up much like the base, so that no one would get a nasty surprise when they opened a glove box.

As Pedro typed in the access code for one of the airlocks, I cleared my throat. “So, you know we’ve got two ATVs back at base, right? You didn’t have to come all the way out here.”

“Those are little ones. I need the big one–the wall-climber.”

“The wall-climber?” I choked on my own spit. “Where exactly are we going?”

“I told you.” The outer garage door opened as he gestured towards our goal.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the line might go on and on and on–towards the horizon and beyond. The craggy Cizin Mountains stood directly in our path, their sheer cliffs impossible to traverse without a climber.

“But, it’ll take days to get there.”

“Yep.”

Motion-sensing lights sprang on as we entered the hanger, and I removed my foggy helmet. The stale air indicated it had been a long time since anyone had come here. Including the maintenance guys. That didn’t bode well.

The wall-climber wasn’t far away. In addition to tank-tread, which most of our ATVs had, the wall-climber also sported six legs, each tipped with grasping, serrated hands. The legs were retractable, to be extended when needed.

A million protests went through my mind, but for some reason I voiced none of them. Guess I figured I was already in this, long haul or not. Why whine about it? I climbed into the ATV, lips sealed.

Inside, the vehicle was pressurized and gravity-reduced, so once we got everything up and running we could dispossess ourselves of the suits. The first thing I did, once free, was stretch out in one of the seats. Pedro blew his nose.

And then we were off. I wondered for a moment if it was smart to let the crazy man take the wheel, but I figured I didn’t have much choice. Still, I double checked my harness.

Within a few hours my adrenaline ebbed, and exhaustion got the better of me. Despite my unease, I drifted off.

 

#

 

Luckily my instincts woke me.

Drowsy, I opened one eye and saw a needle coming at me. Acting on reflex, I swatted the syringe out of Pedro’s hand. I was out of my harness and at the back of the ATV in an instant. “What are you doing?”

“I want you to see, too.”

“That 0697 in there?” I nodded toward the syringe, now rolling freely on the floor. We were still moving–he must have had the climber on autopilot. “I took you for batty, Pedro, not dangerous.”

“It’s harmless,” he cooed. “But it’ll let you see. Give you new eyes.”

“Thanks, but I’m happy with the ones madre gave me.”

“You’d understand what I’m talking about it if you just took it.”

“No way am I drinking your Kool-Aid, man.”

He shrugged and sat back down in the driver’s seat. “Fine. But I’m packaging this stuff up and sending it back to Earth. That way they can see the lines there, too.”

With him safely out of range, I scooped up the syringe and dismantled it. We didn’t have any bio-waste containers on board, so I made due with a rubber glove and tape from the MacGyver kit on my suit. As much as I didn’t want the compound anywhere near me at this point, I didn’t want to stash it where Pedro could easily get a hold of it again, either. So into my trouser pocket it went.

“What makes you think there are overlays on Earth?” I asked.

“Ley-lines. It’s been long suspected that many ancients intuitively built monuments and religious centers over streams of power that cross the planet.”

“Like Stonehenge?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, come on. You’re a scientist. How can you stomach that mumbo-jumbo, much less believe it?”

“Because there’s no scientific evidence to refute their existence. And if there’s no evidence that says something’s impossible, I see no reason why it can’t be feasible.”

“How old were you when you stopped believing in Santa, huh? Twenty-five?”

“Take all the digs you want, Gabby. I know what I’m seeing is real.”

Cautious, like a beaten dog, I slunk back into my seat. “Keep telling yourself that.”

“I intend to.”

The sun set, and rose, and set again. All the while I started to feel like a sardine: trapped in a can, nowhere to go, with only fish-tales for company. Pedro submitted to examinations when I asked him. I tested his reflexes and his reasoning skills, short term recollection and long, and looked for any sign of physical or neurological abnormality. Everything appeared in order.

I contacted the base a few times, gave them our position. I asked them about the 0697 test rats. The rodents were healthy. Slavits sent a retrieval party after us, but I doubted they’d intercept before we made it to the bottom of the cliffs.

And I was right. The sun rose, glazing the range from top to bottom in brilliant, orange light. The jungle-line ended a mile or so before the cliffs, leaving a barren mote between the two. I gulped as we entered into it, feeling exposed.

My backup was still hours away.

“Relax, Gabby,” Pedro said as he prepared to extend the climber’s arms. “I’ve trained in this thing. We’ll be safe.”

But the climb wasn’t what worried me. “And what if we get to the top of the mountains and the line keeps going, huh? Miles and miles and miles–how far are we going? How many ration packets does this thing have stored? Enough for a week, two maybe? The water’s already running low.”

