The shuttle swooped down over the great cadaver and sprinkled Maggots over the wound. Through the ocher air they drizzled like dust and settled lightly over the funnel of pink tissue—white sprinkles in a shiny crater of flesh. A mile away, a meteor seared through the thin atmosphere and blasted a fast hole in the crackflake surface of the planet.
A quiet hour passed. One of the little white specks grew two arms and two legs and suddenly it was a spaceman named Niles Farming. He pulled some climbing equipment out of a hidden pouch in his thick white environmental suit, and then rappled down into the wound. The steep face of the cliff was pink, turning brown in the steady glare of the white dwarf star DT-112-1. A warm smell of rotten wound-swamp laid claim to a twenty-kilometer radius, but Niles’ could only smell the plasticy cool air whistling up from the life-support systems of his bloated spacesuit.
One by one the other white dots sprung arms and legs and followed suit. In about an hour the wound-crater was bustling with refined activity: prospecting, drilling, sample collecting. Yet one of the little white dots remained armless and legless for a whole two hours before finally becoming a spaceman. This was Bill Pollbust and he was a lot smaller than anybody else in the wound. Frantic and fumbling with his freed limbs, he hammered his pikes into the pink tissue and then rappled down the walls of the wound, past dozens and dozens of other Maggots until he got to Niles, who was already nicely set up beside a cave of rotting muscle.
“Bill Pollbust reporting” squeaked Bill. “Sorry sir, I had trouble with the suit.”
Niles didn’t look up from his work. “Tell me again, Bill: how old are you?”
Inside the quiet dome of his helmet Niles winced. “I guess that’s where we’re at now, after the Kirby fiasco. You’re aware of the Kirby fiasco?”
“Everybody dead, sir. 52 Maggots in all. Some kind of mechanical error.”
“It’s dangerous what we do,” said Niles, still minding his work.
“We have no choice.”
Niles kept working but he smiled—this kid had the right attitude at least; he sounded like he understood as well as any adult: there was no real hope.
“I’ve been briefed on basic survey and sample collection,” said Bill.
“Get to work then. We haven’t a lot of time before the tissue is useless. Soon it’ll be too rancid.”
Bill fumbled his scanner from the pouch of his suit. He got to work collecting data from his little section of the brownish pink.
Niles pulled some instruments from his own pouch. He jabbed a metal prong into the tissue. “Did Kaplan explain the scenario?”
Bill kept working. “Yes. It was a lucky meteor strike. The Schmog had been galloping ‘cross the plain, wrong place at the wrong time he said.” He waited a moment for confirmation from Niles, didn’t get any, and continued, “Regularly the Maggot teams deal with surface wounds, incidental injuries on Schmogs dead from the liver bees or from starvation or old age. But the surface material isn’t as helpful. Usually contaminated and worthless even before the animal dies. A meteor strike. This is a special circumstance.”
In the great, great distance a female Schmog howled at the icy moon, Tolchin. Niles thought it sounded like someone moving a huge piece of metal furniture in the kitchen while you sat and read your paper. The Schmog was hungry and on the prowl. The cry resounded through miles of hard sand and then up through the island that was the meteor-dead Schmog. Niles felt it through his suit’s padding like a mild hum of electricity.
He thought of his young apprentice and waited a moment before he spoke, drawing a huge breath of filtered air to steady his nerve. But the howl played again in his memory and sounded even closer. He tried to distract himself with thoughts of grass-smell he couldn’t have anymore, grassjuice-smell on Earth: mowing the lawn in his backyard, the July sun making heat plates of his shoulders, blue smoke pouting, his two sons with their goofy white sneakers, rolling their eyes as they volunteered to take the mower from him and take turns finishing the job.
Finally Niles took a reading with his instrument and said matter-of-factly, “Muscle decomposing as we speak, quick. The atmosphere’s eating away at the flesh like rust. About as fast as it would for us, unprotected.” He tapped twice the glass of his massive white helmet. Doomp Doomp.
Bill had experienced the howl-rumble too, and now when he spoke there was a tremor in his high voice. His white bloated gloves jittered. “But not when it was alive; when it generated an enzyme to protect it from the toxins in the air. Now that it’s dead the process stops, it finally decomposes. If what’s left of our race is to survive in this world we have to know more about how the Schmog protects itself from the atmosphere.” With considerable effort Bill kept his hands steady enough to fill his first three sample jars and screw the lids.
