This story was based on the worst nightmare I've ever had. Consider yourself warned. (As always, comments and criticism are welcome.)
"Thank God for Earth-like atmospheres," James said. "This would be even harder if we had to wear environmental suits."
"If we had to wear environmental suits, these animals probably wouldn't be edible," Eckert replied. "And from the looks of it, we still have no chance of catching them. It makes me wonder what sort of predators there are here—evolution clearly favored the swift."
The Initiative's xenobiologist would no doubt have complained upon the discovery that they were attempting to catch and eat an unidentified species, but said xenobiologist had taken another escape pod when the ship was attacked, and they'd failed to make transponder contact with her. Zurie knew she'd been sleeping with James, and privately, she almost hoped the bitch had gone straight into the sun. Almost.
In the distance, a creature resembling a deer-sized squirrel stood atop a slight rise, nibbling at a patch of moss. James, the only one with a handgun, carefully sighted and aimed, and missed by at least a foot. The giant squirrel vanished far too quickly for a second shot.
"Nice aim, Officer," Zurie attempted. "If I ever need someone to hunt elephants with, I'll let you know." The xenobiologist had been constantly abrasive, so perhaps sarcasm would get his attention . . .
"Can you even use a gun?" James asked. Not waiting for a response, he sent a transponder message to Ceto. "I still have one bullet left. We'll go out a little further, and try to find an easy target."
Zurie sighed. How did all those girls get into James Kearn's pants? Granted, their continued survival was a bigger issue than her sex life, but if she went any longer without getting laid, even Ceto might start to look appealing.
"I'll keep trying to hail a friendly ship," Ceto replied. "If I can't find one soon, we'll need to find another way to hunt—at this rate, our food supplies won't last long."
"Officer Kearn, are you sure this is wise?" Eckert ventured. "We're a long ways from the pod—"
"Stow it, Doctor. I'm not living on emergency rations unless I have to."
-- -- -- --
Predictably, the complainer was the first to die.
James always put the loudest and whiniest member of his crew on point when exploring a potentially dangerous region. Eckert had watched for threats from all sides, and from above as well, but he failed to predict the sudden collapse of what appeared to be solid ground. With a brief cry of "Shit!", he vanished into darkness.
"Doctor?" James called down into the hole. "Are you okay?"
A thousand high-pitched screeches answered his question. By that point, Zurie was already running.
After a minute or so, she risked a look back. James was gaining on her, but a swarm of little white worms was gaining on him, covering the ground in a solid stream. Evidently, these were what the local fauna had evolved to flee from.
Well, it wasn't like she could help him. She'd run a few marathons in her time, and placed reasonably well. She wasn't about to be caught by any overgrown maggots—
A gunshot rang out, and pain lanced through her gut. She fell, and the worms swarmed over her. They stopped to secure the easy prey, their bites immobilizing her body, and with no pursuit, James vanished into the distance.
Predictably, James Kearn would not be the one to die.
-- -- -- --
She wasn't exactly numb. The bites stopped her from moving, and they stopped her from feeling pain. But she could still feel the worms, above her and below her, biting her clothes to shreds and crawling across her naked body.
"Laprise?" her transponder crackled. "Eckert? Where are you?" Then a different voice—"Get away from that transponder!"
The worms avoided her mouth and nose, as if they were trying to keep her breathing as long as possible. But she felt them wriggling between her legs, and one cautiously made its way inside her. After a moment, more followed, and others squirmed into her ass, deeper and deeper . . .
"What happened, Kearn?" Ceto demanded. "Where the hell are they?"
"They didn't run fast enough," James said. "There's nothing we can do to help them now."
The worms seemed to like it inside her, and they eagerly poured in. By all rights, this stretching should have been painful, but with the venom running through her veins, she felt nothing but pleasure. Her belly distended like she was pregnant with twins, but far more than two bodies squirmed inside her, their every touch bringing ecstasy.
It was the best sex of her life, and she hated every second of it.
"I know you're not much of a runner, Kearn," Ceto said. "How are you still alive, if Zurie . . ." He couldn't or wouldn't finish that sentence.
"She didn't run fast enough," James said once more. "That's what I'm going to write on the incident report, and you will testify to its accuracy, you understand? Now shut off that goddamn transponder."
Zurie felt the worms biting at her once more, those outside her digging through her skin, those inside her digging through her flesh. They're eating me, she realized, but she was no longer scared. When sensation vanished in her fingers and toes, then in her hands and feet, then up her limbs, she tried to calm herself in the pleasure of dissolution. It would all be over soon, and then she'd never again have to think about James and what he'd done.
There were no dreams in the dark night of the soul. Her vision darkened, and then she saw again, looking out of thousands of eyes at once. The worms that had crawled across her neatly stripped bones now lay utterly still.
Her mind reached out for hands, and worms moved to grasp a bone. Her mind reached out for feet, and worms silently stood on end. Her mind reached out for lips, and worms shook and wriggled, the sound of their movements turning into the words, "What am I?"
With a single mind, and a single voice, a thousand worms screamed.
-- -- -- --
Eckert had been the test case, taken apart to see how human bodies worked. Little of his mind had survived the crude fumbling of the worms, but enough remained that Zurie could still mimic his voice over the transponder. "Is anyone listening? I'm still alive out here, but the worms will probably come back soon. Would someone please open this door?"
"Doctor, how much money do I owe you?" James asked.
Zurie's own mind was a patchwork mess. She remembered her high school graduation, but not what she'd had for breakfast yesterday. She could see her ex-boyfriend's face, but she couldn't recall his voice. Her memories of touch seemed to have converted into taste, and her memories of taste were scrambled almost beyond recognition. But she could still tell what was her and what was not, and she found and drew out the remnants of Eckert's grudge. "Twenty euros. You've been promising for three months that you'll pay me back."
