Chapter Ten: A Song of Sixpence
Gil’s plate and cup clattered to the floor as he lunged backwards, narrowly escaping the impossibly sharp tip of the clear rod. Korben had assumed a stance that looked unfamiliar to Gil but was still clearly the result of some form of combat training: bent knees, one leg in front of the other, and the diminished left arm pointing behind Korben with the wielding arm up front.
Gil shouted, “Wait!” as he backed up, defensively holding his hands out in front of him. Korben stomped after him, swinging and thrusting like a crazed swordsman. Ever mindful of the spinning disc in the middle of the room, Gil navigated around it backwards while clumsily dodging the repeated thrusts of Korben’s weapon. Several times, the tall one swung the object at Gil, content to simply crack him across the face with it like a club; but somehow, to Korben’s visible frustration and Gil’s sheer disbelief, the weapon hadn’t managed to make contact.
Gil was already nearly out of breath, and running out of luck just as quickly. He hadn’t been well rested to begin with, and his burst of adrenaline was draining fast. Would-be shouts of whys, waits, stops, and pleases came out in ragged exhales as he tried as hard as he could to avoid meeting the business end of Korben’s spear. It was so obvious to him; of course, now that they’d gotten what they came for, the cat had decided to play with the mouse before killing it.
At last, the terrified Gil tripped over his own feet and fell onto his back. Korben moved between Gil’s flailing legs, stepped its left foot on his stomach, and towered over him. Its spear shot high up into the air, ready to finally land a blow and dispose of Gil.
The spear flew down like a bullet. With the last ounce of Gil’s strength, he twisted his body to the right and just barely cleared the path of the weapon. It rang out with a deafening clang as the tip made contact with the floor of the round room, the sound sending sharp pain into Gil’s ears. He feared they would begin bleeding. Korben roared with anger and drew the spear back again. Gil couldn’t fight it anymore—his body refused to move. He watched helplessly as Korben’s right arm came down a second time.
But just as the spear was about to drive into the soft tissue of Gil’s side, Jeltz leaped up from behind Korben and grabbed the giant’s shoulder. The force caused Korben to swing backwards, interrupting the spear’s path and sending it across Gil’s belly and up into the air like a pendulum. The swipe left only a slight abrasion; if Gil had been inhaling, he would have opened up like rubber coin purse.
Gil was stunned—the other alien appeared to be defending him. It became clear in an instant that Korben was acting alone.
The tall one shook Jeltz halfway off and then flung the alien away with its diminished left arm. Jeltz landed on the spinning disc—audibly slowing its rotation like a soft brake pad—and was then immediately and harshly thrown off. It hit the floor and rolled several times over, like a person thrown from a moving vehicle. The lights seemed to flicker for a moment, as if an engine somewhere had sputtered. Gil lifted his head slightly and saw that a portion of Jeltz’s backside was seared, a small mess of dark grey and pale green. It barked in pain—in fact, Gil realized they all seemed to be barking. The short, staccato grunts of quarreling apes filled the room. Roger was now making its way towards Korben from the other side of the room, while the newcomer remained in the doorway and worriedly stared—
Gil once again heard the clang of the spear meeting the ground, and screamed in pain. His eyes shot to his left side, where he saw that the spear had grazed him. It left a slit not unlike the score a baker would cut into the top of a loaf of bread, and the pain intensified with each passing second. It burned—no, seared his insides as if they were being cauterized. He felt as if a jellyfish had burrowed into his flesh.
Gil batted the clear pole away and felt Korben falter like an old man whose cane was kicked out from under him. He looked up to see Korben’s ugly face and, for the first and last time, he saw a smile. The giant’s mouth looked like a grinning skull. It had bent over so far that its face was mere inches away from Gil’s. It stood back up, lifted the spear over its head, and whacked the wound in Gil’s side. He wailed in pain. He was unsure if the grazing stab had been poor aim or if Korben just wanted to toy with him, but he was relieved that it didn’t seem to be fatal.
