On Christmas she gave frankincense, myrrh, and best of all, lead.
Dad would be happy I have a job. Not a great one—hell, here I am picking up rocks and hauling them back to the dome. We’re looking for metal ore on Kimballo, a Goldilocks planet with two suns. But I’ve got another angle: to find Dad’s creature.
Getting this job was no sweat. I’m in my twenties, plenty fit, and have creds—electrical engineering know-how and computer expertise. Dropping out of school was a mistake. Not only did I get crap from Dad—may he rest in peace—but it meant lower pay. “Elliott, you look like a failure,” he might have said. I’m not sure what disappointed the old man more, not having a degree, a job, or a girlfriend. Well, Dad, I’ve got a job and maybe I can fix the money and girl problems. Then you’ll finally approve of me.
I’d hiked for hours under tangerine clouds that kept the temperature moderate. The sandy valley would be called pleasant if it weren’t for the tainted atmosphere, breathable but with something odd, maybe toxic. Not sure yet, so we wear masks with high-tech filters—good until they clog. Dad’s invention, a box called the psytron, vibrated. Something nearby emitted electric waves. I buzzed my buddy Rack on the com. “Stroll up the arroyo about a klick. I’ll follow on higher ground. And use the mask. No use sucking in this iffy air.”
The psytron needle pointed to a purple bush downslope from a spiky, chalk-topped hill. I poked my light into the shadowy branches where the beam bounced off two eyes. A squirrel-sized, dark gray, bumpy-skinned lizard lay motionless in the sand, looking like a cross between a toothy toad and a cat. I ignored the sudden headache and fired a tiny tranquilizing dart, then lifted the limp body into a sample case.
* * *
I snuck the groggy lizard to my quarters, deposited it in a biobox set to Kimballo’s climate and atmosphere, and tossed in a protein bar, figuring a creature with pointy teeth ate meat. I swallowed two aspirin and stared into the cat eyes.
Dad was the exobiologist who’d surveyed animal life on this planet, finding nothing big or dangerous. He’d okayed Kimballo for mining exploration, but his official report left out something. He saw rodents—he called them gophers—snap from active to quiet when his hearing aid buzzed. When the buzzing stopped, the gophers would move again. Dad was sure some creature emitted something to subdue prey. The lizard in the biobox was that creature.
My plan was simple: record the something—had to be a wave—and duplicate it with a biosynthetic circuit. That would give me an android capable of stunning and immobilizing. Perfect for law enforcement and the military. I’ll have more money than you ever dreamed of, Dad. Plus a shot at med tech June Ferrick.
She was my fantasy, everything I could want in a girl. Gorgeous with a come-hither personality. Too bad she treated me like … a school dropout. That would change.
The intercom hummed, and the voice of Chief Pain-in-the-Ass Engineer Cooper, aka the pit bull, spoke. “Elliott, you need to change another clogged filter.”
The assignment pissed me off. I was almost an engineer, and this was plumbing. Yeah, I fit better in the cramped suckspace between the dome’s inner hard wall and the outer fabric, but still. I kept my trap shut, glanced at the lizard, and went. Filters were part of the air purification system because they removed the mysterious contaminant before air entered the dome HVAC for final processing. Filters should last three months, but I’d replaced all eight in the month since arrival. If we didn’t figure a way to recondition them, we’d soon discover what the contaminant did to humans.
* * *
I was crouched between the dome hard wall and the outer fabric when the psytron squeaked. I swear I saw a big shadow through the semi-transparent outer fabric before I blacked out.
Cooper’s growl woke me. “What the hell are you doing? Your implant says you haven’t twitched for five minutes.”
“Less thinking, more doing. Take a look at the A2 filter. Flow rate’s in the red.”
I shook my head, feeling lightheaded. “Better send Rack to help.”
En route to the A quadrant, I spotted red and green diodes flashing in a dome port. Christmas decorations. Had to be June’s work. She had no problem kissing up to Pit Bull Cooper to get him to rig the lights, but all I got was the cold shoulder.
At the A2 pipe, the psytron needle bounced into the red zone, and my muscles stopped working. Rack, a skinny wort-sniffer with a pony-tail and bugged-out eyes, arrived and grabbed the wrench from my hand. Conscious, but unable to talk, I watched Rack lean into a nut. The wrench slipped and banged against a synfer strut.
The noise unfroze me. A dark shadow swept past the outer fabric with shuffling scrapes. Rack looked up and we both lost consciousness.
* * *
Cooper dragged us inside and June took over. She examined us, did a scan, and took blood. I spent the time fantasizing about getting her out of her whites. She told us to take it easy for a day. I went to my quarters, puzzling over something. The psytron not only detected brain waves, but deflected them. It needed more power to do a better job.
