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    Volume 4, Issue 2, June 30, 2009
    Message from the Editors
 Tom the Sheller by Devin Miller
 The Bug in the Suit by Steven J. Dines
 What Mother Never Told You by D. Lynn Frazier
 Late Night Guardians and Heroes at the Wawa by Chris Doerner
  The Wild Night by Aaron C. Brown
 Namug by Gustavo Bondoni
 Editors Corner: The Dog that Broke the Camel's Back By David E. Hughes and Lesley L. Smith
 Special Feature: An Interview with author Stuart Neville
 Column: Spec Fic in Flix by Marty Mapes


The Bug in the Suit

Steven J. Dines

         Lynskey is dead.
         My right eye is a war zone, but Lynskey, at least, is dead.
         His shredded body lies on the desert floor among the Etanians. They're all dead, too, reduced to gore and body parts. I can only imagine the smell out there. Meanwhile, the suns have slipped all the way down the sky. Moved in for a closer look.
         It will be dark soon. Dark and cold. I can't get up yet. Shock from the blast. I check my suit for punctures, but there can't be any - I'd be dead by now - so I'm really just checking my luck. Each coin-sized hole in the outer layers broadens my smile. I'm blind in my right eye, but the left is still good. And I'm alive. I'm still alive.
         Then someone's foot taps my shoulder.


         We watched the Etanian ship set down twenty klicks south of the rendezvous point. Like us, they were to make the rest of the trek on foot.
         A trail leading back our ship, The Cassandra Rhodes, stretched out behind our squad. Privates Whitaker and Childs walked point, with Captain Lynskey and myself rear guards to the envoy, and Guderman, who took the middle spot of our five-on-a-die formation. We wore bulky environmental suits, and our heavy, treaded boots pressed deep prints in the grey sand. The holes filled rapidly, reclaimed by a desert that sought to erase our crossing. When I adjusted the tint of my headgear's visor and looked for The Sisters through a rip in the clouds, they flashed me their hot, bitchy stares.
         The plug in my right ear clicked. Private Whitaker's voice sounded over the open comms line.
         "Say, Childs, what're the chances of us reaching the dune valley before these stilt-walking sons-of-bitches?" Etanians grew to an average height of eight feet, five of which was leg, hence the nickname.
         Another click.
         "About the same as an ice cube lasting thirty seconds out in this roast," Childs said.
         Whitaker laughed. "That good, huh?"
         "You two," Captain Lynskey broke in. "I hear talk like that again you're both walking back to the ship without your suits. Understood?"
         "Yes-Captain-sir," they replied in unison.
         "We are not - repeat not - gonna roll and hand them the advantage."
         "Now pick up your goddamn feet. I want ETA twenty minutes."
         "And gentlemen," envoy Guderman's oily tones dripped inside our ears, "need I also remind you to watch your nomenclature? The political situation between our two races is frangible at this time and needs no further aggravation."
         Whitaker and Childs both laughed into their mics.
         "As long as we are in agreement," Guderman continued, unfazed. "When we reach the rendezvous point and establish contact with the Etanians, I do all the talking."
         "Those are our direct orders, Guderman," Lynskey stated. "So you've nothing to worry about, at least not from us - Lieutenant Cage!"
         I tensed.
         "Yes, sir?"
         "Pick it up, double-speed."
         "Yes, Captain, sir."
         The suits were not heavy, anti-grav compensators saw to that. It was me. I was out of shape, my muscles atrophied to jelly from too long stuck behind a desk. It hadn't taken Lynskey long to notice me lagging behind as we'd climbed another steep dune.
         My last outfit was a cover created by the Internal Investigations Division to get me inside Lynskey's close circle without arousing the Captain's suspicions. The story went like this: I was a standard transfer from the 2nd Infantry Regiment. Lynskey had trusted 2nd Infantry's C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Swann ever since their days firing plasma rounds together in basic. So the theory was I'd walk right on in under Lynskey's radar. To prevent any undue tip-off, Swann was currently sitting in a detention chamber back on Earth awaiting the results of my investigation. I.I.D. took no risks.
