Earthly Prey


Michelle O'Neill

Morgan Stranton docked her Nightsun Riser into Slot Ninety-Seven just as her authorization slip had told her to. Feeling ill, she popped a few motion sickness pills and pulled a plastic bag from a storage bin overhead, tucking it into her front pocket. Her sickness was a jittery, nervous kind of malady, like having done something wrong and knowing youíd get caught for it.

"Welcome to STROM X27, Contractor Stranton," said Cyris the stationís mainframe over the transmitter. "Please see Officer Battara in Penal Sector Twelve for the prisoner transfer."

Morgan completed the docking procedure and unfastened herself from her seat. Turning around, she looked over the restraints in the confinement berth behind her. She hadnít even seen the prisoner yet and already her mouth felt dry and pasty. She licked her lips, but they were tight again a moment later.

Grabbing the thick leather harness that would hold the confinement cell, she jerked hard a few times, the metal buckles jingling loudly from the assault. You better hold, she thought, wiping her moist palms off on the midsection of her shirt.

Morgan gingerly stepped off her ship as if the entire station was electrified. She reached into her pocket and touched her Azgardian good fortune amulet silently mouthing a prayer as she approached the main entrance. When she reached it, it hissed open amid the faint smell of hydraulic fuel.

The hallways beyond were beautiful, if not identical, all constructed of gleaming compounds of platinum and silver. Each new branch held a small mounted map with interstellar symbols representing the housed departments within the station, along with a depiction of where you are now in relation to them.

As she got closer to the prison, Morgan stopped, willing her heart to slow down. She closed her eyes for a moment and focused on controlling her breathing. The Hydracore mustnít smell her fear or sheíd have even more problems controlling it.

For a second, she thought of calling the whole thing off. She could still do it; there might be a penalty to pay but theyíd find someone else to transport the damn thing to trial for the money they were offering.

But slowly, she began her advance again. Fifty million is a lot of money. I'll never have to risk myself again. It's definitely worth it, she told herself.

Morgan finally made her way to the prisonís main doorway and stood waiting for the sensors to pick her up. Shifting her feet, she bit her thumbnail while she waited.

"This is a restricted area. What do you want?" came the thick accented voice from the doorís speaker.

Goddamit, he knew why she was here. He was speaking English to her, wasnít he? She knew Cyris would have reported her arrival. It was disappointing to know that sexism was alive and well off world too.

Morgan folded her arms and shifted her weight to her left foot. "Iím Contractor Stranton, Iíve come to --"

The doors slide open revealing an octagonal control room with a central sentry desk. The walls were covered in digital flat screens that hung on electrical power webs.

Morgan stepped forward, the doors closing with a soft whish behind her. She studied the massive Kerrillian cyborg sitting at the desk, his feet propped up on the control panel. His long, grey hair hung loosely around his shoulders and he regarded her with a lusty, crooked smile.

"Iíve come to pick up the Hydracore named Sargoth," she said.

Playing with his beard, the Kerrillian stared at her for a long time. His gaze was so piercing she found herself compelled to look away.

"When did you get your contractorís license, last year?"

"What difference does it make?" she said. "Iím licensed, thatís all you need to know."

He shook his head grimly. "Youíre not going to last one hour with that thing," he said. "Arenít humans its favorite food?"

Morgan felt her face flush. "Listen, I have a U.S. contract for that prisoner, and I intend to honor it. So why donít you shut your mouth, and bring him out."

The Kerrillian laughed. It made a cruel and raspy sound in his chest. "Sure. Wait right there," he said. He disappeared down a corridor clunking on thick, steel legs.

Guiding the titanium holding cell into the room, Morgan studied the creature through the bars. From the look of him, she guessed the Hydracore to be around eight feet tall from the tip of his narrow head to the end of his spiky, clawed feet. His body was covered in a thick exoskeleton of black scales and he reminded her of a cross between a preying mantis and a cockroach. The sight of him disgusted her.

The Kerrillian maneuvered the creature around to the left of the desk on a floating trolley, stopping in front of her. He walked around to the side of the holding cell, towering over her grinning. "Just sign here," he said, shoving the palm scan clipboard at her.

Morgan lifted her hand over the clipboard, then hesitated looking into the Hydracoreís cage again. The creature met her gaze, analyzing her with two large, reflective eyes. She felt a chill run through her neck and shoulders. His antenna twitched and touched the bars, sliding up and down the gleaming metal surface. Then the smell filled her mind, a dreamy, inebriating scent that tenderly pulled language from her thoughts.

Hunger. Anticipation. Amusement. Likely translation: I can almost taste the pleasing meat covering your bones, human.

Morgan shook her head, chasing away the creatureís communication and placed her hand on the clipboard. Without looking at the Kerrillian, she snatched the Hydracoreís records from him, and stepped over to the trolley.

