The Dang Thing at the Grey Pilgrim
Misty Stone has an eventful day at a junk shop in the Martian desert.
“The Grey Pilgrim Olde Earth Emporium and Curios” the sign on the quonset hut read. It was a weird place, I guess, but not much more than any other place on Mars. The front door was a kind of fake stained glass, made to look like an image of a hobbit hole, with a big oblong geode next to it.
It was almost like a caricature of the place itself, the greenish colored metal quonset, next to what was sposed’ to be the biggest geode ever found out in the Red. The cheesy thing was obviously fake, even the greenest miner could tell. It was meant to be a tourist trap, as if any of them cry-babies from the gray cities would venture out this far into the Red.
There were other signs on the outside of the building, including “Kustom Drills”, “T-shirts”, and “If We Don’t Got It, We Makes It, Precious”. I don’t know if that was sposed’ to sound like a Tolkien character, or it was just what passes for English down here in Nephi. Maybe it was both.
I looked over at the big fake geode, standing there like an old movie prop, covered in red dust. It reminded me of that old Kurt Russel movie, the one with the portals to other places, I couldn’t remember, it had been way too long since I saw a 20th century movie.
Crap, that was it! That was who Jack reminded me of, Kurt Flippin’ Russel. He was the reason I was at this place. Cute, funny Jack, with those silly lookin’ boots, and that Scythian Motorcycles baseball cap, it’s his fault. I loved the silly way he sometimes talked about himself in third person to pretend I didn’t scare the hell out of him. He was a character, not just another dumb long hauler lookin’ to get in my pants. I owed him one, cuz’ I was particularly rude to him when we met, and I was kinda bein’ a tease that night we curled up together in his sleeper. He knew I wouldn’t sleep with him, but he let me stay anyway. Sweet Jack.
I promised him a treat, since he told me he’d never had a Cuban, and Mal said this was the place to get some. I walked in the door, just as I caught sight of a dusty figure shamblin’ in from the desert. These little towns were full of crusty burn-outs, mining just enough to buy more booze, or pot, or synth.
I thought the kid behind the counter was gonna’ pee his pants when he saw me. He recognized me. It wasn’t somethin’ that happened that much in the Red.
“You got Cubans?” I asked him, while he just stood there starin’ at me, all slack-jawed.
“You…” he stammered, “you Hannah Horn.”
Ugg. Hannah Horn. I hated that stupid name. It was Sleazy Larry’s idea, that dang name. If that kid knew me by that name, then he’s prolly’ seen everything I got. I fought the urge to turn around and walk out.
“Yeah, so, a friend of mine told me I can get some Cuban cigars here,” I said, but the kid disappeared, just as I got to the counter.
There was a buzzing noise, and he reappeared, a couple of minutes later, pullin’ out a poster from a big printer under the counter. I huffed. All these years later, I was lookin’ at the poster from my third “film”.
“Yes ma’am,” the twenty-something kid (Taiyeden, I would learn later) said, “I don’t have any in stock, but I can makes, I mean, make some for you. It will take only minutes.” Bless his heart, he was tryin’ his best to speak normal English.
“I’m a big fan,” he said, “you can have a box of Cubans, on top of the house, if I can haves a autograph.” On top of the house. He was tryin’ to use 20th century slang, even. I tried not to laugh at the kid. He likely had no schoolin’ at all.
I agreed, and picked up a marker from the counter. I signed the poster. It was still warm from the printer. The kid ran to the back, and in a second, I heard the matter printer fire up. It was nice to save the gold it would have cost me for the cigars, matter printin’ ain’t cheap. Didn’t stop me from doodlin’ on the poster, though. I just figured I would give it an update. I didn’t look that much different than my 20 year old self, even though that was 15 years ago. Well, I guess, it was really about 500 years ago.
I gave younger me a tattoo right where mine is, right on her left hip, a bio-hazard symbol with the letters “HSV2” in the middle. I never had tattoos, back when I was in “the industry”. That was how I got so popular, no fake parts, no fake lips, no tattoos, no scribbled-on eyebrows. Hell, I rarely even wore makeup. I was the innocent looking girl next door with the dirty mouth, the nice legs, and long brown hair, the cute patch of freckles cross’ my cheeks and my little turned-up nose. The other girls hated me (except for one or two that ‘loved’ me).
