by A.P. Thayer
The old man sits stooped on a rock, covered in amber-and-black algae growing over skin so papery his obsidian veins are visible beneath. He’s a jumble of skeletal limbs in a robe that must have once been something other than gray, bowed by the weight of… well, I know what kind of weight can press down on a man. That’s why I’m in this backwater system, lightweeks from the closest warp lane or security outpost.
Exactly the kind of place you’d hide treasure.
“The fuck’re you doin’ here, old man?”
He looks like he’s been sitting there since before the big bang. He just smiles at me, all gums, no teeth.
“Suit yourself,” I mutter.
I grab the repeater out of my cockpit, doing my damn best to ignore the cracked bodywork. Don’t worry, baby, I’ll get you fixed up real soon.
I drop to the charcoal plateau, my boots squelching into the same muck that covers the old man…that covers every-damn-thing. The occasional shrub pokes out from the red-black carpet. Can’t help but think of a man drowning, reaching for someone, anyone, to throw him a rope.
A blast of solar wind damn near tears me off the plateau and into the emptiness beyond. The old man keeps on grinning.
“Reckon I’ll just be on my merry way.” I sling the repeater over my shoulder and begin the ascent.
XF-Akura-9’s atmosphere is magic. The planet’s shattered pieces float together as they hurtle through space, a vortex of spinning rocks. Smaller pieces pirouette around the mountain I climb in a slow-motion ballet with me at its center. I almost blow chunks in the visor of my viro-suit.
Even in low-G, the climb is hell. My boots keep sinking into the spongy growth and it takes a supreme fucking effort to pull them out, step after gods-damned step. But that ain’t gonna stop me. No risk, no reward, and I need that fucking reward.
The trail switches back and I look down at the old man, so far below. He’s standing now in the middle of that plateau I landed on, face turned up to me, arms spread wide like those old-earth Jesuits. He praying for me? I nearly shout to him that God can’t hear him way out here.
If God could hear prayers out here in the black vacuum, I wouldn’t need to be out in the ass end of it, hunting down rumors of the score to end all scores.
But never mind. I’m almost there.
The vestiges of hundreds–no, thousands of lifeforms litter the summit. Bones and exoskeletons and metal, intertwined and intermingled with one another. Bent around each other. Broken, like the planet whose surface they cover, and submerged in the same muck that covers everything. Red and black tendrils rise eel-like from the bio-detritus.
And above all that mess floats a black, glittering skull. An obsidian diamond with pearls for teeth, pulsing with the energy of a whole galaxy’s worth of dark matter. The mountain crest hums so powerfully, I can feel my atoms vibrating.
It’s real. After all this time, the steep ascent seems like it was nothing. The trip through space, nothing. All that hurry-up-and-go and here I am, face-to-face with the honest-to-God solution to everything. Everything I ever wanted. Everything I ever needed. More than my gun, more than my ship. The infinite possibilities of time and space open before me as the skull looks back at me through its gravity well sockets.
The last thing I’ll ever need.
There’s a wheezing laugh from behind.
I whirl and press the barrel of my repeater against the old man’s forehead. “The hell…?”
How’d he get up here so damn fast?
“Another comes,” he says, and the amber-black growth on him quivers. Wait. It isn’t on him. It is him. The same bio-detritus that makes up this peak folds in and around itself in a horrific mimicry of life. Swirling, seething, pulsing…
Fuck this. I squeeze the trigger.
He knocks the gleaming barrel aside as it explodes, sending the flechette round harmlessly into the cold nothing beyond. I push back against him, trying to bring the gun around, but I can tell it’s already too late. He is looking over my shoulder and nodding as the algae spreads from him to me, over the repeater, my hands, arms. The cold of space, the heat of a star, wriggling its way into every one of my cells.
The gun clatters to the ground, smashing apart brittle calcium and ancient chitin along with my dreams. My breath flees and for a moment, I float weightless above the boneyard, spinning slowly to face the skull as the amber-black organism envelops me. In that moment, the weight of memory crashes down on me. Every ding, dent, and scratch on my ship. Every punch, kick, and stab in my life. Every fuck, kiss, slap, tear, cry.
The pearlescent white of the skull’s teeth is near-blinding. Black specks drift up from the carcasses of those who came before. The skull is grinning. My flesh is consumed, the smell of its destruction acrid in the hole where my nose once was, and my skeleton joins those of everything and everyone who has come before me.
The old man picks up one of my bones from the pile and drags a spidery finger along its length. It disintegrates to spores at his touch, and a solar wind carries them away.
My last individual thought–the last memory that is me–pulses across my dying neurons: I had never even heard of XF-Akura-9 or its treasure until an obsidian spore landed on my naked palm.
About the Author
A.P. Thayer is a queer, Xicano author based out of Los Angeles who writes cross-genre speculative fiction. His work has appeared in Dark Recesses Press, Uncharted Magazine, Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn’t Die, Made in LA: Art of Transformation, and Murder Park After Dark, among others.
When he’s not writing speculative fiction, he can be found cooking for his friends, contemplating The Void, or cuddling Sir Flynn Butters, the shih-tzu.