Here’s another tale culled from the trunk, from a time when I thought writing science fiction would be my road to riches. Unfortunately, when it came to real science, I quickly realized I was out of my element and needed to stick with humor. Hence, this:
Roger felt a small wave of relief knowing his wife and daughter were out back, in no immediate danger from the creature squatting on the rocks at his feet. Roger let his hand drift slowly toward his holster; he’d have time for one quick round: a head shot. I’ll pop the bugger smack on the nose–blow his tonsils right out his butt.
A head shot made sense, but not due to Roger’s marksmanship. The little monster faced him head-on, so he had no other choice. It hissed at him, and Roger moved his hand a little faster. As his fingers touched the upper flap of the holster, he realized with gut‑flushing clarity that it was velcroed shut.
Swallowing hard, Roger moved his hand away from the holster in the same deliberate manner as before. He couldn’t shake from his mind the words of old Jeb Freeman, a surviving colonist from the early landings. “Stay clear of the roaches,” Freeman said. “They’ll kill ya soon as look at ya–and it’s a lousy way to go.”
Freeman had lectured Roger along with all the other new arrivals. “They spit acid and attack anything that moves. When calm, they wheeze like a leaky bellows, but piss ’em off and they get quiet as death.”
The creature at Roger’s feet blinked, its yellow eyes hypnotic. Swell.
“I remember one poor fool,” Freeman said, “who took five days to die. Screamed the whole time. Trust me, if one gets ya, just go ahead and shoot yourself, or have someone else do it.”
Roger remembered how puzzled he’d been when Freeman passed around photos of one. “I thought you called it a roach?”
Freeman nodded. “Hobart’s roach.”
Roger still thought it a stupid name for a toad. He looked at the one in front of him as it hissed, lowered a heavy jaw, and belched. Two heartbeats later the odor engulfed him. To hell with you, Hobart–you and the roach you rode in on!
Freeman said Hobart was a senior crewman in the first landing, thirty years ago. Hobart theorized that any planet capable of supporting life would also have a dominant life-form. On Earth, of course, it was people. Somewhere else it might be giant gasbags, sentient squid, or, as Hobart predicted, roaches–hence the name for the dominant critter here, on Deneb IV.
The roach began to bob slowly up and down. At first, Roger followed its movements with his eys only, then matched its pace and motion with his whole head, bobbing up and down in synch with the reptile. He stopped when he remembered Freeman discussing their courtship rituals.
“Thank God they don’t breed very fast,” the old colonist said, “since they’re at the top of the food chain, or were, ’til we got here.”
Everything Roger had seen confirmed what he’d been told; Freeman had been quite specific. “They’re extremely touchy about sound. They’ll go after anything they think is a threat.”
Marvelous. Roger had no desire to provoke this one by ripping open a Velcro fastener. “Okay you, just relax.” He tried to make his voice soothing. It seemed to work.
My Lord, you’re ugly. Stretching 30 centimeters, tooth to tail, the specimen glaring at him looked nothing like an Earth roach. Easily massing a couple kilos, it looked like the horned toad from hell. Where a toad’s skin was pebbly, the skin on the roach was a lunar relief map; the insect-nabbing tongue was a small, but lethal, pitchfork, and the webbed toes were taloned.
“If he grabs ya,” Freeman had said, “he won’t let go.”
The roach at Roger’s feet curled back its lips as if Roger had requested a better look at its needle-sharp teeth.
Ugly buggers eat anything. While not strictly true, the animals suffered no apparent harm from dining on their brethren or even non-native plants. As the colonists quickly learned, they were actually attracted to the livestock and vegetables bio-engineered for the colony. As a garden pest, Hobart’s roach had no equal, but it earned its deadly reputation as a hunter.
Though the roach had been wheezing like a steam engine, the sound started to fade. Roger wished he had the needlegun, but it was stowed under the seat of the rover.
Used to harvest the sponge plants in Deneb’s shallow seas, the needlegun fired a slender harpoon attached to a monofilament line. Then again, I don’t want to rope the little turd; I want it dead–right where it sits.
