Star wars the syrox re.., p.1
Star Wars - The Syrox Redemption, page 1part #146 of Star Wars Insider Series
There’s an inmate like me in every prison across the galaxy, suppose — I’m the one who can get it for you. Glitterstim, juri juice, or maybe just a flimsiplast from the Core Worlds, if you’re partial to that. Since my arrival here, I’ve smuggled in
everything from shimmersilk slippers to spiced mynock wing for a Cyblocian assassin from the Meridian sector, who wanted to celebrate his birthday in style. With the exception of weapons and hard drugs, I can get my hands on just about any kind of contraband you might want. So when a new con named Waleed Nagma came up to me in the mess hall and asked if I could find him a bulb of Anzati snot garlic, I told him it would be no problem. And it wasn’t.
“You’re Zero, aren’t you?”
I glanced up from my tray, taking my time, and favored him with an easy smile.
“Depends,” I said. “Who’s asking?”
He examined my outstretched hand for a moment before reaching out to give it a quick, uneasy shake. His eightfingered grip was cold and clammy. Like most new arrivals on the Hive, he was trying his hardest to come off tough, cool and imposing all at once, and it wasn’t going well.
I could already see droplets of sweat around his hairline and upper lip, and his eyes twitched too fast, showing too much white around the edges.
“I heard you can get certain things,” he said.
“Well.” I blinked at him, still smiling, the picture of serene innocence. “I’m not sure where you might have heard such a rumor. I’m just another happy face here at the Hive.”
“One of the guards told me about you,” Nagma said. “I need to place an order.” He was so jumpy that he could barely stand still, and I guess I should’ve recognized trouble right away, but something about him had already intrigued me. “I can pay whatever it costs.”
“Take it easy,” I said, nodding at the empty place across the table. “Just have yourself a seat. We’ve got nothing but time.”
After another hesitant beat, Nagma bent down and folded his lanky torso into the bench opposite mine. There was a lot of him to fold. At full height he stood almost two meters tall, gangling and narrow-shouldered and so skinny that the orange prison-issue uniform hung off his frame like the flag of some defeated principality. The pale dome of his elongated bald head was threaded with fine blue veins, and when he leaned across to whisper in my ear, I could smell the fear coming off of his skin in waves — at least I thought it was fear. Looking back, I had no idea how sick he was.
“How does this sort of thing usually work?” he asked, rummaging down into his uniform. “Do I pay you first, or —”
“Relax, friend.” I locked my eyes onto his. “We hardly know each other. Tell me your story. Where you’re from. That sort of thing.”
He squinted at me. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I like to be properly introduced to anybody that I do business with,” I said. “It insures that I’m dealing only with clients of the highest moral fiber.”
“The highest…?” He glanced at me for a second, bewildered, then let out a snort. The joke was that every convict here in Cog Hive Seven, all five hundred twenty-two of us, represented the scum of the galaxy — murderers, mercenaries and psychopaths of every stripe and species, walking genetic disasters that wouldn’t hesitate to slash your throat for half a credit, or no reason at all. Our one unifying trait was that no one would miss us. Which was why our esteemed warden, Sadiki Blirr, could run the Hive like she did, pitting us against one another in daily gladiatorial matches that had already become one of the galaxy’s most lucrative gambling operations.
It didn’t help that every inmate had a microscopic electrostatic charge injected directly into their heart upon arrival. A tiny explosive which could be triggered by any of the guards at any moment, for any reason. Walking around with an undetonated bomb in your chest had a peculiar effect on your general outlook — gives life here a certain transitory quality, you might say.
Nagma didn’t seem to care about that now, and it didn’t look like he was one for idle small talk. So I gave up trying to make conversation and sighed. “What are you looking for?” I asked.
“You know what Anzati snot garlic is?” he asked.
“What, you mean the cooking ingredient?” I frowned. “I think I had it in shaak pot roast once. Why?”
