Chukka held the weapon steadily pointed at the bulge in the wall. She was threatening a rock, and it was working.
“Don’t move, don’t come any closer.” She waved the gun menacingly. The pod she was pointing at glowed a dim blue colour and the creatures amassed around her eased back from their attack postures.
They wanted to rip her to pieces, tear her limb from limb, she could feel it, but they daren’t.
Her message was getting across. They understood basic intimidation tactics. Blackmail. Extortion. She was building a whole lexicon she could use to make first contact with these aliens.
It was interesting seeing how they moved. They responded as a unit, perfectly coordinated. That would be useful. She didn’t have to work on them each individually — get one to do her bidding and the rest would follow. Basic grunts. Used to doing as they were told. The ideal audience for her particular set of skills.
She didn’t think the creatures were the ones making the decisions, though. No eyes, no ears, no mouths. They had to be getting information from somewhere. The pod next to her glowed and set off another cascade of coloured lights.
The creatures nearest her retreated to give her a little more room.
The pods embedded in the walls somehow told the creatures to back off. Some kind of telepathic communication? Maybe vibrations they could sense?
Chukka looked around at the other pods glowing in sympathy with the one kissing her gun’s muzzle, at the creatures slowly shuffling to encircle her, at the other three — Weyla, Leyla, Bashir — pinned down under mounds of pale white flesh.
Their weapons were useless against these things. Even the Seneca women had no way to break free. But Chukka had shown her superiority.
Now everyone was waiting for her to make her next move. Everyone had given Chukka their attention and full authority to call the shots. This was executive power, the most potent force in any fight. She liked it. Live or die by your own choices. This was what it meant to be a leader.
Her job right now was to analyse each variable as quickly as possible and find a way to use it to dominate the situation.
The strange creatures that had emerged from the ground had stopped in their tracks as soon as she aimed her gun at what, presumably, was some form of living being.
She could see there was something moving inside the translucent pods and it seemed a safe assumption that they were alive.
That was why the creatures — pale, faceless, violent — weren’t currently ripping her to shreds. They didn’t want her to kill their precious babies or siblings or masters or whatever they were. That told Chukka a lot about what she was dealing with, and how to manipulate them.
A select group chosen to put their own lives at risk in service of these ‘eggs’. That told her the eggs were vulnerable and weak.
The creatures looked to her to be newly awoken. Units designed for long periods of hibernation followed by intense periods of violent wakefulness. That fit into what she had seen so far.
One job, one purpose. Unable to think laterally or to consider alternatives. Protect the eggs at all costs.
The more she thought about it, the more human their thinking seemed. Low-level human thinking.
If they thought and felt and feared, then they were the same as the customers Chukka had been trained to deal with. They wanted to keep these things safe, and were willing to sacrifice themselves to do so. They weren’t willing to allow a single one of their charges to suffer if they could avoid it.
If they jumped her now, she could destroy one or two at most before she was overpowered. They wouldn’t do it. They didn’t dare. A terrible negotiating position to be in, as all the textbooks on the subject would tell you.
What she had to do now was find a way to communicate with them. A gun to the head spoke volumes, but she needed to be a little more subtle if she was going to get further than an eternal stalemate.
A stand-off with no end never benefitted the person in control, it only gave everyone else time to improve their situation. She might have the advantage for now, but these things probably didn’t sleep or eat or shit. They didn’t appear to have any orifices at all. They could wait until she started to get tired and then take her out.
Finding an exit was what she needed to focus on. Out of here with one of these pods in her possession. Empty-handed would be easier, but what good would that do her? No point finding a treasure of unlimited worth just to leave it behind. This was the big one and she had no intention of walking away from it.
It was even better than the organic tree they’d come across earlier. That would have made her a fortune, but this would make her a player in the big leagues. This opportunity could not be passed up.
“Tell them to back off,” said Bashir, his voice muffled and shaking. She could just see his eyes through the bodies on top of him.
“Quiet. I’m handling this.” This was no time to allow suggestions. It was never time for that if you wanted to maintain a strong leadership.
“Stop thinking about taking one of those things with you,” said Weyla, eyes bright red, straining as she rose from the ground, a pile of white bodies covering her. “They won’t let you leave with it.” She sounded irritated. Not liking the feeling of having her life in someone else’s hand. Good. Chukka hadn’t given up on extending her influence over the Seneca sisters.
“They won’t let us leave no matter what,” said Chukka.
Leyla slowly began to rise, her weapon in her hand. “Get out of here while you can.”
The creatures made a rumbling sound that seemed to come from their chests as they slammed both sisters back to the ground. There were dozens of them. More were emerging all the time.
Chukka was the only one still standing. She would like to keep it that way. “We need to take one of these things with us.” Chukka waved her gun at the pod. “It’s our only insurance.”
“How?” said Weyla, limbs wrapped around her throat. “They’re stuck in the wall. And I don’t think they’ll like you trying to dig one out.”
