When I next awoke, the village bustled with activity. The flimsy leather walls of my tent did nothing to muffle the racket, the cause of which was revealed as soon as I emerged from its flaps. A procession of mutants came in through the main entry, bearing leathery sacks of something or other on their backs.
“What’s this all about?” I asked eel mouth. “There’s been a successful raid! Not of our own shaft but a neighboring one.” I wondered if they might’ve been through the shaft I was brought down. When I described the field and the garden trail to one of the creatures, now busy unloading his sack, he shook his malformed head.
“Just another planet the bugs have already overrun. They don’t fare well on worlds populated with intelligent life, but the worlds with only rudimentary fauna make for easy pickings. Or sometimes it just connects to an earlier era on that same world, before intelligence arose.”
I wondered whether it may have tampered with the history of life on Earth in this fashion. I’ve never seen any cave paintings of giant bugs though. If there are some, anthropologists would probably mistake them for magnified depictions of normal insects.
He pulled a football sized chrysalis from the sack and thrust it at me. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked. He carefully cut it open with a knife that looked to be fashioned from a bone shard, the handle wrapped tightly in leather.
The translucent white pod split open to reveal a bizarre little larval creature inside. Beady little black eyes, a mess of pudgy little legs similar to those of a caterpillar and a body closely resembling an unusually shortened grub.
It repeatedly squeaked…in fear? Can it feel fear? “What is it?” I asked. “This is what the little white worms become if they’re not implanted. If allowed to fully mature, they imprint on the bugs. Then they serve them tirelessly as drones, subsisting on whatever scraps they can scavenge.”
Not as reassuring as I hoped. But something about the wiggly little bundle charmed me as I cradled it in my arms. “It’s not often that we can steal so many” he said. “Look after yours, you won’t get another any time soon.” I asked why I should want one to begin with.
He demonstrated by massaging his own pudgy white grub until it secreted a familiar black fluid from its abdomen. “This way if we’re injured or hungry during a raid, we can make our own black jelly on demand rather than having to backtrack all the way to our own pool.”
He made them sound like convenient portable appliances. But the thing I now held in my arms as it gurgled and squeaked appeared very much alive. “What should I name it?” He frowned. “Don’t get attached. They’re short lived and infertile, that’s why we can’t simply breed more.”
Don’t get attached? Shouldn’t be a problem, that’s what I’m best at. If I could believe that nutter back at the sunlit pool I came from, it’s even how I wound up down here in the first place. Or at least it has something to do with it.
One of the mutants asked for a hand with his bag. I declined, explaining that I meant to return to the shaft I was brought down here through shortly. “Well that’s a hell of a way to repay our hospitality. You just breeze on in, we heal you, give you a bed to sleep in, then you’re on your way?”
I could find nothing to say in my defense. So I wrapped the little grub in a leather blanket, stashed it in the tent I slept in, then joined the others in their task. To my surprise I found it quite satisfying to labor alongside them, working up a viscous black sweat as I exerted myself.
After we finished distributing the grubs, there were several tents in need of repair, as well as maintenance to be performed on the outer surface of the brick walls. I didn’t agree to all this, they just kept piling on more work. But I also couldn’t turn them down given how helpful they’d been.
“Feeling overloaded?” My eel mouthed friend joined me, the two of us lifting a replacement brick into place. “Actually it’s nice to be useful” I admitted. “In my old life, I didn’t fit in anywhere. There just wasn’t any place for me.” He raised one eyebrow. At least I think so, his face is rather lopsided. “Were you really looking?”
I mulled it over while we returned to the fortress interior. There was a modest banquet prepared to feed us, a trio of bug corpses in the process of being divided up into sections and cooked. I had to fight back the urge to puke when the smell hit me.
Eel mouth laughed. “They taste better than they smell. It’s a lot like lobster, actually.” I didn’t believe him, but my growling stomach persuaded me to take a chance. I’d have pinched my nose if I still had one.
“Of course, you don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to. Just soak in the black jelly for a bit and the hunger goes away.” What he left unsaid is that there would be a price. That each time I did so, it would only further corrupt my body.
So, driven by a mixture of exhaustion and hunger, I dug in. The tender, jiggling white meat proved every bit as satisfying as I was led to expect. Lobster might be pushing it, but it really was quite tasty, and to be surrounded by merry company while I ate was its own sort of nourishment.
Following the meal, I volunteered to help clean it up. I knew I meant to leave soon, but some part of me craved just a bit more time with these creatures. These…unlikely comrades. The feeling turned out to be mutual.
As I mounted a winged insect with Eel mouth’s help, he lamented that I was leaving so soon. He handed me the little grub, which he’d tucked into a satchel. “I’ve gotta go back” I insisted. “That’s all there is to it.” He asked if I was happy there.
What a strange question. I brushed it off, thanked him for everything, then headed for the rim of the pillar. His words returned more than once to trouble me on my journey. Was I happy there? I suppose not. But still, what else could I do but return?
There’s my family to think of. There’s Goblin. Surgeons may still be able to reverse much of what’s happened to my body…though I couldn’t imagine how to explain to them, or anybody else, how I became like this.
I wished for a compass as I approached the edge. Some way to navigate in this baffling continuum of identical looking pillars. The best I could come up with was to remove the bioluminescent gas sack fastened to my mount’s harness, propping it up on a pile of rocks. This way I wouldn’t lose track of where I set out from.
With that taken care of I took flight, setting off for the pillar nearest me. On the way, wind rushing past, I peeked into the leather satchel to find my chubby little passenger sound asleep. Now that I got a good look at him, he’s not that ugly. Or her, maybe?
On a whim, I tickled one of its legs. It quivered, then promptly rolled up into a ball. Didn’t even know it could do that. Below us, great puffy clouds of the ever-present white vapor rolled past. I could say nothing of what lay beneath them…except that I dare not investigate.
Only when the next pillar was nearly upon me did I remember that I’ve never actually landed one of these things before. However it seemed to understand what to do on its own, and a minute later I was dismounting onto the rocky shores of what I hoped would be the final stop on my journey.
The trek was long and arduous. I might’ve ridden my mount, but didn’t know what I might find further in, so I didn’t risk it. I brought blankets, but the longer I stayed down here the more I adapted to the cold. It seeps into your body after a while, you stop fighting it, and it becomes the new normal.
The mutation probably has something to do with it. I first noticed while laboring to earn my meal with the others that my new body is significantly stronger. There are aches and pains where some part of it is halfway formed, but for the most part everything but the appearance is greatly improved.
I don’t remember when I stopped shivering. The first month was now just one long smear in my memory. I just know that once most of my humanity bled away, the discomfort vanished along with it. I still laid down some blankets before sleeping though.
Stay Tuned for Part 13!