Instead of continuing my lizard work, I slept. A commotion in the nearby lounge woke me. Commander Petillo, a short guy with electric-socket-spiked black hair, was cursing about three spacers who’d left the dome and disappeared. “And what happened to the search party?” he yelled. “Has to be caused by breathing too much unpurified atmosphere.”
I suspected lizards had lured the crew away, but I kept my mouth shut. How could I talk about lizards when I’d snuck one into the dome against all policies about alien species? I’d find myself with a collar and confined to my cabin. Besides, the bigger problem was the filters. Cooper said they were structurally okay, but had a thin membrane clogging the pores. Fabrication could restore the filters—that’s the good news—but the process needed lead. The bit of lead we had was about gone—that’s the bad news—and survey teams hadn’t found any.
* * *
Rack and I were back in the utility space when the juiced-up psytron rattled in the tool kit.
“What the hell was that?” Rack asked.
“Not sure, but we better get inside.” I grabbed a wrench to tighten a bolt when sleepiness hit.
A thump rippled the dome cover, and the fabric darkened. Something sharp poked a hole in the barrier. Rack leaned closer. The panel burst inward, knocking both of us to the floor, and a monster-sized croc-cat with gray, leathery skin, a blunted snout, and a coal-colored mane materialized. Had to be a hundred times bigger than the one I’d found.
I sat stunned by the reality behind my father’s theory.
The long mouth opened and snapped closed, quivering the dorsal spikes. Growling with claws extended, the animal swished its tail, and swung its big head. Yellow hooded eyes held us. Rack stood, and when the lizard backed away, he followed. And disappeared.
Cooper squeezed his way to me, gaped at the torn fabric, and dragged me into the dome. Petillo was waiting.
“Major leak,” Cooper said. “Rack is missing. I’ll get an armed repair team out there to patch the hole.”
“Armed?” Petillo asked. “The biosurvey said this planet has only benign creatures.”
“Survey sucked. Something left big paw marks in the dust.”
Petillo grimaced. “If things keep going like this, the delivery ship can just drop off a wreath and save our supplies for someone else.”
Rack wasn’t the only victim. Cooper sent two women, both with mass-sensing Pantresco blasters, to repair the dome fabric. After cutting a patch, the women stopped working, stepped through the hole, and left. Surveillance video caught three lizards leading them away.
* * *
We were under attack. I had to record emissions from the baby lizard to learn what we were up against and find a way to stop it. The young creature—I realized now that the animals that visited the dome had to be the adults—cooperated by emitting whenever I came near. An organ near the brain was the source of the wave.
As I studied the electric pulse, a word formed in my head: “Release.” I jumped, scanning the room to find the speaker.
“Release,” the voice repeated. The lizard pressed one yellow eye against the clear biobox side.
I ignored my persistent headache and covered the damn cage just before the knock on door. I closed my eyes praying the lizard would stay quiet. The knocker was June checking on my health. I assured her I was fine and smiled. When she left, I took an aspirin, and went back to the wave pattern.
It seemed familiar, maybe something I’d seen in my father’s papers. I drummed my fingers, recalling what I’d felt when the large lizard was near: great contentment and relaxation and then a fading of consciousness, almost like falling asleep or being hypnotized. That’s when I started calling the creatures “psycholizards.”
I discovered the psycholizard emissions mimicked human brain scans at the onset of sleep. Somehow, the creature imposed that pattern on its prey and sent it to la-la-land. I felt hot pincers grip my head.
“Release.” The biobox rattled.
I ignored the headache and the message and focused on how to modify the psytron to give me better protection. I spent the next hour changing the device, boosting its power and reconfiguring its wave to better cancel the lizard wave. I turned it on and my headache faded. But I had only one small device that couldn’t protect the whole dome.
I wandered into the lounge. Men played cards in the corner, and I thought of joining them, but this was not a time for goofing off. June was arranging a nativity set—a small wooden shed and painted figures of the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and animals. A real candle burned on the display table, giving off a waxy aroma that reminded me of church. June ignored me.
I got close enough to say, “These decorations remind me of when I was a kid. We had the hologram kind, but yours are the real thing. Thanks for setting this up. I just hope we make it to Christmas.”
June picked up a sugar cookie and regarded me. At last she said, “If the lizards leave us alone—”
Commander Petillo strode into the lounge. “If the aliens don’t eat us,” he said, “we’ll suffocate. Add the lizards to the clogged filters, lack of lead, and staff loss and you have Christmas festivities at their best.” He sounded more defeated than angry as he took in the crèche. “I still don’t believe you used part of your weight limit to pack Christmas stuff, but it does give us a festive touch. By the way, the camels and wise men go on the right.”
June moved the camel even farther left.
Petillo frowned. “Suit yourself. These are pretty old, aren’t they?”
Patting the camel, she said, “My great grandmother’s. Hefty little statues.”
