We got out the snowmobiles again and headed off in the same direction we took when we landed. A fresh layer of snow had completely covered our previous snowmobile tracks and footprints. The little critters were riding on the handlebars, directing us. It was this that made me concerned that they were leading us to a trap. They seemed to understand what we were saying, which is odd enough on its own, but how do we know they didn’t kill the explorers? Maybe they’re just taking us to see the corpses, probably burned and dismembered in some weird critter ritual.
After a few miles into the woods, the little guys started waving their hands like they wanted us to stop. We did, and I was opening my mouth to ask what we were doing here when snow fell from a tree branch above us, landing between our two snowmobiles. The five of us slowly looked up, expecting to see an animal, but, we were all wrong. Perched on a thick branch, staring down at us, was another critter. It waved to our companions, who started chirping at it. It almost looked like they were in a conversation. At some point, the “conversation” between all the critters stopped, and the one from the tree gestured for all of us to follow it. We were led to a massive clearing in the woods, at least two miles farther to the northeast. The one that I held earlier kept pausing to tug my pants and point, and then trotted off. I really hoped it didn’t think I was the leader of my group here, because if it did, I think that makes the worms we’ve had to clear from mines on LV-109 more intelligent than whatever this little critter was. No intelligent species would think I’m a leader of anything. I would’ve thought they’d be smart enough to go to Redding. When we came to the crest of a small hill, the creatures led us over the top, revealing to us a series of large tents at the bottom.
There were a lot more little guys dressed like ours, carrying a mix of logs and dead animals, and each one armed with a rifle. They went in and out of the tents, and talked to each other with the same cooing and purring sounds. When they saw us, they immediately paused, staring.
The little guy we met in the tree started chirping and squeaking to its companions, and then a bunch of them dashed over to us, looking at us with intense curiosity. They all wanted to be picked up and held and showered with attention, all while showering us with attention. Almost like pets.
In all honesty, I was starting to hurt inside. Here we were, wasting our time with a bunch of gas-mask wearing goofballs, when we should be looking for those explorers.
The little guy seemed to sense that I was really disappointed. It grabbed onto my legs and started pulling itself up to my torso, wrapping its arms and legs tightly around me. I thought I was going to cry, because I was stressed, annoyed, and a little hungry. I was actually about to take the little thing and chuck it across their camp when Crowe spoke up, adjusting the creature in his arms and letting it nuzzle his face. “They seem incredibly friendly. I think they might be able to help us find those explorers.”
“How? We can’t even understand them.” Vasquez pointed out.
“Maybe not their language, but it wasn’t that hard to understand when they directed us here. Maybe they can point the way to the explorers.”
That was all I really wanted, to find the explorers and get the hell off that planet and back to base as fast as possible. I really didn’t want to play friends with the little masked creatures. Then the one hugging my torso looked up at me and squawked.
“Fuck you, too,” I said.
We were led into the biggest tent in the camp. It must’ve been about the size of an apartment, I guessed. At each end of the tent were small pits with burning logs in them, and in the center was a table, furnished with hare skulls, fir boughs, holly leaves, and tiny glass statues of animals. It would’ve looked Christmassy without the hare skulls.
The creatures had laid out a feast for us. Some of the food looked surprisingly familiar for being on another planet. There was what appeared to be roasted pheasant, fried rabbit, and some kind of seasoned vegetable wedges that looked and tasted like potatoes, along with sliced, reddish, carrot-things soaked in a sauce, and glass goblets of water in front of each place setting.
“Think this is safe to eat?” Crowe asked. I knew what he meant. He wasn’t worried that they were trying to poison us. He was worried that what was safe for them to eat wouldn’t be so good for us.
I was surprised when it was Wierzbowski who answered. “They seem close enough to humans. Usually if something humanoid can eat something safely, we can too.”
I gave him a look as we sat down. “How do you know that?”
He looked down shyly, as if he didn’t want to continue the conversation, answering in a single word. “Books.”
