Landing, Party of Two (Part III)

I pushed as hard as I could for what felt like hours, but Sera didn’t tell me to speed up and I knew I couldn’t have missed the deadline. Deadline. I’d never thought about what that word meant before. It seemed like a funny joke that I should realize it now, and I laughed out loud.

Michao stirred a little on my back, then settled back down. The mist seemed to be thickening as I walked, and with the fog in my visor I could hardly see my own feet, but Sera kept me pointed the right way.

She had just flashed up a notice that Michao’s cell was down to fifteen percent when I spotted the shadow looming out of the fog, just a few meters ahead. I stumped up to the back of the lander, and dumped Michao on the ground. I disconnected my cable from his and jammed both of them into one of the lander’s auxiliary ports. “What’s our time, Sera?” I asked while I waited for a quick charge.

Nine minutes, Ribekka. Long enough to get us strapped in and the gear stowed. Michao stirred. “Soliera? Did… make it?” It sounded like he was waking up. The biofoam was secreting anaesthetic locally by now, so he wouldn’t need as much in his bloodstream.

“Yeah, we made it.” I leaned my visor against the lander. My suit was blowing cool air again, and the sweat running down my neck turned frigid. I watched the indicator tick up to twelve percent, thirteen…

“Made it, Captain,” he corrected me dreamily. Even looped out on drugs he could be a pain in the coula.

As soon as I hit twenty percent, I yanked my cord and stowed it. I scooped up Michao and set him down by the ramp, to go gather up the equipment. “Captain, I need you to order the grav punch to cycle, okay? We only have a few minutes to make our hop.”

“Mmkay. Do it, Canter, do it, do it!” I heard the punch wind up inside the lander and relaxed a hair. We were going to get off this rock after all.

Michao laughed, a little boy’s giggle. “Do it, do it… I feel funny.” His face blanched and he retched into his helmet. The cleaning system sucked it out and swept his visor, but left little flecks on his face. He looked miserable.

I popped the hatch and started packing up. But when I looked for the weather pole, it wasn’t there. All I could see was a drag mark in the dirt, leading away from the lander. I cursed and started jogging down the trail. Five minutes, Sera warned.

I hadn’t made thirty meters when I came on a trio of little creatures dragging away the tripod and pole. Each one was the size of a rabbit or a cat, but strangely proportioned. They walked on two thick, stumpy legs in front and one long one in the back,  hinged up high above the body like the knee of a grasshopper; it made one bouncing stride for every two or three steps of the front feet. Their hides were rubbery leather, crossed with gray stripes. Their bodies were puffed up with saclike protrusions, and their heads were tubular, dotted with dark pits that could have been eyes or nostrils. At the tip of each snout, three tendrils ringed a beaky mouth. The biggest one was using them to pull my weather pole backwards through the sand.

The other two were bouncing around it, making a clattering noise like rocks banging together in a sack. When I got close they grew still. Their mouth tendrils waved high in the air and they pointed their snouts straight toward me. The third one kept pulling away at the pole. Its companions stalked toward me, slow and cautious, tendrils wagging. I pulled out my baton and waved it low in front. They backed off a pace, but then one lunged forward with a flick of its long hind leg, and grabbed the end of the baton in its mouth. It yanked, nearly hard enough to pull it out of my hand, and I hit the switch for the crackler. A shock pulsed through the creature’s head and it let go, making a whistling screech of pain. The other one backed off further, suddenly fearful, and I took the opportunity to cross the few steps to where the third one was still dragging at the equipment.

I grabbed the end of the pole and pulled, but it wouldn’t let go. I poked it with the baton, jabbing at its face, and hit it with the crackler. I’d gotten the last one inside the mouth, but the outer skin was much tougher and the arcing electricity didn’t have much effect. Its clattering, clicking noise increased in intensity, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the other two start creeping toward me again. I was out of time, and getting desperate. I dropped the baton back in its mag holster and pulled my sidearm. Without thinking I aimed the barrel at the thing’s body mass, slipped the safety and pulled the trigger, shooting it point-blank.

The flash and report of the pistol were followed almost instantly by a rattling screech and a bright gout of flame. My bullet tore through one of the fleshy sacs on the thing’s back, and the contents were flammable. The creature whistled and fell on its side, scrabbling at the ground and burning. The other two took off like shots at the sound of its death scream. They bounded away on their long back legs and disappeared into the mist.

