Chronicles of Chiron: Excising Arx | Scene 19

We hear a loud scraping overhead, and then with our next shove, the tile above me and Arx finally moves. In the dusty dim space above us, we see Takuto looking down. He’s frozen, unsure of what to say. Arx pulls off their breath mask. “Takuto, are you lost?” they ask. “Data Haven’s that way.” They shoot their double finger guns in a random direction and give him a lopsided grin. Takuto, tears streaming down his cheeks, reaches down, and they clasp arms. I give Arx a boost from below, and soon those two are finally reunited, embracing each other and whispering reassurances. Louisa offers me a hand up.

Away from the fungicide now, I pull off the breath mask and stuff it in my satchel. As I brush myself off, I see this new location is a dusty mess full of… wolf beetles? Cleve’s got a real knack for finding them. I take in the cage, the leashes hanging near it, and the office set up around me. “Is one of those Mr. Fuzzy?” I call over to Cleve as I kick the pulled-up linoleum tile back in place. There’s no way to hide the mess we made with the boards down in the basement below, but there’s no need to make it too easy to follow us if someone decides to start looking. I throw my weight against the desk, shoving it back over the access point. I hear something rattle in one of the drawers, so I pull it open. Inside is a ledger book. A quick flip through it reveals Morgan’s involvement with this illegal venture—as well as the organization’s need to hire a new handler since Saba isn’t around anymore. I happily take the book along with me as I join Cleve by the pen. Getting this information into the right hands could be a big blow to Morgan’s reputation.

Cleve rifles through his bag looking for something to help with a controlled release of the wolf beetles. One of the things he pulls out as he searches is a pair of sunglasses. “Whose are these?” he mutters with some confusion. Of course he packed some back on Earth, but they were lost along with so much of the rest of his gear. “They seem familiar, but these aren’t mine.”

I recognize the flashy pair. Hypercor is going to be pissed! “Those are Corazon’s. They might have her scent on them,” I add with a smile. “If one of these wolf beetles responds to them, maybe we have found Mr. Fuzzy.” Cleve shoots me a look, like this could be one coincidence too many. “Consider: how large is this society? How many wolf beetles can be involved in this illegal fighting ring?” I flip through the ledger and point out the scribbled note that indicates “M” said to take extra care of “Mr. Fuzzy.”

Cleve gives a swift nod, sufficiently persuaded. “Sure!” He crouches near the bars, holding the sunglasses out. One of the wolf beetles further back in the cage perks up. It makes a plaintive call as it trots over and then licks the sunglasses. “Mr. Fuzzy?” Cleve addresses it. The wolf beetle looks at him and tilts its head, alert to the name. Cleve lets out a long breath, resigned to the fact that we will be taking a wolf beetle back to Data Haven with us. And not one that can just fit in a purse or a backpack. Then he straightens up and announces his intent to let all the wolf beetles out. “If you all want to head outside first, go ahead. I don’t know what these guys have been through.”

Arx and Takuto are barely listening, huddled together over by the desk. I stay with Cleve, willing to help. Louisa comes over to join us, also onboard with this plan. “Do stray animals live on the streets around here?” I ask her. “On Earth, cats and dogs without owners roam around the cities.”

“No, they’d get caught very quickly if we just let them out. Owning a wolf beetle requires a special license. But, I mean, we should let them out.”

“We should let them out to the outside, then,” I suggest. “Take them out through a dome exit with us.” There are enough leashes hanging from a nail in one of the nearby support columns. I take five of those down. Cleve recognizes the two devices near them as cattle prods, which have likely been used on the wolf beetles. Those definitely do not need to stay here. Cleve slips them into his backpack.

One by one, Cleve gets a leash onto a wolf beetle and hands the reins over to one of us. Takuto and Arx are holding hands, but that means they each have one free for a temporary pet. Louisa assures us the dome entrances remain open throughout the night. Unless there’s a specific lockdown, that is. So far, the clinic’s problem does not seem to have drawn the attention of the authorities, so we should be good there. “We just need to make sure we don’t get caught along the way,” Louisa tells us. “Five people with five wolf beetles, that could arouse suspicion. And some of us have been seen by the repo squad recently. Or if we run into whatever those Planetary Security Forces are, that could be trouble, too.”

“Let’s just go to the nearest exit,” Cleve decides. “We can worry about our track later.”

“That’ll be the land freight exit, unless you want to try going by sea,” Louisa tells us. “You might have to swim. Or we could just steal a boat.”

“I don’t want to make these guys swim, not after what they’ve been through,” Cleve says, nodding down at the wolf beetles. “They’ve been through enough.”

“There is a thin strip of rocky shoreline. They might be able to manage that,” Louisa suggests.

Although the wolf beetles were all kept in the same cage, they snap at each other—and us sometimes—as we travel through the streets, and they pull in all different directions. Mr. Fuzzy is the most reasonable, and Cleve determines that one of the others seems to get along well with Corazon’s old pet. He dubs that one Mrs. Fuzzy and takes responsibility for the pair of them. Cleve’s theory is that they were both domesticated, while the other three were wild caught.

When we’re a little further from the clinic, in the back alleys where we are less likely to be noticed, I decide it is worth the risk for me to see what I can do about calming the other three. I kneel down at wolf beetle eye level while Takuto, Arx, and Louisa hold their charges in front of me. I rest my left hand on my cane for balance and stretch my right hand out toward them. Then I close my eyes, concentrating. I don’t need these creatures affectionately nuzzling my hand, I just need them to calm down a bit. I’ve done this to a single wolf beetle before, but that was in the wilderness with the life of Chiron all around me. And that creature was just scared about its nest being invaded, not abused.

With my miasma-vision, I can see how this goes wrong, but I’m not able to stop it. Two of the wolf beetles do indeed settle down, regarding me as one of their pack. However, all their aggression and anger siphons off into the third wolf beetle, a feisty one that has been frustrated by Louisa’s tight grip this whole time. With a snarl, it lunges at me. I sense what’s happening fast enough to jerk my cane up between us. The reinforced wood gets in the way of the pincers of the trained attack animal, preventing them from snapping down hard enough to shatter my forearm, but they will leave a nasty bruise. Louisa jerks the leash back, pulling the wolf beetle off me. With a swift, dextrous move, she wraps the cord around its pincers in a makeshift muzzle.

“Listen, wolf beetle,” she says firmly, pulling its head around to face her. “I apologize that we’re ruining your home planet, but it’s for your own good that we have to get you out of this accursed dome.” It growls quietly at her, unable to vocalize fully with its pincers secured.

I take a breath to steady myself and then push myself to my feet. I hold out my right hand to Arx and Takuto, and they give up their leashes. I need to keep part of my attention on this pair of wolf beetles, so I might as well keep them right with me. We’ll move more slowly now, given my baseline level of distraction and the pain in my leg I can no longer fully ignore, but we’ll also be more quiet. Hopefully that will be enough to get us safely to the exit.