I ended up excusing myself from the table after a little while and going outside. Night had fallen and Apone was probably wondering where the hell we were. I wanted to go back to the dropship and form a new plan to find those explorers, not mess around with an alien species unless they’re going to help us. We didn’t even know if they actually could or would help us.
A hot knot started forming in my stomach. In the cold, it was much easier to feel, and it was pulling itself tighter and tighter the more frustrated I got. It was actually starting to hurt, but I think that was because I was full and I wasn’t letting my body digest what I’d just ate. I honestly started to feel like a failure at that point. I had thought this was my chance to not feel like a failure anymore, and here I am, feeling like everything is going down the drain. This has got to be one of the simplest missions we’ve ever been assigned, and we’re fucking it up.
Are we fucking it up, or am I just overreacting? I think I’m overreacting. Then again, I’m wondering if the others are thinking about how unlikely it is we’ll find the explorers alive. In these conditions, unless they found a cave and know how to make fire, there’s no way they’re alive. It would be a miracle if they were. Frankly, I’m going to feel like we failed if we find them dead, but at the same time, this felt pointless from the start.
I looked up. LV-400 has two moons instead of one. They were both clear and full. I imagined they were just as cold and inhospitable as LV-400 itself, probably even worse.
Not wanting to stray too far from the tent-you know, in case someone decided we need to get back on the mission-I sat on an icy rock near the center of the camp. The creature we met in the forest had left the tent as well, and crept up to me. He put his mask close to my leg, and I assumed he was sniffing me. “What do you want?” I grunted at him.
He looked at me, and tilted his head, not making a sound.
“Unless you can tell me where those explorers are, I really don’t want your company,” I said.
I don’t want to fail here. I don’t want to fail at being a Marine. I don’t want to fail at simply living. I already did that. Whether or not I’m turning myself around or just channeling my emotions into something healthier is a different question that I don’t know how to answer, and probably never will.
I stared down at the snow, starting to feel full and sleepy from the food we were given by these gas-mask creatures. There were so many questions I had about them, mainly about what was under their helmets, but each time the one we encountered at the dropship sat on my lap, and I put my hand near the base of where the helmet and gas mask were connected, the little shit squirmed and pushed my hand away with an annoyed coo. I couldn’t really be angry. It wasn’t his fault he doesn’t really know what’s going with me.
I returned to the tent, seeing the others leaning in and talking. Redding had already radioed Apone, which I should have anticipated. He didn’t seem like someone who would miss a scheduled check-in for anything. Anyway, Apone had apparently ordered us to stay in the village for the night and wait for them to join us the next day. The gas-mask creatures showed us some smaller tents we could sleep in. Each tent had a small bed covered in thick furs, as well as a pillow full of feathers. It wasn’t exactly a five-star hotel. Hell, I’ve never been in a five-star hotel. I might never be in a five-star hotel. Anyways, the tents were, well, tents, and had a slight draft to them. The small fire pit in the center had already been lit, and after setting my smartgun on the ground, I crouched in front of the fire holding out my hands to get warm. The flames flickered a little with the wind, and it was almost dead silent. Occasionally, I heard a long, high-pitched howl, and wondered if it was either a gas-mask critter or some other animal. As I sat there, I eventually realized it was like those big old clocks marking off the hours. I figured that out by glancing at my watch whenever I heard that howl.
It could also be a coincidence. Who the fuck knows?
I wasn’t all that tired. My mind was still active, and I remained crouched in front of the fire. At some point, my legs started burning from the cold and holding the crouched position for too long, so I stood up, feeling blood rush down my legs, and pulled back the crude blankets on the bed. Bundling myself up in the furs, I tried to sleep. My body was physically exhausted, and I could tell it just wanted to enter “rest and digest” mode, but my brain was having none of it. No, my thoughts were still going wild. Still worried. Still anxious. Still feeling like this mission was going to be a massive failure. Still feeling like I was going to be a massive failure.
I was completely alone, so I felt comfortable letting a tear roll down my face. Yet I covered my head with a fur. If I’m going to give off the “tough guy” image, I can’t let anyone see me cry. I had to do the same thing in prison-cry in private, I mean. Crying’s a sign of weakness. Crying just lets the worst of the other inmates know you’re an easy target to beat the shit out of.
