A name to remember, or, better yet, forget.
A name to remember, or, better yet, forget.
I’ve spent a good forty-three years on the colony, and I’ve treasured them all dearly. I kept a relic from each of them hanging over my mantle, so that every day, even those dreary hungover ones where I spent most of my time doing nothing but watch the crackling of the fire while scratching my nether regions, even on those days I’d have something to be proud of. So many acid drenched, serrated appendages dangled from the wall, my visitors would often be spooked once they peered round the threshold. But, once they realized that even the most brutish of the limbs were completely dead, even my most cowardly of guests would resume their pleasant demeanor.
The guests had been dwindling in number by the day. I no longer got recognized in the supermarket by people I didn’t personally know. There were many days where I felt that I should be resentful of that, but my wisdom’s told me to hold out. The past might be dead, and all of my glories might have been hidden in it, but what was the present? Its very foundation was built by my deeds. Kids were now free to play in the local streams because of me. There’s no longer a curfew, again, largely because of me. The others might have forgotten that, but I haven’t. And what more do I need to satisfy myself than the knowledge that all was good? Oh, and I couldn’t forget my pension. It’s not princely or anything, but I’m cheap, and it was good lump sum that just kept growing in my accounts. I figured on giving all the extra to the hospital when I died. I might’ve paid them the three times they patched me up, but, hey, if I could help them fix up some other unlucky bastards in the future, why shouldn’t I? What else was I going to do with the money?
Yes, all was good. It was sometimes hard to remember the times when all wasn’t filled with metaphorical sunshines and rainbows, but they were there. I could taste a little bit of that darkness every time I passed through my living room and had to glance at those gnashing mandibles. Yes, pride, there was pride. But that pride had to come from somewhere. Like always, the darkness was the cradle for light.
I signed my contracts when I turned seventeen. My cousin had already set off for this place, and he’d told me there was plenty of money to be had, loads of pretty girls, and beautiful scenery. Only that last one turned out to be immediately correct. And I should have expected that. It was a newly established colony, it wasn’t going to be paradise. But, hey, my cousin never really liked me (something I found out later), and had just wanted to conscript another person into the colony’s roster for that fat bonus check. As the old saying goes, many hands move a mountain. And boy, were they moving mountains.
Whole mountains, by the way. It’d take ‘em a week or two per. They always said it was to increase the size of the arable land to feed all the mouths the growing colony was said to have. But we knew better. Even though in the official charter papers the planet was listed as unavailable for any extensive industrial operations, we understood they were looking for metals. You know, those rare earth ones they use in computers and the like. Also gold. Used to be expensive back then, back before the war. Then everything sort of exploded, and there was enough salvage in the galaxy to satisfy the electronics industries for a few decades. Put the mines out of business, but the colony had developed well into its own by the time they shut down, so… I’m skipping ahead, towards stuff that’s not even that interesting. I apologize for that. Just my foolish old self.
So, right, the mines. See, there were things beneath the crust of the planet that didn’t quite like their dwellings getting disturbed. If the strip crews had been a bit less zealous, I’d bet you not even the Chimera Faced Lemur would’ve gone out to start eating people. He would’ve just grunted in exasperation at the disturbance of his home, and crawled into some other rock crack to slumber. But when the entire mountain is pulverized? When all the mountains are pulverized? Where else do the beasts have to go but up to the surface to wreak confused havoc?