“We won’t be gone that long. I see where it ends.” He pointed up.

I ducked down lower, peering through the windshield as though I could see what he saw. “In the side of the cliff?”

“Yep.”

“Oh boy.”

He pressed a few buttons and the cabin filled with an ear-piercing screech.

“Gah.” I threw my hands over my ears. “What the hell was that?” The sounds of stressed metal reverberated through the cabin.

“One of the arms is stuck.” Lights flashed across the console. “I’m trying the overrides, but nothing’s working. It must be an outside problem. Might have to fix it manually.”

My suit and helmet were in hand the next moment. “Ok, just show me what to do.”

Once suited, we exited through the rear airlock. Pedro went first. “Just over here–it’s limb three.”

“Hey,” I said, turning back. I saw a spray canister sitting against the hyper-glass. “You forgot your tranquilizer. Gotta stun the wildlife.” I went in after it.

“Relax,” he said. “We’re a ways from the bush-line. Not many animals venture out from the brush.”

Sprayer in hand, I swung around to join him. “Yeah, well you never–”

Ghraaaaa!”

His scream was unearthly. The bottom dropped out of my stomach and my nerves caught fire. I must have jumped ten feet in the air, despite the high grav. When I came back down I was sure I’d separated my skin from my bones in the leap.

Pedro lay sprawled across the ground, shaking. I slid through the dirt into a crouch by his side. It only took me moments to put together the scene: Pedro hemorrhaging, a massive pool of blood coalescing where his right knee should have continued on into calf; his severed leg bouncing along the ground towards the bush-line; a long, silvery cord of carnivorous guillotine vine attached to the leg, slithering back from whence it came.

Blood loss and decompression. Code red. A top priority medical emergency, and all I had to deal with it was whatever first-aid supplies the ATV had stocked.

Hands shaking, I dug through my MacGyver kit, looking for tourniquet material. All I had was a short piece of cord and a handkerchief. Better than nothing.

My breath came in quick, heavy puffs against the inside of my helmet. It fogged up the corner, making a dire job much more difficult. Adrenaline, which had surged at his first yelp, left me unsteady. Every part of my body vibrated.

I hadn’t stopped the bleeding, but the flow was slower. The most devastating aspect of a guillotine vine was its smooth cut–no ragged edges or pinched flesh to staunch the bleeding. Pedro’s artery had been cut clean open, letting it run like an open faucet.

If there wasn’t any coagulant cement in the ATV, he’d be dead in minutes.

The suit’s skeleton finally paid for itself. Instead of dragging Pedro, I was able to lift him fully off the ground. I tossed him through the airlock, knowing every second I wasted screwed him over a little more.

Yanking the emergency kit off the wall, I began yelling at him. It was the best outlet for my energy. Took the shakes out of my fingers. “You son of a bitch.” I tore the lid from the kit and dumped it on the floor. Small bottles rolled this way and that. I snatched up one after the other, glancing at the labels before tossing the useless ones aside.

“You ass. You crazy ass. Why’d I think for a second you’d use an ounce of caution? No, crazy, stupid, ass-wipe Pedro had to go and tangle with a stupid vine. Dumb way to go, amigo. That what you want your tombstone to read? Killed by a vegetable? Idiot. Where’s your brain, huh?”

Found it–the cement. Thank the lord. I had a glop of it on my glove in the next instant and smeared the stuff all over his leaking wound.

“Shooting yourself up with experimental drugs, going outside without so much as a flashlight, strolling across an alien surface like you own the place. Dumbass. Everything here wants to eat you. There’s no holy-alien-grail out there waiting for you. Just some crazy shit messing with your senses.” I found a pressure cuff and secured it around the stump, putting a temporary seal on his damaged suit.

He hadn’t made a sound since his scream. Not so much as a moan. And now he lay perfectly still. I couldn’t see his face inside his helmet, and mine was getting blurry–

It wasn’t until a tear splashed down and collected in the low point of my helmet that I realized I was crying.

A squeeze on my glove made me jump. “Keep going,” Pedro breathed.

“You selfish, low-life, scum-sucking–”

He let out a wheezy laugh. “No. Up. Keep going. Follow the lines.”

My mouth flopped open. “Hell no.” I got to my feet, simultaneously throwing off my streaky helmet. “We are turning this sucker around. We’re intercepting backup and hoping they have a skimmer that can buzz you to base before you croak.”

A moment of panic overtook me, and I rushed to the driver’s seat. We were going back, now. Pedro could shove his ridiculous quest. I wasn’t going to sit out here and let him die for psudo-science.

