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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

The Remnant

Cassie Beasley is a graduate student pursuing her MFA degree in writing. She writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons. She lives with her family in south Georgia.

We expected them to be better at it. The aliens. You've only got to go to the movies to know that we expected explosions, telepathy, ray guns. We thought it would be something drawn-out and gruesome, or maybe quick and painless. But either way--big.
The invasion looked bad in the beginning. On the first night, we saw weird damn flashes in the sky over the gulch, and the sound of the ships made lightning crawl across my shoulders. Earth's cities took some damage, but it didn't make much sense. They went for bridges and highway overpasses.
And out here in the middle of nowhere, it was all bark, no bam.
The stuff that ended it was pink. And it made everyone's nostrils burn for an hour like we'd just snorted soda up the wrong set of pipes, but it did the job.
I don't know where it came from, but Earth's governments shot it into the atmosphere a couple of days after the invasion started. Within hours, all that was left was the cleanup. Pale gray ships drifting through the clouds like ghostly stingrays. Millions and millions of bodies, mostly theirs.
No little green men for us. I saw footage of bog mummies on an educational special once, and the bodies are kind of like that. Thin and shiny and dark, with a crumpled look to them. Taller than humans, but frail. Easy to drag.
Around here, we haul them out to the Big Empty and burn them. Don't want the buzzards getting into them. We douse the aliens in gasoline even though they don't really need it, and they take to the fire like paper.
Some of the kids cheer, some of the adults cheer, like I hear they used to do at hangings.
We cleared the town in the first week, and maybe it should have stopped there, but the corpses didn't seem to be rotting. Spreading the cleanup out into the Big Empty made sense. It's ours as much as it is anybody else's. The government isn't really going to get around to it. It's something to do that feels like helping.
The smoke scours my nose and eyes and reminds me of the pink stuff.
Jim brought free beer to the first couple of burnings and passed it around, but things go back to normal fast. Now you've got to go to the bar if you need a cold one afterward, and you've got to pay.
I'm on my third, staring at the muted news on the screen over the bar, when Tiny, who isn't, busts through the door like he has the Devil after him.
"I need a gun!" he hollers. His gut shakes independently of the rest of him, as if it has its own special panic inside of it. "Somebody give me a gun."
"What the hell, Tiny?" says Jim. "That's a new door."
Tiny's eyes roll around the room until they find me. "Berto," he says, stumbling towards me. "Berto, you've got a gun? I need a gun. I need a weapon."
I drain the last of my beer and thunk the bottle down on the bar. "In the truck."
I keep my .22 behind the seats, because that's where my daddy kept his. "What's doin'?"
"Roxy's got one of them," he says. "She's got one of them under her shed."
I think of armadillos first. How some of the damn things burrow under wherever they like and even the dogs can't drag them out. But I know Tiny wouldn't be screaming about the wildlife.
"How'd one of them get up under there?"
"It's alive," Tiny says.
Of course it must be, because he wouldn't need the gun otherwise, wouldn't need me. But a live one doesn't make any more sense than the armadillos.
"My nieces play around that shed," says Tiny. "My nieces. Out in the backyard every day with one of them under there."
I think about tossing him the keys to my pickup, but that's not what Tiny really wants. And the beer isn't as cold as usual. "I'm coming."
Jim pulls a handgun I never knew he had from the cabinet behind the cash register and follows us out the door.
Sally, who was not quite my wife, left me a long time ago because she didn't like my work. Not the odd jobs, but killing animals. It wasn't very decent of her after ten years of almost-marriage, but that's how things fell out. I sent her a Christmas card right after she left, before I was sure that the leaving was for good, and she sent a goat in my name to some tiny Asian village I'd never heard of before. A nanny goat that would provide "healthful milk and hope" to a family in need.
I was pretty sure after that.
I don't even kill them when I can help it. Traps work fine for most. But sometimes things need to be taken care of quickly.
I deal with it all. Packs that come out of the Big Empty and bother the livestock. Rabid dogs. The feral cats that overrun the public dumpsters every spring. And people call me a lot for the armadillos too, because of the leprosy scare. I even take care of snakes, though most around here don't have a problem putting a half dozen of their own bullets into something that slithers.
Sally had a problem with it. She was sweet, and I guess I'm not.
Tiny isn't sweet, but he is scared. For all that he ran into the bar yelling for a gun, we all knew he'd really wanted me. I'm the kind of man who's good for messes.
I follow his truck back to Roxy's place. It's way out past the edge of town, with no neighbors. Jim vibrates in the passenger seat next to me, slapping his pistol against his thigh and muttering something that sounds a lot like Hail Mary, except if Jim was religious I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be Catholic.
"I think Tiny's full of it," he says as we pass the gas station. It's still missing a few windows. The sun is setting behind it, and it's rimmed in red. "Roxy's probably got a rabbit hole. They're all dead or we'd have heard otherwise."
"Yeah." It's not that I think Jim is right, just that I don't feel much like having an opinion until I see what's what.
"Yeah," says Jim. "You ever hear of anyone shooting one, Berto? Before they got sprayed, I mean?"
This makes me pause. I'd shut myself in that first night. Spent the hours between the strange lights in the sky and dawn holding a sawed-off in one hand and a steak knife in the other. Nothing had come to my door, and there wasn't much to see when the sun rose.
On the second night, I'd had to shoot at a dark shape outside the kitchen window. I knew I'd hit it, but there was no body in the morning. There were never bodies in the morning. Not before the pink stuff.
"Sure," I tell Jim. "I shot one."
"Good," he says. He stops shaking his gun. "Good to know."
When we get out at Roxy's I can smell smoke from the bonfire that's still smoldering miles away.
It's not a rabbit hole.
