By Joe Nazare
Wilmar screamed his lungs deflated, fogging a miniature nimbus onto his visor. Then just hung there, grinning, luxuriating in the immense, star-dappled blanket enveloping him.
His mood settled to a soothing “ahhhhh,” like the sigh of grass after a rainstorm—back in the days when Earth still sported lawns.
“Wow, nice yowl,” Blakely, his Spacewalk Liaison, broke in via the helmet radio. “You’ve still got about three minutes left—plenty o’ time to build up for another outburst. Or if you’ve had enough of the Big Black, I’ll start guiding you back in.”
Wilmar ignored the chatter. He didn’t much care for Blakely; the guy was a weirdy. Back before they’d made the jump out here beyond uninhabitable Neptune, Blakely had held his hand up high, bragging to him how he’d subcuted a complete library of ancient pulp fiction into his palmreader. Whatever.
A four-EVA veteran now, Wilmar didn’t need Blakely to instruct him anyway. He planned to stay out for his full allotted time, and not because the session was costing him thousands of digidollars. This was his reward, for the thirteen hours spent daily in his work cubicle back home with his elbows pinned to his sides as he keyed. And for all the aggravation suffered on account of that slumlord Noyes, who’d ignored the muffling regulations in his compartment building.
Here he could get away from it all: from the ever-metastasizing metropolises, and the overpopulation practically sinking every continent on earth.
The situation had long since reached critical mass. World authorities knew there was no hope of keeping people abstinent, yet realized that they’d have to try to keep them quiet if civilization was to endure. Hence the formation of the Cacophony Cops—or Noise Nazis, as dubbed by those who ran afoul of the task forces and earned themselves a severe tongue-slashing.
Still, the stringent regulations did nothing to alleviate the crush of humanity, the legions of other people always storming your would-be buffer zone and stomping on your nerves. The endless crowds made you want to shriek—the very thing forbidden by the Hush Laws.
Then came Hugo Philnack, bless his entrepreneurial soul. Inspired by an old 20th-Century movie-poster tagline, he seized on the idea of rocketing passengers into Space (glorious word!), where they could scream their heads off ’til their hearts’ content in the great soundproofed surround. The former fireworks manufacturer used his federal buyout money to purchase a shuttle, the Router-1, and gave earthlings the opportunity (for a premium fee) to vent into the vacuum.
“Hugo-Nauts: Prepare for Ripoff!” the newstwitters scoffed initially, but Philnack had the last laugh after the first shipload of spacewalkers returned and raved—in judiciously muted tones—how they felt purged. After that, people scurried to secure a seat on subsequent flights.
Wilmar included. Four times now he’d journeyed Up-and-Out, and he relished each trip. Yet today a sudden doubt began to gnaw through his euphoria—did he really find this spacewalk equally satisfactory as the last? Sure, the screaming left him feeling like he’d been brought to orgasm—but by a lover whose moves were growing steadily familiar. He couldn’t help but fret: would the returns diminish further with next month’s already-booked excursion?
“NOOOO!” Out of nowhere, Blakely’s shrill denial crammed Wilmar’s headspace.
Wincing, Wilmar grabbed the umbilicus tethering him to the Router-1 and twisted around to stare daggers at Blakely. Instead, his eyes popped wide when he looked back the fifty feet.
There was no shuttle to be seen.
The Router-1 hadn’t vanished; it’d just been eclipsed—by the monstrosities swarming over the hull as if it were an enormous hive.
The pinkish things were a fever dream of a crustacean, at least five feet long each with multiple pairs of pincer-tipped limbs. But even such tenuous classification was belied by the veined-cellophane wings flaring batlike from the creatures’ backs. Their “heads,” meanwhile, were a nest of snubbed tentacles, some uncanny sea anemone undulating.
Wilmar started trembling inside his insulated spacesuit as he goggled at these physics-defying grotesques living and moving nakedly in the void. “Whatthehell,” he muttered.
The utterance was barely audible, yet the aliens turned to “face” him as if they’d heard his whisper in the darkness.
“No! Can’t be! Amigos!” Blakely shouted onboard. Wilmar couldn’t fathom the Liaison’s abrupt bilingual turn. Given the hysterical inflection of that last word, Blakely hardly considered the creatures friendly.
As the color of the creatures’ heads phased through countless unnamable shades, a buzzing sounded inside Wilmar’s helmet—a static-like hiss that drowned out Blakely’s transmissions. Wilmar realized his sensors must be picking up on some strange form of telepathy. The message communicated between those alien minds became frightfully clear, however, once the so-called “Amigo” nearest the umbilicus raised a serrated pincer.
The damned thing planned to unmoor him—to cast him off into infinity, sentence him to a slow, lonely death.
The sideways “V” of the creature’s claws bracketed the lifeline. Wilmar wanted to shout his dismay, but felt like he had a thick ball of phlegm plugging his throat.
He closed his eyes, shutting out the fateful snipping. An instant later his body jerked forward, and he looked and saw that rather than having scissored through the cord, the Amigo was reeling it in.
Each dexterous tug drew Wilmar closer to the swarmed shuttle. He could only muster a whimper as the nightmares’ wings thrummed in anticipation.
Additional agitation manifested within the alien heap, but Wilmar could process the movement only after glimpsing what was passed along to a top-tier Amigo. The thing’s hooked forelimbs now hugged a lidded silver canister.
Something about the size and shape of the obviously technological object tripped an instinctive alarm in Wilmar. He found his scream at last, and loosed it. A throat-scorching screech, protracted and no doubt deafening if Blakely was still tuned in. Wilmar wailed and wailed, as if he aimed to scream himself inverted, orally eviscerated. And all the while he prayed, to a God whose universal primacy now seemed a debunked myth, for the boon of insanity. This his only hope remaining, that he might completely lose his mind.
Before he surrendered his brain.