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THE FOOL'S GOLD - A Sci-Fi Horror Short Story

Updated: Oct 19, 2023


A man eating a slice of pizza while looking at his phone. On the brick wall behind him is a neon sign that reads "The Fool's Gold".


PART I

- The Hunter -


Thunder rumbled overhead as Roy Jewell stalked Providence City’s rainy streets. Tonight, like nearly every night for the last few weeks, he was on the hunt. He’d found several candidates already, but none that would truly sate his hunger. Many were too lean, lacking in excitement or grandeur, while others were bloated and clearly desperate for attention. And if he didn’t find the right one soon, he’d be out of a job.


“You need to go back to basics.” That was the consensus of the Editorial Board at the Providence Prose Press. One offered, “You’d do well to visit the common man or woman out on the street or in the bars.” Another added, “Buy such a stranger a drink and a meal and learn who they are, what they do. Maybe then it’ll jog something loose in that brilliant brain of yours.” Then they nodded in perfect unison, thoroughly pleased with their guidance.

Roy was also satisfied, believing that if he followed their advice, his stallion of a mind would once more gallop among golden fields of pure inspiration. So far, that hadn’t been the case. Like a ruthless apex predator, Roy had spent weeks hungrily circling Providence City’s main boulevard, talking to businessmen and beggars alike. Last night, he’d bought dinner for one such man and learned he ran a successful synthetic meat farm. Had Roy been in the market for a story that could serve as a sleep aid, the tale of that man’s life would’ve been perfect.

The night before that, he had spent nearly 20 minutes convincing an attractive woman in a hotel bar that he was a writer and not trying to hit on her. Finally, she revealed she was a coder specializing in financial systems. While her life was interesting—she’d lived on 15 worlds during her career—her story lacked the flavor Roy sought. Again and again, he heard countless tales that only inspired him to question whether he should’ve become a writer in the first place.

He'd always wanted to be one, having even studied the ancient art of words at university. His early works after graduation—two novels and a smattering of short stories—were good enough that he landed a job with the prestigious Providence Prose Press. And it wasn’t lost on him that the Prose rarely hired writers of color like Roy.

He’d been assured at the time that it wasn’t a diversity thing, that the Board of Editors saw more in Roy’s work than his black skin and the ample tax credit his hiring would provide. The Prose specialized in non-AI generated stories, a rarity among their publishing peers, who had long since turned to minds made of silicon and bismuth-telluride for content. In the post-singularity era, the one way to compete with storytelling machines was to find exceptionally talented humans. Only those gifted few were sharp enough to cut through the fog of procedurally generated tales choking the market.

Roy was one such person—or at least he had been. His most recent submissions had been middling and uninspired, his mind barren as he scoured it for one last scrap of literary gold. Still, he could not give up. He was a young Black man born in Providence’s poorest borough, the Resettlement Zone. Despite the official mandates of the Imperial Authority, the local government would’ve liked to see him and any of his color remain there forever, but he’d fought hard for more. He’d clawed his way out of the Zone’s dismal primary school system and into uni and then into one of the last bastions of manmade literature, the Providence Prose Press itself.

All he needed now was a bit of inspiration. With it, he could write another bestseller, remain with the Prose, and maybe one day move out of the crumbling Resettlement Zone. So, he walked the streets, his boots sloshing through puddles, and approached any who seemed to possess a hint of adventure or mystery. Tonight, he’d already interviewed six people, having bought them meals or drinks in exchange. But by now, he was tired and hungry for real nourishment.

Roy Jewell, his head hung low and mood even lower, made his way toward Fool’s Gold, a large bar resting at the Resettlement Zone’s edge. He went in looking for a hot meal and a cold drink, but he never would’ve guessed he’d also find a woman who would change his life forever…


***


Roy stepped into the bar, shaking the rain from his coat. He’d only been in Fool’s Gold a couple of times before, the last being more than a year ago. The bartender, a light-skinned man with a short afro, called to him over the din of the room.

“Sit where ya like, and someone will be with ya shortly.”

Roy nodded and surveyed the space—which was quite full for a weekday—then spotted a suitable place to park himself. Walking between crowded tables and through clouds of smoke, he reached the last open spot at the bar’s far end. Ready to rest his weary legs, he was about to take a seat on the stool when he paused. Something had caught his eye.

Roy turned toward a darkened booth near the back of the restaurant. He’d thought it empty before, but now he could see that someone was there, deep in the shadows. There had been a brief, tiny glimmer of amber light amid all that darkness that had given them away—and it came once more. It was a lighter being flicked but failing to do anything more than spark.

Without thinking, Roy quickly rummaged through his pockets, found his own lighter, then strode over to the darkened booth and offered it to the lone figure tucked inside. But this had been more than mere impulse—it was as though something had tugged at the edge of his mind, whispering the promise of gold in his ear. The figure shifted in response to his sudden arrival but was still nearly indiscernible in all that darkness, and Roy found himself wishing he’d saved up for those enhanced eyes that granted not only perception of the auged-in digital world that overlaid this one but also night vision.