Roger finally reached Korben’s right side and tried to restrain the giant. Korben, caught in the frenzy of finally doing away with Gil, shot its right hand back to forcefully push Roger away; but it accidentally plunged the sharp end of the spear through Roger’s eye and into its brain. The point made an audible popping sound as it pierced the black orb, and again as it cracked through the other side leading to the grey matter. The skewered alien let out an abrupt and short, high-pitch shriek, and then fell backwards. The eye slid off the spear smoothly, like an olive pulled off a cocktail toothpick, and Roger hit the floor like a statue. It twitched, and then lay still.
For what felt like an eternity, the room was silent. All eyes were on Roger’s corpse—even Gil’s, who’d momentarily forgotten about the pain in his side. A panic-stricken Korben dropped the spear, which hit the ground with several sharp clangs before settling. The noise seemed to kick-start the clock back into motion—Jeltz suddenly cried out for its fallen companion, banging its fists on the ground. It was the most unpleasant sound Gil had ever heard in his life. It struggled to its feet, careful not to agitate the burn on its backside, and limped over to Roger. The newcomer followed suit, whining the whole time. They sat around the body, clearly mourning the loss. Gil was confused—when Kif died, they hadn’t done much more than toss the body out the window. It had been as if an appliance stopped working and was then simply discarded. But around Roger, they reacted in a way Gil would expect someone to react when a close friend dies. Poor Kif, he thought. I guess Roger was just more important.
Korben took a few steps back, its face still wearing an expression of panicked anguish, and then darted for the opening that led to the corridor. The feeling of déjà vu rose up in Gil again, and despite everything, he started to laugh. With a voice long ago turned hoarse, the laughter tumbled out like a cackling witch. He hurt. The pain reasserted itself as the laughter continued, forcing him to hold his sides; but the more it hurt, the more uncontrollable the laughter became. The sandpaper in his throat finally interrupted, leading to hacking coughs and gasps for air, but the grimacing smile persisted.
He couldn’t help it—he felt like he was watching a reenactment. And sure enough, the giant returned with the stout, mercy-killing device that it’d shoved through Kif’s skull just a few days before. An all-new fit of laughter erupted from Gil. If he’d been able to speak, he would have asked the giant what the point was of mercy-killing a corpse—Roger was already dead. Instead, he continued to choke on his laughter. His initial opinion of them reasserted itself, and Gil thought, God help them, they’re just stupid kids in over their heads.
The others attempted to shoo Korben away, but it forced past them. Just as before, Korben cleanly shunted the device into Roger’s forehead. And just as before, the device lit up red and blared like a foghorn. Of course, there was no twitching this time, no creepy undulation from the lifeless alien. Gil, screaming with hoarse cackles, watched through blurry eyes and waited for the green light and single beep. But it never came.
With its right hand wrapped around the hilt of the device, Korben impatiently pounded its left nub on the floor of the round room. After a moment, the device’s red light shut off, and blared its foghorn sound again. Gil stared at the three of them, lying on his stomach with his laughter finally under control. This isn’t in the script, he thought. It’s supposed to turn green.
The newcomer and Jeltz stood up and stared at Korben, who remained crouching at the head of the corpse. When it finally rose up and locked eyes with the other two aliens, it scowled and started towards them. They each intercepted one of Korben’s arms and restrained the giant, similar to how the they’d restrained Gil the day before. Korben barked in protest, falling backwards and slumping as the others dragged it out of the room. It fought hard, and could have easily overpowered any two men, but its travel companions managed to subdue the angry alien and take it away. Gil heard the commotion continue just outside the view of the door, which meant they were in the leftmost reaches of the cockpit. Straps were pulled, tones were shouted, and feet continued to stomp.
Gil was alone. His laughter had died as completely as his new roommate, and was replaced with a sense of confusion. Despite the similarities to the other day, things had taken a sudden turn. Was Korben in trouble for trying to murder Gil, or for accidentally killing Roger? Why would Korben try to put Roger out of its misery after it had clearly already died? And why didn’t the device behave the same way as before?