"Thanks," she said, programming the controls. "Youíve been a big help."

"I hope you make it back alive, girl," he said as the prison doors began sliding closed behind her. "I really do."

Once they reached the ship, Morgan had the docking androids load the creature into the berth. She stood by the ship's door for a few minutes after it was secured on board, trying to collect her thoughts. You can do this, she said to herself, donít be afraid. Once it hibernates, itíll be an easy ride to Earth. With one last deep breath, she entered the shipís main hatch and took her seat in the cockpit.

"Preparing for launch," she said to Cyris, who immediately disengaged the entry tunnel. She programmed the temperature modulator for a cool fifty-eight degrees and hoped she could stand it long enough for the creature to go into hibernation.

Morgan watched the space station from the rear camera melt away in the distance and felt very alone. That smell streamed into the cockpit again, a musky, earthy scent, not unlike freshly dug dirt.

Shaking her head, she said, "Nightsun, activate the atmospheric trace chemical samplers and bring the Hydracore translator on line." She didn't want to talk to the thing, but maybe hearing its hypnotic melange of scents rendered into words would be less distracting than her more visceral reactions to the odors themselves. A moment later, the ship computer's voice emerged from the comm panel.

Are you taking me to Earth?

"Yes," she said, not looking back at him.

What will they do to me there?

"Theyíll kill you for the colonists you murdered on Mars last year."

Theyíll try. Those colonists were delicious. I hope all of you taste so good.

Morgan rubbed the back of her neck. She really didnít want to talk to it. She especially didnít want to fight with it. She could feel the creature's eyes fixed on the back of her neck and it made her queasy. She wondered how much longer until it fell asleep. One hour, two? She thought about lowering the temperature more but was afraid she wouldnít be able to stay awake either.

I would love to taste your flesh.

Morgan swallowed the bile rising in her throat. "Why donít you try to sleep? Weíve got a long ride back to Earth."

Iím not as eager as you to get there, human. The only thing waiting for me there is death.

"Yeah, well you should have thought of the consequences before you started eating up another species."

Do you ever consider the consequences of devouring your prey before you consume it?

"Thatís different. We donít eat other sentient beings."

But you kill them in large numbers. The humans have the highest same species mortality rate in the solar system. You judge us unfairly, we kill to eat. What excuse does your species have?

Morgan slumped in her seat listening to the grinding hum of the shipís engines. They were traveling so fast, it felt like they were standing still. "Iíd really like you to shut up now."

I find it tirelessly interesting that humans cannot accept they are our natural prey, an integral part of our diet.

Morgan closed her eyes and tried to block his scent by breathing through her mouth. His pheromones were everywhere, making it impossible to ignore his conversation.

With a raucous clatter, the creature battered around in his cell, startling her. Morgan unstrapped herself and leaped up. Rushing to the confinement berth, she hit all the lights and carefully studied his cell to make sure all was secure. Before she could complete her inspection, the Hydracore placed a forearm on the cell door, and playfully popped it open a few inches.

Morganís breath caught in her chest and ice filled her heart. Oh God, she thought, Iím dead. Lunging for the door, she reached it in just enough time for it to strike a jarring blow against her cheek as it swung open. Holding her face, she screamed and turned away in pain. The Hydracore clumped out, its clawed toes snapping sharply on the metal floor. It looked down at her, its compound eyes appeared a honeycomb mesh, cold and unreadable. Its jaw worked back and forth.

"How did you get out of there?"

How arrogant of you. Why would you assume I couldnít manipulate so simple a locking mechanism?

"You donít have hands," she said, her chest heaving. "How could you use lockpicks, even if you had any?

I obviously donít need them. It rotated its forelimbs, displaying needle-like spines that unfolded like the blades of a pocketknife.

The creature reached down for her and Morgan recoiled in terror and loathing. "Youíll never get anywhere near Earth without me. Theyíll see you on the viewer and blow you out of the sky."

The Hydracore lifted her up in its long, needle-like arms and pulled her up against its thorax. She fought him with everything she had, thrashing and kicking in a vain attempt at escape.

Youíre right, human. I do need you to land on Earth. Unfortunately, I donít need all, as just the head will do. And when I reach that lovely, blue land, what a feast theyíll be, a wondrous bounty, and all of it just for me.


© 2005 by Michelle O'Neill

Bio: Ms. O'Neill tells us, "I am a member of the Winter Park writers group and have a degree in Political Science. I am also a lifetime fan of both science fiction and horror. My story, 'Blue Plate Special' was published on the ezine in July." To see more of her work, visit Michelle O'Neill, Science Fiction Writer.

E-mail: Michelle O'Neill

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