It was a full five days before the colonists of Hellpoint Prime realized a skin thief had infiltrated the habitats.
“Any idea who they were?” Sheriff Vahla hugged his parka tighter to his skinny frame as frosty air from the cooler vents fogged up his glasses. He pulled them down his nose for an unobstructed look at the bodies and immediately wished he hadn’t. “Christ. Poor bastards.”
The bastards in question, four of them, hung by the heels from lengths of rusting chains. Their bodies swayed in the frigid air pumping through the refrigerator vents, bloody outstretched fingers inches from the concrete floor. The height at which they’d been strung put their mutilated genitalia right at eye level, much to the sheriff’s distress.
“Impossible to say. All hair, eyes, and teeth have been removed, along with their skin, of course. I can tell you we’re looking at three men and two women.” Deputy Clovis reached out and gave one of the corpses a gentle push and watched dispassionately as it swung back and forth.
“Well, thank you for that masterclass in detective work deputy. It’s gratifying to know you’ve stayed current with your penis counting skills.” He regretted the words the moment he spoke them. The whole scene had him on edge. The ancient deputy had been a guard at the outpost for as long as anyone could remember. According to his file, he was somewhere north of fifty but looked closer to two hundred, and he was the most unflappable person the sheriff had ever met. Given the current circumstances, Vahla wouldn’t have minded if the old security officer had been willing to be just a little flappable.
Clovis grinned, a yellowing barricade with a black hole punched in from a tooth long gone missing. His whole face wrinkled up when he did it, and Vahla was reminded of a jack-o’-lantern left out in the rain a little too long.
“What about missing person reports?” Vahla pushed the wire-rimmed round glasses back into place and took a step back from the hanging bodies. Wreckages that had once been walking, talking people just like him.
The deputy sucked air through the gap in his teeth before replying. “Missing persons count is in the triple digits, like always. You know how it is. Folks moving around all the time in the underbelly and none of them leaving forward addresses. That’s not including the ones that dip a little too deep into the shine and accidentally step out an unsecured airlock on their way to the pisser.”
“That last one was oddly specific.”
Clovis shrugged. “Happened just last week. A fella who worked in one of the combine stacks. Research team on their way back from Hellpoint Secondus found his desiccated body, though it’s impossible to say how long he’d been there. Could’ve been hours, could’ve been months. The atmosphere out there drinks a man dry to the last drop like a straw jammed into a nutri-bag.”
“Why wasn’t I notified?”
“Shit, sir, if you plan on an official report being filed for every accidental death, you’re not going to have time to do anything but sit behind your desk and collect paperwork.”
A sigh. “Fair enough. So, we’re looking at some sort of mass murderer? Has that ever happened out here before?”
The unexpected look of incredulity on the deputy’s round face would’ve been comical if it wasn’t so concerning, thought Vahla.
“I know you’re new here and all sir but … hell, didn’t they tell you anything before they sent you?”
“Anything about what exactly?” The sheriff hugged his body tight again in an attempt to stave off the chill creeping through his flesh.
Clovis rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. “I think you’re going to want a sit down and something burning away in your belly first. I can have the lads come down and take the bodies off to Doc Butcher for examination. How abouts you buy me a round at the Broken Wheel and I’ll tell you all about the skin thieves of Hellpoint Prime?”
The skin thief crouched in the air duct and watched through the thin slits of the vent cover as the two men walked away. It had nearly been caught by the pair and only managed to scramble up into a vent at the last second. It plucked at its new skin, still wet and sagging where it clung to its rib cage. The lurker could feel it already beginning to deteriorate. It wasn’t the right fit and soon he’d need a new one. And that thin human looked to be just the right size.