         Lynskey was suspected of conduct unbecoming a Marine. I.I.D. feared he'd become the proverbial loose cannon. One thing the Earth Council did not want was an officer turning rogue and wandering the galaxy looking for a fight. My orders were unequivocal: should Lynskey in any way jeopardise preliminary talks with the Etanians, I was to use all necessary force to eliminate the problem. To that end, I carried on my person a small pistol-shaped secret.
         As we reached the crest of yet another grey dune, the clouds parted once again to allow The Sisters to blast our suits and visors with their rays.
         Something cast a shadow over my right eye.
         Something fixed to the outside of my visor.
         I held my breath as I looked for it, but those suns were dazzling and I could not see a damn thing. So, when we began our descent of the dune's treacherous northern slope, half walking, half sliding toward its base, I turned away from The Sisters and checked the visor again.
         Just some desert flotsam, I thought. A leaf plucked from a plant somewhere nearby and carried to me by the playful beginnings of a sandstorm.
         But I looked around and saw no plant life, only sand.
         And then I saw it, once again silhouetted against the suns, jutting in from the left edge of my visor like the twitch of some nervous hand that had attempted to draw a straight line.
         I saw it, and it moved.
         It stepped out - as though into a spotlight to announce itself - and proceeded to walk a stop-start, meandering path all the way across the upper half of my visor. Not an errant leaf at all; a living thing.
         A bug.
         It was the length of my thumb but twice as broad, with six barbed legs, a pair of long coiling and uncoiling antenna, and cerci protruding from its rear-most segment like two long needles. On its carapace a bioluminescent red blemish resembling a lick of flame earned it its common name of Prometheus Roach, after the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man. A misnomer in this case: the Prometheus Roach was known to steal from man, too; more than fire, it stole the man himself.
         Unable to hold my breath a second longer, I blew it out in one gust. I watched in horror as the roach scuttled a few inches to the right as though spooked by my exhalation. Then I realised - it had been spooked. The roach was inside my suit.
         I stopped in my tracks and considered my next move.
         Get out of the damn suit, that's your next move.
         I couldn't. The heat and the air were both eager to kill me. Besides, even if I survived them long enough to get the bug out of my headgear, Lynskey would put a round in my skull as a contamination risk. Again, Earth Marine Code was unequivocal on this: no mercy for possible Infecteds. Suspicion was grounds for preventative measure. Proof could always be produced later. Was it paranoia? The effect of too many barely thwarted outbreaks and invasions back home on Earth? Most definitely. But what did that matter? If the roach didn't kill me, any one of my fellow squad mates would step forward to take its place. I had to avoid drawing attention to myself.
         "Lieutenant Cage!"
         Too late.
         "Son of a bitch...what are you doing back there? Did I give the order to break formation?"
         "No, sir."
         "Then what the hell are you doing? Get up here!"
         My eyes locked on the roach. It twitched, and my mouth suddenly felt like it was full of sand.
         "Cage! Do me the goddamn courtesy of ANSWERING ME!"
         But a more important question had posed itself, overruling Lynskey. How did this thing get inside my suit?
         Standard procedure had been meticulously followed. Xenoscience teams swept the desert weeks before this First Contact mission. They found few threats from The List: some low-risk microorganisms and poisonous reptile species, but no Prome Roaches. They did not exist on Etana IV according to official record. Therefore, someone had brought this one in. But whom?
         I cleared my throat. "Sorry, Captain. I'm getting some interference on comms. Headgear isn't functioning right either. I'm trying to fix it now, sir."
         I pressed the tint switch on my sleeve and my visor went dark. I could see out, but if any of the others looked in my direction they would be met by an onyx reflection of themselves and the desert.
         "What's your battery pack status?" Lynskey asked.
         "Ninety-five percent, sir."
         "Maybe it's this goddamn sand. This wind's really kicking it up. Which is more reason to keep moving, Lieutenant."
         "I concur," Guderman dripped.
         "Me and Whitaker concur on that too, sir," Childs said. "They say that shit can get everywhere and we don't want to find out..."
