by Michael Kingswood
Saul looked through the scope on his rifle and grimaced.
In the viewfinder, five times normal magnification, he saw a dozen grey-brown scaled and armored bodies, each with eight legs and four manipulator arms below an oval head with external mandibles and at least four visible eyes. They were moving in seemingly random patterns, but together they formed an eery sort of symmetry as they zigged and zagged but steadily advanced across the blasted plain beneath Saul’s post.
The drones were out again, and they had resumed their advance.
That meant Celeste’s plan had failed; the queen still lived. And in all likelihood everyone who had gone with Celeste was either dead or wishing they were.
As he watched the creeping death coming steadily closer, Saul felt a crawling dread come up his spine, colder than winter’s breath. He had to force himself not to squirm; but that might draw attention to himself, and he couldn’t have that.
He needed to live to bring the word back to headquarters, such as it was. And no chance he’d do that if he made unnecessary movements and attracted the swarm to himself.
His post was in a cleft between two granite boulders atop a small rise, about a thousand meters from where the drones were patrolling and advancing. So maybe he was being a bit overly cautious. But he’d seen too many people taken unawares by the things to be careless now.
The plain in front of and below him used to be lush grassland—or at least this world’s equivalent of grass—that stretched from the wooded foothills of the mountain range behind him all the way to the river where he and his fellow colonists had landed and set up their foothold on this brave, new world. Fifteen kilometers of what promised to be excellent soil for growing crops, with a strong source of freshwater right nearby and readily accessible timber just a short drive away. Not to mention the strong mineral deposits the probes they’d sent down from orbit had detected in the mountains.
It had seemed the perfect place to set up their new civilization.
But the probes hadn’t seen the bugs. And now, three weeks later, he and twenty others, the only survivors of the fifteen hundred who had initially landed, had retreated to the foothills in the hope that the change in terrain and vegetation would stymie the bugs’ territorial defense.
Didn’t look like it so far.
Saul licked his lips, tasting the salt of the sweat that dripped down from his forehead despite the relative coolness of the afternoon. He moved his eye away from the viewfinder and looked down at the advancing drones with his naked eyes, and shook his head.
Without the magnification, it was like a sea of brown that shifted and twisted, but continued nonetheless, and was slowly driving the yellow-green of the planet’s grass equivalent beneath its weight.
“Shoulda just blasted back to orbit when we had the chance,” he said under his breath, hearing the fatigue and the tension in his voice. And the self-rebuke.
He’d been one of the louder scoffers at that notion. After the first couple of interactions with the bugs, and the first casualties, several groups had proposed the colony do just that: blast off and find a different location on the planet. There had been several identified; Caledonia had just been the most promising. There were others that would have been almost as good, and probably wouldn’t have such hostile and deadly fauna nearby.
But they were just bugs.
Yeah, they were three feet long and stood a foot high, but they were just bugs. Easily taken care of by the colonists with their sophisticated equipment and knowledge.
No one had counted on the sheer strength of their bite, or their nigh-on unbreakable carapace and mandibles. The damn things were able to chew through steel, for chrissakes! Who could have possibly foreseen that?
Nor could anyone have foreseen their numbers. After the first few encounters, the Mayor had sent out extermination parties. And at first they had met with some success.
But then the real swarm started, a defensive reaction one of the docs had said. But whatever the cause, within days the fields were teaming with the buggers and they had overwhelmed the camp’s perimeter.
The call went out then to get to the shuttle and evacuate, but by then it was too late.
Saul saw a few folks actually make it to the shuttle. But he couldn’t have; too many bugs between him and it. All he could do was grab what gear he could and run.
A few minutes later, he was glad he hadn’t made it there.
The shuttle lifted off in a great plume of fire, sending hot air blasting past Saul as he ran from the crawling mass that was destroying the colony they had only just started to build.
He’d looked up, smelling the rank engine exhaust, and saw brown shapes crawling on the skin of the shuttle even as it lifted. Some were blown off by the slipstream and fell to the ground. But several vanished a different way: digging in and then burrowing beneath the outer hull.
The shuttle had only climbed a few hundred feet when it blew, sending a shock wave that knocked Saul off his feet. The bits and pieces of the ship came falling down everywhere, trailing smoke and starting little fires everywhere they hit.
Saul had only thought he’d been running hard before.
Something like a hundred fifty people made it out of there, ahead of the bug swarm’s advance. With nowhere else to go, they’d headed for the mountains with only what they could carry. The hope had been that the difference in terrain and vegetation, as tree equivalents replaced grass equivalent, would stop the swarm’s advance, and the colonists would be able to set up something of a life there.
