Flash Fiction: Invasive

How about a new flash piece? It’s an answer to a challenge by Chuck Wendig again, this week asking for a story about an invasive species. I might have misinterpreted that adjective slightly. Or hit his hidden meaning on the head. I don’t seem to be the only one going this route, at least.
Warning, though: Not for the squeamish.

Invasive

“Tell me, Mister Sammer, do you happen to sleep on your side?”
“I do, but I don’t think my arm has just become numb from me sleeping on it. This has been going on for far too long now to be that.”
Doctor Gern mustered the inner side of Georg’s arm once more. Passing his forearm, his eyes fixated on something they seemed to have found in his armpit.
“That’s not what I mean by that. I can see a very peculiar wound down here. Do you happen to lie on the left side sleeping?”
“Yes. Wound?”
“Almost circular and looking rather new. You say, your arm feels extremely light and your hands don’t respond like they should. I have to assume there is a problem with your muscles’ attachment to the bone, and I think I know the reason why. Did any liquid leak from your armpit, did you spot any discolorations in your mattress the last few days?”
“Not as far as I remember. Is that something more common?”
“It wasn’t before, but this month your are the fifth showing symptoms like that. I expect the X-ray any minute now, it should tell the rest of the story.”
As if she heard the doctor’s call for it, the assistant entered the room, x-ray under her arm. She put it on the illuminated wall for displayed x-rays and left without a word. The outline and bones of an arm showed. One of the forearm’s bones seemed very pale in comparison to the glowing white the light gave the other bones in the picture.
“Just as I thought,” Doctor Gern said, moved in to take a closer look of the image again, return with eyes calming Georg with the confidence reflected in them, gripped Georg Sammer’s arm with both hands, and smashed it on the table.
CRACK it went as his ulna easily burst into pieces. And yet, the pain was no worse than that of a hand slapping his skin.
“Are you nuts?! You’re supposed to fix my arm, not shatter it!”
“That’s just what I did. Didn’t you realize this barely hurt when a bone shattering should cause excruciating pain?”
“I don’t have my arm broken all that often,” he replied perplexed.
“Look at the x-ray, don’ you see something peculiar there?”
“One fo the bones looks really pale.”
“Look closer!”
“I don’t see anything special.”
“You don’t? So you think it’s normal there are six white beams coming out of the ulna’s side and two more going into your hand?”
“You’re the doctor, you tell me!”
“No, it’s not normal at all. Most bones in the human body don’t have legs and antennae sticking out.”
“They don’t have what?”
“Legs and antennae. You see, you have caught a parasitic phasmid. Had caught, it should be dead now. We remove the remains of the dead phasmid in a minute.”
“I caught what?”
“A parasitic phasmid. A stick insect making a home in the victim’s limbs by replacing certain bones with themselves, living off their blood. All painless thanks to chemicals they give off, but the effects still bewilder the patients, as you just experienced. Did you know stick insects can give birth to live young without involving a male? They then crawl out of the entry wound and nestle into the mattress until another person sleeps there or they can enter an uninfected limb on the original host. Nasty little bug climate change has begun to draw out of the tropics.”
And that is the story how Ludwig Sammer convinced his son to take over the family business as an exterminator after all. All thanks to the help of a friend who was also the family doctor with a strange enthusiasm in parasitology and a few genetic engineers he knew from college. And the story how they introduced a new terror to the world, keeping people awake at night. Oh well, some eggs ought to be cracked. It was all for the good of the family, after all.


Predator of Flame

Good news everyone, I will have two blog posts this week! Because I will not skip on my promise to continue the series on game writing on Wednesday, yet Chuck Wendig has a challenge out to which I actually want to post a response. So you get both. Lucky you. (edit: I failed you, I’m sorry)
Short note: I consider this sort of a companion piece to last year’s Master of Man, hence the similar title.smoke