         The roach scurried toward the bottom of my visor.
         Droplets of sweat popped out across my forehead.
         Do something.
         "Sir," I said, "the interference seems to be gone now, comms is clear. Visor tint is still locked, but as long as The Sisters stay out of the clouds it shouldn't affect visibility too much."
         I waited.
         "Back in formation, Lieutenant," Lynskey said finally.
         I closed my eyes. Breathed a sigh.
         My relief, however, was short-lived. I realised I was alone in the semi-darkness of my suit with a killer, a killer I could no longer see. The roach had stepped off the visor.
         I hurried after the others, and stepped back into formation. If anyone noticed my unsteadiness he kept it to himself. I looked at them all in turn. What if they all knew about the roach in my suit? What if they were all involved? I couldn't allow paranoia to feed my growing fear. I went back to looking for the roach inside my headgear, turning my head like a bird wary of predators.
         Then the hair on the back of my head moved...
         I wanted it to be my wife Katerina's fingertips. I wanted it to be anything but what I knew it was: the bug crawling toward my face.
         I shook my head, but the roach clung on. I threw my head back, hit it against the wall of my headgear, and listened for the crunch. It did not come. The roach retreated to the crook of my neck while I tried again and again. I realised I wasn't ever going to get it that way, but there was some necessity to smacking my head, announcing my stupidity, trying to knock something - a revelation, perhaps - into my brain.
         Who. Did. This? Pointless. Still, I shook and shook, struck and struck, prayed and cursed for a result. Nothing, except the roach's barbed legs itching my scalp as it rode me like a simulation bull. Which, of course, only made me try harder.
         Eventually, the itching stopped, and I realised that I'd somehow managed to dislodge it. I wanted to whoop and punch the air, only I dared not risk the attention.
         It dawned on me that I'd lost the roach again. Maybe it was better it hitched a ride on the back of my skull than stayed on the move. After all, where would it scuttle to next? My ears? Nose? Mouth? Suddenly, the various apertures of the human face seemed extremely vulnerable.
         Guderman coughed in our ears. I flinched.
         "Gentleman," he said, "a few words en route if I may - "
         "- the eventual trade agreement should prevent any hostilities between -"
         "- it's vital these preliminary talks go well. Etania IV is the second richest planet in terms of natural resources ever to be discovered -"
         "- concentration of gold on this planet beggars belief: forty milligrams per ton of rock, eight times that found on Earth. And the oil - gentlemen, under these very sands lie untapped oceans of the stuff -"
         So the roach had wings; it could fly. And fly it did, like a bat trapped inside a midnight cage, round and round my head, at first feathering the headgear's curved walls and then hurling itself at them. Strands of my hair rose and fell in its backwash. Its wings brushed my forehead, my cheek, my lower lip. Each time that thing kissed me, my skin crawled.
         I walked on, powerless to do anything but listen as the sharp buzzing of the roach cut through Guderman's droning voice. By the time it landed on the visor again - directly in my eye-line this time - I felt shaken, like the assistant of some drunken knife-thrower.
         The image of a knife lingered with me for a while, and then became something more: a memory. Back in basic, enjoying some down time with the other recruits. A game of pin finger. Someone volunteered to put their hand on the table while someone else took a knife and stabbed it between their splayed fingers with increasing speed. It gave me an idea.
         My drink tube.
         I could get my mouth to it easily enough, and if I could pull on it, detach it somehow, then I would have my knife, albeit blunt and hollow. It could work.
         I craned forward and, careful not to bite down too hard, pinched the end of the clear plastic tube between my teeth. Working my lips, I walked the tube deeper inside my mouth. The tube went taut. At that moment the roach took to the air again, perhaps sensing what I meant to do. With my mouth closed around the tube, I breathed through my nose. The roach rode the warm currents that rolled back off the visor, a strange undulating dance right before my eyes.
         Too close.
