Thursday, October 25, 2018

10/25/18

Crusty
By David Castlewitz


The report didn’t sound credible, but Abe Cantrelli had to check it out. Colonel Wallace was too tough of a soldier to be spreading rumors.

“And you found …. What?” Abe stretched his long legs beneath the particle board table in Wallace’ office, a trailer home with a sagging roof.

The last pockets of alien fighters had been eliminated months earlier, fleeing in their ships and leaving behind the bulky robots with which they’d fought the war. These machines littered junkyards all over the world. Some lacked arms; few had legs or wheels or any means of locomotion. Every last one of them had had their deadly energy weapons ripped from their bodies. Those with antennae still attached to their square heads sometimes twitched, but, as Wallace explained, they were “blown into a pile of rubbish the minute we see them.”

Wallace offered only conjecture about the crusty spheres he saw. Every report he sent to HQ mentioned them, but he had nothing definitive to offer.

“Any idea why you’re the only one reporting the crusties?” Abe asked, and got a blank stare in reply. “Can I see one of these crusties?” Abe asked.

“I can take you across the yard, but they don’t stay in one place, you know.”

Abe sat upright in his chair. Wallace hadn’t said anything about crusties moving around. He’d always described them as spheres with a prickly shell and Abe had pictured them as stationary balls. But they moved? HQ would find this news interesting.

When they stepped outside the trailer, Wallace waved a hand over his head and a handheld sensor summoned a three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle. He slipped into the driver’s bucket seat.

Abe climbed in beside him. A belt automatically draped his body from right shoulder to left hip. The sides of the seat hugged him. Out of instinct, Abe grabbed hold of the overhead roll bar and prepared for a jarring ride.

Robot parts squashed under the wheels and spewed a green-black liquid that pooled before being absorbed into the ground. Occasionally, plumes of the liquid floated in the air. In some cases, the refuse burst from a ruined piece of machinery like a geyser. The sight made Abe squeeze his feet together and keep them away from the outside edge of the vehicle. He wished he’d worn boots and not low-cut loafers.

Wallace switched gears, making them grind against one another, sending the three-wheeler climbing a mound of junk. Plastic tubing peeked out from the edges of corrugated tubes of rubber and shiny plates of black glass. While Abe had never seen an alien machine in action, he’d been exposed to enough training videos to imagine this amalgam of components reassembled into something terrifying.

Cringing, Abe hesitated to get out of the vehicle when Wallace stopped in a relatively open area. He hoped nothing would squirt at him and penetrate his thin cotton socks.

Wallace pulled the peak of his hat down tight and swung his bulk out over the edge of the vehicle. Things crunched under his boots. Abe joined him, but stayed close to their vehicle, his hands on his hips, his legs spread apart to steady himself.

“Walk around,” Wallace said.

Abe vacillated between walking to where the accumulated parts were piled one atop the other and climbing back into the safety of the three-wheeler. He didn’t know what could be gained by wandering around, but he knew he’d lose face if he didn’t inspect the area.

He took a few steps towards a mound of robot parts. When he turned back, he found Wallace standing between him and their vehicle.

“There goes one,” Wallace said in a high-pitched voice.

Abe looked backwards over his shoulder.

“Missed it,” Wallace said. “Between the stacks. I saw it roll along between the stacks out there.”

“Let’s drive over.”

Wallace shook his head. “Can’t fit between those stacks.”

Involuntarily, Abe swiveled around to check on what the colonel said. When he turned back to nod and admit that the stacks were too narrow for their three-wheeler, he found Wallace standing much closer, reducing the distance between them by more than half. It made him take a step backwards. And then another. Until he realized he was back-stepping into the alien parts. His thin-soled shoes crunched scattered junk and he feared something might erupt with that green-black liquid.

“You better get back aboard,” Wallace said, extending a hand. Stubby fingers gripped Abe’s wrist. He resisted the colonel’s tug. He didn’t yank himself free, but neither did he respond by getting closer. He felt the man’s hot breath on his body. The peak of the colonel’s cap nearly touched him.

A cloud of black-green mist filled the air. Rancid to smell and sweet to the taste.

“Dressed like you are,” Wallace said, “you better watch out.” He walked to the three-wheeler and climbed into the driver’s seat. The automatic seatbelt made an audible click when it fell into place. Abe didn’t want to stay where he was. He had no choice but to join Wallace.

“Maybe we’ll see a crusty somewhere else,” Wallace said, and reached over to pat Abe’s knee. As he did so, his shirt sleeve rode up his wrist. Just far enough to reveal a round red patch pock-marked with tiny holes. Like a small rust-colored birthmark.

Abe itched where the cuff of his trousers touched his skin. He scratched, first the left and then the right, ankle. He pulled down the top of his socks, the left and then the right. Rings of red skin made him jolt.

“Ready now?” Wallace said.

Abe blinked. “Ready,” he said with a growing sense of unease. The war was not over. The aliens had another line of attack. And the crusty circles on his skin pulsed and grew inflamed.


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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction of all sorts, especially SF and fantasy. He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology) and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

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