Failure to Thrive by Tom Howard




Tom Howard

Tyrl heard his brothers die, their screams telling him his own death was close. Without thinking, he ran down the dark corridor, fleeing the guardians in their quest to find and destroy him. He pressed against the narrow walls, familiar with their weak undulations and moist clamminess. He felt as if he’d been trapped in them forever.

Resting for a moment at a turn in the corridor, he considered breaking through the thin wall at his back and leaving the endless tunnel. The guards, in their glowing white armor, would detect the breach immediately if he punctured the wall. Tyrl felt his way along the passage, chiding himself and his brothers for overreaching themselves. Had they proceeded according to plan after their arrival, they would have made their way to the control room without incident. Instead, the troops had stumbled through the darkness, breaking into sealed chambers and alerting the guards to their presence.

Exhausted, Tyr pressed against a nearby wall, thin enough for him to feel the hot liquid pulsing behind it. He could not survive immersion for any length of time in the structure’s waterways, so he moved on. The corridor sloped gently upward. He found a loose flap of material in the corridor and pulled it around himself. Using the wall’s moisture to his advantage, he tugged the flap and held it in place until it adhered to itself.

Already ashamed of his cowardice for not rushing into the attack with the others, he slowed his metabolism to keep from trembling. He was the only one left, the only one capable of destroying the controller. With it operational, he and his people were doomed.

Tyrl tried not to think of the brothers he’d lost because no one would listen to him when he advocated stealth and caution. He’d watched them race off in small groups, each convinced they were smart and strong enough to reach the controller on their own. They knew the layout; they even spoke the language of the invaders. Tyrl, alone and helpless, had felt each of them die in the crimson shadows. His brothers’ actions had resulted in patrols spreading throughout the structure after they realized someone was aboard. The guards swarmed over Tyrl’s brothers, their spiny weapons impaling his companions with swift death.

Tyrl froze when he felt a rhythmic motion in the corridor. Someone, most likely a white guard, was travelling toward him. Since they rarely travelled alone, Tyrl feared he’d soon be joining his brothers.

They pressed against Tyrl’s hiding place as they passed in the corridor, near enough to flatten him against the wall. He imagined the guards tearing him from his hiding place and cutting him into ribbons with their razor-sharp weapons.

Almost mindless with fear, Tyrl forced himself to remain calm. Unlike his brothers who attacked the guards without hesitation, Tyrl knew his survival depended on his continued invisibility. The motions of the passing guards faded, and he almost cried with relief. Still he waited, telling himself he wasn’t afraid of dying even though he was lying. His primary goal was to survive to avenge his brothers’ deaths and complete his mission. Repeating the lie that he wasn’t a coward, he unsealed his cocoon and continued his journey up the corridor.

He sought the powerful controller, and he had weapons of his own to destroy it. He forced himself forward.

His brothers had accused him of being too small and too slow. Perhaps they’d been right.

The corridor grew warmer as Tyrl progressed up the increasingly steep slope. The distance between the walls widened and strange supporting structures spanned the corridor, causing Tyrl to contort himself to continue. For a moment, he considered the possibility that they knew of his presence and were blocking his advance. They were playing with him. He scolded himself for being irrational. He wasn’t important enough for them to waste their time tricking him when killing him would have been so much simpler.

The increased warmth of his surroundings indicated he was approaching the controller. For a brief moment, he had hopes he’d actually succeed.

Pain shot through his insides and slammed him to the floor. So engrossed was he in reaching his goal, he hadn’t realized someone was behind him until it was too late. A white sword protruded from his side, but he barely registered it as pain along his back made him scream. Before he could turn, a guard pinned him to the floor, smothering him with his larger size. Frantic, Tyrl took advantage of the moisture on the floor of the corridor to slither to the side and tear himself free. Ignoring the pain of his injuries, he managed to evade other guards as they rushed forward and got in one another’s way. Tyrl dived into one of the many smaller openings lining the corridor, hoping it was too small for them to follow.

He might simply be prolonging the inevitable, but he refused to give up. The hole opened into another corridor, one parallel to the original. The guards struggled to reach him, but Tyrl ignored them and his wound as he resumed his race to the goal. His fears motivated him through a complicated series of branches. He took the ones that felt warmest.

Red flashes of light caught him unawares, and he took refuge behind a support column. Had the guards caught up with him again? Light meant exposure and left him vulnerable. Bracing himself against the heat, the lights, and his fear, he struggled on, hoping he lived long enough to reach his goal. The corridor brightened and constricted, but Tyrl pressed on, obsessed with reaching the controller and destroying it.

His journey ended at a gray wall, the boundary of the controller’s chamber. If he couldn’t break through, the guards would catch up to him. Aware he was signaling his exact location to the guards and possibly the controller, Tyrl punctured the corridor wall and watched it drip hot fluid onto the floor. The tunnel shook and collapsed behind him, leaving him no retreat. Trying not to imagine the horde of guards attempting to tunnel their way through the collapse behind him, Tyrl prepared his own limited armament. His skin produced a powerful acid, and he ignored the pain it caused his wounds.

It was almost over. After he made his way through the weakened wall, he’d slice the controller’s delicate connection and kill it. If he was lucky, he’d survive long enough to see it die.

But before he could move forward, Tyrl was blinded by intense light from overhead. He screamed and squirmed, but cold fingers of metal held him, almost crushing him. Unbelievably, the metal bars pulled him out of the collapsed tunnel and away from the barrier. Bright light burnt his already ulcerated skin. He was exposed and helpless.

But he still lived. Vibrations stuck him, and he felt he was falling. A roar buffeted him as he fell onto a hard, metal surface, so cold it sent his already weakened body into violent shudders.

The roar ebbed and flowed, leaving Tyrl paralyzed with terror as his life fluids drained out onto the metal floor. Numbness spread throughout his body.

He had a moment’s respite as an overhead shadow filtered out the painful light.

“Is that the last one?” A man’s booming voice made Tyrl’s damaged skin throb.

“Yes, thank god,” said a woman. “The tenacious devil had made it all the way to the blood brain barrier. Another few minutes, and we’d have had to open the top of the astronaut’s head to get it out.”

“We might save this guy if we can patch up the holes this creature drilled in him.”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice growing faint as blackness closed around Tyrl. “Well, I’ll take this one to the lab before it dies. Maybe they can find out more about what the astronauts brought back when the techs dissect it.”

Food for Thought

Failure to Thrive takes us into the world of the parasite and asks us to see what life is like from its perspective. The overwhelming drive to thrive, survive and reproduce all while killing its host in the process. Who has the right to life? Presumably the host has the right to fight the parasite as it is struggle for life but it is interesting to consider it from the parasites perspective, it has to do this to live.

About the Author

Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction short story writer who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. His muses (or amuses) are his children and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group.

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