         I turned my head to the left. The tube stretched and pulled against its fastening. A single rubber gasket near my right pectoral stood in the way of me obtaining this weapon. Closing my eyes, I prayed the tube would work itself loose. To help matters along, I jerked my head farther round to the left, like I was trying to work out a crick. The tube went thin and squealed in protest but finally broke free, returning to its normal dimensions as it whipped inside my headgear. It struck the roach and cut short its taunting dance. The bug returned to its previous position on the visor. Even without the ability to read its mind, such as it was, I sensed it was pissed at me.
         Stay right where you are, I thought. Because there's more coming your way.
         Wasting no time, I rolled my jaw and manoeuvred the tube into position. It jutted out of my mouth like a lance. On the visor, the roach fluttered its wings in stops and starts, still stunned. I wouldn't have much time before it regained its bearings and went back to flying around like some crazed circus act.
         I clenched my teeth...
         Took aim...
         Jabbed my head forward like a bird...
         Missed. The tube tapped a spot on the visor near the bug. Although I was disappointed, it confirmed I had enough reach.
         I tried again. This time I trapped one of its legs. Not for long - the roach managed to free it from under the tube, flexing it a couple of times as though exorcising a cramp, and then scuttled a short distance to the right. I shifted my aim, thrust again, and -
         The end of the tube held the bug against the visor. Its splayed legs scrabbled for purchase but found none. Its wings, folded like page corners, twitched uselessly.
         Now to finish it.
         I tried, but I couldn't crush it. Even with my neck craned fully forward it was enough only to hold the bug in place not pierce its hard shell. I held it there while I tried to think. Outside, beyond the insect, the rolling sandscape stretched out in front of me, dune after dune after dune. The longest walk of my life.
         Then, a click in my ear.
         "Cage, how is Swann these days?" Lynskey asked. "I haven't heard from the old goat in, what, six months..."
         Guderman had finished his lecture and now, it seemed, Lynskey wanted to make small talk. Now? With sweat rolling down my face and a tube stuck in my mouth? I was no ventriloquist. And then, as a further reminder of what was at stake, the roach managed to free its scorpion-like tail, which had been tucked away like undercarriage, and waved it threateningly through the air.
         "Sswann eez fine," I blurted around the tube. "Same az evuh."
         I didn't consider beforehand just how dumb my reply would sound. The important thing was to say something, to avoid having dead air between us, which would only invite the Captain over. An empty-headed comment was preferable to a round in the skull, though it might lead to the same thing if I didn't learn to multitask -pin the roach, think, and speak - soon.
         "Another problem, Cage?"
         "Ev'thin fine," I said before I thought to agree with him.
         "What's wrong with your voice?"
         Don't come over. Do not come over.
         "Voize, zir?"
         "You sound different."
         "Do uh?"
         "Check the air mix in your suit, Cage. Sounds like you're out of your gourd in there. If you get back to the ship have it checked out. That's an order."
         "Yez, Cah'un."
         Wait, if I get back?
         After a few seconds of silence, I realised the conversation was over. I'd almost lost the roach. Its bloated tail was wrapped halfway around the tube, pushing and pulling at it. And was that something...moving inside?
         I couldn't think about that.
         If Lynskey talked to me again and my voice fired his suspicions, I was dead. Watching my footing in the sand, because the last thing I could afford was to trip and fall, I used my tongue to roll the tube over to the corner of my mouth while keeping the bug pinned. A drop of sweat slid down from my saturated eyebrow into my right eye and spread its salty sting across my cornea. I bit down hard on the tube and closed the affected eye. Which felt worse. I blinked, several times, and a tear escaped and made a run for it down my cheek, falling into the dry crevasse of my mouth. Salt in my eye; salt in my mouth. But at least the tube was in a better position, and I could talk with only the slightest distortion to my voice.
         By this time, we were three dunes from our meeting with the Etanians. Guderman reminded us all again to leave the negotiations to him. Childs made another inane joke at Guderman's expense. Whitaker split a side. This time Captain Lynskey chose not to berate them but laughed right along instead.
         I had my man.
         I had the roach.
         It wasn't over yet.