Roy had never been interested in the cheap escapism augmented reality offered, but on many occasions, this one included, he had wished he could see in the dark. Leaning forward slightly, he held the little lighter out, his hand now just beyond the darkness’s edge. The figure within slowly slid toward him, a slender hand coming forth, its scarred brown fingers unfurling. A hunk of silver rode the ring finger—a service ring, usually given in recognition of one’s contributions during the Imperial Civil War.

“Thanks, friend,” said the figure—a woman whose soft voice carried deeper, rougher undertones. The stranger gently plucked the lighter from Roy’s hand, then flicked it. A healthy flame projected out the top, and as the woman brought it to the cigarette wedged into the corner of her mouth, its wavering light illuminated her. In that faint glow, Roy could now make out some of her features.

Behind a forest of tight locs, he saw a sliver of a scarred but still attractive face. The dark eyes that stared back at him were intense—alert—as though they belonged to someone far younger. If Roy had to guess, however, this woman was likely twice his age, and her clothes were old and worn, their colors faded, and edges frayed. At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking she was homeless, yet that ring in combination with her combat jacket suggested otherwise, and Roy Jewell, hunter of stories, knew he’d finally found his prey.

The jacket had a patch over the left breast bearing three bold letters in dark gray: DAS. This woman wasn’t just former Imperial military, but former Special Forces. She’d been in the Direct Action Service, the Imperial Navy’s elite unit… which meant young Roy had found, in Fool’s Gold of all places, a real-life Starman.




PART II

- The Starman -


The Starman gave back the lighter, and Roy did his best to contain his growing excitement as he offered his other hand for her to shake.

“Roy Jewell,” he said as the two shook hands.

“Senior Chief Lateisha Lucas,” replied the stranger, who leaned into the light enough that Roy could make out her friendly, closed-mouth smile.

Taking a breath, Roy straightened some, preparing his now well-practiced method of requesting an interview. “Not to be forward, but may I buy you a meal and a drink? I’m a writer signed with the Providence Prose Press and on the hunt for inspiration. If it’s all right, I’d like to talk to you about your life, work, or any subject you feel comfortable discussing. Let me assure you: protecting your privacy is paramount to me. Any works I derive from our conversation will have the names of the characters or places therein changed to afford you the discretion you are owed. So, if all this sounds agreeable, may I join you?”

Roy knew his speech was over the top, but he also knew that someone with his complexion often had to go the extra mile to prove their competence. That speech had worked most of the time, too, having disarmed many fair-skinned persons of their initial prejudices. So Roy felt there could be no harm in deploying it here despite Lateisha’s color being similar to his own. Appearing somewhat amused by the young writer’s attempt to impress her, the Starman eyed him momentarily, then gestured to the booth’s opposite side.

“Who am I to reject such a well-spoken young man who’d buy me dinner in exchange for a few words? Take a seat, kid.”

“Thank you, Senior Chief Lucas,” Roy replied, smiling broadly as he sat his lighter on the table and slid into the booth.

The Starman laughed a little. “Just call me Lateisha—you’re treatin’ me after all. So, Mr. Roy Jewell, you’re a writer, huh?”

“Indeed, I am,” answered Roy as he attempted—and failed—to flag down a nearby waitress.

“Then tell me, what you write for the Prose? Pulp fiction? Trashy romance? Or you one of them self-help hawkers?”

Roy cocked his head slightly. He knew the men and women who became Starmen were usually well-educated, but he hadn’t expected this kind of question. Given Lateisha’s tone and intense stare, it seemed she was still trying to gauge the quality of Roy’s abilities. Thankfully, when inspired, they were substantial.

“While my work is mainly fiction, I tend toward the literary side. My first book after graduating from the University of Manifest, The Ten Silver Stars, was nominated for the Yutani Award for Literary Achievement. My second, Heaven After, won that award just a few years later.”

Lateisha relaxed back into the booth, now half-hidden in shadow, as she puffed on her cigarette. Roy had no doubt that name-dropping some of his most acclaimed works would help alleviate any concerns. After another moment, she grunted approvingly.

“Okay, kid, guess I busted your balls enough,” the Starman chuckled, and without even breaking eye contact with Roy, she held up a hand, instantly gaining the attention of a waitress.

“What can I get y’all tonight?” asked the waitress, and Roy tapped the corner of the table, waking the menu built into its surface.

The young writer ordered a burger and a beer, then looked up at Lateisha to find out what she wanted, but Lateisha—still not taking her eyes off Roy—only shook her head.

“Just another beer for me, and keep ’em coming,” said the Starman, and the waitress nodded, then hurried away.