Alarms sounded. Cooper’s agitated voice came through a speaker. “Somebody opened the main hatch. Seven lizards are in the dome. Big guys, at least two meters tall.”
Petillo ordered lockdown and began pacing. “Given the size of these things, the inside doors may not hold. Get your blasters ready.”
My stomach clenched. We would never fire the blasters. The psycholizards would freeze us. I activated the psytron on my belt as a thud pounded the lounge door
“Elliott, where’s your weapon? What’s wrong?” Petillo asked.
An idea struck and I let it run. In the corner stood the dome droid. It had power and weapons. I could use it. “I can convince those creatures to leave,” I said at last.
“What are you talking about? We have weapons.”
I shook my head. “They won’t be fired. The beasts emit electric waves to immobilize their prey. The wave will put you to sleep.” I told of my father’s theory and of the device he’d put together. I lied that my father had recorded a lizard.
Another thud and the door screeched but held.
“I can modify the V2 droid to protect us,” I said, pointing to the robot. “That will give us the chance to use the blasters.”
“Damn,” Petillo said. “We’ll discuss this later. Get to work.”
I hooked the droid’s blast weaponry to the pulse modulator circuit and entered a dozen program commands, finishing as the lounge door bulged inward. “You have to open that door—what’s left of it—to let the droid out,” I said. “So it’s in front of the lizards, like a mirror. It has to take the psychic blast from the aliens and reflect it.”
“Tell me again why the droid can’t just kill them with its beam weapon,” Petillo said.
“Might get one or two, but multiple lizards will overcome the bionet. While it’s sorting things out, we’ll be paralyzed … or worse.”
Petillo muttered something unintelligible and ordered Cooper to open the lounge door. Seven slavering croc-lions with Bowie-blade fangs lumbered in. The droid blocked their path. When the psychic blast came, the psytron screamed, and every human in the lounge except me collapsed.
V2 reflected the wave and six of the creatures fell. The seventh, the largest, stumbled. Its gaze swung from me to the robot. V2 was recharging its bionet, but the process was too slow. I fired my blaster and missed, but it got the big guy’s attention. It hissed and retreated. The six smaller lizards revived and trudged after the leader.
Cooper’s voice, more Chihuahua than pit bull, spoke over the com. “They’re leaving, Commander.”
“Seal the doors,” a foggy Petillo said. “I’ll change the code on the door lock and keep it to myself. I don’t want anyone else deciding they have to get outside or invite something in. Maybe tin foil hats all around. Too bad we don’t have lead foil.”
* * *
I retreated to my quarters and stared at the biobox. The captive rattled the top and squeaked. We have to get you outside, I thought. I grabbed my head as it filled with a new vision. I saw the herd of reptiles gathered outside the dome. Behind them against the cliff rocks, stood something larger than the psycholizards. It had lizard skin, but its form was humanoid with hands. And it wore a garment. The image vanished, and I wondered if baby was giving me a warning or just messing with me.
I had to get outside now, in the dark. With luck, the creatures would be inactive at night when it was cooler. Like all good reptiles. The coded hatch locks were the problem. Usually only Cooper and a few others had the five-number code. Petillo never wrote passwords or codes down, so it had to be easy to remember. I opened a link to the central data center. There was a back door to the security program where I could see previous codes.
I studied the three old passwords, numbers that seemed familiar. The first code was the supply ship’s designator, minus the letters. The second code I recognized as the catalog number for a droid circuit board. The third number was a mystery. But I got an idea: if Petillo used a catalog number once, maybe he did it again. I opened the supplies database and searched on the number. It was the code for the filters.
The codes were all mission-related. I checked the dates of the code changes. The first corresponded to departure of the drop-off ship. The second was made when I reported the V1 droid was inoperative because of a defective board. The last code was chosen when the filter problem became evident. So Petillo changed the code when a problem occurred.
So what’s the crisis now? The lizards had no number. What had he said in the lounge just before he left? Wishing for lead foil. Lead didn’t have a reorder code, but it did have an atomic number and atomic weight. Five digits.
* * *
Half-way through the sleep cycle, I grabbed the lizard, the psytron, and my blaster and headed for the main hatch. Christmas lights illuminated June’s nativity display in the empty lounge. I picked up the statue of the infant and slipped it into my pocket.
At the door pad, I entered lead’s atomic number, eighty-two, and its atomic weight, two hundred seven. Nothing happened. Damn. I pounded the code box. Then I reversed the numbers, and the door slid open. I left praying I would return.
* * *
Luckily, Kimballo had, besides its two suns, a big fat moon whose gibbous splendor lit my way on the valley floor. I hiked to where I found the lizard, recognizing the white-topped spike. I slid junior into his nest and was wishing him well when a hiss froze me. Behind me stood a two-meter-high psycholizard. The psytron hummed softly. My blaster was at my belt, but I dared not try for it. Mommy snarled.