The Broken Wheel had once been part of the machinery that ran ag-stack four. A mammoth tooth-rimmed wheel set horizontally at the bottom of a silo, stretching close to fifty feet across, reaching the grimy silo walls on all sides. At one time it would’ve rotated slowly, in turn moving smaller cogs inset into the silo’s walls but something deep in the warren of gears, pulleys, and counterweights had broken, bringing the whole clockwork operation to a halt. Whatever broke was deemed unrepairable by Home Office and ag sector four had closed down. A few years after that an enterprising group of mechanics cut a doorway leading onto the wheel’s now stationary surface as a place to set up a clandestine shine distillery. Over time, the distillery evolved into a full-on drinking establishment complete with one long serving bar welded together from scrap metal plates. Since then, it had become a regular haunt for the poor souls toiling away in the artificial sunshine of the agricultural combine stacks or those drudging away in the gloomy mechanized habitat’s underbelly. The Broken Wheel had been part of Vahla’s briefing when he’d been assigned the new sheriff of the far-flung ag outpost. It wasn’t an officially recognized enterprise, but the suits back on Earth had decided giving the men and women of Hellpoint Prime a place to indulge was a business net positive. Any loss in productivity caused by the rotgut alcohol was more than offset by the subsequent drop in the suicide rate. Shipping new workers across the stars was expensive, after all. As always, the lives of generations of laborers were decided by red and green lines on a graph.
Vahla took a sip of what tasted like someone had figured out how to render human misery down to a liquid form and then put it on tap. He made a face and placed his tumbler on the table with a metallic clink. For his part, Clovis threw back a hearty swig and smacked his lips in satisfaction.
“I’m reasonably certain that is actual poison,” said Vahla with a frown as he felt the harsh liquid squirming around in his gut like a thing alive.
“Aye, one of these days I expect it’ll burn all the way through my gut and out my arse and melt this very stool I perch upon. But until that day, I plan on enjoying one of the few pleasures this hole can offer.”
“Now there’s an image I could’ve done without.”
“There’s lots of ways to die out here sheriff and most are a lot less pleasant than that.” As if to make his point he winked and swallowed another mouthful of the greasy, clear liquid.
“So, tell me about these, what did you call them, skin thieves? I’ll be honest, that’s not exactly an encouraging name.” Vahla took another sip of his drink, more from absentminded habit than desire, and almost spit the whole thing out again. The liquid burned the back of his throat, causing him to cough uncontrollably. Clovis reached across the table and pounded the red-faced sheriff on the back until the fire had subsided.
Leaning back in his chair the deputy played his tongue in his tooth hole while he thought about his next words.
“What do you know about Hellpoint’s indigenous species?”
“Hellpoint doesn’t have any indigenous species. It’s a barren wasteland on a dirtball of a planet hostile to life. It’s one of the reasons the Home Office chose it for its crystal helium mining operation.” As far as Vahla was concerned, Hellpoint Prime was nothing more than a cancerous sore on the face of an even bigger cancerous sore. Even the name of the place was a mistake, some clerical error that turned Heli-point to Hellpoint which no one bothered to correct. To be fair, Hellpoint was a fitting name.
“Is that the official history now is it? Well, I can’t say as I’m surprised. You spend enough time out here and you quickly find what the official line is and what actually happened to have only the barest resemblance to one another. How about you tell me what you think you know, and I’ll tell you where it’s wrong.”
Sheriff Vahla adjusted his glasses as he considered the words of his walking corpse of a deputy. “Crystal helium was discovered here a little over two hundred years ago, in Earth revolutions. The planet was rich in deposits and devoid of any other life. Shortly after, Home Office established the first combine stack—mining operations on the bottom and ag-domes to keep the workforce fed on top. Since then, there have been another … eight combine stacks put in place plus more at Hellpoint Secondus and Hellpoint Tertius.”
“Mostly right. You see, Home Office thought the planet didn’t have anything living on it. That was until they cracked the crust and found a whole hive of critters living down there with their precious helium. Couldn’t have that, could they? They dropped a few viral bombs in the hole, cleared out the bodies, and went back to work.”