“You’re sure you don’t want anything to eat?” asked the young writer.

“Only meat they got here is synthetic, and I prefer the real thing.”

“Well, we could go somewhere else if you like?”

Lateisha gave him that closed-mouth smile again. “I’ll get a bite later, just need a drink for now… So, I’m guessin’ you wanna hear about my time with the DAS, right?”

Roy couldn’t help but beam at the prospect. “Anything you’d like to tell me about yourself is fine, really. We don’t have to focus on your military service if you’re uncomfortable with that.”

Both of them knew that the last part was a lie, but Roy had said it anyway out of politeness. Lateisha’s military career was precisely what he wanted to hear about, what he’d been hungry for these last few weeks. Already, Roy’s mind was spooling up, the creative engine within roaring to life as true inspiration drew ever nearer.

Lateisha took a pull from her cigarette before speaking again. “My career lasted the whole Imperial Civil War, from 2972 to ’86. My entry scores were high enough that I got pulled into the Direct Action Service right after basic training. Over the next 14 years, my unit, Barbary 8-1, took part in more than 120 successful boarding actions of Freedom Federation ships. Most were corvettes or frigates, but we did take around a dozen destroyers, a couple cruisers, and even a dreadnought once.”

She paused briefly as the waitress returned with their order. Roy got to work on his burger, but his mind remained focused on the Starman sitting across from him despite his hunger. After Lateisha drank some of her beer, she continued.

“My team assaulted Fed targets of critical importance during the retaking of the Calvin System, aided in the evacuations of key personnel from Godsend, and in ’85, I stormed Fed ships in orbit over Belle’s Rest during the battle that ultimately decided the entire war… I’ve killed Feds, scuttled starships, and even met the Devil once, so if it’s inspiration you’re lookin’ for, kid, I’m sure I can assist.”

Roy stopped eating. One thing more than any other had stuck out in Lateisha’s brief overview of her military service.

“An interesting thing to include in your list of achievements—meeting the Devil,” the young writer remarked, “I take it you mean this in the figurative sense.”

Lateisha chuckled. “No, while it lacked horns or wings, this devil was quite literal. But that was almost 30 years ago now, and surely you wanna hear something less fanciful—something that better suits an old Starman like me.”

Roy shook his head, thoroughly enticed by her mention of such an otherworldly encounter. “If you’re okay with telling it, I’d very much like to hear that story.”

“All right…” she said, putting out her nearly finished cigarette, “…But I hope you’ve got a strong stomach, kid.”

The young writer eyed his burger somewhat nervously but then nodded for her to continue.

“I met the Devil on September 5th, 2982, on an unnamed world in the Perseus Arm, way back when I held the rank of petty officer first class….”

***


…We thought that heavy frigate was going to shake itself to pieces as it cut through the planet’s atmos. Would’ve been fitting, too—damn near everything that could go wrong on this op had. My team, Barbary 8-1, had been tasked with boarding a heavy Fed frigate that Intel Command believed was transporting some type of new biological weapon. We’d got on board easy enough, but before we could take control of the ship’s bridge, the Fed helmsman spun up the quantum tunnel drives and dropped us right into the upper atmos of a random planet in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way. We crashed less than a minute after we tunneled in, but by some miracle, the heavy frigate mostly held together. Banged up and furious, Lieutenant Stilts snatched up the Fed helmsman by his collar.

“Where the hell did you send us?” she demanded, shaking him for good measure.

Stilts was the commanding officer of our DAS team and a woman not to be trifled with. She was ferocious in battle, harder than a steel bulkhead, and possessed the meanest left hook I’d ever seen. Honestly, she was a little terrifying, but I think I could speak for the rest of my team when I say that we all felt a hell of a lot safer with her around.

The Fed helmsman stammered something unintelligible, and Stilts backhanded him as she repeated her question, splitting his lip. Slinging my rifle, I went over and helped Hospital Corpsman Third Class Daniels—our team’s medic—up from the floor. Daniels was the youngest member of Barbary 8-1, but no less competent. Before he got drafted, he’d been top of his class at the Archer-Rosewood Medical Academy.

“You good, D?” I asked, and Daniels nodded, straightening himself as he retrieved his weapon. He then inspected my left forearm arm, which had been sliced open by some debris during the crash.

“Too deep for your nanomeds to close, but I can glue and bandage it for now,” the corpsman said, and I just grunted as he got to work.

Petty Officer Second Class Gcobani limped by us, stepping around the dead Feds that littered the bridge as he got on one of the few working consoles. Gcobani was our team’s tech expert, a six-foot-four mountain with a deep voice that was rarely heard. He was the type of person who believed that life was better spent thinking than speaking, save for whenever he found himself on the side of a rugby pitch. I’d gone with him to a game once—never would’ve believed that man could get so loud. Gcobani leaned over the console, his black fingers a blur as they worked keys.

