This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Remainders.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was a second prize-winner in the SF Reader annual contest, and it was published there in February 2004.
Jaret Lazarus forced his eyes to remain open as the Pantheron burned through the entry atmosphere of Socorro. He rested his hand on his upper thigh, a few centimeters from the two rows of five buttons on his belt. The interior of the ship smelled like rotting fruit, sulphur, and sweat, thanks to the proximity of the members of his squadron. He shifted his weight, pulling his gut free from where his belt always pinched his skin, and yawned. He’d never been to Socorro, but he knew it had been one of the first colonized human planets outside of the original solar system. As a man with a past he’d rather forget, Jaret cared little for history.
The conscripts that made up his squadron twitched fitfully in their locked harnesses. Half of them gaped mutely at the scratched metal floor of the ship, as if their brains were shut down, or at least in standby. The other half stared at him with varying degrees of apparent contempt and disdain. Along with their shimmering gray and green uniforms, each wore a thick black collar lined with a band of corrugated metal. None of the ten members of his squadron made eye contact with him for more than a split second.
“Get everyone focused,” he called out to Anda, his second-in-command. He unlocked her harness and turned his back on her before she could say anything to him.
Anda stood a foot taller than him, but Jaret knew that as long as he had his belt and she wore her collar, Anda would never turn on him. Anda was the only other human onboard. The rest of the squadron was made up of beings from defeated worlds. Conscription had fulfilled the dual role of keeping the ranks of the Alliance filled, while removing the strongest and ablest bodies from the colonized worlds. As a result, resistance to the interplanetary government was kept to a minimum.
In addition to Anda, Jaret was in command of four Hadras, two Mannatanks, and three oversized, four-legged creatures whose name could not be pronounced by humans without extensive throat-clearing and a series of glottal stops. Jaret called them Bob.
Next to Anda, the only conscripts Jaret could stand were the two Mannatanks. Thick-headed bipeds with dense, bruise-colored bodies, they knew how to fight for a leader, and that’s all Jaret needed. The three younger Hadras were too stupid to warrant his time, coming up to him to whine or mewl at him while their flaking scales got caught in the air intake pump of his flight suit. The eldest Hadras simply watched Jaret in guarded silence. The less Jaret had to think about the three Bobs, the better.
With yellow-orange light cutting through his window on his left, Jaret tried to catch Anda’s eye.
Forget about her, he told himself, in a voice that sounded far too much like his father, the weak-minded sot. Then the ship lurched down through the grimy clouds, banking hard to the left before righting itself, and Jaret could see the planet below them.
From the few ancient images of the planet he’d been able to view with the aid of his information worms, it was apparent that Socorro had long since seen its better days. The blue-green ocean had become a sea of yellowish phlegm, surrounding a cluster of brown land pockmarked with craters and slashed with ragged mountains. No cities, no high-speed carrier lines, no signs of civilization anywhere, just the occasional hint of trails cutting through the barren rocks and rubble, leading to a handful of dirt-clogged ruins. In the middle of the brown lands was a massive crescent-shaped lake slightly less yellow than the surrounding ocean. The smartpilots were aiming toward this lake.
In the past year, it had come to the attention of the inappropriately-named Native Alliance that Socorro’s sun was well on its way of burning itself out, and the natives of Socorro had to be evacuated. Evacuated, then conscripted, Jaret knew, though his superiors hadn’t mentioned that.
He squinted out his tiny window at the unhealthy orange light coming from Socorro’s sun and grimaced. On this mission, they had at least thirty remainders to recover.
Chasing a Hadras’ tail again, Jaret thought, catching himself before he sent out his thoughts to his crew, then wondering an instant later why he bothered. The mission was pointless.
The crusty edges of a dark brown land, shot through with ashy mountains, rose up to meet them as the ship dropped the final few kilometers to the surface. Jaret turned from the window.
“Bunch of rubbernecks,” he muttered, repeating it inside his head, for all of them to hear via translation.
With a soft hiss, the ship bumped down onto the ruined ground five hundred meters from a yellow lake. Jaret glanced into the empty cargo hold behind the harness area, hoping there was room enough for whatever remainders they might find on the planet.
“Listen up!” he shouted. Even though he had to mentally say the words carefully inside his head for the aliens who couldn’t comprehend his spoken words, vocalizing with this group was a rare treat. “You know your team partner. Each pair is to use the coordinates I’m giving you—” Jaret blinked and sent to each conscripts the maps he’d configured for the mission “—now. Stay within the boundaries of these coordinates, or you’ll have a bitch of a crick in your neck when I’m through with you. Search every standing structure and down every hole. Scans showed there were at least a dozen remainders left here, which means there’s probably two to three dozen. Get ‘em, and bring ‘em back to the ship. Keep your suit fields on—” the air crackled with static electricity as all ten soldiers flicked on the invisible force fields their flight suits provided them for hostile environments “—and for shit’s sake, don’t look directly at the sun. Be back in a hundred minutes, Alliance-time, starting… now.”