After an interminable moment the creature curled up and stopped moving, partially blackened. It still hadn’t let go of the weather pole. In a hurry, I grabbed them both and ran back to the lander.

“Ha ha, Ribekka brought me a present, a present!” Michao called when he spotted me carting the gruesome thing back. Three minutes, Ribekka, Sera said. The grav punch was ready to go. We just had to get inside. I put my boot on the dead thing and yanked hard. It was strong, but with a wrench and a twist I managed to pull the pole out of its grip. I kicked its body away and started jamming the pole back in its case.

“Don’t throw away my present!” Michao shouted at me, “want it wrapped, wrapped, nice and tight, nice tight nice!” He was raving, face screwed up in an angry mask. This was more than painkillers talking. I wondered what alien compounds were floating in his bloodstream, and what they might be doing to his brain.

“Captain, we don’t have time for this. We have to close up the lander and get inside. You need to have your P-cog check the jump coordinates so we can get out of here!” While I talked, I worked, closing up the last of the equipment crates and tossing them inside.

“No. no no no, won’t go until you wrap my present!” He was pounding his fists on the ramp like a toddler. Ribekka, Sera warned me, Captain Michao has scrambled the heading. If we launch now we will miss the Haestion and fall back to the surface. Two minutes.

There wasn’t going to be any reasoning with him. “Mother sun, Michao, you’re going to get us killed!” I shouted, and bolted back with a specimen bag to where I’d kicked the little corpse. I shoved the odious thing in, zipped it up and thrust it into Michao’s arms. He clutched and cooed at it like a baby holding onto his blanket. I pulled him up the loading ramp by his collar handle and shut the hatch.

“Fix the heading, Captain. Do it now, or we’re both going to die!” He stared at me blankly, then went back to running his fingers over the shiny foil bag. “Nice present, nice for me, me, me…” He wasn’t going to do it. I didn’t have authorization to reset the codes. The computer wouldn’t take orders from me…

Not as long as Michao was conscious, it wouldn’t. I snatched the emergency kit off the wall. “Meziolam, meziolam…” There. The little red tube with white stripes.

One minute, Ribekka. I pulled out the syringe, opened it to put the tube inside, fumbled it, cursed, picked it up off the floor. I got it pieced together and reached down to open Michao’s access panel. He was babbling and petting the little monster inside the bag.

Forty seconds, Ribekka. I flipped open the panel, plunged the needle into his suit catheter, and squeezed the plunger. It took forever to empty the tube. His eyes flicked up to me in surprise. Then they went glassy and his face fell slack.

Thirty seconds, Ribekka. I picked Michao up, slammed him into his harness and buckled him in.

Twenty seconds, Ribekka. I ran to the opposite wall and strapped myself in too. Captain Michao has lost consciousness, Sera said, and his cognitive assistant is streaming me his authorization codes. Ten seconds. Shall I correct the jump heading?

“Yes, yes, do it!” Five seconds, said Sera. Heading successfully reset. Three seconds. “Launch, launch, launch,” I shouted. I heard the whine of firing turbines, and the kick of acceleration pressed me into a slack puddle against the bulkhead. Then the punch fired and the wind howled past us through the hole we’d opened into hard vacuum. We popped through the little window like a cork, the turbine roar died to nothing, and the pull was gone. I floated in my restraints, savoring the first dizzying instant of freefall.

A long moment later I heard a clanking impact on the outside panel. Contact successful, Ribekka. The Haestion is pulling us in now. At that news I felt my legs go to jelly, and my eyes rolled up to the ceiling, and for a little while I felt nothing more at all.


I looked down at Michao’s bare chest under an inch of nutrigel, watching his shallow breathing. I’d gotten him into the med tank as soon as I regained consciousness in the Haestion’s cargo bay. The automedic couldn’t do much for him. It was counteracting his symptoms, slowing the damage, but he’d been getting worse for two days. The skin sagged off his bones, gray and loose, and brown spots stained the whites of his eyes. His breath stank like rot and vinegar. In brief lucid periods he’d begged me not to do what I was considering right now. But if I didn’t mothball him, I knew he’d be dead before we got back to Hebridea.

