The new arrivals are like beetles the size of deer, but their legs and parts of their body are covered in fine gray fur, like the way some spiders are. They have giant pincers in front, and they are screeching! I have the presence of mind to step away from the eggs, in case they find that threatening, but city boy that I am, I have no clue how dangerous animals outside a zoo can be. I move towards the beetles, fascinated. The fur makes them look kind of cute.
“As long as these guys aren’t HR, I think we’re safe,” Cleve quips. Then the largest one pushes past the other two and launches itself at him. I hear the snap and clatter of mandibles behind me and Cleve less confidently saying, “Feels like we’re going to die.” But I have my own hands full with the other two furry beetles. They are no longer quite so cute as I try to hold them at bay with my cane. It might look like a fashion accessory—and it is, don’t get me wrong—but it is built of stronger stuff than you would expect, deliberately so. I switch my grip to more of a golf club hold and swing it, catching one of the beetles with the handle. I spin around and, with a jerk, send it careening back out the tunnel of vegetation it came in through. In the tussle, the other beetle bites down briefly on my right arm. The fabric of my blazer holds as I yank my arm free, but that is going to leave one nasty bruise underneath.
A hideously loud bang sounds behind me. I have never heard a gun at such close quarters before. I really hope Cleve knows what he is doing with it, as I don’t want to get shot in the back. There is clattering and swearing and scraping behind me, but my whole world right now is occupied with keeping my cane between me and this beetle. We poke and prod at each other, but it gets in a solid blow before I do, this time clamping down on my right leg. Twenty years of practice is all that keeps me from screaming at the pain. Again, though, I feel that strange sensation from earlier. I can’t process that right now, however. There are too many stimuli to sort all that out at this very moment.
I am dimly aware of Cleve just in my periphery. His maneuvering must have brought him close. I hear another loud bang from his rifle, and then the only beetle noises are the ones very much in my own personal space. I transfer all my weight to my left leg, which I am well-practiced in, and jam my cane down between my right leg and the beetle, using it to pry the creature’s pincers open so that I can stumble away, leaving an opening for Cleve to shoot at it once he gets his long gun around.
To my surprise, the bug doesn’t come after me. It charges forward into the middle of the nest. Ignoring its deceased companion, the one Cleve has shot full of holes, it snaps up the eggs with its pincers and then beats a hasty retreat, carrying its precious cargo to whatever passes for safety for furry beetles. The nest is quiet then, apart from the panting and wheezing of two munched-upon men. With gaping holes in its tough carapace, the queen is unmistakably dead. Blue-green blood oozes out of the bullet wounds, distinct from the greenish venom dripping from its now-still pincers. Cleve’s beige shirt has red blood on it, but none of the green slime, so hopefully he has only gotten cut up, not poisoned.
My primary concern, though, is my own injury. I lower myself carefully to the floor and hitch up my trouser leg. My boot isn’t damaged but the flesh above it is a bloody mess. That beetle left behind a nasty gash. “Can you walk?” Cleve asks me. I answer in the affirmative but it probably doesn’t sound very convincing. He looks like he’s thinking of trying to rush us out of here, but I point out that the eggs have already been recovered. There is no reason for those creatures to come back. I stare at my leg, unsure of where to start, breathing through the anxiety threatening to bubble up at the memories this conjures.
Cleve asks, “Do you have any medical skill?”
“I haven’t been to med school or anything like that,” I tell him. An associate’s degree was expensive enough!
“Me neither,” Cleve says, dashing my hopes. “Well, patch yourself up, and I’ll keep an eye on the hole,” he tells me, handing me a first aid kit he has produced from a pocket.
I accept the small box automatically, but I’m startled to find it in my hands. I pop the kit open and look at all the gauze and tubes of whatever inside, overwhelmed. “I don’t know what to do with this,” I admit a little helplessly. Is the injury bad enough to need stitches? I have no idea.
“Do you know how to handle a gun?”
I just want the questions to stop. They’re a little much right now. “Yeah, sure, I can watch the opening if you hand me your rifle.”
Cleve gives a little shake of his head. “We’re going to have to work on that,” he says, setting the gun down to the side out of my reach. “Keep an eye on the hole, though. Let me see what we’re dealing with here.” He crouches down next to me and takes back the first aid kit. I let out a breath of relief. For a moment, I thought he was going to take me to task for lying straight to his face, but I really think the man means to teach me to shoot! “I’ve never done this,” Cleve says, pulling out a spool of bandage and ignoring all the ointments.
