Ensign Farragut stepped on a chunky, beige tube-worm and emitted a slight groan of disgust as the oozy brown worm-guts seeped out onto the sandy, gray ground of The Planet of the Ravenous Snails.

Commander Fitz-Nelson barked out a harsh, dog-like laugh, the laugh of a grizzled Space Commander who’d witnessed far more grotesque and savage sights than the accidental halving of a tube-worm. “Distressed by worm innards, Farragut? Didn’t you take Dismemberment Training at the Space Academy? Evisceration Class? A Space Ensign must be ready for any degree of gore.”

“I didn’t sign up for this mission to wantonly slaughter helpless creatures,” protested Farragut. He was a slight, bespectacled Space Ensign on his first mission, an invertebrate-loving would-be zoologist who hadn’t been able to afford the tuition to pursue advanced mollusk studies. When Farragut had learned about the journey to the Planet of the Ravenous Snails, he’d immediately quit his greasy job making artisanal onion rings to put himself forward for the crew.

Fitz-Nelson confronted him with the hardened, granite-hewn face of a Commander who’d seen crew after crew succumb to wholesale space-slaughter: men chewed up in the maw of the Living Cave on the Planet of the Living Cave, diced and reorganized on the Planet of the Puzzle-Loving Iguanas and suffocated under a swollen tongue on the Planet of the Diseased Giant Sloths. “Listen to me, Farragut, and listen good. Space is a ferocious killing machine, each creature in it made to gobble, chomp or absorb through osmosis some other living organism. There’s no such thing as a helpless creature in space, you slack-willed, moist-eyed Academy-bred Fawn. If I have to put a goddamn Kill Ray in your hands…”

Farragut held up a silver-gloved hand to signal for silence.

“What was that?” the ensign asked.

“What was what?”

“I heard a rumble. Like the rumble of a Ravenous Snail slowly making its way through a field of giant rocks.”

Fitz-Nelson laughed again, the laugh a large, black, medieval, beef-loving dog might laugh if it had the uncanny power of man-like laughter. “Scared of a Ravenous Snail? Is that what you are, Farragut?” Fitz-Nelson pivoted with bravado toward the large boulders blocking their view and whipped out his streamlined Snail Detector.

“There’s nothing wrong with a healthy sense of fright,” said Farragut. “A man without fear is practically the definition of a man with a serious psychosis.”

Fitz-Nelson jerked his head back and stared wild-eyed at Farragut with the glare of a predatory bird spotting a taunting, but plump, rodent. “What did you say, Farragut?”

“I said a man without fear…”

“After that.”

“Serious psychosis.”

Fitz-Nelson’s eyes narrowed, growing as narrow as a thin strip of licorice dangling limply from the mouth of a mentally challenged boy. “Who told you about my serious psychosis?”

Farragut raised his eyebrows. “You have a serious psychosis?”

Just then, the Snail Detector buzzed with a decisive, penetrating buzz.

Fitz-Nelson glared at the detector, gave another wild-eyed look at Farragut, then, with a burst of energy possible only in a Space Commander in the grip of a serious psychosis, leapt atop the giant boulder and laughed a jagged, vigorous laugh.

“Behind this boulder, Farragut. Behind this boulder lurks the Ravenous Snail of my destiny!”

Farragut watched in horror as Fitz-Nelson bounded from the boulder down to the hidden rock field beyond. Straining his ears, he could barely make out the sizzling sound of Ravenous Snail juices dripping from a snail maw. Farragut looked back at the cylindrical Space Capsule, planted on a flat rock some hundred yards away. If he returned to the Capsule without Fitz-Nelson he would be shunned as a cowardly Space Mutineer, a rookie ensign who’d derelicted his duty. Gritting his teeth, Farragut thought back on his dreams of seeing the snails of space in person. Scanning the boulder, he detected a shadowy area, wide enough for a man with his build and thin-layered space suit to squeak through.

Farragut plunged in and was soon surrounded by ominous walls of unfriendly boulder, foreign space rock that flaunted a crass, uncaring attitude toward human intruders. He could sense the stony hostility, the intransigent, geological self-regard that would crush him like the visiting vertebrate that he was, and so it was almost with relief that he finally squeezed through to the expansive, uneven rock field.

“Snail ho!” came the booming voice of Fitz-Nelson.

Adjusting to the light, Farragut blinked and looked up. He beheld the largest Ravenous Snail he’d ever seen, stretching upward to the height of two normal men, its shell a rough and unattractive mosaic of dirty pink and midnight black. Sitting atop the shell, riding it like a long-haired, barbarian conqueror at the head of innumerable ranks of snail troops, was Fitz-Nelson, spurring the monstrous mollusk on with kicks of his black Space Boots and shouts of implacable orders.

“Drool, snail, drool! Drool on those who would question their Commander!”

The snail’s surprisingly fast and agile neck, glistening with ample slime, writhed about above the cowering Farragut and from its primitive mollusk mouth it let fall a foaming glob of alien snail drool. Farragut screamed as the acidic drool penetrated his space suit, sizzling through the thin layer to his scrawny shoulder. He collapsed, writhing in a lethal bath of snail acid.

Fizt-Nelson laughed a triumphal, scornful laugh. Surveying his new rocky kingdom from the snail’s back, he exulted in the spectacle of his sparsely populated, yet atmospherically sound, domain. He pounded the snail shell in exultation, but grew overly exuberant in his wallops. The last time he’d ridden atop a Ravenous Snail had been decades before and the Commander was unused to the moist and clammy shell. His smooth, frictionless suit wasn’t designed for snail riding and as he whooped a final victorious whoop, Fitz-Nelson leaned too far to the left and lost his balance, sliding from the snail’s back and falling to the field of sharply pointed rocks below, where he split his skull on a knife-like, serrated ledge. As the Commander lay bleeding onto the ground, the snail dipped its head to take advantage of the rare, ample meal of two bipeds as a flock of miniscule black birds flew above in a lonesome formation across the sky of the Planet of the Ravenous Snails.