An Alien Appetite

You never really appreciate what you have until you're about to lose it all. If you ask me, this whole world's gone straight to pot. That's why I, Rob Reynolds, am now sitting in my brown vac-sealed envirosuit with my laser rifle and kitchen knife in my lap. I'm watching a wall of view-screens showing holographic readouts from cameras and robotic drones I scattered all over my property. A blue hologram to my side showed my dome-shaped prefab home and its surroundings. It was at the top of a hill next to a pond, placed here when I first settled here. Originally, it was for the scenic view, now, it's my impromptu last redoubt.

I could've still lived back on Earth with my cousin. We used to share a run-down apartment together. He got his lucky break, and is some big-shot producer now. I thought I got my lucky break when I took a colony ship to this fringe world. But now, I realize what a damn fool I am. When the Colonial Authority recommended we all evacuate, I thought it was a bluff. Even after the first of them started were sighted, I thought it was just mass paranoia. So, instead of leaving this forsaken rock like everyone else, I stockpiled supplies and ammo and fortified my dome house. I held the high ground, and I thought it was just some sort of regular activity of the local life forms. Guess I should've known better. I'm a technician, not a biologist. We held off terraforming this rock so the biologists could study the local ecosystem. Should've given them more time. For that, I'm stuck in an envirosuit whenever I have to peak outside.

Just then, I saw red dots appear on my holographic display. I lifted my laser rifle and moved out back. This would be the second time the damn things attacked today. I saw, like before, it was the goddamn septic tank. I know I should have done what all my neighbors did, and pump the septic directly into the house's nanoshredder along with the regular garbage chute. I planned to do it eventually, but never got around to it.

I think the bastards are probing for some kind of structural weakness or entry point. As I headed for the kitchen window, I looked into a nearby pot I vowed never to eat out of again, where I had done my impromptu vivisection on one of them with an electric saw. My last memory of that pot was preparing some lobster ravioli in it. The thing now smelled like an open air latrine pit, and had a bunch of organs that still twitched even after they were removed. Each of the things had some distinctly cybernetic parts with radio broadband mixed in there with all the meet. Wherever these things had come from, they were talking or controlled by something worse.

Each of them resembled something from an etymologist's acid trips. They were an ungainly, asymmetric combination of beetle, spider, and grasshopper, with giant rear legs, nasty mandibles, and a fused cephalothorax. Despite looking like giant bugs, they were pretty different on the inside. From someone who's stepped on a lot of Earth bugs, these pit bull-sized space ones have juices in colors I'd never seen outside a modern art gallery. They had some sort of hollow skeleton inside 'em, unlike Earth bugs. Then again, the only biology I know is from the house's mainframe archives. Did a quick run through while I was carving up our ten-legged friend.

I had set up my home's mainframe to continually broadcast my status and position to some Colonial Authority satellites. I'd offered rewards for anyone to get me off this rock, and if anyone's willing to come down onto a desolate rock crawling with unknown aliens, I'd be very grateful. Of course, the damn aliens might also be listening in, or whoever kept sending these drones to chew through my septic tank's lining.

I entered the rear airlock of my dwelling, and stock the muzzle of my laser rifle back out towards the septic tank. About a dozen of the chittering nightmares were lashing their fangs out at the dented tank. While they seemed pretty ineffective before, I was not about to let them probe for weaknesses with impunity. For all I knew, this might be a feint, but there may be more of those freaks elsewhere. For now, I decided I just needed to vent some stress. So, aiming down the sights and shouldering the weapon, I pulled the trigger. The click of the trigger and subtle hum of the gun was the only indication I had shot something. That was, until I saw the results. An invisible beam struck one of them, flash frying the B-grade holofilm reject. The others continued chewing, unabated by the loss of one of their own. I heard they could chew through metal if they had enough numbers or time, which was why I tried to keep my distance.

"Get off my land!" I shouted. Darn, I think that was the first thing I shouted directly at them.

I shot another, and another. Their surviving friends didn't seem to care. None of them had every tried jumping at me, I don't recall, since I sliced up that one in my kitchen. It took about six of them dead before I noticed any kind of change. The drones seemed to retreat, and I managed to blast two more of them before they ducked into a nearby pond. My laser blasts didn't do much more than create steam, and I gave up on finishing them off. I resigned myself back inside, thinking I'd finish the job if they ever popped back up. I replaced my laser rifle's spent battery with a fresh one off the solar recharger. The bastards were getting smarter, dodging my lasers by hiding in the pond nearby. Maybe they were just trying to profile me before launching some final assault.

When I came back inside, my rage against the heavens had paid off. The house's mainframe indicated a radio transmission I had missed. Maybe the aliens were trying to distract me from possible salvation?

Curiously, I checked out the communicator message left for me. I hope it was someone wanting to come down and get me off this rock. I'd lost all hope of a Colonial Authority rescue, so I was probably limited to the few crazy or desperate souls still left in this system, if there were any. I put the communicator up on one of my many view-screens. I expected to see the face of a grizzled ship captain, or some Colonial Authority PR person saying they were coming back to get me. Instead, though, I got something that wretched my attention from the other monitors. It also made me want to retch in the conventional sense.

It was a being that looked like a hermit crab humped one of those drones. Its face (if indeed, that was it), was a set of four eyestalks equidistant from a central mouth, with had mandibles on four sides. Behind it was a fur-like growth, and behind the "head," I saw smaller, chitinous limb terminating small fleshy stalks in what I assumed were digits for fine manipulation. Small glowing spots and shiny metal bits stuck out from the flank of the creature, indicating some sort of cybernetics. Behind the brown and black creature was a gunmetal gray background.