Vahla squinted as he studied his deputy’s face as he waited for a grin or a guffaw to punctuate the wild tale he was telling but the normally affable Clovis was stone serious and, by his expression, any attempt at levity would be as welcome as a fart at a funeral. The young sheriff lifted his cup and paused before giving the contents of his cup a suspicious eye. He set the tumbler down and pushed it away from him. “That settles it. This stuff is most certainly poison. Or at least has some powerful hallucinogenic properties. What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense.”
“Oh, it doesn’t, eh? Home Office was investing a fortune in an off-world drilling facility. You think they’d shy away at the thought of clearing out an alien anthill that happened to get in their way and then covering the whole thing up like it never happened? You know the suits. They would’ve ordered the bombs be dropped and then nipped off for an afternoon of tea and hookers.”
The sheriff wiped sweat from his forehead. The Broken Wheel sat close to the power generators and the place was always about three degrees above raging inferno. “Let’s say I buy that, and I’m not saying that I do. How does this tie into a cooler unit filled with flayed corpses?”
“Well, there’s something to keep in mind about aliens. They’re alien, as in they don’t necessarily line up nice and clean with our understanding of the universe. The first body showed up around a month into production. Some poor meth farmer found laying in the dirt of one of the agri-habs, skinned clean. A few days later he’s found wandering one of the lower halls.”
“Wait, he didn’t die?” Vahla shuddered at the thought of being skinned alive and walking around like that for days.
“Oh no, he was absolutely dead. Cremated too, a dozen witnesses attested to watching his corpse being thrown into the incinerator.”
The sheriff decided to chance further organ damage his drink was going to cause and took a gulp. Tears sprung to his eyes as he held back a second coughing fit. “You’ve officially lost me.”
“Well, this farmer had seemingly found his skin and was wearing it like an ill-fitting suit of clothes. Hear tell, it was torn and ragged from where it had been pulled back on. As you can probably guess, it turned out it wasn’t the farmer at all.”
Vahla’s stomach roiled at that, and he wished he had thought to put some food in there before filling it up with whatever witch’s brew they made in this place.
The deputy had a faraway look on his sunken gourd of a face as he continued his tale. “Whatever it was, it killed half a dozen workers before it was finally put down. Autopsy showed a ‘preponderance of unknown DNA,’ which is just fancy talk for ‘alien.’”
“Are you saying one of these so-called aliens didn’t die, crawled out of a hole, cut off a man’s skin, and then went for a stroll around the lower stacks?” The liquid evil in Vahla’s stomach lurched, like some sort of turgid eel slithering over itself while it frantically sought an exit. His head pounded, and he was certain the wheel from which the bar took its name was functional again and moving at a slow rotation.
“You’re looking a little green there, sheriff,” said Clovis with a grin. “Anyways, that was only the first time. There was a real bad stretch about twenty years ago, though there haven’t been any sightings in at least five years. Here’s the funny thing, the skin thieves weren’t all the same. Each one killed and examined ranged from nearly pure alien to almost all the way human.”
A horrible realization dawned on the young law keeper, punching through the haze of his thoughts. “They were becoming human.”
“You are a bright one aren’t ya? There’s been a couple of theories thrown around over the years. Some say the thieves are adapting, some sort of rapid evolutionary response to the now dominant species on the planet. Others think the viral load in the bombs combined Earth organisms with alien organisms that spit out these abominations on the other end. Hell, Doc thinks they’re created beasties, constructs made from some unknown tech designed to take us out. Like introducing a predator into an ecosystem overrun by an invasive species.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think whatever they are, whatever they want to do to us, we deserve it.” And then the rumpled deputy threw back his head and laughed like he had just told the best joke ever heard by man.
Vahla didn’t join in.
The walk back to Sheriff Vahla’s bunk was an adventure. the floor feeling like it was tilting to and fro like he was on a ship at sea instead of sunk half a mile below the surface of a barren planet.
