The ramp lifted and rolled into the ship behind him as Ellsworth surveyed the planet. Unspoiled natural beauty spread across the endless horizon. The ship had let him off at a river, a few days from his intended destination, but he didn’t want anyone to know exactly where he was headed anyway. He had specifically chartered Hartwell’s ship for its lack of crew—just the captain and some AI, which wouldn’t be telling any tales out of school.
“Six weeks,” Captain Hartwell called just before the doors shunked closed. Ellsworth didn’t bother to turn around or wave. Kept his eyes on the horizon, but really he was seeing his future.
Like all prospectors—the first to discover deposits of gold, reservoirs of oil, rich veins of iridium hidden within asteroids—he came alone. For three days, he carried his heavy pack, following the river until he came to a small feeder stream. All his research on alchemium pointed to just this sort of feeder stream as a source for the substance. And when he reached the head of the stream—a small natural spring that sluiced out from under a rocky outcropping—he had only to take a plastic vial from his pack and fill it with spring water. When he poured it into the alchemium detector, the bulb on the front of the machine lit up green. He’d found it.
Any prospector worth his salt knew that intuition and ambition were nothing if not accompanied by the right set of tools, whether they be pick or shovel or microscopic robots that dwelled in your bloodstream. The nanotech residing in Ellsworth would both help him to survive in the planet’s ultra-oxygenated atmosphere and protect him from any effects of alchemium exposure. Just a few drops of the stuff in a tilapia farm and suddenly the fish were too big to fit inside the pools. A sprinkling atop overfarmed and barren soil and the land was as fertile as the Nile floodplains. Whoever was the first to exploit the substance and extract it from the planet would be a rich man indeed.
In his heart and mind, he could not wait to begin his search in earnest, could not wait to start drawing the gelatinous alchemium from the soil like blood from a vein. The rest of his body, however, wanted sleep after the three day trek from the landing site. And so Ellsworth unstrapped various equipment from his pack—shovel, rifle, hatchet—pitched his tent, spread out his bedroll, ate a small meal from his dehydrated vacuum-packed rations, washed it down with water fresh from the spring, and fell into a deep sleep.
The natural spring was in a densely wooded area, the leaves of the trees reminding Ellsworth of palm trees back on Earth, thick and frilly. They provided plenty of shade, but their loose configuration let sunlight stream through, dappling the forest floor. It was entirely probable, he thought, that no human being had ever stepped here before. The mat of dead leaves was thick, disturbed only by small scurrying creatures. When he woke that morning, shooting awake, his brain already buzzing with excitement, he could hear them chittering in the underbrush and canopy, wondering what this intruder was doing in their domain, but he couldn’t see them.
He grabbed a meal indiscriminately, bolted it down without tasting it, swallowed some more water from the spring, and stood for a minute, looking languidly around him and taking in the tranquility of the morning. It would not, he knew, last much longer. He would stake his claim, be the first, but others would surely come, were probably on their way already.
But Ellsworth would be the first to break the tranquility. No one ever said progress was tidy.
Carefully, he removed the explosive gel and the rest of the blasting gear from his pack. Amazing how something so tiny could pack so much punch. Just a dab on the rock that the spring burbled from, then a thin filament stuck into it and unspooled from a ball until he was safely away from the blast zone. He inserted the filament into the little box that would ignite a spark, sending it down the wire to the gel. He pressed the button.
There was a small boom and a satisfying crack as the rock shattered. Ellsworth poked his head around the tree and surveyed his handiwork. The rocky outcropping that had sheltered the spring was demolished, nothing left but a depression in the dirt filled with a mix of water and pulverized stone. The water flowed sluggishly, but Ellsworth knew it would pick up once he cleared away the debris. After that, it was just a matter of expanding the hole in the dirt around the spring and then the alchemium below would be ready for extraction.
He retrieved the shovel from its place next to his tent, and set to work widening the hole. He had just settled into a rhythm when he heard a quiet but high-pitched whine, like a hurt dog under a porch. He looked around, but saw nothing, and finally realized it was coming from the hole. Could it be some sort of pressure buildup, the alchemium trying to burst to the surface? It was a new substance, hardly understood. He had assumed he would need to pump it out of its underground reservoirs, but maybe it would be simpler. Maybe he could just break open the top of the deposit and it would come spurting up like oil.