It's obviously not a rabbit hole, and that means Jim is back in the truck with his pistol pointed out the passenger side window. He's shaking so much that I hope he forgot to load it. The opening is big enough for a man to crawl through with inches to spare, and it smells strange. Like camphor. Something's moving deep under the shed, making the dirt around the edge of the hole shift.
Roxy must have been bad strung out not to notice this in her backyard, and Tiny's going to have to start keeping the girls for his sister again. The littlest is crying in an awful way, screaming and snotting all over Tiny's sleeve while he hauls her back to the porch.
I hear, "Don't hurt it! Don't hurt it! He's my friend."
And "Shit, Berto. Be careful. Be careful, all right?"
And "Roxy, get it together. Have you heard back from the police?"
But that's wishful thinking, because anything that even felt like law enforcement out here got called in to help more important places keep order days ago.
A flashlight rests in the dirt next to the metal wall of the shed, and a large, half-empty bag of cat food is propped beside it.
So maybe the alien is hurt. Maybe it's too sick to go after Tiny's niece when she feeds it kitty kibble. It could be dying down there right now, and all of this upset is for nothing.
"How?" Jim calls, his voice warbling. "How?"
I'm pretty sure he means to ask how the situation looks, or maybe he's trying to check on me. "It's fine," I say. "Let's get Roxy and the kids in the truck. You can drive them back into town, and I'll keep watch on it with Tiny."
I'm thinking that we can do this in shifts, me and Tiny and Jim and some of the others. Just watch and wait and shoot if we have to. I'll get Melinda from the grocery store to come help because she can pip Coke cans off a fence all day long, and she knows most of the good dirty jokes.
I'm thinking that it's going to work out, easy as any other job, but then Tiny's back beside me, wide-eyed and wheezing, and he's still got the little one stuffed under his arm like an angry football. "I can't find Emma," he says. "I can't find her in the house. Roxy doesn't know where..."
Of course, I think. Of course this is how it goes.
The hole is dark, and the smell is sickening, and the angle is wrong for getting my rifle through. But I manage.
I manage before I even remember that Emma is the red-haired one who sang the national anthem in front of the county courthouse last Fourth of July. She had the banner being star-sprinkled instead of spangled, and she sounded terrible.
I come out into a burrow that's tall enough for a crouch. It seems like forever before I can see anything, but the flashlight follows me with a clatter and some light does make it down from above. I'm stretching my eyes so wide that it feels like the top of my head wants to come off.
I don't see any sign of Emma, alive or dead. "She's not here," I call. "She's not in here, Tiny."
He's yelling, I assume at Roxy. But I can't spare much thought for that, because Emma may not be down here with me, but the alien is.
You've got to wonder about last things. Coming face to face with one you've got to wonder.
Fate? Luck? Or is it divine punishment?
"You're not supposed to be here," I say.
It's against the back wall of the burrow. Squatting, spine curved, one three-fingered hand cradling a wound in its abdomen. I wouldn't have thought that those hands could dig something like this out of our hard earth.
It doesn't press away from me in fear, doesn't bare too-narrow jaws in warning. It watches, and something wet slides across the eyes in what I take for a blink.
"Looks like someone got you with a shotgun," I say.
My rifle's aimed well enough. Toward it, away from me. Not much room to miss. I'm not sure what I'm waiting on, exactly. I reckon I've shot one before, figure I've probably shot this one before, but I'm not pulling the trigger.
I would if it were an animal. I'm pretty sure I would if it were a dangerous man. But I'd like to know for sure if it's one way or the other or somewhere in between. You owe something of yourself to the things you kill, and I want to know what my debts are.
Cat food crunches under my boots as I shuffle forward a step. "Good of you not to hurt the little girl," I say.
I'd like for it to tell me why. Before the pink stuff they never communicated, and now this one doesn't seem inclined to try. I wonder if it can even understand me.
They're still yelling above ground. I hear the pitch turning frantic as the seconds tick past without me replying, and I know I have to do something.
"You're probably the last one left on the planet." My brain picks at that, trying to turn it into some kind of justification, but I'm pretty sure lasts aren't any less eager for their next breath than the rest of us.
"I'm sure you wouldn't want to be found by the government," I say.
And that's better. I can work with that. My finger tightens around the trigger. My vision narrows, and I see the smooth pate of the head, the slanting panes of the chest, the hand clutching at the stomach. That's it. I'll take one shot, just to finish what I started.
The rifle is impossibly loud.
It jerks backwards into the wall, folds in on itself, doesn't cry out. It looks down at the new hole in its abdomen beside the old wound. Something black and thick oozes slowly down its body, and I step back. It's not dead, but I promised myself one shot. I'm not sure what the right thing to do was. I'm pretty sure that this halfway finished job wasn't it.
"You aren't what we were expecting," I tell it. I can feel the sweat now, running under my arms and down the creases beside my nose. Can hear Tiny asking me if I got it.
It looks at me. Blinks. And for the first time I really think I understand it.
We aren't what it was expecting either.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Author Comments

Originally, "The Remnant" was two different story ideas, one about an alien invasion that didn't go well for the extraterrestrials and one about a man who had to decide how to deal with the last survivor of a failed assault on Earth. As I was writing, I realized I had two facets of the same story, instead of two separate concepts, and I decided to combine them.

Once I fleshed out Berto's character, the story really came alive for me. Berto doesn't draw much attention or praise, but when a problem surfaces, others naturally turn to him for the solution. It puts him in a terrible place, one where he has to make a decision without knowing enough about the situation, and I think that moment of having to choose when all the choices seem wrong is one that resonates with all of us.

- Cassie Beasley
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