*Yes, some of you have read this in War and Other Punchlines. It’s also in a collection. However, I thought the rest of you might enjoy it. Yes, Dark Fate should be done, but I have a million business things to catch up on and my brain is trying to engage with fiction and failing. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be better. For now, free short story. And yes, it’s crazy, but well… never mind.*
Who Goes Boing?
It was raining and the LT was grumbling. As the seven of us moved around, setting up the tents and securing the perimeter with breach detectors, he set his back pack down and looked around at the desolate area of peaks and rock spheres as far as the eye could see and muttered a long complaint from which the words “nerd army” and “I must have been crazy” emerged.
I traded a look with Sargent Miller as he came over to help me affix the breach detector to a rock spire nearby. Sarge’s eyes wrinkled a bit at the corner, but he didn’t say anything, but “Having trouble with that, Bronk?”
I nodded. Technically my name and designation is Specialist First Class (Xenobiology) Bronkowsky of the Earth Exploration Corps. But just about everyone called me Bronk, and from the Sarge that was almost a compliment.
He was a hard-worn man of about fifty and he’d done countless drops. The people he’d lead on their first exploration-drop now occupied positions everywhere, at every level, from Cabinet positions in several worlds, down to big names in research and science. But he’d chosen to stay out here, leading parties through space gates onto newly discovered planets. For the fun of it, I suspected. Though of course the bounty for clearing a new planet was fabulous and he was probably by now a many times multi-billionaire.
You wouldn’t know it, as he fumbled at the sensor with clumsy-looking fingers, until he got the nanites embedded at the back of it to do whatever they needed to do to stick to the rock spire. “Well, you know,” he said, speaking in a very low voice, and with every appearance of giving me some instruction about the apparatus supposed to detect any sort of intrusion – electromagnetic, infrared or biological – into our perimeter. “The LT transferred from what it pleases him to call the real army. He might be consorting with us, but he will always think he’s better than us. He doesn’t even think our ranks are real.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “But the thing is, that I don’t know why he transferred, if he thinks we’re all so weird.”
“Yeah, but the real army, as he calls it, the people who come after us to make sure the world is safe for colonists, don’t get paid a tenth of what we do.”
I nodded, and moved off to set up another perimeter sensor. I knew that. We all knew that. I’d always assumed it was because the EEC, or as they called us, the Nerd army required a heck of a lot more of education. All of us had at least graduate-level training in our disciplines by the time we joined, and to that more was added during EEC induction. There were few people out in the civilian population as trained as we were.
Had to be. We were the first people through to a new location. All that had been in this planet, once we’d first been able to open a gateway to it were automated probes. And automated probes didn’t get everything. Or even most of it. There had been that sentient planet, in the Hesperides which had not reacted at all to the probes, but had killed every man jack of the first three landing parties, before someone figured out what was wrong and closed that gateway for good.
And then there were the risks which awaited parties landing on planets with species that might be sentient, but which had no concept of machines, and thereby had left the first probes alone.
When I’d been a kid, back in Arrois, my dad said that even in our planet, so seemingly peaceful as it was, the first five exploration groups had been killed because of a microbe that could infect humans – a rare occurrence – and which drove them mad.
This is why before the EEC was the Nerd Corps, the popular name for us had been the half hour men. Because that’s how long you could expect to live in any given planet.
The instruments had gotten better, though, and we’d gotten better as well. Our training now allowed many of us to survive to ripe old age. The others– Well, colonists would find it odd if they came through a newly opened planet and didn’t find half a dozen of graves marked with name, rank and the symbol of the EEC. There was a reason we carried markers in our basic kit.
When I finished setting the perimeter and came back, the LT seemed to be in a better mood. Or at least Sarge was telling him “Yes, sir” a lot which usually put him in a better mood.
On my way to help the other four members of the party — Jackel, specialist in geology; Tadd, engineering; Gack in electromagnetics; and Lablue in Atmospheric science – prepare dinner, I heard the LT say something about not being a scientist and not knowing what to do with a passel of geniuses.
These were complaints I knew from our former two drops, and I suspected they were bad as all get out for morale, except that they weren’t because none of us paid him much attention. We went around and did out thing and reported to Sarge, and he made it all palatable for the LT, which is what I suspect made the LT crazy. Crazier. Whatever.
The guys and I had been working together since basic orientation, and we started warming up the food packs, in silence, and with no more than the occasional glance around. In no time at all we were settled down and eating from our ration bowls, when there was—
I can’t describe it, but it was a sound sort of behind and above me. Only it wasn’t a sound, so much. It was like the sensation you’d expect the sound “boing” to cause if it were a feeling up the back of your neck.