         Those final three dunes passed in a haze of revenge planning. It was only by some miracle of luck and fine balancing that I ever reached the last one, by which time I felt ready to join a circus troupe back home on Earth. Would Katerina agree to my sudden and drastic career change? I wondered. Unlikely. She would probably laugh at such a suggestion. But I would be fine with that; after months apart I wanted little else.
         My neck broke me out of my daze, screaming from the strain of being held in an awkward position for such a length of time. Every muscle in my body pulsed with liquid burn. My nerves suffered the most, though; they were absolutely shredded. I took some solace from knowing that our mission was nearly over and that we'd soon be heading back to The Cassandra, where I meant to tear off my suit and crush that damned roach under my boot over and over and over again.
         The final dune's high summit went from a line slowly slipping down my visor to an untouched reality beneath my feet. The suns glared. The wind tried to topple us. I blinked more sweat from my eye and peered out through a watery film and a darkened visor at the valley floor below.
         Six robed figures stood waiting in a staggered line across the sand, their widely-spaced footprints fading into the desert behind them. Hairless ectomorphs with long limbs and long necks and huge heart-shaped heads. Their skin was a slightly darker shade of grey than the ocean of sand around them. They looked up the dune slope toward us. Twelve tiny almond-shaped eyes, black as my visor, reflected back the suns, giving nothing away.
         Lynskey's face appeared suddenly in front of mine and blocked my view. Had my visor not been darkened, he would have spotted the roach pressed and twitching behind.
         "You okay in there, Cage?" he asked.
         I thought I saw the corner of his mouth hitch, just a little. It had a knowing quality to it that sent a chill racing down my back.
         "Absolutely." I looked for that smirk and saw it was gone - if it had ever been there in the first place. "Ready to help Guderman seal this deal."
         Lynskey did not flinch, but turned and issued the order to descend.
         I watched him for a few seconds before I fell back into formation. I wondered if he felt my gaze on his back. He had to be growing worried. I wasn't out of the way. The roach ought to have done its job by now. The desert ought to have covered my lifeless body. And no one would have cared about either of us - just a couple of insects rotting in the desert heat. But there we were, about to meet the Etanians, and I was present and accounted for, sir.
         Guderman began talking, running over his opening line to the Etanians in a variety of different tones and styles. I imagined he'd done the same thing earlier in front of a mirror onboard the ship. Whitaker and Childs, never ones to miss an opportunity, eagerly joined in until future friends, I am Earth Council envoy Dominic Guderman rang threefold in our ears.
         I looked past the others at the Etanians, trying to judge the distance between us. Something - a small black object - slipped from the clutch of a set of elongated fingers and dropped onto the sand. One of the other Etanians stepped forward and kicked more sand over it, then pretended to have an innocuous conversation with the guilty Etanian. My first thought was: weapon. I glanced at the others, Childs, Whitaker, Guderman, Lynskey, but no one had seen what I had seen for Guderman's verbal oil slick pouring into their ears. I was about to report it to them when I noticed that my visor was once again clear.
         No roach.
         In that brief moment of surprise, my mouth had dropped open and the drink tube had slipped enough for the roach to pull itself completely free. Not without a sacrifice, however: one of its legs remained behind, looking like an L-shaped crack on my visor.
         My neck prickled from more than fear. Was I only imagining those barbs on its legs gripping my skin a little harder than before? I thought not.
         The roach moved up toward the hairline on the back of my neck, decided against that particular route, and scuttled toward the side of my face instead. Racing under my ear, it brushed my lobe. I wanted to scream, but an open mouth was an open invitation; I bit down hard on the tube instead. The bug crawled upside down along my jaw, deftly conquered the overhang of my chin, and scaled the centre of my face until it reached the slippery summit of my brow. There, it waved its bloated tail through the air like a flag.
         I was breathing hard.
         The Etanians were seconds away.
         Hot air rolled back off my visor and dried the sweat on my face.
         Lynskey - where is he?
         Over there...
         Etanian mouths narrowed to the size of coin slots. It was how they smiled.
         ...front centre with Whitaker and Childs.
         Guderman turned, looked at me, concern on his face.
         The roach's tail dropped to hang in front of my right eye.
