The shower is fabulous, and it is nice to be able to shave with a larger mirror mounted on a wall. I spend a fair amount of time looking at myself in that mirror, particularly my eyes. They’re nice eyes, I think, an uncommon pale gray. I stare at them, switching my focus from one iris to the other, trying to pick out anything unusual, any hint of purple. I see flecks of darker gray gathered around the pupils, and I wonder if they were always there or not. Could someone have mistaken them for purple? Eventually, I give up this fruitless endeavor. It’s like writing the same word too many times; before long, you begin to question the spelling. I don’t know what people were on about earlier, but as far as I can tell, my eyes look normal.
My breathing is normal now, too. Maybe it was the warm humidity of the shower or the injection from earlier finally kicking in, but regardless, the wheezing feeling in my lungs has cleared up. That’s a relief, a literal weight off my chest.
Once my clothes are clean and ready to wear again, I clack my way down the hall to the common room and collapse into the most comfortable chair I can find, hooking my cane over its arm. I read through the zine and make some annotations in my sketchbook now that I know a bit more about what I drew earlier. While I’m working on that—and honestly, just enjoying some people watching—a slightly less frumpy Cleve and his buddy Roze come in, chatting about Data Haven. Roze’s headset is draped around their neck now, perhaps because no one just set off a perimeter breach alarm.
“So nobody’s in charge? Everyone just needs to try to contribute?” Cleve asks. “How many people are we talking about here?”
“There’s a few hundred. And there’s a few other outlying spots, similar broken-off parts of the ship. Most of us evaded Morgan or found our way here otherwise. We connected with this group called Stepdaughters of Chiron. Have you heard—no, you’ve only been awake a few days.”
“Well, we’ve heard of them!” Cleve says. I remain quiet back in my little corner of the room, curious about what Roze might share with their old friend without a stranger butting in.
“More credit to you.” Roze claps Cleve on the arm. “You are on the up and up, Cleve. You find things out quick, wow.”
“Corazon told us,” Cleve admits, not wanting to take credit where credit isn’t due.
“All the same,” Roze says with a shrug. They, perhaps, would be happy to take such credit. “Ah, they’re… Well, I’m not sure how much I trust them. They seem like decent folk, but… I dunno.”
“There’s the potential for them to be radicals, yeah?”
“Yeah, but, I mean, that’s what I’ve heard from Morgan. Like I trust Morgan! I dunno, we’re trying to work with this Dr. Citali on things that we can agree on. She’s trying to help us get set up with some food processing. Supposedly this fungus is edible with enough processing.”
“The xenofungus?” Cleve’s eyebrow’s shoot up.
“Yeah, that’s the face I made,” Roze says with a laugh.
“There’s wineberries out there!”
“Not enough though. We need mass production, like, farms or something.”
“Have you guys tried any hunting?”
“Hunting’s not really our thing, Cleve,” Roze tells him. He takes that as an opportunity for work, offering to get involved in food acquisition, like going hunting with whoever down here has a gun. He blames the miasma for his jam earlier, and Roze agrees that equipment needs to be maintained well if it’s outside too long. They discuss what creatures could be edible, and Cleve is delighted when Roze’s list includes wolf beetles. His friend has never eaten one; they’ve heard that the flesh tastes terrible. “We can’t just go camping, though,” Roze insists. “We’ve got a few hundred people. And we can’t go outside for long stretches.” They grow serious. “Our supplies are measured in months, Cleve. We’re coming down to the end of the line here.”
“Well, what are Morgan’s guys doing? Growing meat? Is that what they’re doing to make rations?” Corazon had some stamped with Morgan Comestibles. “They must have equipment to make food.”
“Yeah, they’re farming somewhere, to some degree. I think they’re using domes to farm,” Roze shares. “So, I dunno, maybe the Stepdaughters of Chiron can find a way for us to move around outside. Or maybe they can just get us going with food. That isn’t really my department. Information! That’s my trade, right? But I’m just cooped up in here, you know?” Roze lets out a frustrated breath. Can’t go outside, can’t hack into anyone else’s computers because there’s no internet… they must be going stir crazy.
“You just need a really long cord,” Cleve jokes.
“If we could make it work, sure, but that would trace right back to us, is the problem.”