The constant thrum and clang of machinery that echoed all throughout combine stacks wasn’t doing much for an equilibrium already under assault from the ill-conceived imbibing of several cups of alcohol of questionable origin. Drinking to excess was out of character for the reserved lawman, but Clovis’ horrifying bedtime stories, along with the persistent vision of crimson-dipped bodies swaying in darkness, had given the young sheriff a whole bunch of edges he was desperate to dull.
Hellpoint was not the place he had hoped to end up when he entered the academy. It wasn’t a place anyone hoped to end up. The facility was a grinder pulling in lives at one end and spitting refined helium out the other.
“Fek you! I’m not spending my life in this hole. I’m gonna do my four-year tour and get the hell out,” he said with all the articulation of a man who had fallen down a flight of stairs and hit his head on every other step. The metal wall-mounted grate he yelled at had no rebuttal.
He took a few unsteady steps down the hall and then paused. The sheriff thought he had caught a new sound momentarily cutting through the usual cacophony. Vahla cocked his head and listened, but it didn’t come again. It had been a rattling sound, like claws on steel, and it had come from the grated vent he was yelling at a moment ago.
“Feking rats.” Despite planet-transfer quarantine measures, enough rats still managed to hitch a ride across the stars on Home Office ships to set up a small colony within the combine walls. Images pried their way into fuzzy thoughts. Red flesh coated with a rime of frost. Screaming, toothless faces. Vahla shook the thoughts free and continued forward in his newborn deer stride. It wasn’t a skin-thieving alien horror. It was just rats. He repeated this litany to himself over and over as he picked up speed, finally breaking into a mad run as he rounded the corner into the hallway leading to his bunk. The last thing the lawman expected was for a person to be standing dead in his path. The collision sent two pairs of arms and legs pinwheeling through the air with a muffled frump and a duet of cries—one of surprise and the other of terror.
Vahla visibly relaxed at the irascible tone he recognized as belonging to Doc Butcher. The squat physician was the facility’s chief medical officer and spent most of his days treating radiation burns and dealing with the horrendous wounds dished out by the slamming pistons and ripping cog teeth of an industrial complex where safety precautions were the first thing to be thrown out the window. Most times, a limb was too mangled to save, at which point out came the pneumatic cleaver. Most workers could still fulfill their duties shy an arm or a leg, and amputations were cheaper than long-term care and rehabilitation.
Doc Butcher wasn’t a name—in fact, Vahla didn’t know the grumpy physician’s actual name—it was a mixture of professions.
“Christ, sheriff, if you’re going to turn the hallways into your own personal racetrack, at least have the courtesy to stick to the friggin’ outside lane.” The good doctor had come to rest with his back against one wall, white hair wild and a pair of wide, dark-rimmed glasses sitting askew on his broad face.
Vahla had ended up in a crumpled heap with his shoulders against the ground and his lanky legs spilled clumsily over his head like a pair of tall, wilted trees. He righted himself and helped the glaring physician to his feet. The adrenaline surge had burned away much of the fog clouding his brain, and he felt a little foolish about his mad dash. “Sorry, doc.”
“Where the hell are you going in such a hurry?”
“Umm, just trying to get a little exercise in. You’re always telling me how important that is.”
A harrumph. “Well, keep your runs to the agri-domes and not across my face in the future, alright? I’m too old to be stampeded by some youngster with more energy than sense.”
“Hey, have you had a chance to examine the bodies yet?” asked the sheriff, desperate to change the subject.
“Bodies? What bodies?”
“The ones Clovis sent down. You know, five of them, missing … um … you know … their skin.” Vahla whispered the last two words, doing a quick check over his shoulder to ensure they were alone. He didn’t want to send the whole facility into a panic. He had enough panic all by himself.
The blood drained from Doc Butcher’s face in a way Vahla found especially non-reassuring. The grizzled doctor could teach a twisted iron nail how to be tough and here he was looking like a small boy who just discovered a severed head under his bed. “Did you say they were missing their skin?”