         One of the Etanians looked directly at me. Maybe living on a world with two suns above and dazzling sand-glare below they were irresistibly drawn to points of darkness like my visor. Or maybe he sensed my fear...
         The tail dangled in front of me for a moment longer before it began to move - out, out, and away. Then, it plunged forward into my eye.
         The pain was instantaneous and excruciating. I screamed inside my suit, shrieking down the open comms line as something like molten lava was pumped inside my eyeball. I clawed at my headgear, stumbled, fell, landed on the sand. The roach held on. If anything, its enthusiasm grew, and the pulses, the spurts increased to an almost constant stream of agony.
         I lay on my side, stuck to a wall of sand that extended above and below me. The world sat askew. Against a backdrop of blue, down which fat clouds fell in slow-motion, figures perpendicular to me moved in chaotic fashion. Giant boots thumped down in front of me, spraying sand over my visor. Weapons hidden beneath sandy robes were hurriedly unveiled, and the slotted, smiling mouths of the Etanians grew into great dark O's that consumed half their face.
         We never brought weapons, I thought, forgetting for the moment the pistol I had secreted away. We brought a bug...
         Then I laughed, even through the pain in my eye. Laughed until I heard myself scream.
         I watched them slice Childs with hot emerald cutter beams. Both legs clean off with one lateral stroke, like they'd cut sheet metal instead of flesh and bone. A strong gust of wind pushed his legs one way and dropped his torso upright in the sand. While it wavered and threatened to fall, they popped his head like a thumbed bottle cap. I watched it drop and roll out of his headgear. Sand covered his face, stuck to his eyes. It got everywhere, all right.
         Whitaker got keyholed what must have been a thousand times. Two of the Etanians went to work on him with their cutters on strobe. By the time he fell he was mesh.
         I rolled onto my back. The Sisters flashed me a wink from behind a cloud. Apparently, the roach was done with me now. She had unfastened herself and lay sprawled out somewhere, resting. The pain was indescribable. My right eye was blind - it felt bloated, pumped up to at least twice its normal size. The war inside it was already raging; I could feel the parasites scrabbling around in there. I rolled onto my side again.
         Someone, Lynskey or Guderman, stood in front of me. All I could see was the heel of their boot. I heard ragged breathing over the comms line.
         The Etanians gathered. Dark pinprick eyes over angry chasm mouths.
         Something fell onto the sand beside the boot. The pin from a fragmentation grenade.
         First there was light.
         And then...darkness.


         Lynskey is dead.
         My right eye is a war zone, but Lynskey, at least, is dead.
         His shredded body lies on the desert floor among the Etanians. They're all dead too, reduced to gore and body parts. I can only imagine the smell out there. Meanwhile, the suns have slipped all the way down the sky. Moved in for a closer look.
         It will be dark soon. Dark and cold. I can't get up yet. Shock from the blast. I check my suit for punctures, but there can't be any - I'd be dead by now - so I'm really just checking my luck. Each coin-sized hole in the outer layers broadens my smile. I'm blind in my right eye, but the left is still good. And I'm alive. I'm still alive.
         Then someone's foot taps my shoulder.
         My entire body tenses as my mind opens on something terrifying: if one of the Etanians survived the blast then this feeling of aliveness is about to be cut short.
         I roll onto my other side. I see a foot, a suit, headgear, and a smile. Guderman's smile. A long diagonal hairline crack on his visor puts a line through the middle of it. There's the crackle of interference over the comms line but it still works.
         "How does it feel," Guderman says, "to have started a war?"
         "What are you talking about?"
         "Your little dance earlier has set two worlds against each other, Cage. Don't believe me? Take a look up there..."
         I roll onto my back. The sky is dulling, cloud wisps are massing to form what will become a thick rolling bank, but other than a day reaching its end I see nothing. Then a small sunburst flashes in the upper atmosphere. An exploded craft. Seconds later, another. More seconds, more sunbursts.
         "But how could it happen so fast?"
         "Firstly," he says, "you've been unconscious for quite some time. Secondly, one of the Etanians escaped and reported back to his people."