At the same time, Gack tried to jump up and backwards, only he forgot to get up first and got soup all over his pants. And he didn’t even look at his pants, nor around him, but stood there, frowning behind me.
I turned around but could see nothing where he was looking, save a barren expanse of rock and spires between sheets of falling rain.
“Gack?” Sarge said. “What happened?”
Gack was one of those enormous men that people tend to think grow in high grav environments. This isn’t true. He was actually from the same region I came from, an agricultural planet in Andromeda. But he was square built and square-jawed, six feet seven with a growth of beard that resisted his twice-a-day shaving. It went oddly with his wide-open eyes, and the hand he lifted to cover his mouth. “I—“ He said. Then stopped. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, as though he were trying to gain time. Then he took a deep breath. “I saw a rabbit.”
Sarge looked at me. I was the xenobiology expert, which in practical fact meant that I was the expert in anything biological, from the life forms on this planet to medic duties to my own unit. I had studied the reports sent by all the probes that had examined this world for years before we were allowed through. “There aren’t any life forms we’d classify as animals,” I said, slowly. “Or at least none our probes reported. The most advanced life form is a kind of mold spore. Of course—” I paused. “That is also the technical classification of the sheep in Proxima Centauri, the ones popularly known as Vegetable Lamb.”
Sarge shrugged. “So, that means it could be a small pseudo-animal that looks like an Earth Rabbit, I supp—”
“No,” Gack said. “No, Sarge, you don’t understand. This wasn’t a normal rabbit. It was… It went on two feet, and it had… it looked humanoid, but with really long ears, and huge eyes. It was odd.”
“Um…” the LT said. “You saw an awful lot in that glimpse.”
“I—It was just an impression,” he said.
“It could be an hallucination, caused by some undetected compound in the air,” I said. And I dove into the tent for the medical kit. But the med tech we had didn’t show Gack as suffering from any poisoning or any other undue influence.
We went to bed that night feeling restless and, in my case, worried. I’d known Gack a long time. It just wasn’t like him to freak out at some nonsensical glimpse of an impossible creature. And what he’d seen was impossible.
I woke up in the middle of the night with another impression of having heard a sound. The sound was “paff” as best I can transcribe it. And there was an idea that there had been a scream of some sort just after it.
There is no duty to get up and check on things in the middle of the night, unless one of the perimeter alarms has gone or the officers give orders. But in the Nerd Corps, you don’t wait for those. Not if you want to live.
I got up. There was no sound around me, except the pattering of the steady, whispering rain on the tent roof. I couldn’t even hear any noise from my squad mates. Which was fine, since we had individual tents, and they weren’t that close.
My exercise fatigues, which I wore as pajamas on these missions, were not water proof, so I pulled on the regulation rain poncho before stepping out to check the perimeter units.
While I was looking at the last one – showing nothing had breached our perimeter line – I heard steps behind me, and turned to see Gack, also awake, and also wearing a rain poncho. He was walking with a sort of exaggerated, comedic stealth, which surprised me, because Gack was known for many things, but none of them was physical comedy.
I said, “You heard it too?”
“What?” he asked, stopping.
“You heard the sound of something falling?” I asked. “And the scream?”
His eyes shot out. What I mean by this is that his eyes came out of his head, straight at me, then sagged onto his face, suspended from springs. He put them back in, matter of fact, and said, “Uh, no.”
I was trying to tell myself I hadn’t seen what I’d thought I’d seen. But there are things that you can’t deny. And if I’d gone around the bend, it still wouldn’t run to seeing people’s eyes pop out on springs. I kept my face as absolutely neutral as I could, and nodded, “Okay,” I said, but walked sideways towards Gack’s tent, and drummed my fingers on the outside of it. When no one answered, I stooped momentarily to unfasten the magnetic closure in the front.
The tent was… covered in blood. And in the middle of it all was an anvil, huge and improbable. An antique anvil, of the sort that people had used to beat metal on. The kind of thing you only saw in museums.
I jumped sideways at a whistle above me, and jumped out of the way, just as a big square thing fell where I’d been seconds before. I turned around to see Gack – or whatever it was that looked like Gack – hop towards me at crazed speed.
I did what any man would do. I screamed and ran. Right into the LT who had got out of his tent. I have no idea what I told him, but it probably didn’t matter, as he took a look at Gack, then jumped out of the way in his turn, pulling me along as yet another square thing fell where we’d been.