So much for relief! “Why do you have a first aid kit, then?” I ask. Explorers were allowed only so much baggage, it seems strange to me that he would waste any on materials he doesn’t know how to use.
“It was a gift from a very good friend,” he says. “Roze is very resourceful.” He looks worried, more worried than this amount of blood can account for. But he does his best, winding the gauze around my calf and trying to get the pressure just right. With the roll of it out of the box, I see a familiar looking package at the bottom of the kit; there’s a packet of Rhum there. His friend must be someone with connections. Cleve probably has no idea what that is or how valuable it could be. Of course, it has been thirty years… Rhum might be perfected and commonplace now. We won’t know until we find other people. For now, though, I make note to keep an eye on where the first aid kit ends up, in case I deplete my supply.
No more beetles charge in on us while Cleve wraps my leg. I pay attention to what he does so that when he is finished, I can similarly wrap up the gash on his arm. Then, muttering about his rucksack, he gets to his feet and looks around for where it could have gone. He had spotted it again during the recent scuffle, but it has disappeared once more. Near where he last saw it, though, is a minor miracle: two syringes labeled OAC 1/5 and OAC 2/5. They are accelerated healing shots, the kind you can pick up in any pharmacy. Simple to administer, they contain painkillers, coagulants, antibiotics, and whatever else modern medicine has cooked up. Cleve had stocked up on them before Roze gave him the first aid kit, and three more of them are out there somewhere. “These, I know how to use,” Cleve says, some of the worry creases smoothed from his brow. Figuring there is no time like the present, he jabs each of us.
I lever myself up and pick my way carefully over to where the beetles came in. “Let’s take a look out,” I tell Cleve. “I have no idea how high we might be.”
“Or how low,” he says, joining me.
We must be on the side of a hill. The landscape is spread out before us, covered in a forest of extra-large mushrooms the height of the spindly trees that grow in cages along LA’s sidewalks. The stalks of these mushroom shrubs are much thicker though, and the ground cover is denser. The hues are unlike any picture of Earth wilderness I’ve ever seen. There is so much blue and green—and bluish-green—that my eyes can’t tell where one color ends and another begins. I pick out light purple in some places and bits of red poking out here and there. For a moment, I forget that we are supposed to be looking for a way out of this nest, and I just take in the breathtaking sight, eyes full of wonder.
Cleve really had been thinking about taking those eggs to eat, so he does not blame the queen for laying into him. Thank goodness for those shots of medicine though, or he and this guy could really have been in serious trouble. If there is one thing Cleve cannot abide, it is useless people, and when he held that first aid kit in his hands, with the injured man looking to him for help, that is exactly how he felt himself. Underprepared and useless. This guy seems pretty good in a pinch though, scrambling up out of the ship and holding his own against two of the bugs. More competent than Cleve gave him credit for at first, maybe.
Right now, though, he is gawking at the view from the nest entrance. Cleve, meanwhile, has been considering how best to make use of the queen’s carcass. The shell is hard. It has a few holes, but it might be able to hold water. It does look quite heavy though. Probably best just to drop it out the hole and let gravity do the work. Cleve looks up from the body of the queen and notices a few of his ration packs scattered around the nest, more droppings from his missing kit. He scoops them up and joins the guy at the nest entrance, holding one out to him.
For a moment, he gets a good look at the younger man in profile. He has short but curly chestnut hair, some of which is highlighted red by the afternoon sun. His skin is golden brown, and in addition to a week’s worth of stubble, he has full sideburns. The one eye Cleve can see is light gray, with a strange indigo halo around the pupil. The purple part looks like it is pulsing. At first Cleve thinks this must be some cosmetic affectation of the kind young city folk go for these days, but when the man turns to look straight at Cleve and accept the offering of food, the glow is gone, and both eyes are just light gray. Must’ve been the reflected sunlight, Cleve figures. Or maybe some adverse reaction to the shot. I didn’t read all that fine print.
Cleve pushes all that aside and recruits the guy to help him get some use from the queen beetle. They manage to get it over toward the exit, but when they try to pull it through, it snaps apart, leaving Cleve holding just a leg and part of the thorax. He looks at it in dismay but notices that the acid sac is in this section. A little of the green gunk dripped off in the fighting, and he saw how it burned what it touched. There are a few tiny holes in his shirt from the spray, as well. This could indeed be useful out in this strange wilderness.