The engine purred and the warning lights still flashed impatiently. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll get to you,” I said, waving the urgent alerts aside, then opening a comm. channel to the intercept team. “Hey, where are you guys? We’ve got a medical emergency. Alvarez is–” A steamy hiss and an all-too familiar thud interrupted me. “Oh, please…” I moaned. My forehead had a brief date with the dash before I turned to look at the back of the ATV.

Members of the backup team chattered over the comm., but I didn’t comprehend a word. My ears had tuned out. The totality of my awareness was focused on Pedro.

He sat in the airlock, separated from me by one set of hyper-glass doors, and Tums’ surface by another.

“What in the…” I reached for my helmet, but it was gone. He had it with him in the airlock. Not a good sign. I found his suit’s channel with the ATV’s comm-link. “Buddy? Whatcha doin’?”

A half laugh, half cough preceded his explanation. “Blackmailing you.”

“How’s that?”

“We’re not going back, Gabby. Not without reaching the end. If you don’t keep going, I’ll let myself out.” He reached up and tapped the control panel.

Dude had lost too much blood and wasn’t thinking straight. Rolling my eyes, I pressed the main release for the inner doors. No need to stretch this charade out.

Nothing happened. So I pressed again, and again, each time with a little more malice. “What did you do, Pedro?”

“Triggered the emergency override.”

“You can only do that if the main cabin is in danger of decompress–” It took half a second for me to jump out of the driver’s seat and cross the distance to the glass. “Pedro, so help me…”

“The vine was up inside the suspension, probably further–didn’t you see its spent acid pods?” He patted the wall. “No holes in the system yet, or we’d be hearing sirens, but there’s a weak spot somewhere. We’re both in danger. Keep going and I’ll come inside and give you your helmet back. Refuse and I’ll go out there.”

“You are ridiculous,” I spat. “You see all this blood on the floor? It’s supposed to be in your brain. That’s what’s keeping you from thinking right. You might just be demented enough to die for your cause, but there’s no way you’re a murderer. Now stop playing, we need to get you to the medlab.” Pedro wasn’t a killer. He had to be bluffing.

“I can’t stop now. I might die anyway. I’d rather die knowing.” He looked paler than moments before, and sweat soaked his brow line.

If he fainted on me that would be the end of us, bluff or no. “Ok,” I said, pressing my palms to the glass. “We’ll go.” Like hell. As soon as he blacked out we were on our way to base.

“Forgive me for not trusting you, Gabby, but that’s not going to convince me. There’s only one way I’ll come out of here.” Each word was separated by a strained pause.

“What? Tell me.”

“You have to take 0697.”

Unbelievable. “Did I do something bad to you in a past life?”

“Stop your moaning and do it.”

There wasn’t time for a rundown of the pros and cons. “This is nuts, this is nuts, this is nuts,” I chanted, freeing myself from the top-half of my suit so I could reach my trouser pocket and the vile vial inside.

The first-aid kit had a packet of clean needles. I tore one open with my teeth, untaped the glove and the plunger, and put the syringe containing 0697 back together.

After a series of deep breaths, I held out my forearm and poised the needle like a practiced drug addict. Only, unlike an addict, I hesitated.

What the hell was I doing? We still didn’t know the full effects of the compound. I was less sure now–after all the tests–that it fried brain cells, but that didn’t mean it was safe. What if we got Pedro back, sealed his leg up, but he still died? From side effects?

What if it killed me too?

But, if I didn’t inject myself we were goners anyway. Better possible death than certain.

Pedro watched me with dilated pupils. His skin looked like soggy paper.

“Hope this makes you happy, bud.” With that I thrust the needle into my arm and pushed the plunger in to its hilt. Job complete, I tossed the dirty needle aside. “Now open up!”

He keyed in the access code, fingers shaking like leaves in the wind. The door opened and he slumped over, letting himself rest, sure now that his epic task would be completed.

Since he was out like a light and limp as a sack of beans, I had to pull him across the floor and strap him in the passenger seat. “If this crap poisons me, I’ll kill you,” I promised, hyped up and running through the gambit of emotions. One second I wanted to weep, and the next I wanted to wring his neck.

How long was it supposed to take before the effects showed up? With my heart racing a million miles a minute, pushing my blood through my veins at an alarming pace, I guessed it wouldn’t be long.

We needed to get to the tracking party asap. I sat my butt down in the driver’s seat, secured my helmet, then threw the ATV into reverse. The warning lights still signaled the cabin was in danger of losing its integrity, but at least the arms were free (I’m guessing the vine had tried to chop the limb off for breakfast before it pegged Pedro for squishier). I radioed back to base, told them to prepare the medlab for two patients.