Then, I got retired. Caught the plague, or might as well have. It saved my life, really. A couple more years in that business, and I would have been dead from drinkin’, or coke, or from catchin’ somethin’ worse. I likely would have kicked the bucket, and missed the whole dang world almost goin’ to hell. The whole business was over after that. Nobody really cared about stuff like porno so much anymore. The kid prolly wouldn’t have seen any of it, if I wasn’t kinda’ famous now for other reasons.
I was tempted to draw on some muscles, but I ain’t that good of an artist. Hard to believe I was ever that delicate lookin’.
“Help you I can?” A voice came from the other corner of the store.
There was an older man, standing next to a big glass case. The shamblin’ man from outside had wandered in, quiet as a mouse, and stood there, just starin’ at the case. He didn’t say nothin’, just walked up to the case and pointed. There wasn’t anything in the case, just a black ball, bout’ the size of a baseball.
“Here you go, Miss Horn,” the kid set a cigar box on the counter. I was about to correct him, and explain that my name is Misty, but there wasn’t much point.
“Thanks you for the autograph. Hey, woulds you also like t-shirt? We gots a bunch of old-timey ones.”
Old-timey. Sometimes I forgot about being an “old-timer”, or least I tried to. There were 112 of us, though hardly any were out here in the Red. This kid could have been my descendant, if things with the colony had gone right. It was just my luck, I guess. After I got the bug, I wandered around a bit, then got into truckin’. My step daddy had some trucks, and he helped me get my license. He was glad to help. Even though Mama died way before I started makin’ films, he said it woulda’ broke her heart. He was right.
I was in a truck when the whole world got a reset, almost five centuries ago. Everybody was hopeful, for a time. That was why I got inspired to come to Mars. I didn’t really like drivin’, which I guess is kinda ironic now. I tested well for the program, even with the virus. The doctors said the hibernation would likely cure it, or it would be totally dormant by the time we woke.
I don’t know about that part, but I did feel pretty good when me and the other colonists finally woke up. A big storm hit the whole planet, right after we got here, and buried the whole place. Didn’t come to til’ one Mars year ago. It was one hell of a surprise, wakin’ up here, in 487 AtD (on Earth).
It was a lot better than anything I expected, blue sky, clean air, a huge ocean. Only trouble is, it’s kinda like Earth used to be, in a lotta’ ways. The coasts and the islands are full of big crowded cities, and the cities are full of soft whiny little soy people, living under constant gray skies. A bunch of them fools showed up when they found us, set up a quarantine, acted like they were in charge. When the constable ran them off, all the other colonists went with them. I stayed out here in the Red. I hated old Seattle, so I saw no dang reason to go to New Seattle.
The Red, on the other hand, is the opposite of the cities. Everybody calls it “the Red”, the sun-kissed desert parts of Mars, where little towns and settlements live mostly free from the interfering busy-bodies from the Gray. Mining is the main thing out here, mining for everything. It’s like the wild west, kinda’. I like it. I do what I want, and I make decent money, just drivin’ my hauler. I call it a dumptruck, but nobody out here knows that word.
See, the red dust here powers pretty much everything, it works on iron oxide fusion. A lot of the bigger machines can even pull it right out of the air. Only trouble is, the main routes are mostly scrubbed, and somebody’s gotta’ haul more oxide rich dirt to make sure the haulers and stuff can keep running. That’s where folks like me come in.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, the t-shirt thing. I didn’t look too hard at the t-shirt selection, since somethin’ else caught my eye.
“Is that what it looks like?” I asked the kid, and pointed at a weapon hanging on the wall.
“Oh, no ma’am,” he said, “guns be illegal on Mars.” He handed the weapon to me, as I chuckled a little. It was nice, looked just like an old broomhandle Mauser pistol. It was a drill.