Michao took a long gasp of breath, and his eyes fluttered open. He looked around, taking in the situation. “I told you no, Soliera. That was an order.” His voice was almost inaudible.

“Save your breath, Captain. You don’t have many left, the way you’re going. And I’m in command as long as you’re incapacitated. So this is the way it’s going to be. And that’s an order.”

He watched me with hard eyes as I punched commands into the tank. I didn’t look at him. “You don’t take merda from anybody, Ribekka. Not even your superiors. I always liked that about you.”

“Sure fooled me, Captain,” I said, and shut the lid on his ruined, handsome face.

Landing, Party of Two (Part II)

“Michao!” I ran as fast as I could move in this godsdamned gravity. “Piet!”

He was alive. I could hear him moaning over the comm, breath coming in gasps. The sharp stalk was sticking thirty centimeters out of his belly to the right of his navel, just below the ribs. Its purple skin was slicked with orange goo and bright red blood, which was already turning to a muddy brown. His legs were kicking and his arms flailed crazily. “Michao—Captain—hold still! You’ll make it worse!” I reached him after what seemed like minutes, and scrambled around in a panic, not sure how to help. “Damn me for a Bessurean!” I swore, “this is bad…”

“Ribekka?” He’d never once called me by my first name. His eyes rolled, and he panted in shallow, panicked breaths. He found my face and it seemed to focus him a little. “Powersaw—in pack. Cut me down. Hurry, Sergeant. That’s—order—move”—he coughed, and pink mist fogged the inside of his visor—”your coula.”

I scrambled for his pack, which had fallen clear. I couldn’t feel well enough through my gloves, so I dumped the whole thing out on the ground and pawed through the pile. Michao’s breaths rasped in my ears, long moments dragged by, and I screamed in frustration before I finally spotted the saw sticking out of a side pocket. I whipped the cover off the blade and flipped the switch. It buzzed to life and I attacked the stalk, cutting into it a handspan below where it disappeared into the back of his suit. The center was fibrous and tough, and the little saw took forever to eat its way through. Michao cried out with each jolting vibration.

“Hold on,” I said, and he threw his arms around me just as it gave way. His weight sagged onto my shoulders and I staggered backward, dragging him to the ground.

“Pull it—out.” He spoke through gritted teeth. His face was contorted in a tight knot, and bloody snot ran down his chin.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Captain?” The stalk was five centimeters across where it stuck out his front, and a little thicker below. It might kill him if I removed it.

“Xe—xenorganics. Probably toxic—dead if you don’t. Only, only, maybe dead, if you do. Gods—burns like Hedaeis. Get. It. Out!”

“Okay, okay. I have to turn you. Hold still.” I got my hands under his back and heaved him onto his left side. I tried to be gentle, but he groaned and spasmed when I moved him, and dug his fingers into the sand—unconsciously looking for something to hold on to, or maybe trying to crawl into a hole to hide from the pain.

“Okay,” I said, wrapping a glove around the thick base of the stalk. Its flesh was rubbery, and I got a good grip even through the slippery mess. “Here goes. One—” I yanked hard before I got to ‘two’ so he wouldn’t tense up. The nasty thing slid out so easily I almost fell over backwards. “Gaaaagh,” said Michao. He coughed up a clot of blood, pawed at the ground and curled up on his side. I dropped the piece of cactus in the sand.

He lay panting, face down. As I watched, the gel layer in his suit fizzed out to fill the gaping hole. The biofoam would expand and plug his internal injuries. If he was lucky and hadn’t severed a major artery, he’d live out the day. I’d seen grunts recover from worse wounds with surgery and clone tissue replacements. But we were two weeks away from reuniting with Hebridea. I didn’t know what the odds were for him to make it that long without real medical attention, but they couldn’t be high.

Sera flashed up a time warning. Two hours Standard until meetup with Haestion. Two hundred minutes to get us both back to the lander, load the equipment and cycle up the grav punch. “Do you think you can walk?” I asked Michao.

He laughed, a choked cough of a sound, and shook his head. “Can’t even move my feet. Exo’s saying poss… possible spinal damage. I’m locked up, be… below the ribs. Have to haul my coula home.” His voice was stronger, but slurred. His suit was probably pumping him with painkillers.

“I’ll try. Your arms are working, right? Hang on.” I got down on one knee and started to lift.