"This-message-is-addressed-to-the-Intruder-Who-Hides," came a synthesized voice from the message. "Your-presence-in-Sector-7-is-a-gross-violation-of-the-Northern-Trade-Guild's-property-claims. Respond-immediately-if-you-do-not-desire-to-be-forcibly-removed. Cease-attacks-on-payment-collection-machinery. Query-of-xeno-sapient-exsurgency-remains."

I stared at the message and played it again. There were two possibilities here. One was someone with a sick sense of humor or I had just made first contact. Or rather, whoever or whatever was on the other end just did. And the seemed to be telling me to get off their land. If it was a trickster, I'd play along and hope they'd get me off this rock. If it was an alien, I'd hope they'd at least give me a way off this rock that didn't involve death. I saw the frequency was a commonly used public one, so either the aliens had monitored human communications, or someone was just being making an ass of themselves at my expense. Even if it was aliens, I figured it was only a matter of time before they cracked human language, especially if they had cybernetic intelligence enhancements of some sort.

"I'm Rob Reynolds, technician working for the Colonial Authority," I introduced myself over the frequency. "Who am I speaking to?"

"You-are-speaking-to-Representative-of-Most-High-Trading-Authority," came the reply back. "And-you-are-xeno-sapient-remaining-on-Home."

I could see more red dots appearing on my holographic display of my house. More drones were coming, surrounding the hill and cutting off any possible escape. Not like I had any to begin with. I presumed the person I was talking with was controlling them, or at least able to direct them.

"Are you controlling the drones?" I asked. "Move them away to show you're really an alien."

With that, the red dots began to back off, and formed a single-file line. The line marched around the hill a few times, before the drones resumed their standoff position. From the nearby monitors, I could see that the drones really were moving, unless someone had simultaneously hacked all the electronics in the room. Even with just a large enough swarm of drones, they could rush places that were blind spots for my arcs of fire.

"Requested-demonstration-of-payment-collection-machinery-delivered," the Representative replied. "Your-species'-presence-on-Home-indicates-colonization. Xeno-sapient-culture-ignorant-of-Home-already-in-state-of-habitation."

Grammar and translations this bad would've made my language instructors want to kill themselves. I saw the strange alien "face" twitch a bit. "Look, we didn't know this planet had anyone on it. Where were you when the survey ships came?"

"Home-underwent-Ice-Age, which-unable-to-survive," the alien replied. "Entire-population-placed-in-cryogenic-stasis-until-climate-normalized. No-offworld-colonies-to-evacuate-to."

"And you woke up to find humans settling your homeworld," I surmised. "Still, why'd you kill all those people with the drones?"

"Payment-collection-machinery-employed-in-reconnaissance-role," the Representative answered. "Xeno-sapient-fatalities-unintentional. Captured-data-storage-and-communication-devices-to-make-contact. Suitable-payment-located."

"Payment for what?" I asked. I swear, if these aliens drank blood or ate people or demanded death, I was just going to go down blasting as many of their drones as possible. "And what kind of payment?"

"Payment-for-intruding-upon-Home-unauthorized," the alien replied. "Payment-extracted-is-useful-foodstuff."

"Do you eat humans?" I just had to ask. Me and my big mouth.

"Negative. Rob-sapient-must-pay-for-unauthorized-settlement-on-North-Trade-Guild-territory," the Representative added. "Payment-collection-machinery-must-carry-out-task."

"What kind of payment you looking for, if you don't eat people?" I asked. "Do you want human technology? Weapons? Raw materials? I can provide you with all of that information! Do you want to kill me?"

I saw the drones begin to climb up the hill. No response from the alien.

"What is it you plan to take as payment?!" I shouted, grabbing my laser rifle.

"Exact-human-language-phrase-uncertain," the Representative sent. "Researching-captured-computer-archives."

In the meantime, the red spots on my hologram display began to climb faster up the hill. The drones were closing in fast, like a noose.

"WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!" I shouted as loud as I could into the radio.

"Payment," came the synthesized voice in response. "Adequate-term-not-yet-recovered."

I grabbed my laser rifle and turned outside. I could see the drones with my naked eye now. "Cut this crap out now and tell me!"

"Adequate-word-found," the alien's voice replied over the communicator. "Crap."

It took me a minute to think about it, but it all made sense. No wonder they were going for the septic tank. After almost yawning the rainbow, I gathered myself with an offer.

"Oh, that clears up a lot of stuff," I added, relief in my voice. "I have a proposal for you, Representative."

"State-proposal, Rob-sapient," came the alien's reply.

"How about of human colonists rent some of your unused land?" I proposed. "Set aside some areas we can inhabit, and instead of sending out your drones, we'll give you all the crap you could ever want."

"Technical-assistance-also-requested," the Representative added. "Human-Colonial-Authority-will-be-contacted."

"Yeah, until we can get a hold of them, take all the crap you want," I replied.

"Generosity-noted, Rob-sapient," the Representative added. "Any-further-requests?"

"One," I grinned. "Would you mind being famous in Earth media?"

As Representative prepared for a response, I grinned. My cousin was going to love my idea for a reality show: Alien Renter. It would detail the lives of colonists on this strange world. Hopefully, I'd use the Colonial Authority and star power to keep humans limited to a few select areas without wiping out the first alien race we run across. Even if my first thoughts of their dietary habits did make me need to spend hours cleaning out the inside of my envirosuit for. In retrospect, I still wish the biologists had more time to explore this planet, and how the aliens could eat what they did without getting sick. Most of the stuff on this planet doesn't even have DNA, let alone biochemistry as those eggheads know it. I used my log of these events became the first episode. First thing I'm doing when I get some cash is having some more lobster ravioli in a pot not filled with alien guts. Maybe the aliens will like that better than crap? I hope so.