He got to his feet and started towards Roger, but could barely manage. The pain in his side screamed. Contorting himself to get a good look, he moved his slashed shirt out of the way and saw what appeared to be processed ham. The spear, it seemed, hadn’t so much cut into him as it had simply deleted what it touched. His side looked like the notch in the long end of a carnival ticket stub. And God, the throbbing pain.
He knelt down to pick up the spear. He looked closely, narrowing his eyes in an effort to see the finer details, and noticed a small hollow running along the inside of the glass rod. His eyes moved along the length of it to the tip, where more scrutiny revealed tiny pores. He looked back towards the other end of the spear and located a small button. Pressing the button pushed a clear substance through the pores of the spear’s tip, like the clear sludge from a stick of deodorant. Lightly pressing the tip to the left leg of the corpse, he was horrified to see the spear melt through like butter. It had to be some sort of acid.
Gil cautiously set the spear on the floor again and looked Roger up and down. Its left hand had slipped under the spinning disc and rested in Gil’s urine. He used his foot to scoot it out of the puddle, and then looked at Roger’s face. “I’m sorry I named you Roger,” he lamented. “I should have called you Zoidberg, or Phlox, or some other alien that’d had at least been a doctor and knew a thing or two about humans. Instead I named you after a jackass prima donna from a cartoon.”
Beside the corpse’s head was the thumbtack-shaped device they all seemed to favor for putting the final punctuation mark on a life. He thought about picking it up, but decided not to after seeing the flesh and blood pasted around the spike. He saw, however, that there was a small opening at the tip of the black spike and wondered what it could be used for. He’d assumed the device was just a simple thing that shocked them to death—like a portable electric chair—but maybe something was ejected through that small hole? Or maybe something was sucked up through the hole?
It occurred to him, suddenly, that if the cockpit was open, all of the outer chambers might be open. Perhaps it was time to see where this strange device came from. He started walking towards the center room’s only open exit immediately, forgetting about his pain in an instant. He’d been wondering for days what might be in that final room, and with the trio occupied, this might be his only chance to find out.
He reached the threshold and cautiously peered out from the edge of the doorway. Korben was seated at the leftmost of the five chairs in the cockpit, strapped down with several seatbelts across its chest, waist, and lap. A few smaller straps held both arms in place at the biceps and wrists, which perplexed Gil—he wondered why a chair would ever need straps like that, unless they expected that they might need to restrain someone. The nub of Korben’s diminished left hand was able to freely slide in and out of the loop formed by the strap, but that didn’t seem to bother Jeltz or the newcomer. They sat across from Korben with their backs against the control board. All three of them stared at each other, no doubt engaged in one of their silent conversations. Gil crept to the right, excited to see that the mystery room was indeed open.
In the center of the room stood a column at a height of roughly four and a half feet. On the left, three dividers of similar height extended from the wall and floor—it had the same bloomed appearance as all the other permanent furniture on the ship, as well as the same glossy dark silver finish. Each divider was somewhere around seven feet long, collectively forming two stalls with five feet of width and seven feet of depth. Though Gil’s focus was currently on the left side of the room, his peripheral vision revealed that the right wall held two identical stalls.
Both of the stalls on the left were empty, save for a small series of channels etched into the floor that led to a drain dead center. The drains were topped with little covers, making them resemble shower stalls. He could smell something—something familiar—but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It was something like raw meat. And past the second stall, in the two-foot space between its wall and the tapered wall of the ship, Gil was relieved to see several clear crates of various shapes and sizes containing the picked-clean remains of cattle. Just… regular cattle; the source of the crew’s food supply.
Each crate seemed to contain specific categories of remains. One crate held the bleached-white bones of appendages. One contained a heap of disassembled ribcages. Another was a disgusting mess of organs and tissue they’d apparently determined weren’t fit for consumption. Underneath that was another crate stuffed full with skins. The topmost crate held four bovine skulls.
Four cows, he thought. Either this quartet’s been here a long time, or these things consume a lot more meat than they let on. Gil knew that four cows had to have yielded something close to two thousand pounds of red meat. But judging by the refrigerator he’d recently gotten into, they didn’t have more than a couple of steaks remaining.