         "Why didn't you stop him?"
         "I only had one grenade."
         "That was you? I thought -"
         "Ah. You thought it was Lynskey." He laughs coldly in my ear. "Parasites already eating through your brain, Lieutenant?"
         I grab Guderman's leg, wrap my arm around it in much the same way as the roach wrapped its tail around the tube, and twist with all my remaining strength. I don't have enough left to break the bone, but his scream is a welcome start.
         "Tell me what the hell you've done."
         "It's evolution, Cage -"
         Another twist.
         Another scream.
         "Enough," Guderman breathes. "Enough. You've done us proud, Cage. Thank you. Someone once said it's never about the destination but the journey. They were wrong - it's all about the destination."
         "You better start making sense fast." I encourage him with another leg-twist, and his cries leave a sweet ringing in my ears.
         "I know who you are," he says finally. "You're I.I.D. And I know why you're here. Lynskey. Well, he's dead. Congratulations. No plan can ever be perfect and yet somehow things seem to have fallen into place, haven't they? Lynskey is out of the way, the war has begun, and there's no chance anyone will think to lay any of it at my door."
         "You can't be working alone. Who else is involved? Who wanted this?"
         Guderman laughs. "Why, everyone, Cage. Including you. I told you, it's evolution. What I.I.D. don't realise is that it's bigger than all of us."
         "You're wrong."
         "Really? My orders come direct from on high."
         "The Council would never agree to this."
         "There exists a power far greater than The Council, Lieutenant."
         "Lies. If such a power exists, why have The Council or the I.I.D. in the first place? Why not openly declare war on everyone?"
         "And let chaos rule? I don't think so. The good people of Earth would hardly stand for it. Come on, Cage, think. They want heroes, not warmongers."
         "So The Council is lying to them..."
         "The people don't care how things really work, otherwise wouldn't they be more involved? No, all they want is to feel safe and free to pursue their little hedonistic pleasures. Real life, on the other hand, is about conflict and struggle. This way, they get what they want while the rest of us play our part in the expansion of the race."
         "By warmongering..."
         "By doing what is necessary for us to evolve."
         "Spare me the 'greater good' spiel, Guderman. It's just a smokescreen for greed."
         "Not at all. It's long been understood war is the unfortunate imperative, Cage, and that the machine of war must always be on the move. But wait - what am I doing here? I'm talking to a dead man."
         A chill races down my back. Somehow, I resist the temptation to twist his leg clean off.
         "I'm not dead yet," I say. "I'm taking you back to the ship. We're going to fix this thing."
         I'm not thinking about how we're getting back. I don't know if my legs are strong enough to carry me ten feet never mind the distance back to The Cassandra. All I'm thinking about is making it out of this desert alive and getting home to my Katerina. "I didn't start this war. I'll make them see that, and you - you'll help me. Let's go."
         Guderman laughs again. "You're going nowhere, Cage. You're an Infected traitor." He laughs harder. Before I can cut him off, the laughter catches in his throat as though he's choking on something. It sounds like he's coughing up blood.
         "Come on," I say, "we're running out of time. Get up."
         "Yes, we are," he says, and I listen to him spit something out. I turn my head to look at him and there's a running splash of red on his visor. "She's done with you, isn't she? Tell me - where'd she drop them? In your ear? Down your throat? Where?"
         I see no reason not to tell him.
         "What does it feel like," he continues, "having those little bastards crawling around inside your eyeball?"
         I take a long look at him. "Like an itch I can't scratch."
         "Too bad," he says. "Once they're finished fighting in there the one who's left will head straight for your brain. I don't know how they know where to find it, but they always do." He smiles at me. "Then it's the headaches...the seizures...and finally cerebral embolism and death. It really couldn't have worked out any better, don't you agree?"
         I feel them. Their tiny carcasses floating in my vitreous humor. A thousand microscopic legs pointing accusingly at each other. The remaining parasites scurrying around in their fight to the end. For the victor the spoils. The spoils of me.