Stilts, unsatisfied by whatever recent answer the helmsman had given her, headbutted him, knocking him out cold. She then faced me and Daniels, who’d just finished bandaging my arm. “Idiot doesn’t know where we are, just punched in a random set of coords,”

“Fool could’ve tunneled us into a damn star,” I grumbled quietly, and Daniels nodded in agreement.

Stilts continued, turning to Gcobani now. “Tell me something good, Petty Officer.”

“Lieutenant, I’ve accessed the frigate’s sensor array,” he said, clearing his throat, “We’re on a terra-class world in an un-surveyed system in the Perseus Arm. Atmos is breathable, but there’s a high amount of electromagnetic radiation… the local star appears to be a magnetar.”

“Status of the bioweapon in the hold?” Stilts asked, and Gcobani quickly worked the console.

“It’s no longer there, ma’am—video logs show three Feds debarking with the bioweap through the aft cargo bay six minutes ago. They also took the ship’s quantum node with them.”

I swore aloud. The heavy frigate’s quantum node was our only means of faster-than-light communication—which we’d need if we wanted off this rock anytime soon.

Stilts crossed her arms. “What about comms? Can we contact an Imperial relay buoy using radio?”

“Not with all the interference from that magnetar out there, Lieutenant,” Gcobani replied, “We’d also do well to stay inside the frigate given the radiation. More than two hours of direct exposure could be lethal.”

“Then those Feds couldn’t have gone far,” I offered, “Probably wouldn’t have left the ship with the node unless they thought they found somewhere safe. Are the exterior cameras still up?”

Gcobani nodded, studying the screen once more. He then clicked his tongue, smiling. “There’s a mountain range with a sizeable cave to the northeast, less than two klicks away. And tracks are leading from the ship in that direction.”

“Sounds like we got our heading,” Stilts said as she checked her rifle, “And our mission still stands: we recover or destroy that bioweapon, then grab the quantum node and get the hell home. Sound good?”

Our reply was in perfect unison. “Yes, Lieutenant!”


***


“Is that where you met the Devil?” asked Roy, who then clarified, “In the cave, I mean.”

Lateisha smirked. “Don’t worry, youngblood; I’m gettin’ there.”

Realizing that his excitement had gotten the better of him, Roy sheepishly apologized. By now, Fool’s Gold had grown quieter, the bar half empty. A waitress walked up to the table.

“Kitchen’s closin’ soon—you two want anything else?”

Again, Roy gestured for Lateisha to make her order, but once more the Starman only requested beer. As the waitress walked away, Roy leaned forward, genuinely concerned. “You’re sure there’s nothing I can get you? You’ve been sharing this story with me, and I feel I’ve failed to offer you anything in return.”

“You’re still buyin’ my beers, kid,” laughed Lateisha, but Roy continued.

“For months, I’ve struggled to find inspiration, but in just the last hour alone, you’ve already given me several ideas. Surely, I owe you at least a hot meal—if not several.”

She gave the young writer that same closed-mouth smile. “I’m a… picky eater. But don’t worry, kid; I’m sure you’ll make it up to me before the night’s over. Anyway, shall I continue?”

“By all means.”

The Starman leaned back and lit up a fresh cigarette. “So me and my team trekked across the broken landscape to the northeast, following the tracks left by the Feds and the large container they were dragging. There were only three Feds, and our team could handle that easy—just had to catch up to ’em first.”

She took a deep puff, then continued.

“But boy, believe me, it was hot out there. That magnetar was just hammering the planet’s surface with electromag, ramping up the local temp to almost 45 degrees Celsius. By the time we reached that cave the Feds had gone into, we were sweatin’ bullets and, for a good second, we all wondered if we were suffering from heatstroke… See, the cave the Feds had chosen was made of gold.”

Roy raised an eyebrow. “Gold?”

Lateisha laughed. “Well, that’s what we thought at first, but upon a closer look, it was all wrong. Right color, but the cubic shape was a dead giveaway. That cave was made of pyrite— which is ironic considering the name of this bar.

“Fool’s Gold…” Roy said, nodding, “…Pyrite’s nickname.”

“Familiar with it?”

He nodded again. “I minored in Geology at university.”

“So, you’re a writer and a rockhound?” she chuckled, and Roy smiled warmly.

“Why not? Rocks are storytellers, too—their flaws and features reflect their journey from the moment of lithification all the way to the present. If you know how to listen to them, they can share with you a historical epic that spans millions of years. Some can even tell you how whole worlds are formed...”

“I see why you like ’em,” Lateisha said, and she gave a closed-mouth smile that was almost approving. Simultaneously, her demeanor changed somewhat as though she’d become more relaxed. Roy wondered if maybe he’d finally proved himself capable enough to write about this Starman. The man behind the bar announced its imminent closure, and Roy started to rise until Lateisha raised a hand.