As quickly as he could Ellsworth flung soil from around the hole. It wasn’t long before he felt the spade push through the dirt and into empty space. He twisted the handle and pulled, leaving behind a circular opening. The sound grew louder then abruptly stopped. There was a tense moment where he stepped away, sure that a geyser of alchemium would blast forth like a rocket. But it wasn’t alchemium that emerged from the hole, it was an animal.
Tiny, no bigger than a kitten, the creature wiggled through the opening Ellsworth had created and lay sprawled on the dirt, its little body heaving deep squeaking breaths. It was furry and blue, a deep almost indigo hue. While it had a torso and legs—six to be precise—the thing seemed to be almost all mouth. Mouth wasn’t even the right word. This was a maw. As it breathed, the animal opened it so wide that Ellsworth couldn’t even see the body behind it. Just a gaping black hole ringed with tiny sharp teeth. A thick blue tongue flopped out and rolled along the ground like a dying worm.
Even though it was crying, he hesitated to approach it. The teeth certainly didn’t look very inviting, like it would gladly bite off his fingers then move on to his hand and down his whole arm. But the cries were so pitiful, so desperate. And prospecting could get lonely. He’d anticipated that, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be glad to have a companion of some sort. Especially when it was a companion who wouldn’t try to horn in his claim.
Ellsworth crouched down and cautiously shuffled toward the mouthy little animal. It shrunk back, its tiny legs scrabbling in the dirt and stone beneath it. “Hey, buddy,” he cooed. “It’s okay. You’re okay. I’ve got you.” He stretched his hand toward it, fingers curled in, palm down. The creature eyed him a little too eagerly, hungrily, and he pulled his hand back. That was a mouth made for eating, for taking great chomps and swallowing things whole. Better to put something near it that was not attached to Ellsworth’s body.
He grabbed two meal pouches from the pack in his tent and ripped them open then returned to the little animal and dumped them on the ground in front of it. They made an unappetizing pile—crackers, peanut butter, dehydrated beef, some gloppy red sauce. Without so much as a sniff, the creature opened its mouth wide and engulfed the pile along with some of the surrounding dirt. Its giant mouth seemed to smile, the pointy rows of teeth fitting into each other as perfectly as the rows on a zipper. It sniffed the air and turned in the direction of Ellsworth’s tent.
Before he could restrain it, before he even really registered what was happening, the creature had bolted on its six stubby legs between the trees and into the open flap of the tent. Ellsworth rushed after it, bursting into the tent to see the animal’s rump sticking out of his pack, legs wiggling in the air and thin tail thrashing excitedly. Ellsworth gripped the creature around its truncated torso and lifted it from the bag. All his food was gone, not even the foil packaging remaining. He guessed he should consider himself lucky that the little monster hadn’t swallowed his whole backpack. Or hell, the whole tent.
He turned the animal in his hands so he could look it in the face. It didn’t struggle, satiated by its meal. It opened its mouth and yawned, a black hole in front of Ellsworth’s face. Then it snapped its mouth shut, closed its eyes, and fell asleep.
Its mouth really was a black hole, he thought. Big and capable of sucking in anything that got too close. Hadn’t Einstein had something to do with black holes? Studying them or theorizing they existed? Whatever, it was close enough. He would call the animal Albert.
“Stay here now. Right here,” Ellsworth told Albert sternly, his voice hard, looking directly in Albert’s eyes, pointing emphatically at the ground. He’d barely moved into the trees surrounding the campsite when he heard Albert rustling through the undergrowth behind him.
With Albert having eaten all his food supplies, Ellsworth had no choice but to hunt, and hope that whatever he caught would be both digestible and palatable. His hunger would soon override any questions of either, however. Before he set out hunting, the pumping operation needed to be set up, but after a day’s grueling work, he had managed to fill a gallon jug with the substance. That alone would bring in more than he would have made in a year at his old construction job back on Earth. By the time Hartwell returned to pick him up, Ellsworth hoped to pump enough that he wouldn’t need to return, though he did plan to. The money was too good and he had put in too much work to just give it up so soon. What in his mind had been a get rich quick scheme was turning into a get unconscionably rich slightly slower scheme. He slept that night and woke the next morning ready to hunt.
Rifle in hand, he hiked to the river, finally staking out a copse of trees near a clearing alongside it. For a good hour, he crouched there—Albert calmly sitting beside him—until a creature about the size and color of a deer but that looked more like a svelte six-legged elephant approached for a drink. Ellsworth aimed for where the heart would be in an Earth animal and pulled the trigger of his rifle. The animal shrieked and fell on its side, but it wasn’t dead. It staggered back to its feet, fell again, and lay moaning. Ellsworth stood and approached the creature, intending to shoot it in its head this time. As he stepped toward it, Albert burst from the trees and ran at the creature, legs pumping wildly. He opened his mouth wider than before, wider than Ellsworth thought possible. It was bigger than his whole body now, the extra diameter seemingly coming from nowhere. He skittered to a stop in front of the fallen elephant thing’s head. The injured creature shrieked louder, but its cries were cut off when Albert thrust forward and engulfed the front quarter of the animal. In seconds, Ellsworth watching in shock, Albert swallowed the entire animal, only its tufted tail sticking from his lips for a moment before he slurped it in.
How? Ellsworth couldn’t corral the thoughts rushing around his head. Albert should have been puffed up like a balloon about to pop, a snake that has swallowed a horse, but he looked the same. Where did it go? How hungry could one tiny monster be? And what would Ellsworth eat now?
He returned to the copse of trees, where Albert again joined him, promptly falling asleep. Until dark, he waited, rifle at the ready, willing another animal to come to the river to drink, but none did. Finally, he returned to his camp and curled up in his bedroll in the tent, Albert next to him.
Rustling from outside the tent woke him several hours later. He wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but it was pitch dark. A tap on the base of the solar-powered lamp next to him revealed that he was alone, Albert having somehow worked up the zipper enough that he could wriggle through the opening and out of the tent. The flap waved in a light breeze and at first Ellsworth thought it was the sound of one side of the nylon doorway brushing against the other that had woken him. Then there was another sound, a friendly squeak like from a rubber toy. And something else too, a smell, rich, minerally, a tang of iron in the air.
Outside the tent, Albert sat on his haunches proudly. Arrayed before him was a ball of fur sitting in a puddle of blood. Ellsworth lifted the lantern and the undifferentiated fur ball took more concrete form. Spindly legs poking from the bottom—six, a common feature on this planet apparently—a squashed puggish snout with wide-set eyes. It was about the size of a basketball. Albert nudged it closer to him with his forehead.
“Thank you, Albert,” he said, reaching out a hand and stroking the animal on the head. He stopped, held the lantern closer. Was it his imagination or had his little monster gotten bigger?
Ellsworth measured his days in alchemium, and by the time he had ten gallons of it Albert had grown too big to sleep in the tent. Already he was shoulder-high and seemed to get bigger every time Ellsworth saw him. Each day, while the prospector worked on the pumps, bringing up the alchemium-rich water and straining the substance from it, Albert went off to eat, returning toward dusk with a satisfied look on his face and carrying some dead beast for Ellsworth’s dinner.
It was a good routine more like a partnership than pet and master. Though Albert couldn’t speak, Ellsworth would talk to him. There seemed to be a spark of recognition, intelligence in his eyes, a connection with the man, even if he didn’t understand the words. Ellsworth shared his plans with Albert, how he would take the alchemium and sell it to governments and corporations on Earth, the ones who had unsubtly mentioned in the press their willingness to purchase the valuable resource if only someone were to procure it. If only someone could figure out just how to predict where it would be found and could generate a steady supply of it. He told Albert how he would be a rich man, how he would only have to live the life of a prospector if he wanted to revisit its romantic allure. How one day, prospectors of some future resource would group the name Daniel Ellsworth with the likes of George Hearst and Edwin Drake. Just so long as he could hold onto his claim.
Any prospector knows that sooner or later someone will try to take what should rightfully belong to the man who discovers it. So he has to take measures to protect what is his. For a while, secrecy will do, but eventually security is necessary. Ellsworth’s secrecy collapsed five weeks into his time on the planet, just one week before his planned pick-up and eventual return to Earth.
The forest was rarely quiet, animals calling from the treetops, branches breaking and falling to the ground, but they were all organic sounds. And so Ellsworth knew his time was up when he heard the distant rumble and whine of a spacecraft’s thrusters.
His first thought was that Captain Hartwell, his hired ride, had come back for him early. His second thought was that the goddamn weasel had sold him out, given up his spot to another prospector. His third thought was that it was too late to do anything about it. This new prospector had landed. Maybe he wouldn’t find Ellsworth and his claim at all. And even if he did, Ellsworth had staked it. It was his. Let this new prospector find his own alchemium. Nothing for Ellsworth to do but keep on pumping and storing the substance, to get ready for his riches.
Still, he kept his rifle nearby while he worked. When he heard a motor approaching, he slung it across his back for easy access and waited. Albert was out hunting, which was good; Ellsworth didn’t know how the animal would react to the new unnatural sound or to the presence of another person. He wasn’t exactly sure how he would react himself for that matter.
The grumble of the motor grew louder and louder until it was right on him, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle emerging from between two thick-trunked trees. Atop it was a man wearing a jumpsuit and helmet with an ionized facemask that hid his features. He pulled to a stop, left the ATV idling and stepped down from it, removing his helmet.
Captain Hartwell. The man looked like a spacecraft captain, the way people imagined them in movies before there really were spacecraft, tall and muscular, with neatly parted blonde hair that reached just to the tops of his ears and a wide toothy smile. Chiseled jaw and blue eyes. Ellsworth, unshowered and unshaven, hair lank and greasy, his jeans covered in dirt and loose around his stick-thin frame, couldn’t help but feel inferior to the man.
“Mr. Ellsworth,” Hartwell said, tucking his helmet under his left arm and extending his right hand to shake, “glad to see everything seems to be going well.”
Skeptically, Ellsworth stepped forward and shook the captain’s hand. “Captain Hartwell. How did you find me?”
“Just followed your trail,” Hartwell said. “Easy enough to find the one human being on the whole planet. You sort of stand out.”
“I know,” he said, “but I was just so intrigued, I just had to do a little research once I got home. Looks like you’ve set up a nice little operation here. Alchemium, isn’t it?”
Ellsworth unconsciously shuffled to the side, as if he could block the view of his pumps and tubes. But, small as the set-up was, it was still big enough that it was going to be visible. He should have known that the captain would eventually figure out why he wanted to go to the planet. Why else would someone come here? And now this greedy captain would try to get in on the action. At the very least, he would want a higher payment for taking Ellsworth home than they’d agreed upon. Robbery, plain and simple.
“It’s a start,” Ellsworth mumbled. “Just staking a claim.”
“And not a bad one, I have to say,” Hartwell said, his tone jovial, forced Ellsworth thought. “You know, I didn’t think to ask before, didn’t want to pry, but I assume you have a permit?”
Ellsworth scoffed. “Permit? I don’t need a damn permit.”
“Are you kidding?” Hartwell laughed. “Of course you need a permit. You always need a permit.”
“No one even knows about this, no one else has ever tried this. There’s no one who’s even thought up a permit.” Ellsworth said this, but he could see where it was headed. Not yet, Hartwell would say, but soon enough, soon enough. But maybe I could look the other way…
It’s something every prospector throughout history has had to deal with, the greed of those who don’t want to put in the work themselves, who wait until all the effort has been expended, all the sweat and blood, and then descend like vultures to pick apart the prospectors, to rip flesh with their beaks and fly away with a prize they did nothing to earn. Ellsworth was the one who did all the work, figuring out that alchemium would be valuable, figuring out where on the planet it would be, pumping and straining and storing it.
“This is just between us, Ellsworth,” he said. “For now. If I don’t get back to my ship in twenty-four hours it’ll radio back home. I’m sure you don’t want half the system showing up here, do you now?”
That smug smile on Hartwell’s face. He had to know what was going through Ellsworth’s head—Ellsworth knew his eyes were smoldering, not trying to hold back his anger—and didn’t even care. Hartwell spread his hands, as if saying there was nothing he could do, this was just the way things worked.
And then something from behind him caught Ellsworth’s eye, a flash of blue passing behind the trees.
Silently, amazingly silently considering how large he had grown, Albert crept from the trees, his huge mouth hanging open behind Hartwell like the entrance to a cave. Yes, he thought, Albert knew what Hartwell was about, knew that a claim needed to be protected. He tried not to look at the beast, keeping his eyes on Hartwell, hoping the animal could read his mind, his posture, could tell that the captain was a threat that must be dealt with.
His eyes must have flickered off of Hartwell’s, because the captain raised an eyebrow and turned, his voice rising in a startled high-pitched wail as he came face to face with the ever-growing monster, whose open mouth was so vast that he could easily swallow a full grown man in one bite.
Hartwell’s cry was cut off as Albert jutted his mouth forward and slammed it shut around the captain’s falling body. For a moment, Ellsworth thought he could still hear Hartwell screaming, muffled almost to inaudibility by the thick jaws surrounding him. Probably just imagining it, he told himself. Albert swallowed, and then the ATV was the only sign the captain had ever been there.
Ellsworth and the creature stared at each other. To Ellsworth’s eyes, the corners of Albert’s mouth seemed to turn up slightly. Was the monster smiling? For the first time since he had found Albert, he wondered whether he had been right to save him. What had he been doing underground with the alchemium in the first place? He’d been so absorbed by the alchemium mining he hadn’t even considered these questions. And prospecting could get so lonely. Why wouldn’t he want a friend?
Not just a friend. Albert was a protector. If it wasn’t for him, who knew how much that damn captain would have bled him for. Slowly, his head telling him not to, but forcing himself to anyway, Ellsworth turned his back on the creature and went back to work, his heart pounding, every nerve telling him to run and never look back.
His plan had been to convert his tent and other equipment into a sledge, but with the ATV he wouldn’t have to do that. Which meant even more time to pump and store the substance. Which meant even more money. There was no need to worry about Albert, he thought, the animal had helped him. There was nothing to fear. They were partners.
All the rest of the day and through the night, Ellsworth worked, not even stopping to eat when Albert dropped a rabbit-sized creature at his feet. Twenty-four hours. He had twenty-four hours before Hartwell’s ship radioed his location and then the vultures would swarm.
The canisters of precious alchemium piled up, so many that he could barely lash them to the ATV, but he managed to make them fit. By the time the sun had fully risen, he had enough canisters on the machine to make him a rich man many times over. And this was just the first batch, he reminded himself. He would surely be back for more, and soon, before too many others descended.
He struck camp and packed his remaining supplies, leaving the mining equipment set up but dormant. It was still a staked claim, his staked claim, and it would wait for him.
Would Albert wait too? The creature had spent the night sleeping just far enough away from the mining operation to keep from disrupting Ellsworth’s work, and had sat on his haunches watching him pack that morning. He had grown more overnight, towering over Ellsworth by a good two feet. Once, he had been able to hold the animal in his hands, and now he couldn’t even pat his head without standing on his toes.
He looked up, past the massive jaws and into the creature’s eyes. “You’ve been a good friend, Albert,” he said. “A good partner, and I know I can trust you to watch over this.”
Albert looked at him for a long moment, then stood up and wandered into the trees. Ellsworth waited for several minutes, making sure the animal was really gone, and then he got on the ATV—he’d never driven one before and wished he had a helmet, but Albert had eaten that along with the captain—and rode off through the trees, following the stream back to the river. The forest thinned by the river’s banks, and he could make out the spacecraft in the distance, small though it was. He’d never flown one himself, but he’d heard they were easy enough to figure out, that they pretty much flew themselves. Worst case scenario, he could radio from the ship for help, say he went looking for it when Hartwell was late picking him up and the captain was nowhere to be found. No one would ever know what really happened or why he was really on the planet. Any evidence of the captain’s demise was in Albert’s stomach, and he didn’t think anyone would want to look there.