That quaver, so out of place in the grouchy physician’s raspy voice, was enough to make Vahla want to go have a lie down somewhere—preferably behind a locked and barricaded door—and forget this day ever happened. Duty called, however. “Clovis was spinning me some fanciful tale on what it meant,” said the sheriff with a forced smile. “Messing with the new guy and all that.”
Doc Butcher didn’t seem to hear him. “It can’t be. I thought that was all behind us. We haven’t had a skin thief in what, five, six, years now.”
“Wait? Are you telling me it’s true? The alien species, the viral bombing, all of it?”
“What? Yes, yes. Didn’t they cover any of that in your briefing? No, I suppose they’d rather the whole messy business be forgotten about.” Doc Butcher had gotten a hold of himself, the familiar grizzled facade reasserting itself on the physician’s wrinkled features. “I haven’t seen them yet, but I’ll check in with Clovis.” He peered at Vahla closely, the kind of look that peeled back layers to see the meat of the matter beneath. Surgery by stare. “You’re looking a little raw around the edges there, sheriff. How bout you get some rest, and we can talk more in the morning.”
With that, Doc Butcher clapped the lawman on the shoulder and continued off down the hallway. Vahla couldn’t help but notice the nervous way he looked over his shoulder every few steps.
The sheriff of Hellpoint Prime made the short trip the rest of the way to his bunk without incident, sighing as the solid steel door clanged shut behind him and the deadbolt slammed home.
“Deadbolt. Couldn’t pick a better name for the bloody thing, could they?” The adrenaline had worn off and Vahla was worn out. He wanted nothing more than to slip under the scratchy thin blanket laid out on his cot and sleep for the next three hundred years, not even taking the time to change into the gray pajamas folded neatly at the foot of the bed.
Sleep came in spurts, punctuated by unsettling dreams. Flayed corpses crawling across the ceiling towards his sleeping form. Being chased through a labyrinth of steel corridors by monstrous rats the size of cattle. Swinging through the air on oily chains as a scalpel stung his soft flesh.
When he woke hours later, he felt more tired than when he first laid down, yawning widely and rubbing sand from his eyes. The first indication something was wrong was the smell. The bunks riddling the bowels of the combine stacks had a neat universal stink to them. A combination of engine oil, mildew, and stale air. A new smell overlaid the familiar one. Cloyingly sweet and rotten at the same time, felt in the back of the throat as much as smelled.
As he was trying to sort out the origin of the unexpected stench, a careless step sent a metal grate skittering across the steel floor. Vahla stared at it, the mechanisms of his mind churning slowly as they tried to sort out the significance of this innocuous chunk of slatted metal. His gaze floated over to the gaping black hole in the far wall leading to the habitat’s air exchange system. A hole that, when he had gone to sleep, had been covered by the grate now laying on the floor a good six feet away from it.
“Oh f—” A sharp pain lanced through his left knee as the bloody tip of a knife erupted from the center of his kneecap. He howled in pain and something heavy slammed into his back, taking him down to the floor. More by instinct than plan the beleaguered sheriff twisted to his back and kicked out with his good leg. A dark and indistinct figure flew back, smashing a rickety nightstand to jagged bits.
Vahla scrambled across the floor and put his back to the wall before getting a good look at his attacker. The dim nighttime lighting and the fact the near-sighted sheriff had taken his glasses off before bed made fine details difficult to make out. What he could see was more than enough. His assailant squatted on the floor at the foot of the cot, long-limbed and spindly, it resembled some sort of predator insect. In one hand it held a razor-edged knife that curved at strange and obscene angles. It looked more grown than made and dripped with blood, Vahla’s torn knee pulsing in time with the crimson drops pattering on the floor. Black eyes, like hard stones, stared out of a red ruin of stretched skin, the raw muscles showing beneath rents in a stolen face. The alien also appeared to have donned Vahla’s pajamas sometime in the night, patches of blood a shocking scarlet on the otherwise gray garment.