“I need an entire bulb of it. As soon as possible.” He laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles, a nervous habit. “How long will it take to smuggle in?”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, “what’s the big emergency? Are the Bone Kings planning a banquet I’m not aware of?”
“It’s this place,” Nagma said. “You know that as well as I do, Zero. Everything’s an emergency.”
I didn’t reply, but I understood what he meant. We were all well aware that the Hive’s algorithm could select any of us at any time. When the prison walls began to pivot and twist and reassemble themselves around us, one cell would be paired with another, the occupants forced into a match where there could only be one survivor. In short, you never knew when your number was up.
“What do you need it for?” I asked.
“That’s personal,” Nagma said, but when he looked back up at me, I could see that his whole body was trembling, the sweat-stains already soaking through his uniform, forming darkened half-moons beneath his arms.
Nerves, I thought.
I was wrong.
Nagma’s snot garlic arrived a week later, smuggled in alongside a shipment of replacement droid components and medical supplies. By the time he came to pick it up, I realized that whatever was ailing him had gotten significantly worse.
Since the last time we’d spoken, his eyes had sunken into his head, giving his entire face a gaunt and haunted look, like a skull with the thinnest veneer of skin stretched across it.
He somehow seemed to have become even more skeletal, except for his belly, which bulged grotesquely outward from his uniform. He held it when he sat down, clutching it and wincing in pain as if he were in the throes of some terrible misbegotten pregnancy.
“You all right?” I asked.
He shook his head, waving the question away. His voice was thin, reedy with pain. “Did you get it?”
“Yes, and I’m happy to be rid of it,” I said, reaching down into the hidden pocket I’d stitched inside my pantleg, and passing the bulb of snot garlic under the table. “This stuff reeks worse than a wet tauntaun.”
“Here.” Grabbing the garlic, he thrust a wad of crumpled credits notes into my palm, already rising up to leave. He didn’t make it far. Three meters away, there was a sharp scream of pain, and we both looked up as one of the other cons — a sociopathic Rodian named Skagway — went flying across the next table over, blood geysering from the hole in his throat, splashing down to soak the front of his uniform. The moment that he hit the floor, Bone Kings, three of them, leapt on top of him, and I saw Nagma’s expression sicken.
“What are they doing?” he asked.
“Deboning,” I said, and reached for his arm. “Best not to watch.” The one in charge was a mass murderer named Vas Nailhead, known especially for making weapons from the sharpened femurs and ribs of his kills.
Foran instant Nagma stood paralyzed, unable to look away. After a second, Vas straightened up, his hands slathered with fresh blood. “What are you looking at, maggot?” Before Nagma could answer, Nailhead’s hand shot out and grabbed him, yanking him forward so fast that his long skinny legs tangled underneath him. I saw Nagma’s jaw drop open, hopeless, eyes goggling in panic.
“Easy, Vas.” I held up one hand. “He’s nothing to you.”
Nailhead glared at me and his lips wrinkled back. “Z
“He’s a customer,” I said with a shrug. “I have to protect my income stream, don’t I?”
We locked eyes for a second, and I lifted my right foot off the ground. My prison-issue boots were lined with plexisteel, and Nailhead knew what it would do if I decided to put one through his face.
He let out a snarl and released his grip and shoved Nagma back to his spot at the table. For a moment neither of us spoke. After what felt like a very long time, Nagma gazed up at me.
“You stood up for me.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Forget it.”
He shook his head.
I sighed. “Listen. Everything here is a test. It’s just a matter of choosing your moment, and not hesitating when it comes.”
Nagma let out a low, slow breath, and his bony shoulders trembled. The cloyingly sweet smell that I’d initially attributed to fear had become irrefutably stronger, and I realized now what it was — some form of fever, an illness that was only getting worse. In his sickened state, the attack seemed to have drained whatever strength he’d had, leaving him visibly depleted.