Though what kind of life it could be, and how they could hope to carry on in the future, without their equipment, seeds, and any means of reaching the mothership they’d left in orbit around the planet, no one knew.
But that was a worry for a later time. First thing was survival.
So they’d run. And the swarm followed. More colonists had fallen, eaten alive when they’d stopped to rest, until only forty had made it to the foothills. Then Celeste had come up with a plan. If they could locate the queen, and take her out, the swarm would be without a head. It would lose cohesion and die. And maybe the colonists would be able to go back and recover some of the equipment they’d lost.
She’d even come up with a weapons of sorts that might just do the trick. A mixture of some chemicals one of the scientist guys had had in his pack when he’d fled, which would produce a noxious nerve toxin that would take just about anything living down. All they had to do was work past the advancing front of the swarm, then track the swarm’s path back to the bugs’ hive, and let fly.
What the hell? No one else had a plan other than running. Most of the men in the group had stepped forward to volunteer. She’d taken eighteen with her, and they’d run off to do the deed.
Saul had stayed behind. Not because he wasn’t willing to go but because someone needed to stay back to protect the kids and womenfolk. Him and four other men were their last line of defense if the plan didn’t work. He’d taken up station in this cleft of rocks, rotating out every few hours with one of the others, and watched the advancing swarm, all the while hoping Celeste and company would succeed.
And for a couple days, it looked like they had. The swarm had pulled back, retreating in apparent disarray. When Saul had turned over the watch last night, he had been in high spirits. When he’d taken it back this morning, Jusef had been as well.
Now their hopes were dashed.
He slid carefully backwards, deeper into the crack between the rocks until the swarm was completely out of view. Then he got his feet under him and he turned, then hurried back toward the place where the others were camped, two hundred meters behind and twenty meters above his watch station.
Time to pass on the bad news.
* * * * *
The other survivors were just as bedraggled as Saul. Some worse. A few better. But no one was taking the conditions well.
All eyes turned to him, and one and all they were harried, haggard. The other grown men were all sporting new beards, and everyone’s hair was ratty and matted. Everyone had on green jumpsuits like Saul wore: the uniform that everyone had been issued by the Colonial Administration when they’d set off on this journey. And like Saul’s everyone’s was more brown than green now, streaked with dirt and grime and blood and other fluids he didn’t want to think on.
The camp was makeshift at best. A few blankets and tarps stretched between the trees that had begun growing a few tens of meters further down the hill, but mostly the shelters were the sorts of things Saul and his brother—and wasn’t Seth so much better off on Earth now, despite its overcrowding and constant warfare—had learned in Trail Life: lean-to structures made up of branches resting against tree trunks or against large rocks, coated in mud and fallen leaves to make a semblance of a roof.
A couple of fires were burning, sending fragrant smoke toward the overcast sky above. Someone had run with a coffee pot, and it smelled like one of the women was brewing a tea of some kind.
One good thing they had discovered was that the wood on this world, and the vegetation, had a fair amount of aromatic and spicy compounds in them. So the woodsmoke smelled almost of incense. And the tea, certainly made from clippings of the leafy vegetation around here, was spicy enough to get his mouth watering just thinking about it.
Jusef, who Saul had relieved just a couple hours earlier, was poking the tea’s cook fire with a stick when Saul approached. When he saw Saul, he dropped the stick and stood. He was a little bit shorter than Saul, and used to have a bit of a paunch before this all started. Now his jumpsuit was starting to become loose about his mid-section.
One thing they hadn’t fled with much of was food.
“Saul,” Jusef said, his dark eyes narrowing with concern and his tone confused. “What are you doing back? Bill doesn’t relieve you until – “
“Colleen’s plan didn’t work,” Saul said, interrupting him in a voice that easily carried to every ear in the camp. “The swarm’s back, and moving faster than ever.”
“Dammit,” said Cynthia, a young, shapely redhead with a gaggle of three children who all had somehow managed to escape without harm. Though her husband had not.
She was sitting on a stump, doing her best to mend someone’s jumpsuit with what was left of the sewing set she had brought with her. She looked from Saul to Jusef to the other three remaining men in the group questioningly. “What are we going to do?”
Saul had no good answer to that one. But even a bad answer was better than none at all.
“We continue with the original plan,” Saul said. “Get further up into the mountains. There are more rocks here than down there.” He gestured back the way he came. “The bugs burrow, but maybe they can’t burrow through stone. Maybe they won’t follow.”
“Maybe.” Cynthia’s tone was doubtful, almost scornful. But the look on her face was resigned. She didn’t have a better idea either, so even if she doubted this one, what else was there for her to do?
What else was there for any of them to do?
Saul looked back at Jusef, who frowned for a long few seconds. Then he nodded agreement.
The other men did as well. What other course had they?
Without another word, they all got started breaking down the camp.
Within the hour, they were all walking uphill, away from the advancing swarm.
* * * * *
The sun—Saul still though of it as the sun even though this system was dozens of light years from Sol—was low against the horizon, and he was soaked with sweat. His breathing came in heaves and his heart thumped in his ears.
The last several hundred meters had been grueling. Looking back down the way the troop had come, and in some cases was still coming, it appeared they had ascended a meter for every meter they had advanced. Or near enough to it.
But they had also made good progress, and he could clearly see the plain, well below them and behind, through a break in the trees. He could also see the swarm, the mass of brown eating away at the yellow-green. But was it his imagination, or had it not advanced nearly as quickly as it had been the last time he looked?
It had reached and overcome the little hill he had used as a post; he could see that hill clearly, far below and behind. But it looked like the swarm had not followed so readily into this higher country.
Was the plan working?
The younger of Cynthia’s children scampered up next to him. The boy’s cheeks were flushed and he was breathing heavily, but his eyes were alight with something almost like glee and he didn’t look at all spent. He looked down toward where his mother and sisters were still clambering up, then at Saul, and grinned.
Somehow, Saul found himself returning the grin, the youth’s exuberance combining with the apparent slowing of the swarm to raise his spirits immensely. “Help your mother, Kevin,” Saul said.
The boy nodded, then scampered the few steps down toward Cynthia. Shortly, all four of them were standing at the top f the rise next to Saul and looking back down through the trees.
“Do you think they’ve stopped?” Cynthia asked between breaths.
“Time will tell,” Saul said. He wanted to say yes, they were past the danger. But twice now he had thought the problem solvable. And twice he had been proven wrong.
False hope was worse than no hope.
He turned away from the view behind toward the path ahead. Here the rise was flatter, almost not an ascent at all. The others in their groups were trumping ahead, obviously tired with stooped shoulders and lowered heads as they walked in an approximation of a line behind Bill, the youngest and spriteliest of the surviving men and so the guy who’d taken point. But despite their fatigue they moved at a better clip now, and they’d already put several meters between themselves and Saul, Cynthia, and the kids.
“Come,” Saul said. “We’ll rest soon, but we need to make as much distance as we can.”
Just in case the swarm hadn’t actually stopped.
So he, with Cynthia and her kids, picked the pace back up again, and moved to catch up with the others.
* * * * *
The sun continued to lower as the troupe marched on, and Saul was beginning to think they really needed to stop soon before they ran out of light. He was just about to call out to Jusef, who was at the midway mark of the group, to have Bill stop, when an excited shout from the front interrupted his intention.
Immediately on guard, he rolled his shoulder to slip the rifle out from its slung position, then he moved forward more quickly, passing women and children as he first caught up to Jusef and then surged forward alongside him.
His mind flashed through a dozen scenarios that could have evoked the cries he heard from Bill and the other man at the front—and from the kids up near them—but none of them matched what he saw when, between one step and the next, he emerged from a forest of tree equivalents with leafy underbrush to a clearing that stretched for at least a kilometer in each direction and that held in its center a lake that looked at least to be perfectly circular. Or near enough to it.
He came to an amazed halt and his jaw dropped open at the sheer beauty of the thing; it reflected the pinkish-orange hues of the beginning sunset and the coloration of the mountain peaks on the other side of the lake with a purity that struck him right to the bone, and there was a sense of peace, of oneness about the place that made the worries of the last few weeks seem trivial, needless.
Saul came to a halt beside Bill. “Whoa,” he said.
Bill was skinny, and taller than Saul by a hand. His yellow-orange hair was an unruly mop that ran past his eyes in front and to his shoulder in back, and his demeanor normally reflected his coloration perfectly: all fire and passion. Right that second, though, he only nodded, an expression of awe on his face.
“I guess we camp here,” Jusef said as he, too, came to a halt. He was not nearly as awestruck as Bill, from the satisfied grin on his face. “Good visibility, fresh water. Hard to beat.”
“Ain’t water,” Bill said.
Saul looked askance at him, and Bill must have seen it. He gestured toward the lake with his left hand. “Look more closely.”