         I release my hold on Guderman's leg and roll over again. The sand at my back rushes me forward as the sky collapses toward us. I'm falling, falling...
         "When I return to address The Council," Guderman says, "I will tell them the Etanians violated our agreement by bringing weapons to the table, which is a truth. I will tell them they were extremely trigger-happy, which is also a truth. I will tell them how the one to instigate the breakdown of the meeting was the very officer I.I.D. sent to investigate Lynskey for conduct unbecoming. And it is at this precise point that I will drop in the part about you being infected by a Listed species. When they hear that, the Council will fall over themselves to cover this whole mess up rather than admit their own incompetence. The war will continue with enthusiasm. We shall win. And Etanian lands and resources will belong to Earth."
         I have to stop this, I think. But how? What can one man do?
         He can start a war, comes the reply. He can do that.
         Guderman shimmies on his back through the sand, out of my reach. He spits another dark crimson flower onto his visor. Among its petals there are gobbets of bloody tissue.
         "They say you're able to hear it in there," he says. "Inside your skull. Hear it tearing out every tiny mouthful. Soon you'll forget a word here, a memory there. Maybe it'll stim an old sense impression, something like the perfume your wife wore on your first date. You'll even smell it, as though she was standing right in front of you. Of course, all this will happen a few minutes before you forget what perfume is and that your wife ever existed. A unique way to go, Cage, I'm sure you'll agree."
         Don't listen to him. You know what he's doing. He's trying to stop you thinking. Keep you from doing what you need to do. Don't listen to him. Admit what you know - there's a way. It's getting colder...
         "Stay, Lieutenant," Guderman says. "Lie awhile. Let nature take its course. It won't be long now. It's funny, isn't it, the power that even the smallest of us can wield. Man over machine. Insect over man."
         "There's no difference between you and this bug, Guderman. First chance I get, I'm squashing both of you."
         "That's not quite what I meant. Besides, there is a difference. That insect fights only to preserve itself and by doing that its own kind. Man is far nobler. Our aim is not only to preserve our kind but all life everywhere. With the following postscript, of course: let all live but allow the strongest to thrive. What is so wrong with that?"
         Guderman clambers to his feet, staggers one way then the other. He starts to scramble up the dune slope. It's a long way back to the ship, and I know he has to at least try.
         But he will never make it.
         The far skies are filling up with infantry dropships. From this distance, they look like a plague of locusts. The ground conflict is beginning, too. The machine of war rolls fast.
         Take out your eye.
         Take it out. It's colder now, the heat won't kill you. Do it.
         But the air...
         Hold your breath.
         But -
         Are you just going to roll over and give yourself to this thing? Let it win so easily?
         Let it turn you into some soulless thing? A bug? What about your wife? Your home? Your future children?
         They're waiting for me.
         You are not an insect. You feel. You love -
         Yes. Yes, I love Katerina.
         You want to live.
         I want to live.
         Climbing onto my feet, the world spins so that I'm not sure which way is up, or left from right.
         I'm coming home, my sweet.
         The suns are low in the sky. The temperature is falling.
         I take the largest breath, hold it. Remove my headgear.
         The heat scalds my face, but it won't kill me, at least not before I do what I have to do.
         The Prometheus Roach drops out of the headgear onto the sand. I instinctively raise my foot to crush it...but decide to let it go instead. I am not a heartless killer, a soulless thing. It was merely carrying out its function. The roach picks itself up and flies off into the desert, the red bioluminescent blemish on its back a tiny diminishing flame.
         I turn and look up the dune at Guderman.
         He is halfway to the top, crawling on his stomach like a bug. He grabs a fistful of sand in one hand, then pushes with the opposite leg, grabs another fistful in the other hand, then pushes with the opposite leg, and so on. Despite his head start, he will not get far. He knows too much. And what he knows can hurt me.
         It's time.
         Yes, it is. I can't hold this breath much longer.
         Far away, the ground forces are engaging each other. Fires light up the evening sky. Hundreds, maybe thousands are dying.
         But as my fingers push their way into my eye I'm unable to hear anyone's screams except my own.

© Electric Spec