He wasn’t lying, guns were not legal on Mars. It was one of the only things the dang city jerks had ever been able to impose on the free folks out in the Red. No guns of any kind were allowed anywhere on the planet. It didn’t matter much. There were all kinds of tasers, and there were pressure blasters, and of course, drills. Almost everybody carried an atomic drill. You know, for mining…
“You likes it?” the kid said, excited. It was nice, which is why I continued to fight my urge to correct his awful grammar. “Switch there, it change from pin point to wide. Can do a whole ten centi wide, two meter deep a shot.”
“Oh dangit, how much?” I blurted out. I was hesitant to ask, but I kind of needed some better protection than the lame taser I stole from one of those gray morons back when we woke up.
Our conversation was interrupted by the older man at the other end of the counter. “You wasty, you get out my sto’,” the man said. The shambling man was now clawing at the case, as if that odd black ball was a moonpie in a snack machine that didn’t fall.
“No can have I say! You not pay yo’ pawn. You go on git!” the older man said, but the shambling man didn’t say a thing, he just picked up a big geode that was on the table nearby, and threw it at the case.
The case didn’t break, but the geode bounced off, and hit the other man square in the face. I was kinda stuck. I wanted to grab my cigars and go, before this mess got uglier. It would be even worse if the constable showed up, even though constables were few and far between. I didn’t have time to fool with cops, I had dirt to move, anyway. I also kinda’ didn’t want to put the drill down, in case the shamblin’ man decided to mess with me next.
It didn’t matter. The older man (Paiyeden, I would later learn) tossed ol’ shamblin’ across the room with a pressure blaster. A cloud of dust flew up, when ol’ shambles hit the shelves across the store. He broke apart, like a dusty clay pot. There was no blood, guts, nothin’ but dust. This was messed up. Paiyeden and Taiyeden just stood there, slack jawed at what had happened. I took the opportunity to pick up the power supply for the drill I was still holding, and quietly slip it into the Mauser’s mag well.
It wasn’t a moment too soon. Somethin’ nasty was crawlin’ out of the remains of the shamblin’ man. I drew a bead on it, but it was too quick, and flew across the room at Paiyeden. His pressure blaster hadn’t had time to recharge, so he just stood there like a fool. The yellow/brown/green thing just missed him, and slammed into the case where that black ball thing was.
It screamed and howled, and scratched at the glass with claws or teeth or whatever, until the glass broke. Dang thing cut through saphirium glass like it was paper. It reached up and grabbed the ball, which wasn’t too hard for it, it had grown to over five foot tall in a matter of seconds. The foulest thing I ever saw (up to that day, anyway), it started growing arms or legs or tentacles all over. I didn’t waste no time, and cranked the drill control to full blast. Blew a hole through the thing, the counter, the floor, a good two meters deep. Kid wasn’t lying, this drill was no B.S.
The gross thing flopped around like frog legs in a hot skillet for what felt like forever, then fell quiet. I breathed a sigh, but still counted the steps to the door, while I kept the Mauser pointed at it. The black ball rolled across the floor, and left a trail of black slime behind it. In a heartbeat, the nasty critter was up again, chasing after that ball, like some kind of Golden Retriever from hell. I shot it again, and left another gaping hole in the floor. It flopped around, but kept moving toward that ball.
Taiyeden, in the mean time, had got a clue, and came over the counter, headed toward the front door. He kicked the black ball hard, and it went right through the fake stained glass door. The thing scrambled after it, right past Taiyeden, out into the dirt lot, as the ball rolled downhill toward my truck.
This was all I needed, this demon, mutant, whatever it was crawling around under my truck.
“Shoot!” I yelled, “what’s the max setting on that blaster?” Paiyeden was still dumbstruck, but luckily his son was trying to keep up.
“It go to 20,” Taiyeden said, as he took it out of his father’s hands, and passed it to me.
“I need you to fire it,” I told the kid, “I’ll move the freakin’ thing, you just blast it when I tell you.”
I’m sure I didn’t say “freakin”, but I am trying to clean up my language. My old shrink said it would be good for me, and help me part ways with “Hannah Horn”. People in the Red got their own swear words anyway, so they just look at me confused if I cuss.