The thief sprung forward and the injured sheriff kicked out with his good leg, only to feel the sickening drag of a razor-honed blade slicing a deep line through the sole of his foot. Vahla pulled his foot back with a curse and tears began to run down his flushed cheeks. Whether they were tears of pain or fear he couldn’t say. Likely a bit of both.
The kick had done the trick though, at least for now, as the thief crab-crawled back and forth in front of him, waiting for an opening. Vahla cast about desperately. Screaming for help would do no good, no one would hear him through the thick steel walls and the ever-present churn of the refinery machines. His eyes fell on his heavy jacket where it was slung over the back of his writing desk chair. The butt of his Snub-gun peeked out from where it rested inside the holster built into the lining of the coat. It was maybe three feet away. A quick lunge and he’d have it in hand. He darted a look at the skin thief. It seemed to be working up the nerve to launch another attack, pacing back and forth, moving forward a small half-step before skittering back again. As it did so it made a reverberating mewling sound in the back of its throat that reminded Vahla of a litter of angry kittens.
Vahla knew he didn’t have much time. Both his knee and foot screamed in pain and blood had begun to pool around him.
“Sir? You okay in there?”
Vahla nearly fainted in relief as the muffled sound of Clovis’s voice carried through the closed steel door.
His attacker rested back on its haunches, head tilting one way and then the other at the unexpected sound. The skin around the alien’s neck pulled tight and tore. Vahla’s stomach surged and he added a pool of vomit to the blood already slicking the steel plates of the floor.
While keeping one eye on the horror in front of him the injured sheriff called out. “It’s in here! I’ve been hurt!”
A muffled curse was the response, followed by a rattling sound as Clovis fished a key into the door’s lock. Vahla was thankful that it was standard operating procedure that all security personnel carry a master key on them.
A moment later the deputy burst through the door and nearly went down as his foot slipped in the puddle of blood and bile slowly expanding around Vahla’s injured form. A windmill of arms punctuated by an even louder curse was the only thing preventing him from landing on his backside.
Clovis took in the scene at a glance, slipping his stun rod out of the holster on his hip and flipping the switch to the “On” setting. A low-level hum that made Vahla’s teeth itch filled the room. The stun rods could be juiced anywhere from just enough to shock a drunk from his stupor all the way up to a jolt powerful enough to leave a grown man senseless with one touch. Judging by the sound, the wrinkled deputy had his set on high.
The skin thief shrunk back at the hum as if in fright.
“That’s okay lad, I’m here now. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Vahla was torn between relief at the words of comfort from his deputy and a small amount of annoyance at being spoken to like he was a child. It took a moment longer before he realized Clovis hadn’t been talking to him.
Most of that realization came by way of a stun rod being pressed to the side of his neck.
Every muscle in Vahla’s body seized tight and his jaw clamped together so hard he thought his teeth might shatter and spray across the room. The sheriff thrashed on the floor, splattering blood and vomit everywhere, and he felt his bowels loosen, the final indignity.
Clovis leaned down and put his face close to the sheriff’s, a wry smile creasing his puckered and wrinkled face. A face that looked like a mask. “You’ll have to excuse him, sheriff, the new ones tend to be a little wild when they first hatch. Some days my own birth feels like yesterday, others like it was a hundred years ago.” The creature masquerading as a deputy bent down and examined Vahla’s ragged wounds as they continued to spurt blood onto the floor. “He didn’t make too much of a mess, these’ll stitch up just fine.”
Vahla could only stare in horror, his body still seized up from the effects of the stun rod, any last words he might’ve said locked inside his thin frame. A high-pitched keening echoed in the room before fading.
Clovis looked over his shoulder at the skin thief before turning back to Vahla and pulling a twisted bone knife from inside his jacket.
“You’re right lad. He’s just your size.”