“I’m friends with the owners,” she said, “and they let me sleep upstairs sometimes after they’ve closed. So why don’t we finish my story here? No sense rushin’ back out into the rain just yet.”

“Oh… uh, okay,” Roy replied, feeling uneasy at first, but once he saw how the employees ignored the two of them as they shooed everyone else out the doors, he finally settled back into his seat. With the other patrons now absent, the room was filled with the sounds of clattering dishes and the scuffle of tired feet as Fool’s Gold prepared to close for the night.

“All right,” Lateisha said, “Where were we? Oh yeah, that so-called cave of gold….”


***


Soaked with sweat and pissed that those damn Feds made us follow them for so long, we stalked into the pyrite cave. While we no longer had as many clear bootprints to follow, the case containing the bioweapon had left deep gouges in the cave floor as the Feds dragged it in. Lieutenant Stilts had me take point, with her and Daniels ten meters back and Gcobani bringing up the rear. Steadily, we pushed into the cave, the air growing cooler as the darkness deepened. Soon enough, it was pitch black in there, but we all had our eyes enhanced, so we just switched to IR. Unfortunately, that didn’t help us one damn bit.

“Shit, my vis is no good, LT,” I griped over comms, “Got a ton of interference.”

Stilts’ icy voice came over the line. “Same back here—Gcobani: analysis?”

He answered, his deep voice gentle as always. “Ma’am, we’re too deep for the magnetar to affect our equipment. There are likely high concentrations of lodestone nearby.”

Daniels joined the line now. “Lodestone?”

“Magnetic rock—magnetite,” I answered, then asked, “So what’s the plan, LT? We stickin’ with IR?”

“Negative, Lucas,” Stilts replied, “Everyone switch to visible and use weapon lights only. Lucas, you radio soon as you get eyes on those Feds, understood?”

“Affirmative,” I replied, switching my eyes back to visible light and triggering my rifle’s built-in flashlight.

That small cone of white light was welcome in all that dark, but I still would’ve rather had my suit lights on as well. Wasn’t that I disagreed with Stilts’ orders—I just didn’t want to trip on any number of jagged outcrops or crystal growths that cut across the cave floor. And not but two minutes later, that’s exactly what my dumbass did.

The cave had just opened into a larger space, the walls and ceiling no longer visible, and at the same time I entered it, I thought I heard something up ahead and to my right. I swiveled in the sound’s direction but took a step forward at the same time, catching my boot on an outcrop. Tumbling forward, I rolled down a steep decline in the cave’s floor, getting myself a few new cuts and bruises in the process. Grunting, I got up on one knee and dusted myself off, thankful neither my team nor the enemy had been there to see me embarrass myself.

“Be advised,” I whispered over comms, “The cave drops off a bit in the larger chamber, copy?”

A static-filled response from Stilts. “Affirm. Press on, Lucas.”

I rose and was about to get my bearings when I noticed a faint, pulsing green glow to my left. I shined my light in its direction and my blood ran cold. Less than four meters from me, and surrounded by shards of bloody glass, was the case for the bioweapon. While the door was still shut, the large viewing pane had been shattered completely. The green glow pulsed, emanating from the container’s interior, and I instinctively took a step backward when I saw the inside, my breath caught in my throat. The container was empty.




PART III

- The Devil -


“Empty?” Roy gasped, completely enraptured with the Starman’s tale and barely noticing the sizeable amount listed on the bill as he paid it. It could’ve been ten times higher, and he still wouldn’t have cared. For young Roy, Lateisha’s story was real gold—a source of true inspiration.

The Starman nodded. “Those Feds musta took the same tumble I did and accidentally smashed open the container.”

A chair scrapped nearby as one of the last remaining employees began mopping the floor. Lateisha lit up another cigarette. “Gotta say I was terrified. INTCOM and Navy Intelligence had no idea what kinda bioweapon the Feds had—just that it was dangerous and the only one of its kind.”

“A virus?” Roy asked, but the Starman shook her head.

“Stilts said INTCOM thought whatever it was wasn’t contagious given how the Feds were transporting it. But more importantly, that container was… person-sized.”

Roy was beginning to understand where her tale was headed. “…and inside was the Devil.”

Leaning back into shadow, Lateisha nodded, her dark eyes twinkling. “Yeah… hungry and in the flesh.”


***

“Well, shit,” said Stilts, looking over Gcobani’s shoulder while he intently studied the empty container.

“What do we do now?” Daniels asked nervously, “We don’t even know what was in that thing…”

Gcobani spoke. “There’s a name here, above the control panel… Hirudinea.”

“That Japanese?” I asked.

“No, it’s Latin,” Daniels answered, and the corpsman grew quieter as he continued, “It means leech.”