“So the miasma really stops all comms?” Cleve asks.
Roze nods. “Any wireless communication. If you’ve got a way to make that work, let me know. Let me know right now!”
“Yeah, I mean, I just woke up, and you know me. Am I the tech guy?”
“I dunno, did you make your radio work somehow? Speaking of… where is your radio? Where’s all your stuff? Normally you’re kitted out. Did you get mugged on your way here?”
I snicker. Mugged by a shimmerfly, maybe.
“I don’t know what happened. And I packed so well, too. I have my bag, but I kept finding pieces of my gear all over near the site where we crashed. And it seemed like it was moving, so I don’t know whether something was pulling it. Maybe the wolf beetles. But, hey, that reminds me…” Cleve pulls out a small handheld device. “I found this. I thought you left it.”
“Hang on, what you got there?” Roze pulls out a pair of reading glasses and slips them on before studying the gadget upclose. They breathe out a low oooooh. “Seen something like this once or twice.”
“Didn’t know if this was just the latest smartphone,” Cleve says.
“No. No, no, no, no, no! This stuff was on the planet when we got here.”
“Right! I remember Corazon saying something about Progenitor stuff. Well, what is it? Can you make heads or tails of it?”
“Let’s try,” Roze says with a sly smile. There’s all sorts of computer equipment here, and they spend some time with Cleve conducting tests. “This is definitely a transmitter, not a receiver,” Roze concludes. Waves flash across the monitor. “Hang on, hang on,” Roze says excitedly. “That signal, that’s familiar.” They roll their chair over to another terminal and their fingers fly across the keys there. Another sound comes from that computer, and this is one both Cleve and I recognize. It sounds just like when the tremors came through at the crash site. “Yeah, yeah, this is the sound that siege worms make,” Roze says, pointing back at the terminal hooked up to the Progenitor device. The satisfaction of reaching that conclusion is swiftly followed by alarm at its implications. With a swear, Roze yells at Cleve, “Turn it off, turn it off!”
Cleve does so, but he says, “Or maybe leave it on… food for days! You think this thing calls siege worms?”
“I think it does,” Roze confirms.
“That could be good for hunting, but that’s a very weird device to have. So, how big are these siege worms? I saw the hole, do they fill the entire thing?” Roze says they are twenty feet wide, give or take. They have no idea how long, though. “Can we eat them? Are they edible?” Cleve presses. “Are they even theoretically edible? We know they’re dangerous, but if you have a trap, it’s much easier to kill your prey.”
“To my knowledge, no one has ever killed one.”
“What about just taken a chunk off of one?”
“Only if you can cut through it without getting yourself murdered.” Roze goes on to relate the same story Corazon did of a man who lost his leg to one and swore vengeance. At this point, I think that’s just an urban legend. Or a modern retelling of Moby Dick.
“I don’t believe it,” Cleve says. “If the siege worm is that big, I think the guy probably died. Anyway, so where do you think this tech is from? It was just here? Was there another intelligent species?”
“There must have been some aliens. That’s what I think.”
“Do you think siege worms were domesticated animals, then? Maybe to build tunnels so no one had to breathe the miasma?”
“Now that’s an interesting idea, Cleve,” Roze says pensively.
A cleaned-up Corazon enters the lounge now too, in need of relaxation herself. She sits down near me, but her eyes take in all the computer equipment over by Roze.
“Are there any scientists here who know about these things?” Cleve asks his friend.
“Dr. Citali is what passes for what you would call a rigorous scientist around here.”
Cleve continues looking for ways to contribute. “If we could get a new tunnel, would that be something that would be useful?”
“Well, yeah, that would be useful, but how would you control it? We barely understand this thing,” Roze says, holding up the Progenitor transmitter. “I can turn it on and off. I don’t have fine-tuned control.”
At this point, I speak up. “Okay, but what if you had a programmable robot who could carry it around? Then the worm could follow it and that’s how you’d dig your tunnels.” It’s an absolutely ridiculous idea, but then again, so is hunting for siege worms, in my opinion.
Corazon sees different possibilities. “If you could control a siege worm, you could probably overthrow Morgan.”
“With my trusty steed, the siege worm?” Cleve says with a laugh.