“You have a better idea?” snapped Chukka.
The lights dimly glowing around them, up the walls and across the chamber, began to pulse, and then strobe in patterns. The creatures around her shifted their body-weight, taking a different stance, as though hunkering down. Chukka stiffened.
Communicating was happening. They were about to make their move and Chukka had yet to come up with a way out of here. The surprise of being attacked and the shock of what they had been attacked by had cost her valuable seconds. She would be forced to react and give up the initiative.
The lights went out at exactly the same time and the chamber was plunged into darkness save for the light from her suit, showing only the wall. She didn’t want to lose her target.
Chukka expected to be attacked. Her finger on the trigger tightened. She didn’t want to destroy her only bargaining chip, it would only get her killed. But she had limited options.
There was a scream.
The lights from the walls glowed brighter and revealed Bashir standing, propped up by creatures still wrapped around him like a bizarre wedding dress.
His eyes were wild and terrified. His body shook. “Help…” he wheezed. His eyes bulged as his neck was squeezed by several thin white hands.
Fast learners. They were using her own methods against her. Dumb. Making assumptions that she would react the same way as them.
Chukka moved the gun swiftly and shot Bashir. He buckled and let out a strangled cry before going limp.
The lights on the wall went crazy, blinking and flashing. Now they understood. Here was the message she wanted to get across to them. They weren’t the same. There wasn’t going to be an exchange of goods. No refunds. All sales were final.
The creatures let Bashir drop and returned their focus to her, where it belonged. She had their undivided attention now.
They began moving closer. Chukka made sure the tip of the gun was pressed against the pod.
“Don’t test me,” she said. They couldn't understand her words, but they knew what she was saying.
Chukka scanned the area for her next move. How to leave with one of these pods?
They kept moving closer, forming a circle around her and up the wall. She couldn’t see the Seneca women now but it didn’t matter. She had total control of this situation.
There was a scratching, scrabbling noise from somewhere above her. One of them had climbed up high. It was too dark to see what they were up to. Trying to drop a rock on her head?
A skittering, clicking noise filled the air — claws against rock. Dust fell.
A figure moved down the wall, then another. There were several of them crawling down the vertical surface, carrying something between them. It began to glow.
They were bringing one of the pods to her, dug out of the wall. The gathered crowd parted as the group of three came down and approached her, carrying the pod reverentially between them. It was green with something swirling inside it. They placed it at her feet.
An offering? A sacrifice to their new god?
No, that would be too easy. Chukka didn’t trust good fortune so readily. They were up to something. Perhaps this was fake, or a bomb. Or they might simply want her to leave the pod she was threatening.
Was there something special about this one in particular? It didn’t seem much different to the one they were offering her, other than the colour.
“This one,” said Chukka, gently tapping the one in the wall with the tip of her gun. Its inner light flared up and something with a tail flashed past the surface. “This one,” she shouted.
More lights flashed around the wall in response. The creatures edged closer from the sides and began chipping away with their claws. Chukka kept the gun trained on her target. Slowly the pod came loose. Chukka caught it before it fell.
It was smaller than the one they’d tried to give her. That didn’t necessarily mean much. Perhaps she could take them both. No, she wouldn’t be able to manage. Smaller would be easier. She held it cradled in one arm with the gun pointing down at it.
“Show me how to get out of here,” said Chukka. “Out. Up.” She pointed at the roof of the chamber.
The crowd around her parted again, this time creating a path for her. It led towards a wall with a ladder. She wouldn’t be able to climb while carrying the pod and her gun. Was this their plan? Attack when she was unable to defend herself. Not a bad idea. She was beginning to see these little imps as worthy competitors. Just not good enough.
“Get back. Spread out. Back, back.” She waved them away to give her more space. They scattered like frightened vermin. They weren’t scared of her, they feared for the safety of the pod she was holding. It was smooth and slippery and easy to drop. Chukka held onto it tight. It was just as precious to her.
The ladder was in front of her. Its thick ridges would be tricky to hold onto. Just as she was contemplating how to make some kind of harness, the walls shifted. The rungs of the ladder sank back to create a slope. Steep but with the rungs now forming makeshift steps, she would be able to practically walk up.
It was too easy, she knew that. They had to be planning something, no way would they allow her to just walk out of here.
“Come back,” she heard Bashir’s strained voice. He wasn’t dead, which could be a problem if he survived. But he wouldn’t survive.
“I will,” she shouted as she began climbing. “I’ll bring help.”
She made it to the top and found herself in a dark tunnel. There were bound to be obstacles in her way, but she would overcome them. She was holding the most valuable object in the galaxy and nothing was going to take it from her.
Two figures emerged from the dark.
“Hey, Chukka,” said Ubik. “Fancy meeting you here. What you got there?”
Patreon is two weeks ahead (usually 6 chapters currently 4)Afterword from Mooderino