Pretty sure that sent a chill down everyone’s spine, and so, seeing our morale waning, Stilts shook her head. “Doesn’t matter, the mission is uncha—”

A horrifying scream suddenly erupted from deeper inside the cave followed by sharp cracks that could’ve only been rifle fire. Stilts immediately began barking orders.

“Gcobani, see if you can learn anything from the container that might help us deal with this ‘leech,’” she ordered, then she gestured to me and Daniels, “You two, on me—we’re double-timing it. Five meter spread. Lucas, take point. It’s time we light up some goddamn Feds.”

“Wilco,” I growled, raising my weapon and pushing ahead.

Stilts knew there was no better boost for morale than being given the order to kick some ass, so she’d given us just what we needed to snap to. Keeping low, I moved quickly, following the distant sounds of gunfire and shouting. The cave split into multiple passageways, but only one had bloody footprints leading into it so we still had a clear heading. Rounding a corner, I heard a raspy hissing noise and spotted a flickering red light—a magnesium flare burned in the center of a large chamber just ahead. Killing my flashlight, I hit the deck, landing behind a large outcrop of pyrite.

Several figures were visible in the red light, all in defensive positions and less than ten meters away. I sighted the closest one as I got on comms.

“LT, I’ve got eyes on three enemy foot mobiles, ten meters out in a large chamber northeast of my position,” I hissed, “They haven’t spotted me. Permission to engage?”

“Negative, Lucas—wait for Daniels and me to stack up with you,” Stilts replied, “We’ll take ’em out together.”

“Affirmative.”

I kept my eyes on the Feds, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Half a minute later, Daniels and Stilts arrived, both posting up behind nearby outcrops. Stilts peered around her outcrop’s edge, eying the Feds, then whispered over comms.

“They look pretty dug in… wait…”

She sighted the closest Fed and fired a single round. I braced, half-expecting a reply in the form of fat slugs from Fed rifles, but nothing happened. I looked back over at Stilts. Her face was hard.

“They’re already dead…” she said quietly, “…I can see the q-node. Far side of the room.”

I looked again. Hadn’t spotted it earlier but she was right. An octagon of metal, silicon, and bismuth-telluride rested against the far wall. The quantum node for a warship was an unimpressive thing, about the size of a man’s head and just a little heavier. But that octagon held in it a series of entangled particles that provided unbroken lines of instant communication. Without it, we’d have to wait weeks to be rescued, and that was only if INTCOM or Navy Command believed it prudent to devote considerable computational resources to back-plot the Fed frigate’s last-minute tunnel maneuver just to find a single DAS team.

Yet, despite knowing the quantum node was our only way home, none of us—not even the ice-cold Lieutenant Stilts—wanted to go into that room. For all we knew, the bioweapon that had killed those Feds was still in there and waiting for us. But if we wanted to be rescued, we needed that node. Stilts gave the order, and the three of us crept forward, lights out and weapons raised. Having given up on controlling my thundering heartbeat, I tried to rein in my breathing.

The magnesium flare crackled as it slowly began to dim, though it still gave enough light to see the bodies of the Feds. They’d each been brutally mauled—clawed and bitten—and that wasn’t even the worst of it. Their skulls had been smashed open and emptied of their contents… but the gray matter wasn’t on the floor or in pieces on the walls. It was missing.

“Jesus Christ,” breathed Daniels.

I swept the room, practically jumping at the dancing shadows cast by the steadily fading flare. The place was a dead-end—we’d come in the only entrance or exit, not that that made any of us feel more confident. Stilts scooped up the node and stuffed it into her pack.

“We’re runnin’ out of light, LT,” I said, my voice far shakier than I would’ve liked.

“Hold up, that thing has gotta be nearby—and we need to know what we’re dealing with,” she growled, before triggering her comms. “Gcobani, you learn anything?”

Static answered her.

“Gcobani, report?”

Silence. Daniels and I exchanged worried glances, and Stilts’s voice grew tense now.

“Gcobani, do you read?”

More dead air. Stilts looked at me and even in the rapidly fading red light, I could see the worry in her eyes. The comms line suddenly crackled.

“…tenant, can you… Lieutenant, can you read me?”

It was Gcobani, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Stilts shook her head, embarrassed for thinking the worst. “I read you, Gcobani. What’s your status? Have you learned anything about the bioweapon?”

Gcobani sounded much clearer now. “I’m fine, Lieutenant, and I found a pack near the container containing some intel. This bioweapon isn’t what we thought—it wasn’t engineered, the Feds found it.”

Stilts cocked her head to one side. “Say again, Gcobani?”

“It’s a natural lifeform and highly intelligent. The Feds thought they could control it.”

“And look how well that went,” muttered Daniels under his breath.

Gcobani continued. “It can be damaged by small arms or thermal weapons but is far tougher when inside a host. If you encounter it, you must…”

He trailed off.