“Wait! Wait. Get… samples.” He waved an arm vaguely at the pile of equipment I’d dumped out. “Can’t leave… without.”

“I’m going to be straining my joints just towing you in this g, Captain. Suggest we leave them behind. We’ve got our recordings, and your notes.”

“No!” he barked at me, coming more awake. “Need my samples. All for… nothing if I don’t bring them back. All… for… nothing, nothing, nothing.” He drifted off, eyes distant.

The Academy again. We were going to die out here over his damn paper. I gathered up the specimen tubes and bags he’d filled, and stuffed them back in his pack. I left the rest of the tools behind. The Coalition could afford to replace them if we got out of this.

Michao was lying on his side, watching me dully. I showed him the pack, and he nodded slowly. I strapped it to his back and heaved him over my shoulders. He clung to my neck, legs dangling awkwardly, and I started walking.


We were a klick and a half from the lander, just over halfway, when I heard a shrill beep in my right ear and my suit slowed down. Exoskeleton power cells at five percent, Sera warned, entering emergency conservation state. With all the extra weight, I’d be bogged in another hundred meters. Even if I dropped Michao here I wouldn’t have enough charge left to run for it.

With my servos throttling back, Michao suddenly got a lot heavier. I shortened my steps to keep from tripping. Sweat popped out on my forehead as my own muscles took over some of the load. It was hot as Hedaeis on this blasted planet and my homeostatic controls had dialed down along with the motors. After a few dozen paces there was nothing for it. I had to stop.

I sank to the sand, set Michao down as gently as I could, crossed my legs and rested my visor in my hands. I glanced at the time. Seventy-five minutes to get in the air. We weren’t going to make it, not with my cells this low. I looked at Michao, lying still with his eyes closed. The only way I could tell he was alive was from the quiet sound of his breathing over the comm.

Then it hit me. His suit was in lockdown, hardly burning any power at all. “Captain. Michao!” I shook his shoulder, and he grunted and spluttered. “Mmm… huh… Soliera?”

“Captain, I need you to wake up and help me. We’ve got to rig your power cell to mine, or we’re going to get stuck here and die. How much charge do you have left?”

“Wha…?” I had to repeat the question three times and bang on his visor before he understood. “Oh… sixt… sixty-three.” He still had more than half! It should be enough.

“Michao, stay with me. I need you to open your maintenance panel, and tell Canter to override the backflow preventer. Do you understand?” I knew his P-cog could understand me, but it wouldn’t take my orders unless Michao told it to.

“Mmhmm… You heard the lady, Canter,” he said. The port under his left arm popped open, and I snaked out a few decimeters of charge cable. With a quick twist, I reversed the adapter jack on my own cable. Thank the fate stars for the Coalition’s obsession with modular parts. I plugged them together and felt a wash of relief as my cooling system cycled back up to full. As good as that was, though, I couldn’t afford to waste any juice. “Sera, I want you to do what you can to save power. Throttle everything but my servos. I don’t need to be comfortable, just keep us both alive until we get to the lander.”

Understood, Ribekka. I have isolated your depleted cell to prevent equalization currents, reduced the feed to the homeostasis unit, and raised the intervention threshold on the equilibrium compensators. You will be at increased risk of falling, so please move carefully. Almost as soon as she said it, I felt the airflow over my skin slow down, and begin to warm from my body heat. This was not going to be a pleasant hike, but I couldn’t afford to dawdle. “Here we go, Captain,” I said, and slung him over my back again.

As Sera had warned, I felt myself swaying and had to step quickly to catch myself. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been relying on the compensators. Every little wobble in the high gravity threatened to yank me straight to the ground. I shifted Michao’s weight a little closer to center and set off at the best pace I could manage.

It was a crawl. Sweat poured down my face, and my visor fogged up in the sluggish, humid air. I kept checking the distance. 1400 meters. 1375 meters. 1320 meters…

“Sera, turn off the metrics and just show me the heading.” It was easier not to know. “Warn me if I’m too slow to make it in time.” Of course, Ribekka, she said. I kept trudging.

Landing, Party of Two (Part I)

The first thing I noticed when we landed on EG2 was the gravity. It was brutal, even in a powered hardshell. Three point one g is a hard pull. I felt it yanking on the skin of my cheeks, and my eyelids dragged when I blinked. The suit’s compression layer was doing a good job keeping blood flowing to my brain, but I could feel my heart pumping hard, and I was glad I’d been training in the heavy room on Hebridea for the last five weeks.