On his final word, the locks on the harnesses snapped open and the ship’s two hatches dropped open on either side. Jaret’s soldiers leaped through the hatches, landing on two or four legs, their stun spears gripped tight in hands with five, seven, or—as was the case with the Bobs—no fingers. Anda was the last to leave, and she gave Jaret a long look before dropping from the ship. Last night had been a mistake, he knew, but he’d never tell her that.
Jaret called for the smartpilots to close the hatches and enter standby mode, and then he slid outside of himself to manage the recovery effort of his five teams.
“Here we go,” he said, his voice never reaching his ears.
His legs went weak, and he lowered himself down onto his chair just in time. Still staring at the wall, he let his mental perspective split and shift, split and shift, and split and shift again, until he had established a presence inside each of his conscripts’ heads. His right hand drifted down to the buttons on his belt as he watched the ten different scenes in his mind’s eye.
Management by mental proxy was Jaret’s specialty. Once the Native Alliance realized that some language barriers would never be overcome between human and aliens, they began work to cut out the middleman of language altogether, communicating directly with the minds of the aliens. Going outside of his head gave Jaret amazingly bad migraines for a few hours afterward, but he was good at it, and he liked never leaving the ship.
With a sigh, Jaret forced away all distractions—spacewalking, as his father would’ve called it. His father had been killed by an Aborgan (carrying a handmade rock-firing gun) who definitely did not want to join the Native Alliance; Pop had been stupid enough to leave his ship to help when things went sour.
With all ten of his conscripts’ perspectives now locked inside his head, Jaret began his rotation, touching the minds of each of his conscripts, reinforcing his orders and checking status.
He keyed in first on the youngest Hadras, whose teammate was the Elder Hadras. The young Hadras—Jaret had never bothered with its name, but just called the younger male Blue for the color of the design on its scaly back that formed a series of blue infinity signs.
Blue and the Elder Hadras were arguing in their native tongue. The Elder had drifted away from Blue, though both Hadra were having to half-hop, half-slither over the rough terrain on its almost-vestigial legs. Neither of them was moving in the same direction. Jaret grimaced. Why the bosses had ever thought the serpentine Hadras would be good for military service was beyond him.
Jaret slipped into the Elder’s head for a moment, and after getting through the simple-minded creature’s angry, impatient thoughts—get the bastard’s fat hand off his belt and bite off his fat head was the general gist of the Elder’s internal monologue—he saw that he was headed for the first in a series of caves. Blue was stubbornly following, at last.
The rugged landscape was desolate, no signs of life other than the hint of an old path leading to the caves. Jaret made a note to come back to Blue and the Elder when they entered the first cave, and jumped to Red Hadras, on the second team.
Take your time, you dumb rock, the Hadras was thinking, following Grunt, the first Mannatank, as they crept around the coast of the yellow lake. The female Red was content to slither along after Grunt, who was lifting up rocks that had to be heavy as a Mannatank to look under them, sniffing everything with its double noses.
Jaret grinned and prepared himself for the inevitable enthusiasm of Grunt’s mind. He flipped. Once there, he could only remain inside what passed for Grunt’s brain for a few moments, otherwise the repetition of C’mander-Lazarus-want-me-to-find-them, want-to-make-C’mander-Lazarus-proud, got-to-bring-‘em-back-to-C’mander-Lazarus would have driven Jaret insane.
He flipped from Grunt to Jab, Grunt’s female litter-mate, in the third team.
Can’t-believe-he-put-them-together, Jab was thinking, the words running together with their acidity. Stupid-human-with-the-damn-belt, safe-on-the-ship, putting-me-with-this-snake, wasting-my-time-by-this-lake, and-then-the-other-team…
Jaret winced at Jab’s methodical inner voice cutting his mission plan to shreds with critical precision. Jab was too much like Anda—never satisfied with any of Jaret’s decisions.
He quickly left Jab’s mind and flipped to Green Hadras, Jab’s teammate. Green’s thoughts, as always, were hidden, surprising for a low-intelligence species like a Hadras, but Jaret felt something low murmuring in the back of the female’s mind. Probably planning some sort of chaos, Jaret figured, as a worship offering for her damned church.
After a moment’s hesitation, Jaret jumped to Anda.
Go to hell, Jaret, she thought in a sing-song voice that matched her long strides. And get the hell out of my head, you stupid spacewalker.
At first Jaret thought she was simply mad about being paired off with one of the Bobs, or most likely she was still angry about last night, when Jaret wouldn’t let her take the collar off for just ten minutes of lovemaking on his hammock.
Skipping a leap into the un-mind of Anda’s four-legged partner, Jaret keyed in on one of the members of the fifth team, and the critical mistake he’d made hit him like a blast in the face from a jury-rigged rock gun.