“Gcobani, report?”

His reply was rapid and whispered. “Lieutenant, there’s movement at the chamber’s far side. Single enemy foot mobile. Don’t think they’ve spotted me.”

I looked around the chamber. Three dead Feds. My mouth went dry. Only three had left the ship with the container, which meant whomever Gcobani was seeing wasn’t a Fed. Stilts realized the same, bolting back out of the chamber as she barked into her comms piece.

“Gcobani, do not engage! That’s the bioweapon! We’re coming to—”

An ear-splitting scream erupted over the comms line and half a second later we heard the report of Gcobani’s rifle.

“Suit lights on and move!” Stilts roared, and we obeyed. The cave around us glittered, reflecting the beams of light blazing from our suits and weapons. Now that we were giving off that much light, there was no way the enemy wouldn’t see us coming, but I think Stilts had wagered we’d get to Gcobani faster if we could actually see where the hell we were going.

Storming forward, our footfalls echoed through the cave. Ahead of us came more screams, raspy and unnatural, as well as more gunfire. Gcobani was still fighting, still alive, and we were almost there. Knowing I was the fastest of us, Stilts roared “Go!” and I broke into a dead sprint.

My legs burned, my lungs crying out for air, but I didn’t slow—not when I knew I was seconds away from Gcobani’s position. I exploded into the chamber, my heart pounding like artillery as I swept the room, my cheek resting against the stock of my weapon—an Archer 99X Triple-R.

Triple-R stood for Razor Rail Rifle, which meant that the weapon I held was no mere chem-propelled firearm like those the Feds used. The Archer 99X contained a miniaturized railgun that spat out razors at over 1,000 meters per second. Before a fight, I’d always think of this—of the instrument of violence I carried, because it reminded me that so long as I had it, I was the apex predator. The top of the food chain. A real angel of death. But none of that bravado, gung-ho, macho bullshit remained in my mind the moment I saw Gcobani and the bioweapon.

Gcobani’s eyes had rolled back, blood streaking down his face, his mangled arms and legs convulsing uncontrollably as another man, completely naked and with skin so pale it was practically translucent, used his own mouth to pry away pieces of my friend’s skull. I screamed, squeezing the trigger. A trio of razors erupted from my weapon, striking the pale man dead-center in the forehead. But while the rounds pierced his flesh, they just shattered uselessly against the bone underneath.

“Thermal-thermal-t-t-thermal!” Gcobani stammered as the pale man reared back his head and roared, revealing a mouth that was far too large and had two rows of crooked silver daggers in place of teeth.

The pale man then slammed his open maw down on Gcobani’s head, making the most horrifying sucking noise I’d ever heard. I fired again and again, but my rounds had barely any effect. Stilts and Daniels arrived at my side just as the pale man released Gcobani from his mouth. My friend crumpled to the floor, just a bloody heap… with an empty skull.

Without thinking I slung my weapon, primed a thermal grenade, and threw it at the pale man. It exploded, ejecting plasma everywhere and scalding his left arm and leg, but it didn’t kill him. He shrieked, leaping to the other side of the chamber as the three of us opened fire. But even three razor rifles couldn’t slow this thing down. Realizing this, Stilts dropped her weapon and pulled a matte black case from her back.

“We need more firepower! Cover me!” she barked as she whipped open the case and began assembling one of the most dangerous weapons ever made.

The pale man must’ve known something was up because he began scrambling around the room even faster, eventually breaking our line of sight.

“Shit, where the hell is it?” Daniels asked, panic creeping into his voice.

Trying to ignore my trembling hands, I continued sweeping the room. Suddenly, the pale man erupted from behind an outcrop, launching himself straight into Daniels. The corpsman screamed as the monster went wild, biting and clawing. Charging forward, I slammed into the pale man’s side hoping to knock him off Daniels, but he was too strong and threw me onto my back. The pale man roared, then slammed his mouth onto Daniels’ head.

“No!” I cried, scrambling to my feet, but I was too late.

There was a loud crunch as the pale man broke through Daniels’ skull, followed once more by that awful sucking sound. Snarling, I pulled my DAS-issued combat knife and charged forward. DAS knives were heated diamond blades designed to slice through steel bulkheads during clandestine ship boarding maneuvers, and if those damn things could cut through the skin of a starship, they could definitely carve up whatever the hell this thing was.

I buried all eight inches of the glowing hot blade into the back of the pale man’s skull. His back arched as he let out an ear-splitting cry of anguish, but I didn’t stop there. Ripping the blade free, I slashed at his left arm just above the elbow, severing the limb completely. Rearing back, I prepared to deliver another blow, but the pale man spun away too fast for me to react. Lashing out with a kick, he knocked my legs out from under me and I hit the ground hard.