“You asked for my story.” Something passed over his face, a grim tightness at the corners of the lips that could’ve been a smile — except the emotional component had been stripped away from it, leaving a kind of unplugged hopelessness.
“I’m from Monsolar. Little backwater dirt-clod tucked into the Alzoc system.”
“Never heard of it.”
“You’re not missing much.” He shook his head. “It’s a pit. Heavy canopy, primitive tribes, most of them at war with each other… not many get out.”
He gave me a wry look. “Only to end up here,” he said. “It’s my own fault. I got caught with a stolen load of thermal detonators in a spaceport on Urdur. That’s an automatic life sentence in any system.”
“Tough luck,” I said.
Nagma shrugged. “The gangster who hired me said he could help me. I was desperate. I guess I still am.”
I looked at him again, saw the sweat pouring down his emaciated face, the bulging stomach. “You’re sick,” I said.
“It’s worse than that,” he said. “It’s the Worm.”
He stared down at his trembling hands for a moment, as if the rest of the story might magically materialize in front of him, preventing him from having to tell it out loud. When it didn’t, he drew a deep breath and pressed on. “Ever hear of the Syrox? The Wolf Worm of Monsolar?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“It’s an alpha species, native to my home planet.” He let the breath out slowly. “An ectomorphic life-form, evolved in some way but not in others — a highly efficient, brainless predator. Feeds on blood. Imagine a blind river parasite half the size of this mess hall, with a mouth ringed in rows of teeth, and you’ll start to get the idea.”
I said nothing, just waited for him to continue.
“Back home,” Nagma said, “most of the local tribes either worshiped it, feared it, or both. Over the generations, we built our culture around it, our stories and myths and rites of passage.” He gave me a queasy smile, and glanced down at the swollen bulge of his belly. “Every season the Syrox lays its eggs in the streams of the river. They start out small — microscopic. That’s why we never drink unfiltered water on Monsolar. But say a kid gets lost in the jungle… and gets thirsty enough…”
I stared at him, seeing how it could have happened. Nagma nodded again and gave me that terrible, meaningless smile.
“Incubation time is slow. It can remain in the gut of the host for years, feeding and growing stronger.” He looked down at his swollen stomach, and a terrible hopelessness flashed over his face. “But eventually it always finds its way out.”
“And the gangster who hired you to transport those detonators —”
Nagma nodded again. “He said he could get it removed for me, that he could set me up with tricky surgery in a clinic back in the Core Worlds. But the authorities caught up with me first. Not that it matters now.” He patted his stomach tenderly. “It’s getting larger each day. I can feel it getting bigger, pushing my organs aside. Sometimes at night…” He swallowed hard. “I can feel it moving around inside me. And I have to get it out.”
He took the bulb of garlic out of his pocket and placed it on the table, and for a moment we both looked at it. “So what’s with the garlic?”
“Back on Monsolar, we had an old folk remedy for those who’ve been infected. Go to sleep with a bulb of snot garlic on your pillow. They say the Syrox is attracted to the smell. It comes crawling out on its own.”
“Respectfully…” I stood up, reached across the table and tapped my finger over his chest. “You’ve got a bomb implanted in your heart. And at any given moment you could be matched against another inmate who will in all likelihood kill you.” I waved my hand, gesturing to the inmates lined up at the mess hall tables. “Any one of us could be dead tomorrow. Why do you care so much about getting this parasite out of your system?”
Nagma gazed back at me, and for just a second I thought I saw a flash of the young tribesman that he’d once been, steadfast and unafraid with his whole future ahead of him. Before the Worm had gotten into him. Before he’d been brought here. When he spoke again his voice was low and calm, but there was deep steel in it.
“My tribe is founded in the traditions of justice and honor,” he said. “I can accept my sentence, because I chose to smuggle those detonators. It was my mistake, and I’ll pay for it — with my life, if I have to.” His eyes narrowed, growing cold. “But I want to go my way, Zero. Clean.” He grimaced. “Without this godforsaken thing crawling around inside me.”