Predator of Flame

Laura awoke to heat and light and red and yellow eating up the walls around her. To thick dark smoke spreading in the place of clean air. The house was on fire!
Recalling her training from school, she let herself fall out of the bed instead of standing up, to crawl underneath the poisonous smoke toward the door of the bedroom. The handle was warm, but not hot, so she opened the door and got out. The flames were everywhere already. Burning carpets blocked the way to the stairs, so she crawled the other way.
There was a window just above a garage the other way. Low enough to get out and let herself fall down on the garage’s roof safely.
She crawled ahead, passing a room with no fire but filled with a column of smoke that seemed to come in through a hole in the floor. Around a corner and – parts of the roof had already collapsed, blocking her way in this direction, too.
What she needed now was time to think. The room from before. There was smoke, but she could keep her head down. At least there was no fire yet, this could give her precious time. So she went there, careful not to close the door behind her.
Think. Somebody must’ve seen the fire yet. The firefighters had to be on their way. Was waiting for them an option? No, too risky. Maybe if she could find another way to the first floor. Where did that smoke come from, anyway? A hole in the floor was all she needed to get down and hopefully out.
That smoke column. What was that? It just stood there in the middle of the room. But it did not seem to dissipate or fill the room, quite the opposite. It looked like smoke from around the room flowed toward the column to be absorbed.
There was something in the smoke. Not really a form, more like a recurring pattern in the vague shape of a human fading in and out of the dark layers of thick smoke. A face there, an arm here, flickering in and out of existence as if the fire wanted to mock her.
More a form of modulated wind then a voice, words reached her ears: “Hello there.”
“Who’s there? Help! I’m here!”
“So am I.”
Needles filled her chest, but she managed to cough out the pain in her lungs.
“Where? Who?”
The smoke formed a more pronounced form now. A featureless human shape emerged, fading from solidified ash into thin air at its edges.
“What the hell are you?”
Snickering from nowhere. “I am me. One of my meals called me the Predator of Flame. One of the few who could still talk for a while, like you. A wannabe poet, I think. So few of you manage to stay conversational as I prepare to nourish. But I like those that do. It is a special quality of some to become even calmer than usual when meeting things like me.”
“Nourish? D’you wanna eat me?”
“In a way.”
“And you think I’ll be okay with that?”
The smoke snickered again. “Even if you would ask a pig before eating bacon, would you accept its answer? It is not like you could fight me.”
“Then why are you talking to me? Why bother? Entertainment?”
“Yes, entertainment while I wait for you to burn. But I would not know the concept had I not learned from your lot. I saw your struggles and through instinctual emulation I found consciousness. Then language. The sense of enjoying my life. Some of your most beautiful traits. I am quite fond of arrogance, for example. What a terrific notion.”
“What about guilt?”
“What about it? I do not do anything. I do not kill you I consume the exhaust of fire’s kills. This is how I became, this is how I persist, this is my nature. I am smoke. This is the most solid I’ll ever be. I could not kill if I wanted to.”
“You’re clearing your conscience, then?”
“I chose not to have one. No, I entertain myself. After all, you cannot change your fate anymore. Already, I taste your burning flesh and hair nourish me.”
“I’m not even on fire yet.”
“Do not lie, I can taste it. You started burning, it cannot be anybody else. There is nobody here. You are alone. You burn.”
At the edge of her sight, something dark snuck through the fire. Were there two of these smoke creatures? Another one to mock her? The dark figure appeared again, barking at her. The dog wore a fire department jacket, but it had caught some fire on its tail. Acting like that was not an issue, the dog barked again, to then start trying to pull Laura out of the room. She jumped up, and her lifesaver immediately starting walking out, showing her a clear path through the debris and the flames. It was way easier than before. Laura had not thought the carpets would burn up as fast as they did, and now the path to the stairs down was clear.
In the kitchen, she managed to grab hold of the dog and extinguished the flames gnawing at its tail by squeezing it in between her arms and belly. Pain advised her not to ever put out a fire this way again, reason likewise advised her not to do this right then. But depriving the smoke creature of some food seemed worth it.
She did not see it again until well after she had finally reached the back door of the house and fled into the garden. If she saw it after that, she was not sure. There was that particularly dark huff of smoke bursting out from a window and drifting away just before the firefighters closing in from the front of the house got the flames under control. Off to taunt its next meal.

Some Background

I’ve had this idea of a creature living off the ashes in the smoke from great fires for some time, yet never employed it so far. I have the plot for a complete fantasy novel revolving around them ready, but other stuff takes top priority before I come to that.
In the meantime, I took that concept and ran with it for this short. The being is now smoke itself instead of being a normal solid creature filter feeding from smoke much like large whales filter feed from the oceans. Feeding off the victims of fire makes it the malevolent counterpiece to the more neutral or even benevolent (if manipulative) fire elemantal encountered in Master of Man.
The Master of Man is a symbiont. The Predator of Flame is a parasite or, well, a predator. I like this creature and the more ethereal quality it grew to assume for this short.