He peered down at me, his beady, black eyes sunken and unnatural, then delivered a brutal kick to my face, concussing me and knocking out most of my front teeth. Stilts had just finished assembling the unprimed weapon when he came at her, and she knew she had no time to pull back the weapon’s high-tension charging slide. Without looking, she tossed it to me, drawing her combat knife as the pale man collided with her.

I rolled over, grabbed the PR1, and tried to pull back the charging slide. Stilts was fighting, holding her own better than the rest of us, but it wasn’t enough. Finally, just as the pale man bit through her skull, I pulled back the charging slide and a mechanical whine echoed throughout the chamber as the weapon powered up. There were only a hundred PR1s in the whole of the Milky Way, each costing as much as a small fleet of warships. But those plasma assault rifles were pure destruction in handheld form and were only given to the best DAS troopers... like Stilts. Through blurred vision, I sighted the pale man and squeezed the trigger.

The PR1 sounded like a deafening beehive, pumping out 15 meter-long shafts of scorching plasma every second. I caught the pale man in his side, punching smoldering holes through his flesh. He leapt away but I held the trigger down as I tracked him to the far edge of the room and unloaded the weapon in his direction. After more than 20 seconds of sustained full auto, the weapon overheated and refused to fire. I held the trigger down anyway, even though the PR1 now only emitted weak puffs of smoke.

My team was dead… and I was alone. Then laughter, raspy and weak, erupted from the smoldering corner of the cave where the pale man had been. Using his remaining right arm, he dragged what remained of himself—which wasn’t much—out of the smoke.

“You DAS soldiers…” the pale man croaked, “…are so delicious. Such brilliant minds… so full of spark.”

“W-what the hell are you?” I asked, and the pale man laughed, continuing to crawl toward me.

“Lucky for you, I’m full…” he replied, then he paused and studied his ruined body, “…but unfortunately for me, I’m not going to get very far now.”

My vision swam, exhaustion overwhelming me as my head rolled back. My concussion was severe, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Blindly, I fumbled with my belt and pulled another thermal, intending to end us both. The pale man’s hot bloody hand reached my own.

“You’ve impressed me, friend, more so than the others…” he hissed, and I couldn’t even open my eyes now, “So I’ll give you two choices: prime the thermal and kill us both… or let me join you and I’ll give you strength you’ve never known…”

“You’re the Devil,” I groaned, pulling my hand and the thermal out of his, “And you want me to sell you my soul!”

The pale man’s laughter was sharp and close now—he’d crawled up and laid his head beside mine. “No, Lateisha Lucas, petty officer first class, no… It will be us together that consume the souls and all the knowledge they contain… Together, we’ll sup on the greatest minds, those full to the brim with sparks of genius…”

The pale man continued, his hot, wet breath in my ear. “I offer more than a mere apple from Eden—you and I will feast on the whole garden! Think of all we could do, of what we could learn. All you must do is carry me… feed me… then, together, we’ll be the Devil!”


***


Lateisha stopped speaking and just slowly puffed on her cigarette for a while. Roy shifted uncomfortably in the silence, suddenly very aware that Fool’s Gold was completely empty now save for the young writer and the Starman. Without turning his head, Roy glanced at the door. It seemed much farther away now. He swallowed hard.

“I, um… I mean no offense, Lateisha, for you certainly weave quite a tale, but I don’t understand,” Roy said, his heart rate steadily rising.

Lateisha extinguished her cigarette, her face now completely hidden in shadow. “Yes, you do, Mr. Jewell… You understand perfectly.”

Roy laughed nervously, shaking his head. This Starman was telling a ghost story was all. None of it was real—she’d just wanted to scare Roy. That was all this was, he thought.

“The bioweapon is a parasite, one with particular tastes…” She continued, her face still hidden, “And it’s hungry now, but synthetic meat won’t do. Neither will the average mind, dull and sparkless. Only the brightest will satisfy… and you, Roy, are very bright.”

Before he could even attempt to get up and out of the booth, the Starman violently shoved the table forward, pinning the young writer completely.

“Okay! Okay! You’ve scared me good! You got me!” Roy shouted, but Lateisha didn’t release the table.

“I’m gonna enjoy this,” she growled, “Because of all the minds I’ve tasted, I know there’s no sweeter spark, no richer flavor, than a mind ripe with inspiration!”

Lateisha Lucas leaned forward and smiled broadly, revealing that behind that forest of locs lay a mouth that was far too big and filled with crooked silver daggers. But that wasn’t what terrified Roy the most. It was Lateisha’s hungry eyes, there was something else in them… something moving behind them. Thrashing against the table, he screamed for help but knew it was pointless. The young Roy Jewell, talented writer and lover of geology, was smart enough to know that he was already dead…



Hope you enjoyed this creepy tale! Subscribe for updates on future stories and receive a free copy of HACK EYE (my only short story so far with a happy ending).

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