Gil turned around to view the right side of the room and saw two identical stalls. One of them was just as empty as the others, while the final stall was anything but empty. A cow, dead, lay on its side with its belly ripped open. There had obviously been a lot of blood, but it’d collected in the channels leading to the drain, caking it like a layer of dark brown wax. He wondered for a moment why flies and maggots weren’t already moving in and living off the land, then remembered where he was. No insects out here.
The cow’s mouth had been outfitted with some sort of respirator that looked to have been there for weeks. Blood and saliva had at first coated the inside of the mask, then became cracked and discolored. The guts, on the other hand, looked no more than a day old. Yes, the blood was dried and drying, but the innards were still saturated with juices. Its torso was a mess. He was a little surprised to realize the thing didn’t stink. He supposed its flesh hadn’t sat long enough to rot, but cattle didn’t smell pleasant when they were alive. Also, Gil never heard a peep from it, though he supposed it was possible the mouth piece had held it in some sort of coma.
A gigantic chunk had been ripped from its chest, leaving a cozy grotto behind numerous cracked and broken ribs. Some portions of its furry skin looked to have been sliced open with a sharp blade, while other portions bore the grooves of fingers. It was as if one of them had attempted to cut it up by the book, while the others were so hungry they’d ripped into it with their bare hands like zombies in a gritty horror movie. But why did so much meat remain? Hundreds of pounds of edible flesh stuck to its bones, simply going to waste.
Gil moved closer to get a better look and almost ran into the square column in the middle of the room. His attention shifted to a clear glass lid on top of the column, and he could see a few dozen ice cubes inside—some of the same cubes Jeltz had ushered to the exam room the day before. They were meticulously stacked to ensure there was no wasted space, but judging by the scratch marks along the inner walls, several dozen cubes had been removed over time. In fact, they seemed to be running low.
He opened the lid—it pulled upwards on hinges, like the top of a gas station barrel cooler, and a pleasant coolness wafted out at him from inside the hollow column. He bent down and attempted to pick up one of the cubes, but it was too cold; his sweaty fingers stuck to the dry surface, and when he pulled his hand back, he winced in pain as one of the heavy cubes came with him.
He closed the lid of the column, set his hand down, and carefully peeled his fingers off the ice. He lost a bit of skin, which stung, but he was otherwise fine. In the center of the cube, a small mass hung suspended. With his hands on his knees, he kneeled down slightly and peered inside to try to determine just what the hell was in there. But as the heat of the room settled into the surface of the ice, the foggy exterior melted away to a glossy sheen, and the cube slid into a square groove in the center of the lid. He hadn’t noticed it before. The lid was slightly concave with a small groove in the center, each side measuring about four inches—like it was engraved specifically for the purpose of holding these cubes in place.
Gil found it difficult to make anything out under the wavy, optical tricks of the frozen water, but he eventually pieced together what the mass was: some sort of embryo. Two black eyes and four nubs protruding out of a grey slug formed a vaguely familiar chibi version of his captors. This must be why they were successful the second time they injected themselves, Gil thought. They got it right by making several of these things their guinea pigs. I guess those discolored lumps on the counter had to have been failed attempts. Gil found this to be strange, not to mention a little unethical, but even stranger was the question of why the numerous embryos shared the same space as the crew’s food supply.
He shifted his focus to the column. Three of the column’s sides were bare, but on its far side—the side closest to the tapered edge of the ship—he saw a single button and a shelf underneath containing five of the mercy-killing devices that’d been used on Kif and Roger. Each device sat attached to a base, and he saw enough room for two more of them. Seven all together, he thought, and of course knew why two were missing. Why do they have so many of them? Two of the five seemed to be completely powered down, while three had the same green light illuminating from the hilt he’d seen when Kif had been executed.