He immediately thought of a list of excuses: this was only his third mission with this batch of conscripts, his time had been short in preparing for this mission, and he’d been so preoccupied with Anda that he’d thrown together the teams quickly, at the last minute, just before the ship left orbit. He’d given no more thought to their makeup, until now.
The fifth team was composed of two Bobs.
Plowing headlong like horses across the cracked flatland south of the mountains, their four slender legs covering five meters with each stride, the two Bobs were still within the search parameters that Jaret had given them. But within twenty seconds, at the rate the big hump-backed beasts were running, they would be out of it. He saw the ridges running down the backbone of the first Bob, running bent over in front of the other Bob. Judging from the wild, unrelenting thoughts of the second Bob, both creatures were in male mode, at the height of their aggression cycle, and they were trying to outrun the range of their collars.
“Shit!” Jaret said, inadvertently breaking off the links to all but the two running Bobs for less than a second.
All Jaret heard in their un-minds was the angry repetition of the word in the common language of Xeno: Tradrapra. Escape. Jaret gave both Bobs a mentally invasive order to stop; the only other action he could take beyond that was to go for the buttons on his belt.
Nothing. Just Tradrapra Tradrapra Tradrapra.
And then Jaret realized he’d left his other eight conscripts unattended.
For three seconds, the world slowed for Jaret Lazarus.
He blocked out all self-doubt and hesitation in his mind for the first time in years, which allowed him to work at ten times his normal speed. He mentally flipped wide, back to all ten conscripts, reconnecting to the groupmind with a white-hot stab of pain just behind his eyes. Without pausing he went from all ten to Anda, ordering her to cover the Bob on her team (her Bob was fully in female mode, Jaret saw, no ridges on its back and a strangely thoughtful look on its anvil-shaped face).
Then he went to the two runaway Bobs. They were at the perimeter of their assigned search area.
Jaret jabbed the corresponding buttons on his belt. As his first hypercharged second ended, he felt the un-mind of one of the Bobs go suddenly blank inside his head.
Without waiting for the second Bob to pop, he flipped over to Blue on the first team with another jab of eye-watering pain.
One of the Bobs got away, the back of his mind whispered.
Blue and the Elder were wrestling with each other at the entrance to the first set of caves. Rolling on the glass-like shards of black rock, the Elder hammered on Blue with its tail, but Blue managed to squirm away and keep the mad Elder at bay. Jaret ordered them to stop.
A second and a half had passed when Jaret flipped to Red Hadras.
Red, the alpha female of the Hadra, stood quivering on one leg with her tail poised at Grunt. The over-eager Mannatank sat gasping in the thick, unmoving water of the yellow lake. His blocky legs were in the air, and he was trying to hold closed a thin gash that had been cut into his suit. Tendrils of smoke slipped from the hole.
The buzzing in Jaret’s head felt like it was cutting through his eardrums.
Red stood poised to lash out at Grunt again. Again Jaret gave orders to stop and flipped to the next team. The third second began.
Green Hadras was hunched over, tail in the air as she held the head of Jab in both of her small, scaly hands. Jab’s blocky, oversized body lay motionless next to Green.
No. Jaret risked a glance down at the buttons on his belt as stabbing pain pierced his forehead.
Jaret gave an invasive order for the rest of the squadron to stay right where they were. The inside of the ship was going dim and gray. Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain in his head, he keyed in on Anda one last time.
Die, you brainless pile of shit! Anda screamed inside her mind as she jabbed her stun spear repeatedly into her Bob. Jaret! Give me some help here, damn it!
All the Bobs seemed to share one brain, or what passed for a brain in a Bob, and Jaret imagined this Bob had lost control after feeling the head-popping of the two other Bobs. Using the limited scope of mental communication abilities that Jaret had started teaching her, Anda was also beginning to realize what happened to the other Bobs, and Jaret’s fuck-up with Jab.
“We have collar activity,” Jaret said to her.
Jaret! Anda’s thoughts flashed into his head. Pop this fucking Bob, will you? I need to go help the others!
“Watch out,” Jaret said, punching the button for the Bob’s collar. He tried to make his internal voice louder, more forceful in spite of the agony blooming throughout his entire head.
“Gather the others together,” he added and then he realized he’d been speaking out loud, not inside his head.
“Fuck,” he said. Inside his head, Anda called out his name, telling him she was on her way to the lake to meet up with the others. Three times he repeated that they were having collar activity. But Anda kept shouting the same information at him, not acknowledging his voice.
She could no longer hear him. Jaret closed his eyes to stop the interior of the ship from spinning around him, and the shooting pain inside his head tripled. He could smell his own sour sweat, and the taste of bile filled the back of his throat. Anda could no longer hear him.
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Read the rest as an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords.