It’s a two-day trip to reach the network node, and the first one is a long one. Cleve gets us moving before the suns are up, wanting us to be burning oxygen when the air is clearest. But if we rest mid-morning, we risk miasma drifting in when none of us are alert. So we only take a short break, and then he gets us moving again.
“Common convention is that you travel during the day unless it’s a desert,” Cleve says. I’m not sure if he’s trying to defend his decisions to us or just holding onto known facts for comfort.
“You’ll have a better feel for this after we spend a few more days out here,” I tell him, offering some reassurance. I certainly have no idea how or when it would be best for us to travel, so any insight he can provide is welcome, however uncertain he may be.
“True,” he acknowledges. Maybe I’ve made him feel a little better?
This is certainly no desert. Rain hits us in the afternoon—no surprise there. Cleve hasn’t gotten a fashion update like Cor and I, but he has acquired a practical jacket. Could be some sort of treated canvas or maybe leather. Whatever it is, the rain rolls off it and the wide brim of his hat. I get kind of drenched, which is actually rather pleasant. It’s warm out, and the rain provides a nice relief after the exertion of all the hiking—we took the steep slopes high above Miasma Pass, rather than risk unnecessary exposure. My new lapel decoration probably grows a bit extra from the monsoon soaking. Corazon didn’t give me a hard time about affixing a little branch of xenofungus this time; she’s got her style, and I’ve got mine.
Cor still has her fungicide spray gear. She didn’t have to trade it for her training, as Roze understood its usefulness for this job. However, she is supposed to bring something valuable back from Data Haven to pay off the investment they made in her. In addition to learning more software hacking, Cor spent some time tinkering during the week. She proudly shows off the switch she installed that makes it much faster to convert between miasma blower and anti-fungus gun. “Came up with this myself,” she says with a grin.
She doesn’t use any of the spray on our trek though, even when xenofungus clings at our legs. I’m glad. We need to coexist with these plants. Make room for each other. Step carefully. After we have put Miasma Pass behind us, I find myself getting ahead of the others; my denim might be more resistant to their little thorns than the materials Cor and Cleve are wearing. When I come upon a brook with a strange new creature in it, I pause to let them catch up and to watch it, fascinated. It looks like a crustacean, kind of scaly with two little pincer claws and adorable eyes up on stalks. It’s larger than an Earth lobster, more like raccoon-sized. I watch as it picks up various rocks, checks them out, and then puts them back down along the pebbly bank. Is it testing the rocks for something? I have no idea. I crouch down and examine the small stones myself. They are smoothed round by water, but otherwise there is nothing particularly distinct about them. The creature approaches me, completely unconcerned by my presence, and I hold still. It tests a few pebbles by me, then gives my finger a little pinch too. Its stalk eyes bob as it looks me over, but I also am not what it’s seeking. It continues on, all chill, and I just watch it, amazed. I’ll have to flip through the zine I got from Dr. Citali later to see if this is one of the crustaceans it mentioned.
Cleve calls a stop for the day on top of a small knoll. It puts us above the surrounding terrain, decreasing the chance of miasma swamping us while we sleep or a flash flood hitting us. There’s a clear area among some of the larger mushroom shrubs, and the ground here is dry. Cleve insists on taking a watch. Cor and I don’t stop him, but we also don’t stay up to keep him company. It’s been a long day, and I was definitely dragging by the end. I’m fit, but I’m not used to being on my feet all day. I unroll the compact travel blanket I picked up in Data Haven and stretch myself out, glad to be off my leg for a while. It doesn’t take long for me to fall asleep.
I wake up to the sound of Cleve’s level, “We’re going to die.” I blink my eyes open, trying to get my bearings. The moons are not favorable tonight, making the campsite quite dark. “Where is it?” I hear Cleve mutter. “It’s right behind me, isn’t it?” he continues fatalistically. I hear a skittering, and then my eyes finally pick out what the trouble is. There are a couple wolf beetles near him! One snaps its mandibles, and Cleve jerks back. “Wake up!” he says sharply, glancing back at where Cor and I are slowly gathering our wits. “Danger!”
