Chapter 12: When it Rains Hellspawn…
“I think it’s an alien,” Rusty said, prodding at the four-inch grub with a stick. With Douglass’s direction, they had dug one out of the snow and dropped it into a bowl-shaped crevice in an exposed chunk of rock.
“You think everything’s an alien,” Envy said, though she was getting full-body goosebumps at the creature’s stippled skin, almost like scales on a snake or a lizard. She’d never seen anything like it before, and the way the tiny black teeth curved inward, in the unmistakable jawline of a predator, left her discomfited.
“It’s an alien,” Douglass said. “Four inches long? Black? With jaws? Raining from the sky after an alien ship shot its load into Mother Earth? It’s an alien.”
Envy wished he were wrong, but it was certainly looking bad for the Home Team. She glanced up at the sky, which was still brown with ash haze, the fluffy material dropping all around them like snow.
“I never seen a maggot with skin like that,” Rusty said, poking the thing again. It let out another thin little shriek that made the back of Envy’s neck prickle.
“Stop doing that,” she muttered.
“Why?” Rusty demanded. “If it’s an alien, we should kill it.”
“Says who?” Envy demanded.
Both the men looked at her as if she’d gone completely batshit insane. And one of them was blind, so it made the effect even worse.
“Okay,” Envy said, “then kill it. Just don’t torture it.”
“It’s a maggot,” Rusty laughed.
“It’s an alien,” Douglass retorted. “Who knows, Rusty—that thing might be smarter than you.” He glanced at Envy, “Though that wouldn’t be very hard…”
“I always had a thing for redheads,” was Rusty’s casual reply as he pulled out his big hunting knife. “Always gets Mr. Jimmy’s attention. Took me awhile to realize it don’t really matter what they got under the belt. Mr. Jimmy’s got an imagination of his own, ya know…”
Douglass shuddered. “You win.”
The big man gave him a leering grin and saluted with his Buck knife. Then, without another word, he stabbed it downward, cutting into the little black creature in the bowl of rock.
“Heh,” Rusty chuckled, lifting it up on his knife like a skewered caterpillar. “Now that’s how you deal with alien maggo—”
The tip of his knife fell off with a trail of smoke, and the little maggot dropped into the snow below with a fluff of ash, leaving Rusty staring at his busted weapon in shock.
“It’s the apocalypse and you just broke your knife on a rock,” Douglass snickered. “Great job, man. Darwin would’ve loved you.”
But Envy, who could see, was giving the tip of Rusty’s knife the same squinty stare of confusion that the former jarhead was giving it. “What in the ever-lovin’ fuck is going on here?” Rusty asked, reaching for the melted tip.
“Don’t touch it,” Envy said quickly, thinking of Ridley Scott’s Alien.
“Acid?” Rusty gasped. “These fuckers got acid for blood?” He was beginning to hyperventilate. “So Alien was real? That’s worse than lizards, man. That’s like ten times worse. Think it’s the saliva, too?” Then his eyes went wide and he glanced around, suddenly going pale. “There’s millions of them out there. Are they gonna get bigger and spit acid and kill us all?” Then his face went pallid. “Think they’re face-huggers? Tiny face huggers?”
Envy momentarily thought it was funny how the six-foot-eight badass could talk about casually and easily slaughtering aliens until he turned blue, but the moment something broke his favorite knife, he was pissing his pants.
“I don’t think it was acid,” Envy said. “Looked like fire to me. Heat.” She reached out and gently took the knife from him, then pointed out the bead of steel that had coagulated on the tip of his blade. “See that?”
“It melted my knife?” Rusty demanded. “Just melted through it? In seconds?”
Yeah, that didn’t sound right. “Okay,” Envy said, “So maybe it’s just got a chemical composition similar to a strong acid, but it evaporates quickly…”
“No, it burned it,” Rusty said quickly. “I saw a little orange glow inside when I stabbed it. Thought it was my imagination.” He kicked the snow where the maggot had disappeared and, sure enough, there was a hot sizzle as the snow revealed the little creature, still wriggling feebly despite the glowing, white-hot gash in its back.
So it was a magma maggot. Great. With the recent shake-up, they would probably be raining down over every continent from now until the end of— Envy blinked. “Mass extinctions,” she said.
Rusty blinked at her. Envy, however, was in another world, watching the alien life form with the rapt attention of a scientist. On the ground, the little maggot continued to spit and sizzle as it melted the snow in a foot-wide ring around it, losing size as it lost heat, until all that remained on a melted pad of dirt was a husk of ash nearly indistinguishable from the volcanic output littering the mountainside all around them.
Envy immediately crouched and poked the maggot-shaped ash pile with the tip of the knife, making it crumble into a slightly-darker pocket of ash. She sought out a core or any inconsistency, but it really just looked like another patch of volcano ejecta. She glanced up at the sky, remembering how many times a layer of volcanic ash marred the hundreds of millions of years of earth’s history. Volcanic ash that, very often, coincided with a mass extinction…
And if these things and not the ash itself was causing the mass deaths, then archaeologists wouldn’t find the slightest evidence of any malignant force at work, much less an alien invasion.
“Holy shit,” she whispered, rubbing the creature’s ashy body between thumb and forefinger before she remembered that many ashfall events included odd radioactive isotopes that sometimes couldn’t be traced except for the knowledge that they were extraterrestrial in origin.
“Shit,” Envy whispered, wiping the creature’s cremated remains off on the rock outcropping, then rubbing her hands good with snow. Rusty was watching her curiously, though Douglass only looked interested, not bothering to try to locate her with his eyes.
