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Life With Slug
    by Paul Eckheart

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I find the girl asleep, curled up under a giant leaf of the putamba bush. There are worse places to sleep. The soft loam she'd piled up into a makeshift pillow. Morning dew on the leaf threatens to drip onto the poor child's face. I pull a handkerchief from the back pocket of my faded fatigues and wipe the dew away before it spoils her dreams.

She is maybe eight or nine earth-years. Red hair. Yellow summer dress matted with dirt. Freckled face - the sort that refuses to tan.

She is the first person I've seen outside of rangers and law enforcement in many, many years. Protocol dictates that I wake her immediately and send her back to the colony.

And yet I decide to leave her there. It is a quiet morning, save for the soothing buzz of a few overachieving insects. The first moon has already disappeared behind the red mountains to the west. The second moon hangs high in the sky, its sunward side bright with reflected oranges and yellows. Not even a hint of clouds overhead.

She can sleep all she needs to. I can harvest the greens around her and be on my way before she even stirs.

To fetch the last thing I need - a sprig of bone-twill - I have to move the putamba leaf. Bone-twill has a beautiful peppery taste I've been craving in my salads. Almost, I decide to leave it for another day, but the thought of bone-twill mixed with the lemon wheatgrass I'd already harvested overpowers my discretion. I lift the leaf and take a deep breath before leaning over the sleeping child.

I smell wintergreen.

Which is impossible. Only one thing on Opal Seven smells like wintergreen, and the terraformers had long ago scoured the planet to make sure it was eradicated.

I lean closer to her mouth and smell again.

No doubt about it. She's eaten ivaltoe berries.

I shake her. "Wake up. Come on, honey. Morning's here." Her little frame rolls limply to one side. I pat her cheeks, feel her forehead - hot and feverish. But her breathing is strong.

If I hurry she might live.

It's a sign of how deep my solitude has been engrained in me that I pause to consider the ramifications of bringing her into my home because such a thing is forbidden. In my many years of exile, Damn Bastard Cole (an official title - one I'd given him personally) was the only person permitted to visit me.

By bringing this child into my home I guaranteed myself another visit from D.B. But I've survived the worst of his wrath before. For the sake of the girl, I can do it again.

I often think about the events that led to my expulsion from society. Other than my garden and the occasional book, there's not much else to do. And I've already read Moby Dick (this month's authorized selection) once. I'd rather deal with my memories than have to slog through that "Call me Ishmael" excrement again. If brevity is the soul of wit, Melville is, without doubt, the greatest bore ever to live.

But I digress.

The terraforming crew worked at night. Until the right kind of atmosphere had been generated, it was easier to deal with the freezing cold at night than the 140-plus degree temps of Opal Seven's day.

I'd been eating a ham and turkey sandwich with cracked kernel mustard and tangy mayonnaise: Heaven.

Warm, pre-oxygenated air billowed from the vents. I'd even unzipped the front of my down-filled vest to keep from overheating.

The dozer rumbled beneath me. After a few hours perched on that unforgiving seat, absorbing the constant vibration with my tail end, everything from my shoulders down to my feet tingled. Black smoke from the engine puffed limply up around the curve of my operator's dome to eye level and then sank back down into a low-lying dense muck that would later get sucked up and purified by the sweepers.

The coms-system crackled to life and Captain Ahab - by which I mean Damn Bastard Cole - ordered us back to work. "Alright you third-rate wage whores. Break's over. Colonists are a comin'. No time to waste. Hup-hup-hup-hup-hup."

What a "wage whore" is, I have no idea. One seems to be implicit in the other. D.B. is just one of those men who likes the sound of his own voice more than Stradivarius liked kitten guts.

I shoved the rest of my sandwich in my mouth, crinkled up the paper it had been wrapped in, and licked a stray drop of mustard from my leather work gloves. I could have done without the extra salt and dirt the gloves imparted, but I never could pass on an extra drop of mustard. Especially on ham and turkey. For nearly everyone on the crew, meat was one of those rare luxuries that couldn't come often enough.

Had I known it would be the last meat I'd ever eat, I'd have savored it more.