Niles had quickened his efforts. His hands worked the metal shearing tools like a master butcher-scientist who was late for dinner at his mother’s. He took some measurements with his scanner and isolated various tissue samples, which he swiftly collected in jar after jar. “How it produces the chemical. Yes. If we can understand more about how the chemical is made and how, exactly, it works, maybe there’s hope we can one day extend the colony beyond the walls of the Colony. Live on the outside where there’s room to stretch our legs and make a go at rebuilding.” Before he’d finished speaking he’d sensed a new series of reverberations, like a distant freight rain shaking the gravel between the local tracks. At first—for the boy’s sake—he’d tried to ignore it, but now he snapped his hand down to the transmitter button on his belt. “Okay, okay Thurber. Talk to me.”
Thurber’s voice came through crystal clear inside his helmet. The high pitch of the shuttle engine whined in the background. “Schmog got your scent. It’s coming, Niles.”
“Time for an evac?” said Niles.
Long pause. “Negative.”
“Fly to a safe distance,” said Niles. “See you out the other end.” He waited a second to figure out how to put it to Bill without scaring the poor kid limp. Finally he turned to him.
“You know what’s happening?”
Bill couldn’t speak, only nod.
Niles continued. “Sometimes we get lucky. We collect our samples and are back on the shuttle and don’t have no issues. This isn’t one of those times.”
The ground shook as the hungry Schmog approached. One of the Maggots, up near the swollen ledge of the crater wound, lost his grip and fell down into the billowy world of exposed organs below.
A huffing, panting sound sawed through the distance, louder and louder like a predator in pitch black behind you.
“You’ve been trained for this,” said Niles. “Secure your sample jars inside your suit. Yes. Like that. Good. Now here’s what’s going to happen. It’s simple. You don’t have to do anything really besides stay calm. We’re going to ball our suits, just like during deployment. We’re not going to try and run or fight or anything, because the Schmog will grind us to pieces if we do that. But we’ll have a chance to get through this if we ball our suits.”
Bill barely managed to get it out: “K-k-kirby.”
“Kirby and his team got screwed,” said Niles. “They balled their suits just like they were supposed to, but there was a problem. A small gap in the shoulder seal. The Schmog’s stomach acids fingered through like wind under a door and when the bodies were recovered later—in the droppings—they were fully decomposed inside the suits.”
Noticing Bill’s shaking hands, he said, “The issue got resolved. They fixed it—the suits should hold through the digestive process. All the way to when the Schmog poops.” He reached over and tried to shake some courage into Bill. “Now remember this, kid: when the Schmog craps, and the pile cools down to a safe temperature, you’ll see a green indicator light flash inside your helmet and then you can un-ball the suit. You’ll have use of your hands then, and you’ll have to swim up out of it. Out of the excrement. Thurber will come by and pick us up. Sample jars intact. The sample jars are everything.”
Another Maggot fell from the wound-wall as the ground vibrations got more intense.
Bill held onto his rope for dear life.
“Remember,” said Niles. “You un-ball before you see the green light, you’re dead. You’re digested. You’re protein.” He thought about his digested sons. He patted Bill on the shoulder pad.
“Hope to see you on the flip side.”
Together they looked up to the walls of the wound crater all around them. Most of the other Maggots had balled their suits, had become little kernels of rice in the damp red amphitheater of the wound. But, above, one Maggot hadn’t balled his suit at all. He climbed frantically for the crest like a scuba-diver out of air.
Niles saw this and shook his head, said under his breath, “Fitzmorris is freaking out. He’s finished. He was a damn good Maggot too.” He turned to Bill. “Don’t freak out.”
Bill and Niles pressed themselves into the wound-wall until they stuck there, and then they finally balled their suits, became armless and legless.
The Schmog appeared over the crest, its jaw hanging down from its long furry snout, its hot waterfall of a tongue bobbing over the side. It was out of breath from the gallop; each heaving gasp was a fetid twister of heat. The Schmog went for squiggling Fitzmorris immediately, chewed him wildly, grinded him good with a muffled crunch, then swallowed ravenously. Another Maggot, succumbing to panic, un-balled his suit and squiggled for the top of the wound, dreaming of a scenario where he somehow survived. The Schmog found him with its black lips and then grinded the Maggot good. The spaceman screamed like when your ear rings when someone’s talking about you.
And then the Schmog had no more squigglers, so it started lapping up the rest of the Maggots, balled up and sticking in place. They were like milky cereal on an old moldy couch. The Schmog licked some of them up with its great steamy tongue, and some of them it snipped up with its brownish teeth directly. Sometimes the Schmog would grind up a whole mouthful of the Maggots, turn them into paste and then swallow them with a tongue-swooping smile. But occasionally it would swallow some of them whole, uncrunched, and those were the lucky Maggots who would get a chance to test out the new suits.