Minutes later I was attempting to blink neon-yellow streamers from my eyes. They appeared on the floor–through the floor. The images started out hazy and spotty, but soon solidified. Looking up I could see an entire system, all the way to the next horizon, back the direction we’d come as well as stretched out ahead. It was a giant, mapped overlay. Pulsing, flowing, like little pieces of light shifting to form streaming messages I could not read.

Startled, I hit the brakes.

Damn. He was right. Pedro was right. There was something hidden in the biology of Cit-Bolon-Tum.

Or, now we were both crazy. Folie a deux. But, what were the odds of a shared hallucination, really?

And then I felt the pull. An alarming, palpable urge to follow the lines. It was the current Pedro had talked about–a rushing, pushing me forward. First it was like the gentle thrust of a stream, but soon it consumed me like a riptide. I had to go forward, had to see what was at the end of the road.

A moan escaped Pedro, and I turned to see if he’d come around. He was still unconscious, but alive.

Poor Pedro. What must it be like, to believe so heartily in possibilities that you’d risk your life for a chance at proof? To be so free of cynicism as to follow leads with reckless abandonment?

It was stupid, but it was also beautifully human. And an experience I’d never had.

Everyone should do something truly idiotic at least once in their life, right?

I knew I needed to get us back to base. We both needed medical attention. But I also knew I had to follow the lines–and it wasn’t just the compound talking.

Abandoning my suspicion and sarcasm, I took a leap of faith. “We’re gonna make it,” I said, giving Pedro a pat on the arm. “We’re gonna find out what’s at the end of your rainbow.”

I spun the ATV around and quickly covered the distance to the cliff face. At the base I extended the legs, shifted into high gear, and started to climb.

 

#

 

I’d only driven the climber once before–in training. This was nothing like the exercises. Every new anchor and handhold sent a little thrill of anxiety up my spine.

Good thing I was in a chemically induced mania, or else there’s no way I would have continued up that cliff.

I tried to keep my eyes on both the climb and Pedro’s condition, and glanced rapidly between the two. “Don’t die on me, buddy.”

It’s so much easier to follow a map when you can actually see it. The lines didn’t continue straight as they had before. Now they slanted at a forty-five, and ahead I could see it change course again. Another fifteen minutes and I pinpointed our destination: a narrow-mouthed cave. Two yellow streamers poured into it, one from above, and the one I followed from below.

Halfway there the climber grabbed onto a loose boulder. It pulled free, and the weight of the stone dragged the arm down. The whole vehicle slipped. I tried not to scream, for Pedro’s sake.

Rocks flew past the windows, plummeting towards the ground. I couldn’t help but imagine our frail bodies doing the same.

Regaining my poise, I pushed on. We reached the cavern without another hitch, and I thanked my lucky stars it would all be over soon.

I positioned the climber above the cavern so that I could open the rear airlock and lower myself inside. Before I left I secured Pedro, double checked my suit, and made sure I had a sprayer. The bay doors screeched open, and I realized I hadn’t tied down everything. The spent syringe and a few items from the first-aid kit tumbled through the airlock. I let them go.

There was no lip to the cave. It recessed straight back into the rock, its mouth flush with the cliff. I tied a cable to the back of the vehicle, and, holding my breath, slowly slid down its length.

People say it’s not a good idea to look down when you’re stranded at a great height. What a load of crap. Nothing solidifies your determination not to fall like knowing how far it is to the ground.

The ATV sat close to the cave–I’d parked like an expert. Putting a little swing in the cable, I propelled myself inside.

Hundreds of glowing, beady eyes turned my way the instant I touched down. Only my knowledge of the drop-off kept me from darting right back outside again.

Shit. Damn. Crap. I didn’t have enough tranquilizer for a cave full of critters.

But I steadied myself and moved forwards. Most of the eyes hovered around the ceiling–the floor was left clear. I didn’t dare turn on my light, fearing they’d go into a frenzy and attack.

Just let me get to the back of the cave. Let me see what’s in here and I’ll never bother you again, I silently pleaded with them.

The lines still pointed the way. One thick, center line shifted the most–it was the one that looked like it contained a message. Its color suddenly changed, now bright pink.

I could no longer see the eyes, and the suit kept me from hearing any noise the animals might have made. My entire body clenched–every joint stiffened. It was my worst nightmare come true–trapped in a cave with vermin. Vermin that could leap out of the darkness and start chewing at any minute. Chew through my suit, my clothes, my skin, my bones…

I almost ran. I almost said, screw it.

But the program in my brain wouldn’t let me. My overwhelming urge to discover continued to propel me forward.

And there was that something else–something that drove me besides the compound. Loyalty to Pedro, perhaps?