“I’m just saying, these things have flattened domes before, okay?” Corazon says.
“But think about the collateral damage there,” I urge her.
“Look, look, look, you could threaten to smash a dome, but don’t actually smash it,” Corazon says, mind turning over all the possibilities this opens up.
“Or prevent new domes from going up or whatever,” adds Roze. “It gives you leverage, right? That’s what you need. Just don’t turn it on in here.”
“Well, we have a thing that summons siege worms. Based on what it’s been named, it sounds like attacking is what a siege worm is for. But that’s a declaration of war,” Cleve warns.
“Declaration of war?” Roze scoffs. “Do I look like a—”
“Are there actual governments on this planet?” I interject, wondering if anything as formal as a war can happen here. Maybe the conflicts never get bigger than isolated raids.
“I mean, Morgan runs a government. You might call the Stepdaughters of Chiron a government. The Council of Datajacks, are we a government?”
“Datajacks? Really?” Cleve says quietly.
“What?!” Roze responds, but Cleve bursts out in laughter. “The name was my idea!” they go on. “You know, sometimes you really are no fun, Cleve, you know that?”
When his guffaws die down, Cleve asks about the number of siege worms out there. Turns out that there’s no evidence of more than one. Cleve then goes on to hypothesize that it might not actually be a living creature; it could be another device, a large robotic tunneling machine. Roze doubts that, based on the video footage they’ve seen. When they suggest that riding a siege worm sounds exciting, I find myself wondering if we’ve gone from Moby Dick to Dune.
“Not all domesticated animals are for riding,” Cleve points out to Roze. “Some are for eating.”
“We’re not going to eat any wolf beetles,” Corazon insists, preempting what she expects him to say next.
“Sometimes you’re hungry enough!” Cleve argues, apparently unable to resist teasing her.
Corazon grabs a ration from the snack mess and tosses it at him. “Enjoy. You don’t have to eat any wolf beetles.”
“Did you have a pet wolf beetle?” I ask her, wondering if her concerns about this topic are personal. Perhaps she’s lost more than her parents and her home.
“Yes,” she answers defensively. “A lot of people have pet wolf beetles.”
Cleve grills Corazon on what wolf beetles eat, but she just fed hers food from a shop. It had grains and proteins in it; beyond that she doesn’t know anything else.
“Human, they eat human, that’s what I’m telling you,” Cleve insists.
I don’t want her getting riled up by his needling. “We were in their nest,” I remind him. “You were right by their eggs. They left when they were able to get to their eggs. I don’t think they were trying to eat us.”
“I’m not saying they were trying to eat us then. But I wouldn’t put it past them to try to eat us, like I wouldn’t put it past us to try to eat them.”
“That’s what I mean!” Corazon cries. “Wolf beetles don’t want to eat us any more than we want to eat them. If you want to eat them, maybe that causes them to want to eat you! So just don’t want to eat them!”
“I’ve heard they don’t taste very good,” Cleve says, ribbing her more.
“I don’t want to find out!” she tells him. “But I do want to get back at Morgan,” she adds, growing grim.
“Did Dr. Citali talk to you yet?” I ask.
“Yeah, she says it’s some kind of experimental injection,” Corazon says dismissively. “I said let’s do it!” She pulls a capped syringe out of a pocket. “Just before we go into the dense miasma, I jab this in my shoulder. If it means we can take down Morgan, it’s worth it.”
Corazon is being a bit too cavalier for my tastes. “Did she describe any side effects that we should be on the lookout for?”
“No, I’m sure it will be fine.” I press my lips together, and Corazon notices my displeasure at that response. She then admits that there might be a mild hallucinogenic effect. “But it will be fine as long as I stay focused. So it shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
If there’s one thing Corazon is, it’s focused… on taking Morgan down. “All right,” I tell her, “just as long as you’re aware that’s the case, so that if we tell you that things you’re seeing are not real, you heed us.”
Corazon smiles. “I appreciate you two looking out for me.”
I smile back. “Well, we appreciate you handling the computery stuff.”
“Good! I think we work together as a team reasonably well then.” Corazon throws a dark look over at Cleve. “As long as none of us eat any wolf beetles.”
“Can you agree to those terms?” I ask him.
“I make no promises about the wolf beetles.”