“Very funny, Chad,” Walker spat, kicking the dirt. A knee-high field of grasses curved out of sight, following the circular hull. Scribbling through the field was a barrel-sized scar of dirt, as if some alien had tried to form a crop circle but failed miserably. It had probably taken Chad and his friends the better part of the night to do it. Considering the sloppiness of the work, they were probably beyond drunk.
“What’s fun…woah…” Chad slowed, kicking at the disturbed soil and turning in a circle to observe the damage. His act was perfect, the picture of dumbfounded innocence.
“Yeah. At least last time what you guys did could be considered art. This…” Walker spat in disgust. “This is just vandalism. I have half a mind to turn you in.”
Walker would never report Chad to the boss. It wasn’t just that Cynthia, Walker’s niece, was sweet on the boy. Chad was one of the few guys who could go a full shift in the extra-heavy gravity of the fields. Good help was hard to find, especially when it came to manual labor.
“This thing goes deep… a few meters at least.” Chad was crouching, pointing a scanner into the tunnel.
Walker stopped and considered. Maybe Chad wasn’t lying. He was usually quick to take credit for anything he did, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
A tremor shook the ground under their feet.
“Asteroid strike. Felt like a little one.” He shrugged. “Probably didn’t even pierce the hull,” Walker said, doubting himself but trying to sound certain for Chad’s sake. The kid could get pretty flighty when he got scared. He also had a bad habit of jumping to unlikely conclusions.
Chad looked up, wide eyed, then crept away from the tunnel opening. “I dunno, Walker.” He stood up, brushing the dirt off his trousers. “That didn’t feel like a strike to me. It felt…” Chad’s face twisted into an odd expression that Cynthia inexplicably found charming. Walker thought he just looked constipated. “It felt…closer.”
Walker shrugged off the comment. It wasn’t a question he wanted to answer, and Chad’s hypotheses would just get wilder and wilder. “Well, get the diggers going. We need to fix this.”
Chad dutifully strode over to the equipment locker, his movements bogged down. The grass was only about ten meters from the outer hull, topping layers of water, gravel, and a significant layer of dirt that primarily served as radiation shielding for the station. Earth-normal apparent-gravity was several levels above them.
“Whatever is was, it was big,” Chad said. “What burrows like that? Bears?”
Walker reached around to turn off the digger’s auto-mode. The last thing they needed was for the machine to arbitrarily start re-plowing the entire field.
“Bears? Really?” Walker asked, shaking his head, “Just kids. If not you and your friends, then some punk adolescent with more free time than brains.”
Chad bullied the digger into smoothing out only the area that was disturbed. Walker reseeded it and they moved on to the next spot. “Me and my friends…nah. We have more finesse. You’ve seen our work.”
Walker let the boy drone on about his less-than-admirable escapades. Although technically some of them crossed the line from simple pranks to actual crime, they were all mostly harmless. Somehow, Chad had avoided any kind of legal action against him. Chalk it up to charisma; the same attribute that had snared Walker’s niece into agreeing to go out with him not just a couple of times, but disturbingly close to something that resembled a steady relationship.
Cynthia could do worse, he supposed.
Another tremor made them both stumble to the right. Over to their left, the grass was leaning as if something from underneath the roots pushed it up.
Walker took the digger out of Chad’s hands. “I think we need to…” he wasn’t sure what to say. Maybe a meteor struck the hull in exactly the right spot, in exactly the right way…
“There it is!” Chad yelled, pointing over Walker’s shoulder. He whipped around just in time to see something slither through the grass and burrow under the dirt again. “I’ll get ‘im!”
“What…?” Walker froze in disbelief as the youngster ran off through the grass, chasing the…whatever it was. He still refused to believe there was some “thing” digging up the grass. All the biologicals on the station were carefully screened. Sure, the occasional rat got through, but rats didn’t…
He wasn’t sure what rats did.
“Gotcha!” Chad bellowed, diving low. An alien screeching sound rent the air, echoing off the ceiling. The grasses waved and parted where Chad was wrestling with something.
“Emergency! We need security and a med team in field 42B!” Walker smacked his com, then turned and grabbed a shovel.
“Yeghagh!” Chad screamed. Walker stormed in, shovel raised over his head. Chad’s arms and legs were wrapped a pipe. A squiggling, squirming pipe just as big around as he was.
“AHGH!” Walker yelled, his voice several octaves higher than he thought was possible. He brought the shovel down hard, bashing away at the monster and not altogether sure he was avoiding Chad in the process.
“Woo!” Chad cried out, rolling away. “You got ‘im! You got ‘im, Walker, sheesh…” Walker started trembling, dropping the shovel as Chad stood up and wrapped him in a bear hug.
“Woah! Yeah. Wait till I tell Cynthy about this!” Chad said, smacking Walker on the back.
It was a worm. Ichor spilled onto the dirt. At least three meters of the monster lay on the ground, unmoving. The tail disappeared into the tunnel.
“…radiation, I’ll bet. I wonder how many more of them are out there?” Walker heard Chad saying, but he was turned away, talking to someone else. A dozen responders had magically appeared. One of them was shining a light into his eyes, asking him something.
Walker shook his head, shaking off the feeling of shock. “Fine. Just need to…”
He knew what he needed to do.
Chad deserved a commendation.
Chad deserved a promotion.
Chad deserved his job.
Lord knew, Walker didn’t want it anymore.
I cut back on my writing severely back in November when I found out we had to move in January. I have a couple of stories in my brain for The Cities of Luna that need to come out, but I really needed to get the cobwebs out first. That’s what this is… just a quick freewrite to shake out my brain.
I’ll be revamping the website soon. Since Under Loch and Key is mostly for fun writing like this,I may be cutting it off soon and making my public face as professional as possible. We’ll see.