D.B. wore a ventilator and a parka over his insulated overalls. Standing in the middle of a commotion of tractors, dozers, and sweepers, he conducted our orchestra of planetary destruction and reconstruction. He signaled to me and pointed me toward a hill at the edge of the worksite.

Dark green stalks and leaves, splashes of yellow and red from bushes and berries - plants native to Opal Seven like my beloved putamba and bone-twill - sprouted from mounds of iron-red dirt. Instead of cleansing the air, these plants used a variation of photosynthesis to replenish nutrients in the ground. So far as we knew, they'd survive just fine in the oxygen rich atmosphere we were manufacturing. Might even do some good once we started planting our own crops.

I clicked on the coms. "Are you sure, Cole? I didn't think the corps of engineers had cleared us to work outside the site boundaries."

"You want to shut down work while I go and check? Or would you rather get paid?"

Nature of the beast. Money paid for work completed - nobody cared how long it took.

Responsibility is Yours! Company motto. If something seems wrong, speak up. A lesson I now wish I'd learned an easier way.

I checked the clock. Only a couple hours 'til daylight. The moon closest to the horizon already had a sliver of morning-orange.

I pulled a cigarette from my shirt pocket, maneuvered the dozer to the edge of camp and set about demolishing the hill.

Once I'm sure the herbal remedy I'd concocted is cleansing the toxins out of her system, I carry the girl to the short rock wall surrounding my prison. If I cross the wall D.B. will storm up in an unrelenting rage.

She twists in my arms, mumbling something about her mother. I place her gently on the path leading to the colony, barely inside the prison boundary. It's hard ground, but soon she'll awaken. I leave her there and return to my home.

Several minutes later, when I look out the window, she is climbing unsteadily to her feet. She glances nervously at my house, realizing where she is, and then stumbles off down the path.

The sudden disorientation I felt when the dozer broke through the cave ceiling haunts me to this day. Some people jerk awake at night with dreams of falling. My falling dreams include a stalagmite puncturing the operator's dome.

I bounced off the stalagmite and tumbled out through the shattered plastic, gouging my side on the sharp edges of the rocks beneath. The down from my coat filled the air above me. I gasped for breath, but the oxygen content was still so low I could already see blotches of color and snowy edges around my field of vision.

And then I felt them.

The slowly pulsating, wriggling mass I'd landed on.


Hundreds of thousands of them.

Not earth slugs. Not the little annoyances that chew holes in your day lilies. These were much larger - a native life form.

I felt them writhe beneath me. I tried to roll over, to push myself up. Each effort merely thrust my limbs deeper into their nest. Like sinking in quicksand.

I felt their slime leeching through my clothing. Cold. Sticky. On my bare neck. On my arms and legs. Everywhere.

Something wriggled in the wound on my side.

The girl returns some number of days later. I stand up from my garden, stretching the aches from my tired back, and there she is, standing on the overgrown path leading back toward the colony.

The sun feels downright hot on the back of my neck. She squints and holds a hand up to her brow, but she keeps looking, not saying a word.

She can stand there for as long as she likes.

I go back to work.

Next time I look up she's gone.

I used to have gawkers all the time. Boys mostly. Proving their manhood by throwing rocks at the exile. Sometimes they'd throw caution to the wind - actually entering my domain. I'd leave my little home in the morning to find they'd pulled all the plants from my garden, tossed them in messy little piles just outside the boundaries of my prison.

I had to cross the rock wall to get them back. Alarms clanged. D.B. raged in with the cavalry a few hours later.

But what else could I do? I've never been one for starvation - even before the "incident."

I salvaged what I could, replanting the hardier plants like the putamba and the celery-like rotallie; seeding anew the faster growing plants like the bone-twill and splay-leafed umbra blossoms.

Everything that couldn't be saved I'd eat in one big salad until my stomach distended and I physically couldn't make myself eat another bite.

Waste is not something to be tolerated.

The girl returns perhaps once a month. Time is hard for me to gauge. Solitary confinement and Opal Seven's lack of weather-defined seasons make every day feel the same until days blur together like sand into loam - impossible to sort back out.

With each visit she does come a little closer, though she never crosses the line of rocks that define my territory. And she never talks.