I was screwed. Slowly, ever so slowly, I took Baby Jesus from my pocket and held it up. The big creature’s eyes glowed, and I resigned to die.
A noise rattled in my head. The same sound as the baby lizard whining about release, but not words. Mommy stopped and tilted her big head. Her eyes flitted from me to the bush and back. A word formed in my head: “Come.”
I followed the big lizard in the moonglow to a thin cleft in a rock wall. We entered a narrow passage that dead-ended in an open space half a kilometer in. I could make out Rack and the other team members, asleep on rocks, their equipment and clothes in a pile.
“Thank God you’re alive,” I said. “What’s going on?”
One by one they stood and clustered together, reminding me of cattle.
“Are you guys all right?”
They huddled closer. My head heard a new message: “Join the herd. Multiply. We eat.”
I took a step forward, my brain grappling with a new concept. The lizards needed prey bigger than the gophers my father saw. We were it. A flash of June as a captive breeder hazed my head. I glanced around. Mommy lizard disappeared and I figured we could escape, but something held my zombie comrades.
The psytron gave me an idea. I cranked up the power, set the range on maximum, and put myself in the middle of the bare-assed, mewing herd. “Move,” I said, pointing down the cleft. They started walking. I guided them out of their prison and toward the dome. None spoke. By the time the dome loomed before us, I’d fleshed out my weird explanation: the predators or their masters had enough brainpower to think of a reproducing herd of meat and had made a good start with four females and four males. The buggers were sentient.
An orange dawn was breaking as we entered the station. The rescued spacers had begun to talk, but seemed confused. I figured they’d recover fully in time and sent them to their quarters before they realized how they looked. There was a bigger problem. The lizards were sentient. We shouldn’t be on Kimballo. Going outside meant we could be made to join the herd. I had to convince Petillo that it was time to hunker down.
I headed to my room, expecting to sneak undetected at this early hour. But it was Christmas morning on Earth’s calendar, and spacers do not quit acting like kids. Holiday music played in the lounge. Petillo and June stood by a tinseled table that held a punch bowl filled with something red.
Petillo was stomping around waving my journal. “It’s all in here, his father’s discovery, the design of the detector, and the baby lizard. He claims the cute baby talked to him. The idiot brought a friggin’ animal into the dome.”
One hand at her mouth, June pointed at me.
Petillo looked as if he had strangulation on his mind. “You’re in deep trouble, Elliot. What kind of an idiot—”
“It’s Christmas, Commander,” June said. “a time of forgiveness and positive thoughts, not high blood pressure.”
I handed June the baby Jesus statue. “The lizard problem if solved is we stay inside the dome with locked doors. I found the missing men and women and brought them back.”
Petillo stood speechless. Finally he said, “We can’t stay inside. We need to find lead to fix the damn filters. Or we croak before the transport ship arrives.”
June was examining the figurine. “Jesus has lost a patch of his paint,” she said, as if the threat of toxic air were nothing in comparison. “This old paint is losing its stick.”
“Old paint,” I said. “Didn’t they have some kind of health problem with old paints?”
“I guess. Kids used to eat paint chips and ingest ….” June stopped in mid sentence and gulped. “Lead. This paint on the statues contains lead. And there’s probably lead in the heavy bases.”
Petillo’s eyes widened. “It’s chemistry time. The lab guys should have no trouble getting enough lead from these to recondition the filters. We are saved. Halleluiah.” He grabbed the crèche figurines and headed for the door.
June smiled at me. “Thanks for the Christmas present, Santa. Better than gold frankincense, and myrrh.”
She actually smiled, I thought, my mind jumping to all sorts of ridiculous, herd-like possibilities. I glanced around. No mistletoe. Damn. Finally I smiled back and said, “Only you would be sentimental enough to lug a leaden Nativity scene a light-year from Bethlehem.”
Bob Brooks (R.R. Brooks) spent his career doing pharmaceutical research and development. Now living in western North Carolina with two oversized cats and a supportive spouse, he’s published fiction and nonfiction, including science fiction and fantasy stories exploring strange encounters and issues of doubt and belief (e.g., “To Believe or Not,” “The Diest,” and “The Vision Vase.”). He is the author of the epic fantasy novel Justi the Gifted, released in 2015 by Leo Publishing.
His themes for novels are eclectic. A psychological mystery novel The Clown Forest Murders, co-written with A.C. Brooks, will be released in November 2017 by Black Opal Publishing. A science fiction tale of espionage is under review, and a second fantasy novel to conclude the adventure of Justi is underway. He is a member of the Blue Ridge Writers Group, the Appalachian Round Table, the Brevard Authors Guild, International Thriller Writers, Inc., and the N.C. Writers Network. He maintains author’s pages on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads.