Short Stories 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Sep112012

One Head Too Many by John Bray

One Head Too Many

 

By John Bray

 

 

“. . . we never found the heads. Some survivors had searched among the smoking rubble of our devastated city. They found numbers of horribly seared corpses, they found the severely injured, some already in the late stages of radiation poisoning, but of the bodies, mutilated in such a savage manner, the heads were not found. Those who got to shelter when the attack began doubted whether their continued struggle was worth the effort. Death by starvation, disease, or thirst loomed ever nearer. Death at the hands of murderous bands of scavengers—our own people—who rampaged unimpeded through the ruins, posed an even greater danger.”

 

“We watched terrified, while the attackers who had wrought the destruction combed the ruins of collapsed buildings, the bent and twisted rubble of smashed expressway systems, the tunnels and underground viaducts.  The object of their quest never became clear to us. It appeared that they handled the random discoveries they carried away as if they were trophies or treasures, precious only to them. They ranged spectral and noiseless, which increased our sense of horror and dread.”

 

The description above is a fragment of a report found by the search and rescue parties. It was written by a city official as he tried to record the nightmare he and others had witnessed before they succumbed to the poisonous radiation that spread throughout the city.

 

Out on the huge expanse of arid, sun-baked land to the east of the once prosperous metropolitan sprawl, the vessel that attacked the city prepared for departure. Its phaser impulse weapons wrought the wanton destruction to interdict any anticipated resistance from the inhabitants. With its mission completed the crew returned and stowed their specimens safely aboard. Preparations for extraction then began. The Navigator peered from the forward port of the bridge as he communicated with telepathic intensity at the electronic command center that controlled the steering and propulsion systems.

 

Jagged gray prominences towered in all directions on the horizon, the smoke from the battered city rose and drifted above them on fast moving currents of the gases needed to maintain life on the planet on which the ship had landed. The Commander entered the bridge and began his own pre-flight checklist. The Navigator focused on his tasks, requiring all his concentration to maintain contact with the quirky computers. At the Navigator’s command the photon propulsion systems began their distinctive noisy hum. The engineering officer manipulated his control panel. He set the exterior steering planes to insure smooth extraction from the alien planet.

 

The crew reported all specimens brought aboard sealed in casks with preservative gel and processed through decontamination. The safety team collected all the extra-vehicular protective gear, sealed it in a refuse capsule and prepared it for jettison when the ship cleared the local gravitational field.

 

In the city fires still raged. Every available Emergency Response Team from neighboring communities rushed to the disaster site, hampered only by the shortage of pressurized haz-mat suits. Emergency vehicles found roundabout paths through the rubble and debris of shattered buildings and demolished elevated highways. Their tasks seemed insuperable; blazing buildings to extinguish, survivors to rescue, the dead to be collected and disposed of with dispatch, water and medical necessities rushed to the scene. Triage centers sprang up to sort those near death, those severely injured and those badly traumatized. Militia and police mobilized to deal with the roving bands of looters.

 

The Chief of Emergency Response supervised his units from a central plaza in an undamaged section of the city. He spoke through his radio to his subordinates close by, enveloped in their haz-mat gear. “This area will function as a collection depot for the huge number of corpses we expect. Where possible, we need to obtain identification, and decisions need to be  made as to the optimal method of disposal of the remains before a plague starts.”

 

A search team assigned to retrieval duties reported to the temporary headquarters. “It’s the damnedest thing, Chief. We’ve found scattered instances of decapitated corpses.”

 

The supervisor of a unit from another municipality, clearly shaken by this bizarre occurrence amidst the overwhelming catastrophe, felt obliged to report it. “Some of the victims were already dead when the decapitation took place, but some were obviously alive before it happened, judging by the condition of the bodies. Apparently they only took heads from corpses that had no evidence of burns. Many had died by other means —but a number by having their heads forcibly removed.”

 

The Chief, impatient at delay, needed to keep the process rapid and unhindered. He told the Body Retrieval Team, “Let’s get on with this. Do the best you can at identifying the remains and put them with the rest. We have no time for sentiment now, you’ll see much worse before this is over.”

 

A second rescuer stepped up to report a ghastly discovery. “Chief, we found a subterranean crypt with the lid removed. There were remains inside, but no head. Those creatures took the head of a body long dead. The rest of the corpse was there and had a kind of wooden stake driven through it, but no head. I guess it was some sort of old ritual, this thing with the stick or whatever it was. Any way….”

 

The Chief interrupted, “Just seal it up and keep moving.”

 

“We did, Chief.”

 

“All right, let’s get going. We need to finish this part of it. We have other tasks to perform after this.”

 

“Right Chief,” the team leader said. He gave the smartest salute he could manage with the cumbersome gear he wore. His work party returned to their gruesome search.

 

Aboard the ship the crew stowed the collected specimens, sealed in translucent casks with hydrogen-impregnated gel, in the preservation chamber. The photon propulsion thrusters rumbled as they gathered power sufficient for lift-off. The ship began to vibrate with the pulse of the launch. All crewmembers not in flight suspension secured themselves until they had left the gravitational pull and magnetic flux field surrounding the alien planet.

 

The ship banked over the blackened and smoldering city. The expanse of ocher and granite surface below that had functioned as their landing and departure point, faded into the distance. When the vibrations caused by the increasing escape velocity from the planetary surface eased, the Commander released the buckles of his flight immobilizer. Once freed, he ascended the ladder to the preservation chamber. There, specimens collected by the crew awaited examination.