One day I look up to see her standing a mere dozen yards away. She wears a black t-shirt and new overalls that still have the shipping creases in them. The cuffs are well above her ankles. I imagine her parents were mortified when she hit a growth spurt so soon after new clothes were ordered. She's certainly healthier than she was last time I saw her this close.

"If you keep coming by, I have to know what to call you," I say. I chew on the inside of my lip, waiting for a reply that never comes.

I try again. "Do you know what I call you because I don't know your name? The way I think about you in my head?" I lift up the heavy leaf of the putamba. "I found you right here, hiding under this leaf. So I call you my little Slug. What do you think about that?"

She shivers. Good. She knows who I am - what I did. I hoped for more of a reaction. I hoped she'd run, never to come back. Life would be easier for both of us if she had.

I'm happy when she stays.

I have often pondered that moment, trapped in the bottom of a cave, about to be buried in a writhing mass of slugs. What was it, deep in my brain, that told me to strike my cigarette lighter? Did I smell the gas dripping down from my broken dozer?

But even in memory I can't make myself remember such a scent. I only remember the snail closest to my head, rearing up, latching down over my eyes and nose. I remember screaming. I remember the cold, wet touch of the slime.

And somewhere in the midst of it, they say - and I'm alive, so it must be true - I flicked my lighter and inadvertently destroyed an entire species in one bright fiery foomp.

One day the girl steps over the rock wall and into my domain. I am not surprised. It seems she's been working up to it for several months.

Her hair is shorter now. What's left of it is done up in a tight braid that's barely long enough to drape over a shoulder. She wears knee-length shorts and an untucked green button-down shirt. She is beginning to thin out with the start of puberty and I pity her parents for what the next several years will be like.

As soon as she is over the wall she stops and looks around, relieved the alarms are not clanging.

"It's there to keep me in," I say. "Not to keep others out."

"Why?" she says. It is the first word she has ever spoken to me and I am caught off guard.

"Just lucky, I guess."

She frowns, so I continue: "The punishment for xenocide is supposed to be death. There were extenuating circumstances, so…"

She cocks her head to the side. It's a funny movement that reminds me of a small animal. A puppy, perhaps.

I say, "I was given a direct order."

"Why isn't the person who gave the order here, too?"

"I didn't have to obey it."

She shakes her head, as if to say That doesn't make sense at all.

"Oh, he's getting punished, too. D.B. gets to check up on me."

"I don't know any D.B. in the colony," she says.

"That's not his real name. Just what I call him. It stands for -. Never mind."

She sits by my side and watches me work for the rest of the day. Before long I've gathered a large basket of roots, stalks, and leaves.

"What do you do with them?" she asks.

"I eat them."

She makes a face.

"No, really. They're not bad." I break off the tender end of a stalk of lemon wheatgrass and give it to her. Cautiously, she puts it in her mouth and takes a bite.

I know I will laugh myself silly every time I think of that face.

I offer her some bone-twill to replace the flavor. She refuses and spits several times. "How do you eat that?"

"Look," I say, "It's not haute cuisine, but it's not like I have a lot of options."

Next time she comes she brings a basket with her, filled with breads and pastries, fruits and grains. A cool south-easterly breeze is blowing. I rig a parasol from several putamba leaves and we sit together in its shade and eat.

She leans close to me, putting her head on my arm and I suddenly realize she is wearing a cheap perfume. I push her back and give her the most severe look I can manage.

She is not ashamed.

"Look here, Lolita," I say (it was last month's approved reading, or maybe the month before; I can never tell with time), "I don't yen for the younger women, no offense intended. Try again when you're too old to be my daughter."

I expect her to complain. She does not. But she scoots around until we're more fully facing each other. Not nearly so intimate.

She chews thoughtfully on a piece of bread. I slather mine with peanut butter and take a huge bite.

It tastes terrible. I choke it down anyway so that she won't feel bad.

Before she leaves she says, "For a long time I thought it was a dream."


"You. Saving me."

I smile. "You're welcome."

"I didn't say it was a good dream."

Before I can say anything else she scoops up the basket and runs off toward the colony.

