A heavily armored warship can only cut through space so quickly. We were en route through the void with engines burning hot, but we were still sixteen standard hours away from the outpost when the Drippers hit. We had expected the attack, but we had also expected to be planetside and dug in when they landed. By the time we hit atmosphere and 'chuted down there was barely a trace of Terran incursion left standing. The surface had been scrubbed clean. Out of the one hundred and twenty men, women, clones and children assigned to the rock, the only one to survive the carnage was a Geologist Second Class named Kennie O'Tulley, and we knew that without some cutting edge doctoring he wouldn't be with us much longer either. A short burst from one of the Dripper's strange weapons was slowly melting him away molecule by molecule. From below the waist he was already completely gone. He could feel every atom break off and float away.
We knew we could probably save him. But we also knew that if we did the poor bug would probably wind up as a head on a stick. From the way he fought us when we tried to load him onto the transport, it was pretty clear that he knew what the future held for him. His terror overpowered his pain, which was probably a good thing.
O'Tulley's eyes locked with mine as we tried to shove him in the Bag. Somehow he held in enough air to speak to me.
"Help me out here, grunt," he begged. "Drop me. Drop me hard. Don't let then turn me into a head on a stick.
He knew what he was asking. I knew what he was asking. Man to man. Brother to brother. Three more minutes and there wouldn't be anything worth freezing. It was the decent thing to do.
But I couldn't. I had my orders. If I disobeyed, it would be my head on the stick. I bagged him with minutes to spare.
Earth needed brains. Brains could still fight. It was as simple as that.
They let me stay with him the entire trip back to civilization. When we reached base, I tracked down the main cutter and pulled him off to the side where we could talk in private. I ax-ed him if there was anything he could do to help out my buddy. I told him he would have my eternal gratitude.
There was only one thing he could do. It was a new, experimental technique for which my friend would be a perfect test subject. This far from the core a cutter didn't get many opportunities to frankenstein. A successful procedure that helped the war effort could get an ambitious man shipped farther from the front lines.
He had no interest in my eternal gratitude. He did have interest in the two pounds of planetside dirt I had been carefully hoarding for eleven months.
For some reason I agreed without bothering to haggle. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I gave up everything I worked and killed and bled for to help a man I had known for mere minutes.
He then explained what I would get for my soil.
He would have to put O'Tulley's head on a stick. That was the law. But he might also be able to save one of the geologist's arms.
"Just one?" I asked.
"Just one," he confirmed. "Right or left. You pick."
"But what good is it to be a head on a stick with one arm?" I ax-ed.
"It beats being just a head on a stick," he countered.
I wasn't certain I agreed with him, but I could see that he had a position. Perhaps Geologist Second Class Kennie O'Tulley would agree with him.
I picked the left. The cutter nodded and got to work.
Four months later I heard what happened. By then I had troubles of my own, but closure was nice.
After what happened to O'Tulley, the surgery was banned almost immediately.
Because it didn't work?
Of course not.
It was banned because it did.
Four days after the operation, O'Tulley emerged from his chemically-induced coma. He opened his eyes, and when he did he saw that he was surrounded by recovering heads on sticks. He screamed once. Then he shut up.
The first moment he found himself alone, he reached out with his sole functioning limb and pulled his own plug.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Charles Richard Laing. All rights reserved.
About the author
Charles Richard Laing is a 44 year old writer from New Jersey. He has had more than 200 stories published, in anthologies like Sword and Sorceress XVII, Flashshot Year 2, and ShadowBox, and in magazines like Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Flesh and Blood, and Not One Of Us.
He knows why he's not rich. He's not sure why he's not famous.