Frowning in puzzlement, Saul followed Bill’s gestured with his gaze. At first he wasn’t sure what Bill was talking about. It was highly reflective, but that was hardly unusual in water of its stillness. There was hardly a ripple in it. That didn’t mean –
Then he realized that there was a steady breeze blowing, from behind them. It had been at their backs for so long he had stopped thinking about it, since he hardly felt it. But now that they were stopped, he felt it clearly. But with the breeze blowing, how was the lake so still?
He leaned forward and squinted, and felt his breath catch.
Bill was right. The reflection was too perfect, without blemish. And as he leaned forward he saw himself in the fluid, and he saw a silvery shimmer for a second in his reflection.
“What is it?” he asked. Dropping down into a squat so he could view the fluid more closely, he definitely could see that it was silvery. And it must surely be fairly dense or the breeze would have stirred it.
He reached out to dip his fingers into it, and immediately felt Bill’s hand on his shoulder.
Saul looked up to see the younger man staring down at him, his green eyes deadly serious. “Don’t,” he said. “It’s not for you.”
Saul blinked. “What do you mean, not for me?”
Bill looked confused for a second, then shrugged, shaking his head. “I’m not sure. Just…” He trailed off, going back to stare at the lake for a few seconds. Then he spoke again, more resolutely. “Just don’t touch it.”
Unsure what to make of Bill’s statement or demeanor, Saul nevertheless obeyed and retracted his hand. Standing back up straight, he turned to Jusef and shrugged. Then he said, “Probably better camp back under the trees. Don’t want one of the kids wandering into this stuff. Whatever it is.”
Jusef nodded. “Good call. I’ll get them stopped.”
He turned and went back to the rest of the group to get them settled, leaving Saul and Bill alone at the lake’s edge. They stood silently for a time, then a thought struck Saul.
“Did you ever see the probe scans of these mountains, Bill?”
Bill shook his head, not looking at Saul but still at the lake.
“I did. I don’t recall seeing this lake in any of the scans.”
Bill frowned slightly. After a moment, he said. “Well, it’s here now.”
“Yeah. But – “
Bill surprised him by surging forward, toward the lake itself.
“Bill!” Saul cried, and reached out to stop him. His fingers brushed at the back of Bill’s jumpsuit, but he couldn’t get a firm grasp on him.
And then he was leaping out over the fluid of the lake.
Bill seemed to float there, suspended over the silvery fluid for a second. Then he fell into the fluid.
He didn’t make a splash; the fluid just flowed around him as he made contact with it.
Then he was gone.
* * * * *
Bill’s loss struck the survivors hard, and it took a lot of effort to stop everyone from panicking. In truth, Saul wasn’t sure he and the other guys did any good at all.
Regardless, there was no way they were staying there that night, so immediately after getting everyone at least semi-coherent, they set out through the woods at a right angle from the lake and their previous heading.
It wasn’t long, though, before the shadows had grown long and it became clear that they were going to lose the light very soon. Still, from the looks on people’s faces, fatigue or no, oncoming night or no, the incident with the lake had many wanting to continue on regardless.
That was foolish, but in the end Saul felt sure it was sheer exhaustion, and not his and Jusef’s arguments against it, that won out. And so, after not too much objection, the troupe bedded down for the night.
Or rather, lay down on the dirt and fell fast asleep, since there was no time to build shelters and no one had the energy to do so. Only one person bothered to make a camp fire, and that was small and feeble, since even its tender fell asleep before she could get it properly built up, so exhausted was she.
Saul and the other men discussed setting a watch, and agreed on a rotation. Saul was supposed to have the third watch, awoken by Kent.
But when he awoke—on his own—in the morning, the sun was shining brightly and it was clearly almost noon.
Chagrined and feeling momentarily guilty over missing his watch, Saul sat bolt upright and looked around.
Everyone else was still asleep.
“Must have been more tired than any of us thought,” Saul said to himself as he pushed himself to his feet. And no wonder. They had pushed themselves extremely hard, physically. And the renewed stress and lack of good, consistent food for several weeks now led to a lack of stamina.
No wonder everyone had taken an extra long snooze.
Still, they were in no condition to truly rest up. Not in these circumstances. If the –
A cracking twig from behind made Saul turn around. His blood went to ice.
Bill stood there, at the edge of the little circle of people who were all that remained of Saul’s colony.
But it wasn’t Bill.