Michao looked like a jowly old draftrat. Somehow it made him harder to hate—a little less disgustingly good-looking. He grinned at me, perfect teeth making a strange contrast with his distorted face. “You could be a ‘before’ model for Regenis Skin Lifts, Soliera,” he said.

Sure didn’t take him long to burn up that little bit of goodwill. “You’re not so hologenic yourself at the moment. Should we get moving? We’re on the clock for rendezvous.” His expression soured, and I groaned inwardly. Captain Piet Michao never liked being reminded of anything by an inferior. Kiss the coula above you, kick the one below; might as well be his motto.

“Load up, Soliera. I want all those samplers in order. And double-check the roster before we start trekking. I don’t want to backtrack because you left a spectro behind.” Right. Like I was the one who’d cacked up the equipment list. I think he’d actually convinced himself that I was responsible for forgetting the crystallograph when we left Hebridea. That’s me, Ribekka Soliera: tech sergeant, algorithmic cartographer, convenient blame-weasel.

I kept my thoughts to myself like a good grunt, threw a sloppy salute, and hopped to checking the packs, even though I’d already done it before we’d dropped. It’s not like we could just skip back to the orbiting Haestion if we’d missed something, but Michao wouldn’t miss a chance to berate me, regardless.

While I worked, he popped the hatch, and I heard the hiss of equalizing atmospheres through my earphones. He stepped outside, leaving me to lug both packs down the ramp. Blame-weasel and draftrat, apparently. Once I had everything in order, I followed him out. He was standing a few meters away, looking around. “Ugly, isn’t it?” he said.

“Pretty stark.” I set his pack next to his feet gently, so the gravity wouldn’t crush anything, and tromped around setting up the weather station and atmospheric samplers that we’d leave with the lander. Seraphin was already analyzing the little bit of data that my exo’s sensors were picking up, and she kept up a continuous scroll of information as I worked: N2 72.51%, O2 15.34%, CO2 6.97%, H20 3.44%, CH4 1.62%, CO 0.06%, H2S 0.04%, traces 0.02%, ambient T 41 °C, bari 356 kPa… I knew she’d be working on updating our local charts too, from whatever the lander cameras had picked up on the way down. Sure enough, after a minute she popped up an overlay with likely routes called out in orange. “Thanks, Sera,” I said. Of course, Ribekka scrolled across my vision in reply.

“Are you seriously thanking your P-cog? It’s a damn AI, Soliera, it doesn’t give a weasel’s ear if you’re grateful or not. Don’t hear me grovelling to Canter for taking dictations.” Michao was stomping around waiting for me to finish up, not doing a thing himself. “What was that purple stuff we came through on the way down? Some of it’s stuck on the lander.” Sure enough, stringy goo was streaking the side panels and fouled up in the struts. He scooped some into a sample tube. “Look, I think it’s organic! Must be some kind of aerial ecosystem.” He gazed up at the violet drifts a few klicks above our heads. “Damn. This is all splattered, no way to tell what kind of body forms we’re looking at. We’d need a balloon or a copter to get up there and study them…” He kicked at the dirt, throwing a few pebbles in a sharp arc. “Nothing much to see down here. What else is on the map?”

I pointed roughly west. “The lander scanned some color variation that direction that might be vegetation. It’s four klicks. Should be a short trek if the footing isn’t too bad.”

“Fine. Move your coula, Sergeant. And toss me a copy of that chart.” I relayed the order to Sera, and Michao set off at a trot, taking short fast strides in the high g like he was running up a steep hill. I shut the lander hatch and followed behind.


We ran in silence for a while, making slower progress than I’d hoped. The ground was sandy and our boots tended to sink in, which robbed a lot of power out of our strides. My cells were dropping a little faster than I’d anticipated too, with the extra demand on the servo joints. It looked like they’d hold out long enough, but I sure didn’t want to bog down in five kilonewtons of dead hardshell. A slow death, waiting for the air cycler to run down.

Yellowish mist blanketed the ground. It seethed like a living thing, wrapping tendrils around our arms and legs. Visibility was low, a klick or two at most. It had been much easier to see from above. But after a half hour we spotted some darker smudges sticking up out of the pale dirt, and slowed to take a look.