A new thought clamored for his attention. What would Marla say? After all his whining to get a spot on the colony roster, he was finally faced with his first real crisis and didn’t know what to do. How’s that for self-reliance? His wife would love it; the airwaves would hum for weeks as she regaled her friends with tales of his inadequacy. As if she could do any better!
The roach belched again.
Roger remembered the cryospray in shed three. He could hose the roach with liquid nitrogen–quick-freeze it! Only this time he didn’t care about preserving the specimen for study. He’d have to be sure of the wind direction, he realized, or he was likely to put himself in the freezer.
Roger swayed to his left. The roach swayed with him as if measuring the distance before attacking.
Roger’s sphincter tightened like a vise; sweat ran down his temples. If I had a shotgun, I’d splash toad all over the rocks! Then he focused on one of his daughter’s toys and knew the shotgun option was out. Roach guts were caustic. A tiny drop on bare skin would agonize an adult for hours. With a child around, it was out of the question.
The monster began opening and closing its mouth as if practicing the chewing it would do when it landed on Roger’s face. He blinked sweat from his eyes and tried to concentrate on a solution before the creature lost patience and came after him.
The scrambler–over at the mining camp! Designed to reduce igneous rock to powder, the machine generated a field capable of destabilizing a variety of compounds. After several grisly and well-publicized accidents, they were banned from populated areas. Still, the thought of turning the roach into a puddle of solvent had appeal.
The roach closed its mouth, the wheezing barely audible.
Oh, crap! He clenched his fists and jaws in frustration at his own stupidity. The scrambler was half-way across the planet, and he no idea how to use it. But even if he did, the roach would be required to oblige him by not killing and eating his family while he went to get it.
Maybe I could torch him! Surely we’ve got some flammable liquids around here somewhere.
Roger stepped back; the wheezing stopped.
“Be cool,” he said, though for whose benefit, he didn’t know. He took another step; the roach didn’t move. Another step. Then another. Finally, he was walking backward, stiff-legged and tight, but out of the creature’s range.
He made it to the rover, parked some twenty meters away, ripped open his holster and slid his hand down to the sculpted grip on the gun. He held the weapon easily, with both hands, braced his arms on the hood of the vehicle, and drew a bead on the roach. Holding his breath, he slowly applied pressure to the trigger.
Fithwip! Poof! Roger’s tiny, self-propelled missile missed the roach by a half-meter and kicked up a cloud of dust and rock chips. The roach leaped away; the dust covered its movement.
While searching for his target, Roger admitted to himself he’d never been able to hit anything smaller than a convenience store at this distance. Wonder how long it’ll be before we have convenience stores here? He shook off the thought. A handgun was no use; he had to come up with something else. He holstered the weapon as the roach came to rest on hard, bare ground. Its slitted eyes and deathly silence promised revenge.
“I’ll run over it!” Roger said, then remembered he didn’t have Gramp’s old Buick handy. What he did have was the rover, which, like all the vehicles here, was an open model. If the roach wanted in, there wasn’t anything Roger could do to stop it. Damn it! He hurried to shed three. Maybe the cryospray isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Inside the cramped storage building, he inspected the tag on the canister of liquid nitrogen, but of course, the recharge date had expired. He gave it a quick test anyway. Nothing came out.
As he pondered the potential of lighting and throwing a jar of jellied petroleum at the creature, he heard his 7-year-old daughter, Jeanette. “Daddy, Daddy! Come quick!” she screamed.
Roger charged out of the shed and raced toward the rover, slipping on the loose gravel. “I’m coming baby, hold on!”
“Hurry Daddy, hurry!” the child cried.
“I’m coming,” he screamed again, struggling with the overly sticky flap on the holster. The gun would have to do; he prayed desperation would improve his aim, and ran on.
Finally yanking the automatic free, he popped the slide to chamber the first round and came to a shaky but complete stop.
“I got ‘im, Daddy! I got him,” Jeanette said, smiling as she patted her chest. She pointed down to the rock she had used to crush the creature’s skull. “You wanna tell Mommy, or can I?”