 

Opening the outer hatch, he passed through the safety lock, entered the chamber and activated a photon emitter. The area became suffused with a soft rosy glow. Translucent casks arranged around the bulkheads displayed a sample cross-section of the subject species taken from the city they had attacked. The space allotted to specimen storage, limited by the constraints of ship configuration, necessitated that they brought only heads aboard.  Science Central, which had set forth the parameters of their specimen collection, had stressed the requirement of variety as of paramount importance. Ever since the inhabitants of their home planet had mastered the intricacies of interstellar flight, a thirst for the scientific examination of other sub-species living in nearby star systems drove their ambition for more advanced methods of propulsion and ship construction.

 

The commander turned to a cask that contained what seemed a different and most interesting specimen. This one appeared more desiccated than the others; its flesh had a distinctive greenish tinge, its hair trailed unmoving in the preservative gel.

 

His examination of the strange artifact prompted questions in his mind, “Did I just see that thing’s eyes snap open, perhaps some post-usefulness spasm? It appears to have long since lost its essential life force. Is that thing looking at me? What are those tendrils suspended from its neck? The crew had specific orders to complete every severance cleanly. It appears an overeager collection party member acted in haste.”

 

The eyes of the ancient severed head, with its saurian pupils, followed the movement of the Commander who peered into each cask with curiosity. Its brain made silent observations. Then its sepulchral voice echoed in the sealed chamber, “Yes indeed creature, you move like a living, sentient being. Whatever species you represent creature, you now observe my slow regeneration.”

A frisson of an unfamiliar emotion shuddered through the commander’s body.

 

The voice continued: “Deep in my brain a virus has lain dormant until this moment. How fortuitous that now I am separated from that withered carcass pinioned for this long century by that stake. An ancient superstitious ritual, how did I ever succumb? No matter, I am free forever from that burden.”

 

Unaccustomed to the cold trembling that wracked his body the commander began to ease himself toward the hatch through which he had entered. He tried to identify the sudden stimulus that wrenched his viscera. He had never known, nor did he understand fear.

 

The disembodied sound echoed again: “This virus grows and I regenerate. The virus has a name. Its name is Genuine Malice. And yes, Malice can take living form. I have begun to regenerate in this suspension.”

 

The entire chamber vibrated and tilted wildly. The cask containing the desiccated head burst open and thudded to the deck. The full, misshapen form appeared, once just a head encapsulated in the translucent container.

 

“You’re just an apparition,” the commander said, attempting to gain control of his composure. “Something brought about in my mind by extended space flight. You cannot be real.”

 

The visage of the once shriveled body attempted a sardonic smile. It spoke: “You creature, unleashed wanton destruction on innocent beings who had rendered you no harm, and all that done for your own selfish purposes.”

 

The commander leapt toward the hatch and flailed with uncontrolled attempts to unlock the portal.

 

With a ghastly laugh the creature mocked: “Now you’ve granted me freedom before you realized the consequences. Such irony, but Malice will repay you for the gift of freedom, and for your own dreadful evil. Yes, this is one head whose discovery your species will regret forever.”

 

In the plaza where the Emergency Response Teams had their Command and Control unit the deputy turned to the chief, “Something just occurred to me, Boss.”

 

Without looking around, the chief said, “What’s that?”

“That grotesque thing that the aliens disinterred…”

 

“Yeah, what about it?”

 

“According to the old folklore, if that thing gets out of its grave…”

 

“Yeah, and now they have it aboard their ship…”

 

“Right,” the deputy chief said, “They won’t know what it is and it’s headed back to their planet.”

 

“That may be the only revenge we get. We’ll eventually recover from this disaster, but they may never…”

 

“We can only hope, Chief. That thing will spread like a plague, wherever it’s going.”

 

In the specimen chamber, the commander failed in his effort to open the hatch release. The spectral shape began to take corporeal form. The terrible stench of the grave permeated the enclosure. The commander’s eyes darted around for something to use as a weapon. Before he took another inhalation, the hideous figure sprang across the chamber and battened upon his unwitting host. In a final spasm the commander tripped an emergency alarm device.

 

The insistent wail of the alarm sounded throughout the ship. Crew members rushed to the specimen chamber where the flashing light code told them the danger emanated from inside. They gathered, waited for instructions from the commander. When no response came, the chief safety officer activated the chamber’s hatch release. Inside their visual organs met only inky blackness. A shape flashed past the crew members in the dark and through the open hatch. The safety officer lost his traction on something slippery on the deck, “Get me a light in here, quickly,” he ordered.

The crewman nearest the hatch activated the photon emitter on the bulkhead behind him. In the soft illumination the safety crew stared at the body of the commander lying face up, a twisted heap in a spreading puddle of his own grease, his visage a mask of feral horror. In a corner, an overturned preservation cask lay empty.

 

The spectral form sped through the passageways and hatches of the ship, and up the ladders that took him above decks where he burst onto the bridge. “Remain on course, Navigator,” he said with his hollow intonation.  

 

The Navigator recoiling in horror from the sudden intrusion experienced his own involuntary shudder. “What are you? Where did you come from?”

 

The creature snarled and tore at the Navigator’s exposed gullet. “I am from eternity and I intend to — how shall I phrase it?” his voice rasped with a sardonic inflection, “Migrate to your planet.”

 

The Navigator, thrashed for a moment spewing his essential life substance on the deck, then slumped lifeless from his seat. The ship continued on its predetermined course to the planet from which it had first embarked.

 

John Bray is the author of three novels published by BeWrite books of Vancouver, Canada: The Ballad of Johnny Madigan, a historical novel of the Civil War era, and The Confidential, a police procedural/thriller, and Code Name: Caleb the sequel to Johnny Madigan.

 

 

 

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