“Guys, listen,” Envy said, excitement hurrying her words to almost a babble, “The last few years I’ve been doing some research up in the Arctic, mainly permafrost stuff, but there’s ash. Ashfall. It’s right there in the ice. Earth seems to go through a destructive cycle every geologic epoch—something happens to make some big changes that nobody can fully understand and boom there’s a mass extinction. Everybody thought it was asteroid strikes causing the volcanic activity because it had the right isotopes, but what if it wasn’t an asteroid? Happened around the same time all the megafauna of the Pleistocene went extinct in the last forty thousand years. And multiple times before that, too. One of the most obvious was the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, again where most of the megafauna—” she gasped. “Non-avians.” She grabbed Rusty’s arm. “Avians were the only ones that survived! Because everything else was stuck on land…” She was aware she was babbling, but her mind was going a thousand miles a minute and her mouth was having trouble keeping up.
“I’m not quite following,” Douglass said, “and you can be sure as shit Rusty, here, got left behind at ‘epoch’.”
Envy shook herself, took a deep breath, and tried to calm down. “Okay. There’s some stuff that doesn’t make sense about mass extinctions. Everyone’s got theories as to why they happened, but nobody’s got any proof. A good example is what killed off the mammoths. Nobody knows what happened. They have proposed everything from people did it to climate change to sickness to overcompetition to solar radiation. And mammoths weren’t the only things that died off. Did you know that North America had horses, giant armadillos, dire wolves, mastodons, short-faced bears, giant sloths, camels… All of ‘em went poof. But take our little buddy here—” she poked it with the melted tip of Rusty’s knife. “If these things were raining from the sky, then turned to ash if they got stepped on or squished or something, there wouldn’t be any proof they were ever here. That, and they’re burrowers. Big land animals sleep on the ground. What if these things have shown up before, and, oh, I dunno, crawled into their nostrils or something while they slept, ate them from the inside out?” She slapped the flat of the knife to the rock. “Boom! Tons of dead bodies, nobody knows what killed them.”
“Please tell me you’re joking,” Rusty said, looking green. For his part, Douglass looked thoughtful, his ginger brows scrunched in concentration.
“I’m not joking,” Envy said. “Those maggot things have teeth. Things with teeth eat meat. Whatever it was, it was killing that ptarmigan, probably because it was wriggling around in its body cavity, eating it from the inside out.”
“But the sinuses?” Rusty whined. “I thought that only happened in the X-Files.”
Because, of course, in Rusty’s world, all aliens were just lizards.
“We gotta find another one,” Envy said. “Gotta test my theory, see what kills it, what it’s attracted to.”
Douglass was easy to convince to assist her in locating some more ebony grubs, but Rusty actually had to be coerced into helping her corral them with his boot. “What if it eats through my shoe leather?” he whined as she bent down to pick it up on the blade of the Buck knife. “I couldn’t get my boot off fast enough…”
“We’ll test that later,” Envy said, depositing a second, third, and fourth maggot in the makeshift bowl of stone where Rusty had stabbed the first one. “All right. Now to see what this baby can do.” They had already lost an hour of travel time, but when faced with the potential of sinus-invading alien parasites, not making it to the miner cabins before dark and being forced to spend another night shivering on the windswept slopes while desperately clinging to Rusty’s pungent body for warmth was a risk Envy was willing to take.
Using the Buck knife, Envy whittled a sharp stick, then poked one of the grubs with it. It writhed and screamed, but the stick didn’t puncture the lizardlike skin until she put several pounds of force into it. Then, like a grape, the grub popped, splitting open and spewing the white-orange liquid everywhere with a startling blast of heat that made both her and Rusty take a hasty step backwards. Immediately, the stick caught fire in the little bowl, but the heat and flames didn’t seem to faze the other two grubs whatsoever. If anything, they became more active as the rock around them started to liquefy.
“It is fire,” Rusty said, actually sounding relieved that the maggot had exploded in a wash of molten material that was even then melting the rock around it into a slushy orange soup. He held up an arm to shield his face. “Fuck that’s hot.”
And, Envy supposed, in Rusty’s world, it was better to be facing aliens that bled fire rather than aliens that bled acid, because acid-bleeding aliens were the kind that rode you around like a mucous-covered face-jockey, strangling you and fucking your mouth for hours before its next-of-kin burst out of your chest and started chewing apart your friends and family. She guessed she could see where the relief was coming from.
Still, it didn’t make her feel any better, because, as a scientist, she knew that what she was seeing meant whatever it was they were dealing with was something with an innate alien biology unlike anything humanity had ever seen before, which would make it intrinsically more difficult to understand, counter, and contain.
Or maybe humanity had seen it before, and it just hadn’t been documented.
Or maybe it had been documented, and all the ancient tribal sacrifices to volcanoes and volcano gods was a genetic memory imprinted by their ancestors’ raw terrors and untold hardships of dealing with toothy, wriggling black hellspawn that were spewed out by Mother Earth after getting raped by an alien spaceship.
Or maybe the ‘hellspawn’ were really just alien worms and this was a type of terraforming, and all those teeth really did was chew up solid matter and rototill it into something useful…
“You know what this means,” Douglass interrupted, as the stick Envy had used to poke the worm sizzled and shriveled into ash, the molten rock bowl too hot to touch.
“What?” Envy glanced over her shoulder at the doctor, who had his feet propped up and wrapped in a blanket to keep them out of the snow.
“We don’t need twigs and gay hillbillies to stay warm,” Douglass said, gesturing vaguely at the stone bowl. “We need those maggots.”