That’s always been something that’s confused people about me. I was never mad at the beasts. Heck, the only real emotions I felt facing them through the barrel or grappling them one on one was fear, well, that and adrenaline. The first, well, the first…
It had only been a month or so since planetfall. Everything was still a mess, but the Seranym sharks were already zipping around, trying to pile up as much debris as they could muster. They were on a strict time table, they said. Well, we were too, trying to get our hydroponics settled and operational before the planet’s winter, so we didn’t have the mental energy to bother with their shenanigans, not yet. So, one day they just cracked open Mt. Steve, and lo and behold, the Grailroach pops out. It was a big, big thing, probably three meters long, with four crawling, treadmill like legs and several antenna just buzzing about everywhere. Now, the mine workers, not being accustomed to giant insect like things, starts screaming, and, the thing’s sleep having been disturbed, it decides, hey, this loud noise is the last straw. Just zips over the man and his machine, crushes them with its sheer weight. Dead. Then it lounges about for a bit until it gets tired, wants to find its warrens, and is once again confused as to how its warrens simple do not exist. The beast gets angry again, kills the next closest person to the mine. And so on and so until its claimed a good thirty lives.
Its carapace was hard, and resilient to the heat. The guards quickly found that none of our projectile weapons did much good against it. Most blows only chipped away at the beast enough to anger it, leading to the prompt death of whomever had been attending the weapon. Obviously, it needed to be bludgeoned to death. Thoughts ran about to crush the thing with our construction equipment, but any attempts at that soon found that the beast was much more limber than our machines. Then, the governor postulated that we could destroy the beast by way of dropping some object on it from above, like an old fashioned bomber. Again, problem was that the changes to the ship would take days, and the thing was killing a person or three every half hour when its instincts told it to go slumber. We were running out of men. Everyone was screaming. Protests were raging about, trying to force the governor to, instead of using the colony fleet as a bombing corps, to instead just ship everyone off the damned planet. Soon the bodies started to fall domestic side, too, as martial law was imposed.
Death. Death everywhere. And I was just watching it from the sidelines.
Then the thought hit me. I had a scab on my arm from when I’d scratched too hard against a rash I’d got from all the mine dust being put into the air. My claws pierced my skin. Could not then the beast’s own pincers be made to claw out its own intestines?
It was a dumb thought. Like, obviously, that doesn’t always work. Any biology student can tell you that. And even if it did work, it would take, what? Thirty minutes to even break flesh? It might have worked in the tale of Hercules, but in real life?
I didn’t listen to those thoughts running through my head. After all, it seemed that death would claim me one way or the other. Why not let that death be in giving myself a fighting chance?
Pain. The pain was the reason not to. As I hacked into my friend’s storeroom and bolted myself into his mining hydraulics, any rational thought was drowned out by quivering nerves. I couldn’t do it. But I could.
The beast had just demolished some bicyclist who hadn’t gotten the memo that the colony was on fire. So, it was retreating complacently to its burrow to rest. Thousands of skittering talons shifted against the concrete, poking tiny holes where they tread. I could hear yelling in the distance. My nerves pounded. There was this and only this.
And then I don’t know how I did it. I was watching my limbs and all that, but was it me? It was my body, at least. I grappled with the beast’s tail, getting its attention. Then, somehow, I’ve got no clue now, the thing and I brawled. It wound up on its back, screaming to the sky in an attempt to right itself. Then I got one of its talons carving out its underbelly. The pain caused the beast to thrash about more, sending more of its talons scratching against its carapace, tossing me aside in the process.
Thirty minutes passed. Thirty minutes of the thing thrashing about, squealing in unrepressed agony. Each thread of pain made it scramble harder, causing it more pain, which…
Thirty minutes. I didn’t watch. My arms were bleeding. Crimson poured out in sheathes. I made a poultice to staunch it out of my socks, then slumped down against the side of a building while I waited for my hubris to kill me.
A medic came to help me. No medic helped the arthropod. It never got itself back up, and so died of exhaustion. From then on, well, I was a legend, and the fear and nervousness that I felt that night never returned with such strength. As Seranym continued in its pride to eviscerate the local area, I was there to stop the creatures who pulled out, through my wits, strength, and just damn good luck.
So, my reminiscing had reached the present. The past had been nice. The present might have been even nicer. I never felt that nervousness now, like I did getting suited up that first time. Though death would get me eventually, I still had a good bit of time on my clock. Had a bit of skin cancer in my left leg, but my doctor caught it in time for it to be excised with colonial facilities. No bit of dread followed me into the operating room, and no crumb of nervousness intruded my mind now, not even when I had visitors.