He opened his mouth to say something else, and the clarion bell went off. In the Hive, that meant only one thing. The matching was about to begin. When the alarm sounded, you had five minutes till lockdown, and I knew what Nagma was thinking — what would happen if the algorithm, in its infinite wisdom, selected him, and when the countless moving parts of Cog Hive Seven finished their reconfiguration, the wall of his cell opened up to expose the inmate that would almost certainly be the death of him.
When I looked up again, he was gone.
Waleed Nagma wasn’t matched to fight that day, or the day after that, or the weeks to come. Every so often, I saw him lingering around the mess hall or the central pavilion where the halls of the Hive came together like spokes in a great wheel, where the cons milled around listlessly throughout the day, serving out their sentences and waiting to get matched. He never approached me or tried to make contact, but I could tell from looking at him that the thing he’d told me about — the Syrox, the thing he called the Wolf Worm — was still incubating inside him. His belly looked enormous, as if it were about to burst.
Then one day I was heading back to my cell for the night when a guard named Voystock came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder.
I stopped and looked around, and he waved me forward, back down the way I’d come. “Got a message for you. This way.”
“Where are we going?”
He didn’t answer, and I didn’t really expect him to. We weren’t heading for any of the cell blocks, but lower, following a narrow stairway to the abandoned manufacturing area that the cons called Nightside. Rounding a corner, Voystock swung open the broken hatchway and nodded me into the flat, darkened space beyond it. After a moment of standing there, letting my eyes adjust, I sensed something curled in the corner, fifteen meters away, moving in the shadows.
“Zero,” a voice croaked.
The voice froze me. It was a raspy, almost incoherent whisper, so heavy with pain that I almost couldn’t recognize it. “Nagma?”
“Don’t come any closer,” the voice said, and there was something clotted about the words, as if they were forcing their way through a thick obstruction. “It’s coming up now.
The words broke off. I tried to step back, but my feet felt nailed to the spot. When the thing in the corner shifted slightly into a rectangle of light from the hatchway, I saw what I hadn’t been able to make out before — or as much of it as I could stand to see, anyway. Enough to last me for the rest of my life.
Waleed Nagma was sprawled on his side, curled into a desperate, fetal clutch, with his cheek pressed against the durasteel floor. He was convulsing wildly. His eyes were pinched shut, but his mouth was stretched open so wide that I thought his jaw had dislocated.
Something was coming out of his mouth.
At first I thought it was his tongue. Except it was white. And huge. Ropey. And then I saw it plainly, slithering into view, slow and pale and thick and I knew what it was.
Its slimy, pale length was emerging from between Nagma’s lips with a hideous laziness, slithering forward as its broad flat head quested after the withered bulb of snot garlic he’d placed in front of it.
I couldn’t breathe. Could only watch in something that wasn’t just revulsion, but went beyond that.
As the Worm came. And came. And just kept on coming.
At the sight of it — the sheer repulsive length of the thing, several meters long at least — I heard myself curse aloud. I felt my own stomach give an uneasy lurch, and heard Nagma scream.
By now the worm had pulled itself completely out, whipped its tail free, then reared back, twisting its blind head in my direction, as if only now realizing that I was here. For an instant, time seemed to freeze. As the Syrox faced me, the entire front of its head peeled back to reveal a perfectly round mouth, perhaps half a meter across, lined with rows of inward facing teeth. It lunged.
“Kill it!” Nagma shrieked. “Kill it, Zero!”
He said something else, but I didn’t hear it. Springing forward, I lifted my foot, encased in the heavy prison-issue boot, and brought my heel down as hard as I could on the worm’s head. There was a horrible scrunching squelch as whatever was inside of it collapsed and burst open. And I watched as its narrow hooked teeth scattered sideways in a skittering profusion across the floor.
by Joe Schreiber have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes