Reading Time: 6 minutes
“So much for retirement,” Chisholm grumbled. The hum grew louder on the other side of the bay doors. “This was supposed to be a small town on the dark side of a tiny planet circling a quiet little star…” He heaved a duffel into the open rear hatch of the tug. “But no.” He scanned the bay for other vital possessions, walked to the corner and picked up two photoelectric cylinders and a tank of propane. “First, I lose my damn ship to an evil blonde ex-Marine, then I get caught in a fucking apocalypse.”
Rain began pattering on the metal roof. First just a few drops, then a few more, heavier, then the shower began in earnest. Except he knew it wasn’t rain.
Two loud thuds shuddered the wall.
“Hey, Chiz!” A voice shouted from outside. “Jesus H, Chiz! Let me in!”
“Oh for Planck’s constant.” Chisholm mumbled to himself, “Davis. Why did you come here?” He moved toward the door then shouted back, “Just hold up a second!”
“I don’t got a sec…Gaaah!” Davis was obviously freaking the fuck out. “Jesus H!”
“Alright!” Chisholm yanked open the door. “Get in here, Da…” He stopped cold.
This was worse than he thought.
The hum and chattering was so loud Chisholm could feel it in his bones. It made his jaw ache. The sky was nearly black with undulating clouds, swirling and moving in great arching waves. Clouds of clittering clattering insects. Fucking Solar Locusts. These bastards really lived up to their nick-name – they literally ate worlds.
This was the End of Days. For Celine anyway. Stupid little rock spinning around a stupid little sun. The colony was a joke anyway – the entire settlement moved continually to stay in the shadow of the radiation from Trappist-1’s overactive solar flares. Every building was on rails or wheels, nudging constantly, in sync with the globe’s rotation. Why did he always end up in the middle of some planet’s Armageddon? And just when he’d begun to build a reputation at the card room.
Davis flung himself through the threshold and Chisholm slammed the door on a cloud of locusts that swarmed in pursuit. They hit the other side in a burst, like the sound of popcorn.
“Yeah, yeah.” Chisholm said, “try to breathe. Calm down a little.”
“Calm down?” Davis was cowering on the floor, leaning against the wall at an awkward angle. He was a short man, stout, and he wore faded blue coveralls. “Are you shittin’ me?! Those things are eating everything! They ate my dog, Chiz! She went after them and they fuckin’ ate her!”
“I’m sorry, man,” Chisholm moved toward him, “Bess was a good dog….” He stopped, sniffed. “Wait, Davis? Did you shit yourself?” He looked his friend over. A dark patch stained the legs of his coveralls. “Oh man, you pissed yourself too…”
Chisholm reached forward and nodded for the smaller man to take his hand. “The bathroom’s there,” he nodded to a door on the back wall. “Get cleaned up, I’ll find you some fresh clothes.”
Chisholm couldn’t really blame him. If he hadn’t tightened his rectum the moment he’d opened the door, he’d likely have dumped a load too. Fear is a motherfucker that way. Chisholm had been afraid enough times that he’d gotten pretty good at it. Clench your ass and remember to breathe. People talked about courage, about being brave, like it was the opposite of fear. But Chisholm figured it was really just getting used to fear. You found yourself in bad situations enough times, you learned to push through the terror. Do it often and you actually get good at it. Courage was just being really great at being terrified. Ordinary people did the same thing every day – they were scared of getting on a shuttle, but their office was on a moon, so they sucked it up and fucking flew. It’s just that most people didn’t encounter the kind of fear that turned their guts to liquid – a swarm of a hundred thousand flesh-eating grasshoppers descending on your house, for example. But you could get used to that too. Well, maybe not that. But you learned to clutch your buttocks and keep walking. You couldn’t just keep shitting yourself. Not if you wanted to have any friends, anyway.
He grabbed the duffel out of the back of the tug and looked for some underwear that would fit Davis.
“It’s the hive-mind,” Davis was chatty now that he had a clean pair of pants, “I think the queen is coordinating all their movements. Did you see how they all moved together – like a snake or a dragon or something, but made out of millions of bugs!”
“Yeah, I saw,” Chisholm said. He’d packed everything he needed in the tug and was taking one last pass through his crappy little shack before considering exactly how to fly his bucket out of there. “But they don’t actually coordinate. They’re like fish or birds, you know?” He didn’t look to see if Davis actually heard him. “Each one is just acting to preserve itself, navigating as close to the one next to it as it can and keying off their movements. Flocks, herds, swarms – they all do the same thing. No individual wants to stand out and attract attention to itself or a predator will just pick them off. If they keep next to the guy beside them, they have a better chance of staying unseen.” Which works great if the predator only wants to kill one of them….
“If you say so, Chiz,” Davis said from inside the tug. He’d already claimed the co-pilot seat. “But it looked to me like they were doing some kind of war dance.”
“Well, how about we give em a big bonfire to dance around?” Chisholm said, grabbing the tank back out of the cargo bay. “Gimme a hand with this will ya?”
They blew through the bay doors and up into the swarm, spitting fire. Chisholm figured they had about 90 seconds before the canister ran dry. The garden hose nozzle worked better than he anticipated, spraying the propane in a flaming cloud in front of the tug’s nose. The handful of locusts that made it through to the windshield looked like crispy chicken wings.
“Woo hoo!” Davis said, clutching the armrests as he bounced in his seat.
Chisholm smiled. Step one in learning how to fear: twist that anxiety around into excitement. Davis might make it after all. “We’ll loop around and spray as many of these bugs as we can before we jet out.” If this thing will hold together that long.
On cue, the tug engine sputtered. Chisholm clenched and pulled back on the stick as the ship began to nose down.
“Oh come on!” Chisholm groaned. “Take this,” he said, putting Davis’ hands on the stick. “Just lean back.”
He jumped back into the cramped bunk bay and unhitched the hatch to the engine compartment in the floor.
“Jeeesuuus!” Davis squealed. “We’re gonna hit!”
Chisholm popped the hatch and the engine jerked back to life, throwing him and the hatch cover into the rear bunk.
“We’re back on!” Davis yelled, “You did it!”
Chisholm threw off the blanket that had tangled around him and made his way up to the cockpit. “You bet I did!”
He guessed that the air intakes had become clogged with fried locust and popping the engine hatch must have given the drives just what they were starving for. Can’t say I’m not lucky. Chisholm took the controls back and flew a slow arc in pursuit of a mass of World Eaters.
“We’re frying ’em good, Chiz!” Davis said. After a moment, he seemed to calm a bit. He checked a few of the monitors, then flicked on the rear view. “Whoa. Looks like they’re gathering for a rear-guard attack.”
Chisholm looked down at the screen. The swarm was definitely following them. He glanced up and watched the last of the propane burn out in front of them. Meredith had left him a standard jet shuttle with a couple of high-efficiency slow-pull engines for heavy cargo tows. It didn’t have the speed or stamina of the Arken, but it should be space-worthy. So long as they kept the bugs out of the vents. “Well, let’s take ’em for a spin on the hot side and see how they like Celine when she’s sunbathing.”
Chisholm accelerated out of the planet’s shadow.
“Do you think we killed ’em?”
“We fried a load for sure.” Chisholm said. “But I don’t know how much difference it made.”
“We aren’t going back, are we?” Davis asked. He obviously felt lost. The adrenaline had worn off and worn him down.
“‘Nah, there’s nothing to go back to.” Chisholm replied. “Celine’s good as dead. It’d take years to bring it back online and Darwin knows that place ain’t worth it.”
“They ate Bess.” Davis stared into space.
“She was a good dog.” Chisholm said. “Died fighting.” Although he didn’t actually know if that were true.
Davis looked up at him with wet eyes and a trembling lip.
Chisholm clapped his hands. Damned if he was going to let Davis collapse into tears. “We better get moving.”
Davis opened his eyes wide, took a deep breath and blinked. “Where we going?”
“First we’re going to track down Meredith and get my ship back.”
“The Arken?” Davis appeared a bit too incredulous for Chisholm’s taste. “She’s not gonna give back the Arken.”
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to take it then.”
Damn, blonde ex-Marine….