Yes, speaking of visitors. We’re finally here. The door monitor crooned its usual scream, getting me up from a nice breakfast of hard boiled eggs. It was a bit annoying. I wasn’t expecting anyone, and, as such, was barely dressed, the place was a bit of a mess, and, well, it didn’t matter. They were at the door at that moment, and no other. So, I opened the door to greet my visitor.
It was Jerrimal. I remembered his face like it was just yesterday, except it had been over twenty years ago.
“Jerrimal…” I began, unable to get anything coherent out of my mouth.
“Alborz.” He responded in kind. “Mind if I stop in, have a little visit?”
My eyes grew wider in shock. “We haven’t talked in twenty years. I checked the roster. I thought you were dead. We all did.”
He gestured to his intact, living body with his arms. “Well, sure doesn’t feel like I’m dead. In fact,” he bounced on the balls of his feet, “I feel just as alive as I ever have.”
“Hoookay. You want to… I guess I have something in the fridge. Come on in.” An obscene plethora of thoughts were running around my head like it was hosting a relay race. Jerrimal… he’d been the third best marksman in the colony, best tracker hands down. We’d fought side by side a dozen times. Then once he went off with a crew down to the copper pit, and… never came back. And yet here he was, flesh and blood, and wearing exceptionally nice clothing. Was this something that I needed to report to the authorities? Was he a ghost? Was I dreaming? Or was this really just going to be a chat with an old friend?
The resurrected man took his shoes off at the threshold. He always was one for courtesy. He’d sometimes even do that back at camp, even when the tent floor was already covered in muck. He always had the worst socks. Come to think of it, the socks he was wearing at present were completely mismatched from the rest of his sparkling atire, holes being visible by both of his pinky toes. Old habits die hard, I guess.
I beckoned him to sit down at the dining room table while I went off to prepare drinks. He slid into the chair in a seamless motion, belying the grace and physical strength that all the mercantile hunters had in their body. That sort of muscular grace was honestly one of the better parts of the job. It was a pity that strength and grace was leaving me with time.
He sat there, and stared somewhere ahead. I think he was looking at my plate collection which hung from the wall. There were designs from fifteen different planets, least that’s what the merchant said. They could’ve been lying, of course. An artist can make a plate on any planet, and he could have just had them all mocked up somewhere in the colony for ten credits, then had me fork over four hundred for them. But what did that matter? I liked them, they were pretty. Seemed Jerrimal liked them, too. I could see a hint of mirth peak at the edge of his lips as his glance brushed over the one of the boy and his dog. Over the years, I’d grown to consider that one my favorite.
Two steaming cups of coffee, a plate collection, bizarre and mundane guests to visit from time to time… I’d grown to love the sedentary life almost as much as I adored the feeling of the trigger in my hand. You know what they said: there are many paths to walk down in life, and each man can take many, if he is lucky.
But then there was silence. A light breeze shuffled the bushes outside. Steam swirled into the air and the grand clock in the foyer chimed. Neither of us said anything. I, for one, was too occupied studying the man’s face. Yes, it was indeed him. Same bright gray eyes, same shaggy eyebrows, same spot on his chin that looked like it should be growing hair, but didn’t. It was him. But there was something wrong. I couldn’t tell what it was.
“Have you lived a good life?”
I tilted my eyes at him, perplexed. “What an utterly bizarre way to phrase that question. I guess I have. After… well, I spent another decade hunting. The pickings were pretty slim at that point, what with the invasive creatures having all been plucked out, but it was decent enough. Then I poured six or so years into working as an instructor, and then, well, then I’ve just been here. Been picking up a lot of reading, shows, you know, stuff to pass the time and tighten up the mind.”