The cave turned out to be shallow. I’d anticipated a deep, winding system, but only a few yards in I reached its rear. Here the lines wound up the wall, abandoning their angularity, curling around what appeared to be a vault door.

Superimposed symbols glowed over its center, and beneath the holographic designs were real-world counterparts. The overlay continuously changed, revealing a pattern. Instructions, I realized–a key code. All I had to do was touch the designs in the indicated order.

Done. The door unlocked. Vapor poured out from the seams, similar to the way it seeped from newly opened cryo-tubes.

A cold shiver shook my body. An image of a small, frozen alien intelligence–rat-like, tail, whiskers and all–came into my mind.

Be damned if I was going to touch anything like that. Pedro could wake the hell up and come get it himself.

But no rat-men were revealed when the door swung outwards. Instead the vault contained a massive store of mug-sized vials. Containers in row after row, thousands of them, stretching back into the rock–all sealed in a way that was unfamiliar to me. Fuchsia liquid, frigid but not frozen, sat inside each vial.

The overlay turned green and produced another pattern–it showed me how to open the containers.

And words–the same unreadable words as in the ley-line–ran across the outside like a label. Bizarrely, I knew what the liquid was for. No question in my mind.

I grabbed one and ran, slamming the door behind me.

The percussion must have startled the cave inhabitants, because they went wild.

Dark forms fell from the ceiling, onto the floor and onto me. I called out, batting them away, bee-lining for the entrance. The sprayer was little help. It created a cloud of tranquilizer that only succeeded in making more animals fall from the ceiling.

The damn cave was raining rodents.

Someone in the universe was having a laugh at my expense, I was sure.

I dropped the sprayer and leapt for the cable, using only one hand to grab it since I’d tucked the vial under my arm football-style. The suit-skeleton won again, giving my arm and legs the added strength they needed to haul me back into the climber.

With the airlock and the bay doors tightly shut behind me, I began shedding the unconscious tag-alongs. They were as hideous as I feared. Amorphous, multi-eyeballed, hairy blobs with frightening incisors. To my knowledge, an undocumented species. I’d toss them out the airlock as soon as I’d taken care of the real business at hand–someone else could come back for a specimen.

I pulled Pedro’s helmet off and followed the alien instructions to a T. The vial opened, revealing its viscous insides. Without skipping a beat, I poured the whole thing down his throat.

Exhausted, I let the empty container fall to the floor and roll back towards the airlock. I carefully replaced his helmet, and seconds later the decompression sirens finally sounded–the weak spot had given in. Perfect timing. I assured the ATV that all passengers were suited, and it stopped yelling. Then I took up the driver’s seat once again, knowing I couldn’t rest until we’d made it back home.

 

#

 

A week later Pedro was still in the recovery wing–but his leg was growing back nicely.

“We came here looking for medical answers,” I said to him, holding up the empty vial. “I just wasn’t expecting to find them like this.”

“I told you,” he said with a smile.

“No, you told me about an alien road-map. Not an alien regenerative serum.”

He took the container from me and turned it over in his hands. “You know, I think each planet has a purpose. A piece of a greater puzzle. We figure it out, and we get the rewards. They set up a planet with great medicinal prospects so we’d come here with a purpose. We were clever enough to find the map–even if it was on accident–so we got the medicine.”

“Sounds a little like rats in a maze,” I said, “Get to the center and you find the cheese.”

Pedro shrugged and sat back against his pillow. “Maybe it is. I thought the ley-lines pointed to a greater intelligence waiting for us to evolve, to become intelligent enough to interact with them. You know, like equals. But maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re just lab rats. An experiment.”

“Either way, you did it. You discovered proof of–” I still wanted to gag on the word,“–Seeding. By a greater intelligence.”

He nodded, but didn’t smile. “Bet there are more caves out there, filled with this stuff.”

“We’ll just have to keep following the overlays,” I said. “Which has me thinking.”

Pedro looked me in the eye, curious. “What?”

“Well, this planet had a distinct purpose with a distinct prize. If all ley-lines are real… what do you think Earth’s lines point to?”

He raised an eyebrow and we shared a long look. “Don’t know,” he said eventually, “But I’d give my other leg to find out.”

End.

©Marina J. Lostetter
science fiction

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Marina J. Lostetter
Marina J. Lostetter's short original fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed,InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future. She has also written tie-in work for the Star Citizen and Sargasso Legacy universes.  

Recently, she has taken over the Artist Spotlight interview column in Nightmare Magazine, and is enjoying the opportunity to learn more about visual artists and their processes.  

Originally from Oregon, Marina now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex.
Marina J. Lostetter

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