I ran to my truck, and slammed it into reverse. There was a squishing sound when I ran over the thing, and more as the track came back around. I hauled it over toward the big fake geode, hearing the thing scream and scramble ever time my truck’s left track came around. It was luck, that the thing was stuck to my track like gum under a desk.
I stopped just short of the geode, and turned so the left track was close to it. I hoped this would work.
“That thing’s synthetic quartz, right?” I asked the kid, as he trotted toward me with a blaster, a bigger one than his father had in the store. It looked like a big bullhorn with about a 30 inch square piece of flat metal on the front. It was an industrial pressure blaster. Hell yeah.
“Yeah, it heavy quartz,” the kid replied. I grinned. We might not be able to kill this thing, but maybe we could at least stop it.
I grabbed the power shovel from the side of my truck, and set to prying the nasty thing off my track. It fell off easy enough, and landed in the dirt like roadkill. I hit it with the shovel a few times, just for fun. The black ball rolled away from it, and it wasn’t a minute before that dang thing was up again. I ran over and swatted at the ball with my shovel, til it rolled over next to the geode.
The monster crawled after it, and this time, when it got to the ball, it swallowed the thing whole, in one of the four or five mouths it had. It hadn’t been but maybe three seconds after that, the nasty thing started growing again. It was a good seven foot tall when it turned around and screamed at us both. I shot it with the drill, quick as I could, but it didn’t have much effect, except for bouncin’ off the the geode and dang near blowin’ a hole in my truck.
I thought I was gonna’ crap my pants, when Taiyeden blasted the thing at full power. The whole world felt like it was shakin’. The synthetic quartz liquefied, as the sickly yellow thing crashed into it. I almost thought the thing was dead, but it kept waving that one arm, or tentacle, or whatever, that was sticking out of the quartz that had already got hard around it. The arm fell off, and the thing shrunk down, like it was trying to hide in the reforming geode.
Now I was the one slack-jawed. Luckily, Taiyeden wasn’t, and he blasted the thing again at full strength. The quartz liquefied again, and the thing sank deeper, and shrunk down even more, back down to a mass, barely bigger than the black ball.
We walked over to what used to be the geode, that had now fell over, and turned into a frozen pond of purple glass. Down in it, was the last bit of that awful thing, still hanging on to that black ball. The kid charged the blaster again, but I stopped him. Another blast could have possibly thrown that thing outta’ the quartz, and we’d hafta’ do that whole stupid dance all over again.
Anyway, needless to say, I got the heck outta’ there ASAP. Ol’ Paiyeden let me keep the Mauser replica drill, as long as I kept my mouth shut about what happened. He didn’t need constables snoopin’ around his business, and there wasn’t any good way to explain what the hell happened anyway. Don’t know what he did with what was left of Mr. Shambles, nor do I care.
The kid gave me a t-shirt anyway. He tried to give me a Zeppelin one, but I told him I was more of a Floyd girl, so he rush printed me a couple. Sweet kid. Maybe he’ll get out of Barsoom one day. He’s gonna’ hafta’ get past that Little Utah dialect and learn how to speak the language, though.
I certainly got out of Barsoom, and ain’t been back. My contract was about done anyway, so I put on about a half load of good red dirt, just to keep Mollygirl (my truck) goin’, and headed toward Bradbury. I’d heard a rumor that there was a DNA doc there that could fix anything. I figured if he could fix anything, maybe he could treat a virus that’s been extinct for centuries. It would be nice to have something else to give Jack besides a half a box of cigars next time I saw him, without worrying about givin’ him a virus that likely nobody has any resistance to anymore.
Mal told me that ol’ Paiyeden made the geode into a new tourist attraction, claiming to have a sure enough preserved ancient Martian, found encased in quartz, on the very spot where the Grey Pilgrim stood. Doubt anybody will come to see that thing, though. Hopefully, nobody from the Gray ever tries to seize it or something, you know, for “science”. If they do, they’re gonna’ be in for one hell of a surprise when they crack that thing open.
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I didn’t expect this story to be as engaging as it was. You capture the feel of a country girl just telling a story about something weird that happened to her. If this were translated into a visual medium, Hannah Horn’s voice would be lost.