My quizzical glance became a bit more aggressive. “Not again. No kids. Thought about adopting, but then scratched against it. I dunno. I’ve liked the quiet. When I want it to be loud I put something on, or go into town.”
I found myself staring at his hands, wrapped around the coffee mug. Were they not hot? I’d used those cups plenty of times, and I couldn’t stand more than a few seconds of them attacking me with their poor insulation. Local craft. Pretty, but impractical.
“So what are you, now?”
“A person unto myself, and a bit of an old legend. Otherwise known as a pensioner. You know, Jerrimal I didn’t invite you in to have a class in existentialism.”
“Getting defensive, huh?”
“Well, you’re asking me weird questions after not seeing me for two decades. They’re a bit too prying for once you’ve slipped out of real familiar terms. What about you, huh? What did you do for two decades?”
He smiled, hands still wrapped around the mug. “Well, now look who’s asking prying questions.”
My eyes were no longer intrigued. They now beamed annoyance, and nothing but. “I’m not the one who disappeared for twenty years, now, am I? I stayed here, with the colony, and everyone knew about it. Everyone but you. Where were you?”
“Oh, we wandered around, offered our services to the other cities.”
Other cities. Sure. As though we wouldn’t have heard if Fars or Ramsport weren’t in contact with our field operatives. Another mark of nonsense in this resurrected man’s story.
“Isn’t your hand getting hot?” Was all that I could muster out of my gullet. I could feel a tiny brush of fear against my chin.
“Oh, right.” He chuckled, and moved his hands off the steaming mug as though it was something that he had merely forgotten. Entire sheets of steam were rising off of the liquid, curling into obscene gestures in the air. Too hot for human hands. Jerrimal had been tough, but not that tough.
Silence for just a second as I contemplated what to do.
“You, um, your hands okay?” He had them palms down against the table now.
“Yes, yes, they’re fine.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Can I see them?”
He held them out to me. Clean, unbruised, unburnt, but what was most stunning…
“Have you really lost so much of your sight in the past twenty years, old friend?”
His hands were the same age. Not a single wrinkle had sprouted up on his face that hadn’t already been there when we met. Not a singe gray hair on his head.
A ghost. A cyborg. A demon. I made to open my mouth to cry out for help, but the beast was sitting just a few feet away from me. No help would reach. Not in time.
“Oh, so the great hunter and protector is afraid? What a turn of events.”
“Shut up! I’ve always been afraid! What are you?! Why are you here?!”
“Just an old friend.” The abomination cruelly smiled. “Do you not remember me?”
“You wear the skin of Lieutenant Jerrimal, but you are not him.”
“Oh, Alborz. Don’t be so forgetful. I am lieutenant Jerrimal, as much as that fake man ever was.”
I took a deep breath through my nostrils, just to make sure the air was real. It smelled like home. The chair felt like home. But… Jerrimal. He’d been real too. This conversation was hurting my brain.
“What are you talking about? Fake man? I don’t remember ganging up with any automata.”
His hands were once more clasped around the steaming cup, just there to rub it in. “Automata should not be the first thing you jump to. Even among the empire of the heavens that humanity is weaving together, there does not exist a single computer who is even remotely capable at being a fascimile for man. Still to this day, machines remain glorified calculators, things of a different reality than those people of flesh and blood. So, I am no automata.”
“Then how… what are you, then.”
“A friend. I bore the skin of Jerrimal for a time, just long enough to seal the deal.”
“You dealt in a dangerous business. Danger is my specialty. For but one price I gave to you the life you live, and shall have lived.”
“Oh, so you’re…”
“No. Not that.”
“Then the devil?”
“Anything can be imagined to be the devil. The flintsnatcher was the devil for a time, and yet you did it in in no more than a fifteen minute squabble.”
“True. And you were there?”
“Watching your back, as always. But the time’s drawing near. I need my payment.”
“Payment of what? Payment for what? So, you’re a strange person from my past who was a spotter on my hunts, your hands are immune to heat, so…?”