The ATV rumbled and jounced along the riverbanks, the ship growing larger as he approached until finally it loomed in front of him. A standard short-distance spacecraft, good for tooling around a solar system, moving cargo from a planet to a moon or orbital station, but incapable of handling interstellar space. Not that Ellsworth would be going very far. Once he was off-planet, he would have to decide whether to unload the alchemium to a middleman or bring it to Earth himself. Maybe set up a little import-export business. Any bank would be crazy not to give him a loan against his potential earnings from the substance.
The only problem he saw was getting into the ship. Once he figured out how to open it up and release the ramp, he could just drive the ATV on; he wouldn’t even have to unload it. If Hartwell were there, it probably would just open right up as he drove toward it, the bay doors dropping automatically when it read his biometric signature. Next to where the bay would open was a numbered keypad for if someone else needed access. Unfortunately, Ellsworth didn’t know the code and Captain Hartwell’s biometrics were currently inside Albert. There had to be a manual override, he thought, some way to force his way in.
For several minutes, he paced around the base of the ship, looking for a lever, a hatch, anything. He hadn’t considered this. After all his work, would the ship end up radioing his secrets to the entire universe?
He returned to the ATV and contemplated the canisters of alchemium. Maybe he should hide them. When whoever came looking for Hartwell arrived, they would surely try to steal some of it. Just one canister would bring a hefty price. If he absolutely had to, he supposed he could trade them one for passage off-planet, but that would be a last resort. How many could he spare? He began counting them, though he had already done so multiple times already. Any prospector knew that you could never count your earnings too frequently.
As he counted, he was startled by a mechanical whir and looked up at the ship. Miraculously, the bay doors were dropping. Like a ladder up to heaven. Ellsworth could drive up the ramp and into his new life as a wealthy respected man.
Another sound drew his attention from this reverie, a loud squeak from behind. Of course, he thought as he turned, why else would the doors open? The biometric reading from Captain Hartwell was there. Being digested, but still strong enough to trigger the doors from within Albert’s stomach.
The creature stood not ten yards away, looking at him with a mixture of curiosity and betrayal. Sadness, too, Ellsworth thought. He really would miss his partner and it looked like Albert would miss him too, had come to give his last goodbyes.
Ellsworth smiled and walked toward Albert, arms outstretched. If the animal wasn’t so big, he would give him a hug. “Come to see me off?” he said. As he stepped closer, he noticed that Albert’s eyes didn’t move. They weren’t looking at him at all, but at the ATV, the canisters of alchemium strapped to the back.
“It’s okay,” he said, his hands now in front of him in a placating gesture. “There’s plenty of it. Still plenty back at the source.” Slowly, he backed toward the vehicle. If he could just reach it and get it into the ship, he would be safe. He could get inside, shut the doors, barricade himself from the beast. Just a few more steps.
Albert sprang forward, and Ellsworth let out a yelp of surprise and terror as he saw the giant mouth spring open. He bumped into the ATV and attempted to scramble around the side and into the driver’s seat. He risked one glance behind him, and knew it was too late. The open jaws, the ring of sharp teeth, the lolling meaty tongue.
The tongue swung sideways like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, knocking him to the ground and out of the path of Albert’s rushing maw. In the next instant, Albert’s mouth expanded larger than ever before and before Ellsworth registered what was happening, it engulfed the ship. With a snap and a sound like a crushing aluminum can, his mouth closed and deflated back to normal size. Where the ship had stood was simply a circle of brown grass, crisped by its landing rockets.
Aghast, Ellsworth stared at the creature as it slowly turned around. It padded over to where he sat on the grass and nuzzled his foot with the side of his massive head. Like a large and sated cat.
He stood up, dusting off the knees of his pants. He and Albert would go back to the claim, he supposed. He would bottle up more alchemium in preparation for the day he would be able to turn it into profit. True, with the ship gone it meant no one would know where he was; who knew how long he’d be in the wilderness. But he was a prospector. He could stand to be alone for a long time. And eventually, someone would come. Someone always comes.