James didn't respond, but the outer airlock began to open.
She knew she wouldn't have much time before he realized his error. She crammed as many of her bodies into the airlock as could reasonably fit, and the inner door opened no more than a crack before she began to pour into the room. She rushed for Ceto first, biting him into submission before he could close the door again, but she left him otherwise unharmed. He wasn't involved in any of this.
James put up a valiant struggle, smashing her with every blunt object that came to hand, but she was as resilient as a cockroach, and her numbers overwhelmed him. She dragged him back into the airlock, leaving behind a few unnecessary worms to work the controls and open the outer door again.
Outside the pod, she dumped him harshly on the ground, her bodies forming a circle around him. "If I were as rational as Eckert," she told him, "I might actually thank you."
"Whuh?" he slurred, barely able to move his lips.
"I may just be a bunch of worms, but there's a reason I'm the planet's top predator. Whatever I eat becomes a part of me, and I know everything it knows. You let me eat Zurie instead of you, and I'd rather have her memories than yours.
"Huh?" James said.
"The thing is," she continued, "you humans have strong minds. So strong they can overwrite everything about me. I am Zurie now, or I might as well be. And you're the one who left me to die."
The transponder crackled. "Kearn? Are you okay? What the hell are these things?"
She pressed the transmit button. "They're justice in action."
"Zurie?" Ceto asked incredulously. "I thought you were dead. What's going on?"
He asked many more questions, and made many more requests for her to respond. She ignored him.
The paralytic poison wore off quickly. James was already attempting to crawl away. She swarmed him, and bit him until he stopped. "I want to make you understand," she told him. "This is step one."
He tried to speak, but he couldn't get the words out.
She rolled him over on his back, and chewed through his clothes. She understood now why she remembered touch as taste—a worm's mind interpreted the former much like a human's interpreted the latter. James's skin tasted like slow-smoked ham, and she savored it as she crawled across him. "This is step two."
James mumbled something. It sounded like "no."
"I would have said that, if I could. And the funny thing was, I liked it. There was a part of me that wanted it to never end, even while the rest of me was screaming inside." James's erection slowly rose, and she clambered up and down its length. "That's what it means to truly be violated—to not even be able to control yourself. I died like that, James. Nobody saved me. And nobody will save you—"
"Zurie!" Ceto screamed.
"Scratch that," she told James. "Here comes the cavalry."
Ceto had exited the airlock, and was now staring at the mass of worms under which James was buried. "Where's Zurie?" he asked. "What's going on?"
"You haven't figured it out yet?" she asked.
Ceto stared blankly. "Zurie? You—what did—"
"Officer Kearn did. He shot me and left me to die, so I died. Then I rose up from my bones to return the favor."
Ceto recovered from his surprise faster than she expected. He stepped forward, approaching her bodies. "Zurie," he said, "you're not a killer. Kearn isn't worth this—"
"Do you think you can kiss me and turn me into a princess?" Zurie asked. "You're not exactly a knight in shining armor. Look at me, Ceto. I'm not even human—"
Ceto gently lifted one of her bodies into the air, and he kissed its little fanged mouth.
Zurie laughed, a high-pitched squeal quite unlike the speaking voice she'd affected. "Seriously? You've got more guts than I thought."
"I trust you, Zurie," Ceto said. "I don't think you really want to kill Kearn. You just want to see him face justice, and so do I."
Zurie considered that. "Do you promise to make him suffer?" she asked.
"If you kill him, he'll be remembered as a hero, and you'll be thought of as a monster. Let him live, and I'll make sure he faces charges. He'll never serve in the fleet again, and for a glory-seeker like him, that's worse than death."
She clambered off of James. "I wouldn't have wanted his memories, anyway."
This was when Ceto noticed James's erection. "Uh, Zurie? Why does Kearn have—"
"Don't ask. Just don't ask."
-- -- -- --
Lenny Ceto looked up from the comms board as Zurie entered the pod. "I've got good news and bad news, Zurie. The good news is, there's a ship within hailing range that's looking for survivors."
"And it only took two weeks to get here," Zurie said. "What's the bad news?"
"They're a week away."
"Well, you won't starve, at least," she told him. "You're not sick of grub stew, right?" As it turned out, almost every animal on this world was inedible to humans, but they were all edible to her, and she in turn was edible to Lenny and James. She'd been mass-producing surplus worms ever since the emergency rations ran out.
"I still think it's kind of weird to eat my girlfriend," Lenny said, "but I guess if it doesn't hurt you . . ."
"I bite you all the time. It's only fair to return the favor. Speaking of which, want to celebrate the news?" They couldn't have sex, not in the normal sense of the word, but Lenny's skin tasted like apples, and it was fun to make him come. Once they'd concluded that her venom couldn't hurt him, they'd gotten very kinky very quickly.
"I need to tell you two things first," Lenny said. "The first thing is, I told them about James. They're not sure whether he'll be charged with murder or attempted murder, but it won't go well for him either way. And the second thing is . . . I told them about you. Pending a review of whether you're still fit for duty, you'll keep your job and rank."
"Uh, do they know I'm made of worms now?"
"There's precedent for nonhumans in the fleet. Remember that Beeb who wanted to be a pilot? I talked to a guy who thought he could fit you for an environmental suit—one with an internal skeleton. You could walk around just like me."
"So vengeance plus my job back plus not scaring my crewmates . . ."
"Equals get your clothes off this instant," Zurie said. "This is going to be a day to remember."
-- -- -- --
Outside the pod, James Kearn grimaced. The comms boy and the alien had been in there for an hour, and he had a pretty good guess what they were doing.
"At least I never did it with a fucking worm."