“Do I need to spell it out for you? Every day has its night, every life has its death, every flintsnatcher its Alborz. I am your Alborz. Guardian, destroyer. What payment do you think I must take?”
“But if you’re here to take my soul, why did you ask me if I’d had a good life? Why would you care?”
This time the smile was not so sharp. “Because I want to make sure that I held up my end of the bargain, too. So you wielded my tools and skills with joy. It’s good. It makes this easier.”
I stood up from my chair, the miniature dart gun I kept taped to my upper arm now in my hand. “Ah, but it won’t be easy for us, Jerrimal. I’ve got a good thirty more years on me, and, avatar of death or not, you are still clad in the skin of a man. No matter how much of my skill I inherited from you, I know well how to stop a trespasser with my arms.”
Jerrimal did not flinch. He didn’t even move in his chair. And yet with my enhanced vision I could see the hint of his hands clasped around something underneath the table. The hand was moving.
Time always slowed down. I knew, scientifically, that it didn’t, really, but it always felt like that. No doubt the ammunition he carried was laced with a sort of toxin. Mine was not, for I preferred clean, quick deaths for my hunt. My hand was quicker, my shot faster, but all he had to do was graze one portion of my body, and I was out.
A single snap. I hadn’t felt such a surge of energy in years. I didn’t need to look to confirm. Before the sound even reached my ears, my hand had already raised the trajectory of the weapon straight unto the beast’s heart. I wasn’t much for study? You didn’t need to study too much to know where to aim.
Another snap. Time melted from being a solid block of butter to running all over my coagulated heart. Inertia turned to fear, adrenaline to agony. You could still tell the In the thing that claimed to be Jerrimal’s eyes.
Light flickered away at the back of his pupils. Blood spilled everywhere. My mind immediately turned to panic. This was a man. I had killed a man. Or maybe a thing that pretended to be a man. I didn’t know! And yet I had still killed him. I’d seen plenty of people die, of course, it was part of the work, but to see this creature that had just a couple of seconds ago been talking to me to just be a limp sack of flesh resting against my table… I had thought I would never had to cross that line. That sacred, sacred line. And yet I did. My mind scrambled as to what to do next. My first thought was to run to the comms to get the authorities and some paramedics up there. My eyes flashed to its location on my counter, then back to the table, and…
He was gone. Not just gone in the sense that he was dead. My stress jumped form yet again. No, I hadn’t killed him. I hadn’t killed anything. There hadn’t been a thing to kill, besides my own sanity. All the stress was imagined, I was losing my grip on the world, and…
And I was still in my kitchen. My arms felt like my arms, my eyes rested in their sockets like my eyes usually did. I hadn’t been drinking, I’d had a good night’s sleep, and I had never hallucinated before, save when we went on that week long trip shooting Helimvater.
I got up, took some of the sleeping pills I kept in my cabinet, and crawled into bed. Half of me thought I should go to the hospital, get my gut checked out. Might have been something bad that I ate. But then the other part of me knew that wasn’t the case, and just wanted to relax.
Thing is, three days have gone by since that visit. I’ve received the same knock at my door every afternoon, and the same Lieutenant Jerrimal comes strolling in. After the first, I’ve just been killing them on sight. Thing is, each time I turn around, the corpse is gone. No dart. No blood. Not even the indention of his footprints into the path leading up to my door. ‘Course, I check the footage. Timestamps are all missing from the time he starts strolling up to when I have to go back and reset the bloody things, ‘cause he’s jamming them somehow. But yesterday I, well, knowing the peculiarities of this madness, I didn’t turn my back on his body for more than one second. One. Second. There the first, gone the second.
It feels absurd to try and parcel up a logical explanation for all of this. What would that even entail? Some alien of perverse technological power has set up some Jerrimal cloning factory on the outskirts of town just to torment me? I can’t think of any other logical explanation, and even that feels pretty insane.
So, that’s why I’ve turned to you. That’s my official report. I know. It feels weird, me structuring this as a story. Kinda felt like I had to with the insane nature of this, to get you interested. Also weird for me going to the officials for protection and not the other way around. But I didn’t live through twenty odd years of martial hell by being stupid. I see where this is going. One day I slip up. My aim’s good, great even, but not perfect. I’ll miss a shot. Not by a lot, but just enough that the abomination can keep on his feet. Then it’ll take its shot, and I’ll be dead. That’s the future if I don’t change anything. Might happen fifteen days from now, or I might wind up perpetuating this dance into my nineties. I don’t want to find out. I want you to find out. Clues, rather. It’s an odd, bizarre request, one that on some backplanets would get me locked up in an insane asylum. But you guys know me. You know what I’ve done for the colony, and most importantly, you know on my honor that I wouldn’t lie.
If the colony can stand an expenditure on my behalf, I think the first place we start with is the cameras. Have one of the techs get into the memory, figure out what’s wiping it. I understand the principle, I’m just not savvy enough to do it myself. And if that doesn’t make any leads, which, honestly, I don’t expect it to, we’ll break a couple of search teams. Not asking for too much. A couple dozen people scrambling over the grounds, a couple to guard my person and bear witness to this phantom. And then… well, haven’t gotten that far.
I know, I know, sounds like an utterly insane thing to be allocating budget to. But you know what else was an insane thing to throw money at before? Those disappearances down by Kamal lake. Got the Lungbiter’s tail straddling my porch, and, wallah! A couple grand spent, another notch in my belt, and another menace to the colony gone. Just think of it like that. Helping me, helping the colonyyyyy… oh gods. The lungbiter. That was one they drafted Jerrimal on. But I thought… no, I killed it by myself… I killed it by myself, with the mining crystal! And yet I can see him now, standing in the background, rifle aimed at the thing’s gills…
On second thought, hold my request. I need to check the records regarding me, my hunts, everything on file. I need to…
Thus ends the public recording of Alborz Ghorbani, revolution 39 date 28. Further audio has been put beyond access level orange, for reasons of: insanity, time dilation, and potential for public demoralization. In order to gain access to further recordings, please input your authorization code. In order to obtain a level orange access code, please visit the bureau of public affairs, Seranym Annex 16.
Access code insufficient. Opening level yellow files regarding Alborz Ghorbani.
Alborz Ghorbani: Status: Deceased. Died revolution 39 date 29. Cause of death: suicide by way of poisoned bullet. Surviving close family: Anita Gorbani, citizen of Kamera.
Alborz Ghorbani was noted for his contributions to the security and personnel integrity of Seranym colony Samos. By a fluke genetic mutation, Alborz was noted to have exceptional stamina and constitution, which allowed him to fight and defeat one of the native monsters whose existence was detrimental to colonial infrastructure and Seranym’s broader ambitions. Such a victory compounded into a hunting skill which became renowned around the locale, as Alborz defeated beast after beast. In the middle years of his career, Alborz would be instrumental in passing his combat skills on to many companies of brave hunters who would, given a couple decades time, remove nearly all of the aggressive wildlife from the planet.
Persons of note relating to Alborz: Anita Gorbani, sister. Krysel, confidant, trainee hunter. Maria Sellock, ex-wife. Jerri Imal, trainee hunter.
Jerri Imal: Status: Deceased. Died revolution 17 date 2. Cause of death: unresolved. Likelihood of aggravated manslaughter. Surviving close family: no record.
Jerri Imal was noted for his contributions to the security and personell integri… (cut off)
Input access code.
Access disallowed. Level orange files unavailable at present.
(different voice) I need to check to see if they’re all there. There were three of them, weren’t there? I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve got some things to attend to. But I… it’s a good start.
But, you heard all that, didn’t you? That was his voice. And I don’t think he’d…
End transmission. I said, end transmission! What’s wrong with you, machine?! Ughh, looks like I have to go in and…