Gil brought his finger to the button above the shelf, hesitated for a moment, and then pressed it. A hatch in the ceiling slid open, and a claw on a multi-elbowed metal arm emerged. The claw looked like a thing people would waste quarters on trying to grab a stuffed animal at an arcade. It straightened its many joints, extending down to the lid of the column, and gripped the ice cube. The claws then spun around the cube, shaving it down and shooting ice chips everywhere until only a small chunk remained with the tiny embryo inside. Finally, the individual fingers wrapped it tightly and pushed it up into the palm of the metal arm like a cannon being loaded. A small, green light flickered on just above the claw—it was a hole with illuminated walls, just big enough to accept the four-inch spike of one of the devices on the shelf.
He picked one at random, inserted it into the illuminated hole on the metal arm, and gave it a quarter-turn to lock it in place. The device flashed red, emitted a quiet buzzing sound, and then rotated itself back in the opposite direction. Gil almost didn’t react quickly enough to catch the device as it was rejected from the arm. He put it back on the base and picked a different device—one with a green light.
The arm reacted immediately. It rose up and maneuvered to one of the empty stalls on the left side of the room, flashed red, and loudly blared a deep tone.
“Oh no,” Gil said. He knew they had to have heard that. The arm swung to the adjacent stall, flashed, and sounded its alarm again. “Oh no,” he said again. It swung to the empty stall on the other side of the room, flashed again, and sounded its alarm just as the newcomer and Jeltz bolted into the room. “Oh no,” he whined, shaking his head.
As the arm reached the carcass-occupied stall, flashed green, and then pleasantly chimed, Jeltz pushed Gil out of the way and jammed its open palm on the column’s button in an attempt to interrupt whatever was happening; it didn’t work. The newcomer leaped into the air, gripping the metal arm and wrapping its free hand around the device. The alien forced it to unlock and then ripped the device from the metal arm as it lowered into the mangled corpse and ejected the embryo into a mess of ground beef. The embryo had been surrounded in some sort of fluid-filled sack and, regardless of how it would have worked on a live cow, it unceremoniously slapped into the spoiling meat like a water balloon. The metal arm rose up, folded itself back into the ceiling, and disappeared. The hatch door slid shut behind it.
The newcomer inspected the device to ensure the green light remained, then walked over to the column and put it back on its base. Both of the aliens stared at Gil, who suddenly seemed to be in a trance. He stared past them, but not in his trained acting-blind gaze—his mind was racing.
Gil stepped around the newcomer and took a closer look at the dead cow. In the corner of the stall, the sixth device stood upright, still caked in Kif’s week-old guts. There was no green light. He looked down at the floor and saw small, bloody footprints leading away from the corpse and into the corridor. He hadn’t noticed them before; the surface of the floor was so dark that the cow’s blood almost looked black against it. Now dry, they looked like no more than patches of matte finish on the otherwise glossy panels.
Looking back at the clear containers, he compared the number of cattle to the number of crewmembers aboard the ship. He finally looked back up at the newcomer, who gave Gil the slightest of affirmative nods.
“Oh, God, it is you, isn’t it?” He wasn’t sure how they went about reproduction at home, but it was now clear to Gil that the crew of this ship didn’t fly here; they were reborn here, their consciousnesses stored on those devices for who knows how long before being injected into a host. They’d somehow gestated into full adults, emerged from the cattle—and how the hell did they get the cattle—and then devoured their surrogate mothers in small rations.
Gil retched, and then vomited his last meal onto the floor. He too had taken part in devouring the cattle that’d birthed these strange creatures. No wonder the two aliens worked so fiercely to remove the device form the metal arm—their genetic material and memories rested in those devices, and Gil had very nearly shot one of their kin into a heap of dead meat. Kif wouldn’t have been able to come back if Korben hadn’t used the device in time, and Roger could never come back because it died before Korben could use the device. The former was a minor setback; the latter was manslaughter. The remaining green-lit devices held more of these aliens, aliens Gil hoped never to meet. Suppose one of the green-lit devices held the consciousness of an eight-foot-tall giant?
Gil started to sob. It was just too much. Kif—he had to admit to himself it was Kif—approached him and placed a cold and clammy hand on his shoulder, but he brushed it off. He looked up at Kif, and as the pain in his side reasserted itself, he fainted.