These are the smaller wolf beetles, not the large queen that Cleve tussled with in the nest. I push myself up to sit on my left leg with my right one bent in front of me and reach out a hand towards them. I’ve never had a pet in my life, so I don’t really know how to talk to animals, but I do my best to sound unthreatening. “Hey!” I call softly. “No, no, we’re friendly! We’re not after your eggs.” I glance around. “There’s no eggs around here, right?” One of the wolf beetles tilts its head at me and then ambles over. I’ve seen these creatures when their ire is up; I had one latch onto my leg. This little fellow is not that. If anything, it seems curious. It moves its head as though sniffing and then brushes up against my right leg.
Once awake, Corazon scrambles to her feet. “Don’t shoot it!” she shouts at Cleve, who does have a rifle in his hands. “Aw, we’re probably sleeping on its nest!” She snatches up her fungicide gear and hits the switch for blower mode. “We just need to shoo them away. Shoo them, not shoot them.” The blast of air that comes out is not properly calibrated for startling wild wolf beetles. Rather than scare them away, it knocks Corazon back off her feet. Undeterred, she gets back up and braces herself better before letting loose a stream of air.
Cleve looks around while keeping out of the way of the wolf beetle snapping at him, and he groans in realization that she’s right. It is nowhere near as obvious as the first nest we happened into, but there are signs of walls starting to be woven together from the lower branches of the mushroom bushes. “We gotta pack up camp and get out of here,” he says. The wolf beetle at his feet snaps and catches at his pants leg. It takes a chunk of fabric with it as it flees Corazon’s air jets, but Cleve himself is unharmed.
Meanwhile, I seem to have developed some sort of rapport with the other wolf beetle. It’s nuzzling my right leg, so I reach out slowly and carefully stroke its soft fur. “Hey, what’s the matter? Can you show me why you got so upset?” I can pick out some woven branches, but I don’t see any signs of eggs. The wolf beetle moves away from me, over to that partially constructed nest wall. It lies down, maybe like it was sleeping, and then gets back up. It moves to another area, where I can now recognize that we unwittingly damaged the nascent nest, and starts weaving in fallen vines to make repairs. I turn and look up at Cleve, who is eying the remaining wolf beetle with a frown. “We set up camp right in the middle of their home,” I tell him. “Of course they’re upset.”
Cleve gives a disappointed shake of his head. “That’s just my experience with these guys,” he grumbles. But maybe now we know enough to avoid doing it a third time.
Corazon agrees with me. “I mean, I’d be upset if somebody crashed through my house walls,” she says. Cleve makes no response other than to start packing up.
I do so too but much more slowly, as I continue to watch the wolf beetle with fascination. Something is strange here. It’s like the wolf beetle understands me, but surely that can’t be right?
Corazon is unfazed. “This one must have been domesticated,” she tells me. “‘Cause, yeah, that’s how wolf beetles act. You crash into their house, though, and I’m not surprised they then snap at you,” she adds, throwing a barb at Cleve. His only response to her jab is to speed up his packing and move off into the night. “Cleve? Cleve!” Cor hastily snatches up her own gear. “I should go after him,” she tells me. “He shouldn’t travel alone… I’ve done it too, though,” she adds sadly. She takes a step to pursue him and then pauses, looking back at where I’m rolling my blanket with glacial slowness. “Are you good? You bringing this with us?” she asks, indicating the wolf beetle with a nod of her chin.
“No! This is a wild creature. It should be free to continue building its home,” I tell her. I stuff my compressed blanket into my satchel and grab my cane. Then I push myself to my feet and step over to give the wolf beetle one last little pat on the head. Corazon hurries after Cleve as I slowly back out of the clearing. Then I turn to follow, carefully picking my way down the hill in the dark. Behind me, I hear a sound completely unlike the angry hisses of our first encounter with these creatures. No, this is the lonesome call of a solitary wolf beetle, rising and falling in pitch like an ambulance or a cicada. Or a ghost.