By now the camp was bedlam, with everyone running around in a state of undress, and pseudo-Gack hopping around and, somehow, perhaps causing heavy objects to appear.
LaBlue, finally, had the presence of mind to shoot at pseudo-Gack. There was a sound like “phlui” as the energy weapon hit Gack, and there was a feeling like an implosion, as Gack disappeared and air rushed in to fill the place he’d been.
It was a while before anyone spoke, and then it was Sarge, who said, “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it wasn’t Gack. Gack is dead. In his tent.”
The funny thing is that the anvil I’d seen in the tent was no longer there, only Gack pate all over the inside surfaces. The other things that had fallen, mostly square boxes, were also not there anymore. The LT said they were safes, things used to keep documentation and valuables in the pre-space days. But none of us had any idea why the pseudo-Gack had dropped them everywhere, or even if he had or if they were just an associated phenomenon to whatever had killed Gack and taken his form.
Still, in moments like this, it was good to have protocol to fall back upon. Gack had to be buried on this planet, and his grave appropriately marked. We decided to strike the tent and bury the whole thing, and did just that, digging a deep grave in an area just at the edge of the camp. Everyone had gone around and checked the perimeter and verified that neither biological nor electromagnetic violation had occurred, so we were all jumpy and looking at each other. And I, particularly, was alert to the sound of something that wasn’t quite heard with the ears. Something like boing or paff felt at the back of the neck.
For a moment, as we were digging soggy reddish dirt back in atop the tent that contained the mortal remains of Gack, I thought I heard-felt that boing, but nothing strange happened.
Until we were setting the marker to show Gack’s universal birth and death date, that is. That was when the LT gave Sarge a cigar. This in itself was weird enough, because smoking was not just a rare enough thing, but a very expensive habit. There were some planets where it might be more common, like the place in Andromeda where they grew tobacco. But to carry one to Earth quarters and bring it on an expedition was unlikely, since if you had a cigar you could sell it for a lot of money on Earth.
Sarge seemed to sense the strangeness of it, and stood there, holding the cigar in between his fingers, until the LT snapped, gave an odd little laugh, took the cigar from Sarge’s hand, jammed it in Sarge’s mouth, brought out a little stick, aflame, and set fire to the end of the cigar. At which point the cigar exploded, blackening Sarge’s face.
It took a moment, and I might have been the first to react. I ran to where I’d last seen the LT before this, and found him behind a spear of rock. He had been crushed by what looked like an antique musical instrument, the kind you still see on Earth sometimes, called a Grand Piano.
Four of us shot the LT at the same time. Or rather we shot the creature who was hoping around our camp, looking but not moving like the LT. This time it had no effect. Or rather, for a moment, it created a hole in the middle of its chest, but then it looked at it and said “uh oh” and the hole healed.
LaBlue who was nearer hit the pseudo-LT on the head with his pack, the one he’d carried on his back here, and which contained his folded tent and all his gear.
The pseudo-LT folded down like an accordion, and ran. He ran right off the perimeter, and disappeared.
Leaving us all breathing hard, scared, and not at all sure what we were facing. Sarge organized those of us who remained. He detailed Jackel and Tadd to dig the LT’s grave and move the body – easier since the piano had of course disappeared – and he and I and LaBlue went around the perimeter, checking all the readings.
“How is it possible,” LaBlue said. “For whatever it is to get past our perimeter without setting off the alarms.”
I was biting the inside of my lip to keep from screaming in frustration at the events, but I’d been thinking about it since Gack had bought it. “All the life forms we’ve found have been either energy or flesh,” I said. “Well, except those bio forms that are plants, including ambulatory ones, but for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll call them flesh. But that doesn’t preclude life forms made of something else.”
“What else could it be?” LaBlue asked. “What other than energy or biological beings.”
“Minerals, I suppose?” Sarge asked.
LaBlue shook his head. “Nah, the alarms would detect different substances from the ones previously identified for this site,” he said. “It would detect movement too.”
“Are we dealing with another sentient planet?” I asked.
LaBlue shrugged. “Even if it were, certainly we’d have detected movement. And besides, why would aliens pelt us with Earth antiques?”
I had no answer to it, partly because at that moment I heard-felt “boing” and jumped aside just in time to avoid a black, globular object which fell where we’d been, and which said ACME on the side and had a sort of rope on top. The end of the rope was burning.