I spend the night crouched over the narrow opening of my septic pit, moaning. Trying unsuccessfully to void my bowels. The stench is unbelievable.

I vow I will never eat food from earth again.

At night I still see them. I still feel them. I often wake in a cold sweat with a weight pressing down on my chest. I'm unable to move. I can barely breathe. My pulse races as I open my eyes and see her - the queen of the snails. The slime from her underbelly drips down onto my sheets where it dries into a cocoon, encasing me, keeping me trapped for an eternity.

I struggle against her, fighting for my freedom, for my life.

And when at last I break through the shell of her cocoon she vanishes along with all traces that she was ever here.

D.B. Cole visits me some several days later - I think it was only days; it's so hard to tell with time. I see him coming, fighting his way through the overgrowth on what's left of my path to the colony. He swats futilely at the brambles and leaves with a heavy wooden cane.

The years have not been kind to Damn Bastard. What's left of his hair trails down the sides of his head in scraggly clumps. One eye is grey with cataracts. As he breathes, dentures click and clack against his gums. His clothes hang baggy and loose against his bony frame.

He stops as soon as he sees me and makes the sign of the cross.

Until now I had no idea D.B. was a religious man.

"You haven't changed a bit," he says. "If anything you look younger."

"It's true, what they say. Longevity really is ninety percent diet."

He runs a finger along a stalk of rotallie. "We've tried eating it. Some of us forced ourselves to eat it during the drought a decade ago."

I shrug. "It's not like you gave me a choice."

He straightens up. "Actually, that's why I'm here. A petition has come before the committee requesting your release."

I raise an eyebrow in surprise. I know who's behind it, of course, but I won't say anything to get her in trouble.

"You're here to set me free?"

"Not a chance. I'm here in the name of Due Diligence."

I go back to my work in the garden. "And what will you report?"

He stares at me, hands holding the top of his cane. "You scare me," he says.

I laugh.

He whacks the side of my head with his heavy, heavy cane. I curl up on the ground as he beats me over and over and over again.

"There," he says, pointing at my head. "That is exactly why you scare me."

I push my hand gently against the wound in my hair. It feels warm and sticky, smells sweet - not like blood iron at all.

I do not dare look at my hand.

The girl comes to me that night. I am sleeping outside, beneath the yellow first moon and golden second moon. I have built a makeshift pillow from the loam beneath the giant putamba leaf and my head is full of the smells of my garden.

I have wrapped my head in thick gauze so that she cannot see what I have become.

When I see her in the moonlight I realize she is no longer a mere girl. And yet I know I will always think of her that way. How much time must have passed? She looks so very grown up.

Tears fill her eyes as she kneels at my side. "I tried. I tried. I'm so sorry, but I tried."

I hold her close. "It's okay," I say. "I understand."

She sobs. "But it's not okay," she says. "I wouldn't let it go. Even after Cole made his report. I told them everything. How you saved my life. All the times we visited while I was growing up. I told them you were my only friend."

I kiss the top of her head, knowing there is more yet to come.

"They're sending me away," she says. "To Anuva Five. The shuttle leaves in the morning."

I know of Anuva Five. Terraforming work was supposed to begin there thirty years after Opal Seven was complete.

"It's not so bad," I say. "Anuva Five is a warm planet with lots of sun. Plenty of room for new life to grow."

I feel her body tremble against mine. She is vital and strong, and I envy the opportunities she will have.

"I wish I could take you with me," she says.

I only have to look in her eyes to know how much she means it.

I grant her her wish.

I push my mouth against hers. Not in a kiss of passion - I still think of her as a girl - but a kiss of transference. My body convulses as I force the essence of me up my throat. There is a moment where we both gag, as the slimy bits slip across our tongues. She gasps for breath, swallows. I can't help but laugh. It reminds me of the time she tried eating lemon wheatgrass.

She convulses a few times.

Then all is quiet.

She leaves me the next morning. I've given her seeds and bulbs, roots and grafts. No matter what else happens I know she will not starve.

Once she's gone I lie down in my garden for the last time. With the queen gone, soon the eggs in my gut will hatch. My body will provide the first food for the next generation.

A new queen will rise.

At last, I have atoned for my sins.

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