“Are those plants?” I asked, pointing.

Michao sneered. “Plants are Terran. This is a xenoecology. The genealogy will be different, and you can’t blindly assign categories. At best they’ll be plantoids, filling a similar phototrophic niche.”

He just loved correcting me. I rolled my eyes at his back. “So sorry. Are those plantoids, then?”

“Maybe. Let’s go see.” We walked over closer, and I could make out some more details. A whole field of spiky things grew rooted in the sand, each a few meters from its neighbor, continuing off out of sight. There were two kinds I could see. One was like a branchy cactus with a thick central stalk and spearlike tips. Most of those were as high as my waist, but a few of the stalks reached up three or four meters. The others looked more like a cushion, round and squat, with fuzzy tendrils sticking out the top and waving slowly, though the air was still. Their surfaces were shiny, waxy-looking and purplish, a lot like the color of the cloud goo. They sure looked like plants to me.

“That color must be an efficient absorbent for the sunlight here,” said Michao, squatting down to examine one of the cushions. He pulled his baton from the holster on his leg and gave it a gentle prod. The tendrils retracted in a flash, pulling inside the body. “Fast reactions, probably a response to environmental hazards, maybe predation. Likely some kind of animal analogue to be found in the area, though no immediate signs,” he said in a low voice. He moved over to a spiny cactus and poked that too. “Outer flesh is pliant.” He pushed it a little harder. “But the structure is rigid and resists bending.” I figured he was dictating notes to Canter, and wandered off to explore.

I looked down just in time to catch myself before I went tumbling into a pit. It was funnel- shaped, a circle five meters across, with sandy slopes leading down to the center. A slide of sand trickled down where my foot had disturbed the edge, and I backed up a pace with haste. “Watch out over here,” I called. “There’s some kind of sinkhole.” I picked up a rock and tossed it in, curious. It hit the side and slid right down to the center. When it reached the bottom, it disappeared in a flash of motion. A moment later I jumped when the rock shot back out, spinning half a meter over my head. “Captain! You’ll want to see this!”

He came over to join me. “What is it, Soliera?” I crouched down and motioned for him to do the same. “Watch this,” I said, then tossed in another rock. This time I got a better look at the thing in the hole. It was a beaky mouth with three jaws in a triangular pattern. I only saw it for a moment, but Sera replayed it for me and I watched it flash out of the sand to bite, then spit the rock back out again with the flick of a fleshy tongue.

“There’s an animal analogue for you,” I said. “I almost fell in. Thing looks like it could take off a leg.”

“Better watch our step. Good find. I’m going to blow the boots off those crusters in Applied Biotics when I submit my paper…” Of course he was thinking about his Academy application. He’d hardly talked about anything else the whole slog out here.

I got up again, skirted the pit and walked a little further west, dictating notes on the topography to Sera. After a minute or two I came to a sandstone outcrop with a cliff that climbed out of the sand about ten meters overhead, crisscrossed with ledges and pocked with little dark holes. Some of the holes had feelers sticking out, waving in the air like the cushion cactuses, but finer, with longer hairs. More tall spike cactuses jutted out of the sand around the rocks.

Michao was following behind me. “Look up there,” he said. Some kind of spongy mat covered the top ledge. It pulsed slowly with a bright orange color. “I think I can climb up the other side. I’m going to scrape a sample.” I thought that was a stupid idea, but he was my super, so I kept my mouth shut. He went over to the cliff base and walked around, found a spot he liked and started clambering up on all fours. The feelers retracted into their holes when he got too close to them.

He made it to the top all right, and crept along the ledge, moving cautiously. When he was within arm’s length of the orange thing, he reached out with his baton and gave it a careful prod. It didn’t react, and he edged a little closer. He grabbed a sharp trowel from his pack and opened up a preservation tube, taking a moment to pick his target, then plunged the trowel into the side of a lump.

The reaction was instantaneous—I had to have Sera replay it from my headcam later to see what happened. As soon as he pierced the skin, the lump exploded in his face, blowing out in a plume of yellow gas and orange slime. The force of the blast caught him full in the chest, and threw him right off the ledge.

Michao plummeted ten meters, falling absurdly fast, and landed square on the pointed stalk of a cactus, skewering himself through the back with a strangled scream of pain.