I recognized it then, and it all fell in a pattern in my mind. I screamed, “Take cover.” Then jumped behind a rock spear.
There was an explosion, and a flash of fire.
When we emerged, three of us were fine, but LaBlue had been too close to the explosion and was dead, a startled look on his face.
Sarge sighed, and Jackel and Tadd looked too stunned to even mention digging another grave, but I said, “Wait, I think I know what’s happening?”
“Oh?” Sarge said.
“Yes, Sarge. You know how we got to some worlds and found that they were capturing our entertainment transmissions and knew about us from them?”
“Not very well,” Sarge said. “I mean, they didn’t know about us very well. The older transmissions, which would have reached the more distant stars are also more substantially degraded by the time they get there. Some races managed to reconstruct all of a movie or a series of transmissions, which is why that place in Proxima is the ILoveLucy planet, but—”
“Cartoons,” I said.
“Beg your pardon?” LaBlue said, so surprised that he spoke before Sarge reacted.
“Cartoons were drawn adventures from the time before computers were significant in entertainment,” I said. “Middle twentieth century. Drawn adventures that were animated by drawing a lot of similar freeze frames, then making them move very fast to give the impression of movement, on movie.”
“Sounds inefficient,” Sarge said.
“It was, but it was also very imaginative. The cartoonists, as they were called, created a whole universe of creatures, like… animated anthropomorphic rabbits, a world without death, where characters pulled themselves from under heavy weights, or recovered easily from explosions. The projectiles were often safes, pianos or anvils.”
“How do you know this, Bronk?” Sarge asked.
“I grew up in a backward planet, sir. Until we got more advanced technology when I was fifteen, we had locally built televisions and we watched a lot of antique entertainment on them.”
“I see. So you think the beings on this planet, whatever they are reconstituted those signals—”
“Possibly from one of the colony planets closer than Earth,” I said. “Yes, sir.”
“And that they think this is what human beings on Earth are actually like?”
“It’s possible, sir. It seems like few species have the imagination humans have, and those cartoons… well, if you didn’t know the time and place they came from, you too might not believe someone just made them up out of whole cloth. Heck, even knowing the time and the place.”
“But what are they?” LaBue said. “What are these creatures? What makes them?”
I shrugged. “We know there are energies in the universe we can’t measure or get a full fix on. Take the singing ghosts of Antares 5. Some people think they are powered by thought.”
“That is—” the Sargent said, and then used a word that was also archaic and referred to the excreta of an Earth bovine.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Or as we like to put it not scientifically proven. But we still can’t explain the ghosts, sir. Or it could be anything else. There are those who posit time as a form of energy, and if that’s so, then these things could be time itself. That’s not important,” I said. “The important thing is this: how do we survive their attacks, their ability to mimic those of us they kill and replace, and how do we get back to Earth in one piece?”
The Sargent said a word that rhymed with ducked, followed by, “if I know. The gate won’t open again for another six hours.” He looked around at the shambles of the camp. “The question is whether any of us will be alive and sane enough to report.”
Which is when Jackel and Tadd started chasing each other with the shovels. Which by itself was not as bad as the fact that when one hit the other with a shovel, the other would walk around for a while looking like he’d been compressed, then would pop back to normal size with a sound like “boing.”
Sarge and I fell back, retreating behind a spear of stone. Behind us was the edge of a cliff. We stared at the camp where Jackel and Tadd hit each other amiably and ran around in the deranged motions of cartoon characters.
If I squinted, I could see two immobile forms, out by the graves. Three, if I focused really hard, though the third was a little far off and indistinct. Three.
I turned around to look at Sarge, who looked back at me.
I heard “boing” and felt it at the back of my neck, and rolled out of the way, and shot at Sarge, even as an anvil fell between us.
Sarge got a hole in his chest, said “uh, oh” and ran.
He ran right off the edge of the cliff in a straight line, until he looked down and realized there was nothing under him. And then he fell.
I went to the edge of the cliff and looked down, to see his – its? – crumpled body far below.
Well, that was that. I was the only human being still left. I’d have to last long enough, until the gate to Earth opened again.
Back in the camp, the pseudo-Jackel and pseudo-Tadd were dropping pianos on each other and crawling out from under them to fight another day.
I couldn’t understand the purpose of it, and it made my eyes pop out. I had to keep pushing them in when they dangled in springs against my face. It got old fast.
Clutching my gun tightly, I prepared to keep the strange creatures at bay.
I couldn’t wait will the gate to Earth opened again.