Eventually, I did manage to fall asleep for a few hours, until I could hear something walking around in my tent. My senses were still fuzzy as I slowly sat up, making out the gas-mask creature we met in the woods squatting next to my smartgun and touching it. He looked at me, and made a squeaky chattering sound before rubbing the barrel of the weapon.
I didn’t know what he wanted or why, but I certainly didn’t care at the moment. “What the hell are you doing in here? Shouldn’t you be in bed?” I asked.
I think I’m going to call him Little Shit, because even though he’s been nice, he’s irritating. So, yeah, his name’s Little Shit now.
Anyway, Little Shit kept staring at me. He then stood up, and hopped on the bed, expecting me to cuddle him or something. I could hear him sniffing me through the filter of the mask.
“I’m trying to sleep,” I said. “Get out.”
He rapped me on my ribs, and I flinched. “I don’t know what you want, now, shoo.” I tried turning away and laying my head on the pillow, but I could feel him staring at me, and it’s really uncomfortable considering that he’s wearing a mask and I can’t read his face. He didn’t seem to care. Yes, there is such a thing as “too friendly.” He took my hand and pulled on it, gesturing to go outside. I let out a groan, and figured this was the only way to get him to leave me alone, so I followed him, leaving my smartgun where it was.
It was still dark, and the whole camp was very quiet. I followed Little Shit around the campsite until we came to another tent, probably the smallest in the entire camp. He opened the flap and I saw a large hole in the ground. He then pointed to the hole, and crawled in. I wondered if I should stop to get the others to come with me, but something was telling me not to.
The hole was a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. I got on my stomach and crawled into it once Little Shit’s tail disappeared into the darkness. The ground was freezing underneath me, but I kept going. The tight part of the tunnel didn’t last very long. As I pulled myself out of the small part, I found I could stand, or at least hunch over, and continued following Little Shit.
The tunnel continued to expand as we moved deeper underground. I was just glad it wasn’t steep to the point where I’d risk falling if I took a wrong step. There were also a few points where the tunnel turned, so I wondered if it had a spiral configuration, and just where the fuck it led.
Soon, the walls turned to stone instead of dirt, and there was artwork covering them. I saw what I guess was the history of these little creatures, as well as symbols, faces, animals, trees, and snow.
I also figured that these creatures knew that humans would be down here, so there was not one image of what they look like with their helmets off. Why they’re keeping their actual looks a secret, I don’t know. Maybe they’re all self-conscious. Like me.
I paused a bit to really examine what I was seeing, because a lot of this artwork was getting gradually stranger as we got further underground. I saw paintings of these creatures gathered around a green egg-like object. The next image showed the egg was opened, and one of the creatures being attacked in the face by a flesh-colored spider-like thing. The next several images that followed showed a worm with teeth bursting bloodily from the gas-mask creature, and changing into a hulking, black monster with a long, smooth head, razor-sharp teeth, and a long tail with a sharp tip, which it used to slaughter the gas-mask creatures, one by one. On the ceiling, I saw pictures of a war breaking out between the monsters and the little creatures, with the creatures emerging victorious, but at a terrible cost. Honestly, it didn’t look like they had much of a choice.
And I was beginning to regret naming my friend “Little Shit.” The name still fits because I’m pretty sure he’s going to do something that’s going to piss me off soon. I followed him into a massive, hollowed-out chamber, and saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of these gas-mask creatures, going about their lives. There were several floors below us, and every single floor was surrounding a large fire, set at the deepest level.
I leaned against the railing, looking at the fire, thinking about the artwork and the food we were given and the explorers and how we couldn’t find them. I didn’t realize tears of angry frustration were beginning to roll down my face again, until Little Shit came over, and was holding a small vial to my face.
Collecting human tears. You usually hear about stuff like that in some really fucked-up stories. There’s a part of me that thinks they don’t collect tears for malicious purposes. I was too exhausted to get mad, so I stood there, crying and letting Little Shit gather up my tears in his vial. When his vial was full, he put a stopper in it, and began trotting away. Again, I followed, feeling myself want to give up. I can’t give up. I have no reason to give up. Then again, I don’t have much of a reason to continue, now, do I?
Little Shit went into a small room where another gas-mask creature was sitting at a wooden table with gems scattered all over it. He held the vial out to his companion who took it, examining it before pulling out a small chest. The chest was full of hollowed out gemstones. A few minutes later, I was presented with a red heart-shaped gem the size of a baby’s hand, and inside of the gem were my tears. I could see them whenever I moved the gem a little. They were sealed tightly in with a tiny cork, and the cork had a hook in it, probably for attaching it to a keychain or something like that.
I turned the gem over in my hands, concealing my confusion from the two critters. “I have no idea what this means, but… thanks.”
The two creatures purred. I felt like this was one of their ways of “inducting” me into their society. Lets me know that, yeah, there’s life out here, and it’s not all bad. They seemed to like me more than Vasquez or Wierzbowski or Crowe or Redding. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve misjudged how much they’re actually reading from facial expressions alone. Maybe they can see I’m not feeling so hot, emotionally, and really are trying to make me feel better. I mean, they can read me better than Dietrich can (which isn’t saying much). They see I feel out of place, so they’re trying to make me feel like I belong somewhere.
That wasn’t the only thing they did. Little Shit walked me to another chamber. Inside sat a lone critter. Unlike the others, this one was dressed in a dark cloak. Its mask was different from the others as well. It looked older, and the filter was starting to rust in some spots. The chamber was covered in paintings, and crystals and blankets littered the floor. I got the impression that this was some kind of shaman or spiritual leader of sorts.
The cloaked creature gestured for me to sit across from it. I did and then the creature gestured for Little Shit to leave. I was admittedly nervous at first. “What exactly are you planning on doing to me here?” I asked.
The cloaked critter held up a finger, telling me to shush.
“Right. I’ll shush for now, but you try sacrificing me for something and I’ll scream.”
Not offering a response, the little guy picked up a small wooden bowl. Inside was a thick, clear, yellowish substance. And it smelled foul.
“Please, don’t make me drink that,” I muttered.
He didn’t make me drink it, but he put his finger in it, and gestured for me to lean forward. I tried not to grimace as he ran this oily crap up the bridge of my nose, and stopped at the center of my forehead. He then placed his whole paw in the bowl, and made a print on both my cheeks. The stuff smelled awful. It was like skunk spray, mixed with something rotting.
Just when I thought this ordeal was over, the cloaked creature had me remove my thermal gear, my BDU top, and then my undershirt. Then he put his paw in the foul-smelling oil again, and pressed his paw against where my heart is. The substance was at least warm, which I’m not sure is a good thing or bad thing, but I’ll take warm over cold any day. Especially here on Planet Antarctica.
“Okay, can we stop now?” I asked.
Not responding, the critter put away the bowl of oil and took out a large bowl of water and a rag. He mixed a greenish powder into the water with the rag and began to wash where he’d put the oil on me. The water was warm, so I couldn’t complain too much. The powder smelled sweet, but I was just glad it wasn’t smearing all over me. I sighed, then held my breath when he began washing my face. When he finished, I released my breath and blew water from my nose and mouth. Before I could pick up my clothes, he gave me a towel.
“Thanks. No fucking clue what that was all about,” I mumbled while drying my face. I felt a little less tense. Maybe this was some kind of LV-400 facial exfoliant. Then again, I don’t need a spa right now.
I put my clothes back on, and left the chamber. Little Shit was staring up at me, and I noticed every critter in a close proximity doing the same thing. They moved out of the way when I passed by, and it was honestly a little unnerving. Just a little. A part of me liked having this weird respect or attention or whatever this was. I didn’t like how they were sniffing me and making chirping noises, though. Suddenly, everything changed. They started looking up at the ceiling, and the friendly chirps switched to angry, even anxious-sounding squeaks with a few growls mixed in. They crouched low to the ground, and then I heard what sounded like something or someone walking overhead, followed by an inhuman screech.