Oh, it looked like him. It had the same lanky build, same posture. Same movements. But its eyes were pure silver, and there were silver streaks in the reddish-yellow hair. Its fingernails were silver as well, as was its jumpsuit.
Still, Saul found himself saying, “Bill?” even though he knew it couldn’t be the lost man.
The creature—whatever it was—stepped forward, moving carefully around the prone bodies until it came to stand directly in front of Saul. This close, it carried the odor of damp earth mixed with the aromatic spices that rose from a camp fire here.
Saul swallowed. “Who are you?”
The thing that looked like Bill cocked its head at him. “Who are you?” it replied. “You invade me. Carve my body.” It gestured toward the embers of the campfire. “Burn me.” It narrowed its eyes at him. “You try to kill my daughter and her children. Who are you?!” The last came out as a demand, and an accusation.
Saul swallowed. What was this thing? “We come from a far away world. We – “
“You invade,” the thing said.
Saul shook his head. “We seek a new home.”
“So this one told me,” the thing wearing Bill’s face said. “Nevertheless, you invade. Invade, and kill. I cannot allow.”
There was a crunching sound from all around. Saul turned his head and saw, with growing horror that threatened to loosen his bowels against his will, bug drones digging their way up. Dozens of them, in two rings—no, three—completely surround the band of slumbering colonists.
Saul turned back to the Bill-creature and raised his hands toward it, open and palms outward in a sign of peace. “Wait!”
The thing cocked its head at him again, and the bugs stopped moving. All at once.
“We don’t want to cause harm. Just to live.”
“For you, living is harm. Harm to my children. And me.”
The bugs began to move forward again. “But…” Saul swallowed. “If you do this, you’ll be killing our children.” He gestured to the left, where Cynthia lay sleeping, all three of her kids curled up closer to her, on either side. He had no idea what kind of link this thing had with the bugs, but clearly it was controlling them, and thought of them as its children. Maybe that was a way in.
The Bill-creature followed Saul’s gesture toward the mother and children, and its lips compressed slightly.
Clearly it was thinking that angle through. Saul decided to run with it.
“We didn’t know about your children. We don’t want to harm them. Just to live for ours. If you don’t want us here, we’ll leave.” He tried an ingratiating smile, but wasn’t sure how well he did. “You just had to say so.”
The Bill-creature looked back at him fully. “You cannot leave. This one knows. Your transport was destroyed.”
Damn. He should have known the thing would have gotten that from Bill, too. But still, the mothership had more than one shuttle. If enough equipment had survived…
“We have another ship in orbit.” He pointed up at the sky. “If we can get back to Caledonia, we can try to contact it and send another transport down. Then we will get in and leave. And never come back.”
The Bill-creature looked up at the sky, and the lines of its lips turned downward, forming a deep frown. “No,” it said after a moment. “This one thinks that will just lead to more invasion, from others of your kind.” It gave a little jerk of its head, and Saul felt the very ground beneath his feet shift, just for a second.
It didn’t feel all that severe, but all the same Saul had the impression something profound, and powerful, had just occurred.
“The large ship will not tell others about me and my children now.” It looked back down at Saul and the frown faded, replaced by a look of serenity. “My children will be safe, and no more invaders will come.”
It reached out its hand toward Saul. He wanted to recoil from it, but he found he couldn’t, and the Bill-creature’s fingers, cold but thrumming with energy and power, touched his cheek.
He had a flash of the Bill-creature’s mind. It was immense, filling this entire world. Every crack in the rock, every shift in the mantle beneath the tectonic plates. Every movement of every creature on its surface, and the motion of its three moons. And now, the motion of the mothership as its orbit, perturbed by some adjustment of the planet’s gravitational vector, began to spiral in toward atmospheric reentry.
“No!” Saul said, the denial sounding as impotent as he now knew it to be. This creature was the planet. And it did not want them there. Nor did it want any other humans to ever return. So it would not allow word of it to get back to Earth, or any survivor to do so either.
“No,” he said again, this time in a strained whisper.
“There will be no pain,” the Bill-creature said, and Saul began to feel drowsy again. “And your parts will become a part of me. That is my gift to you, for helping me understand.”
Saul wanted to move. To fight. To do something!
But his limbs were heavy, and his vision was fading. All around, he heard vague sounds. He couldn’t place them for a seeming eternity, until part of his mind put them together and he realized he was hearing the bugs advance and begin chopping up the outermost of his sleeping comrades.
But the word barely registered in his own ears.
The last thing he saw before sleep claimed him were those silvery eyes, seeming to shine in the sunlight.
Then there was the blackness of dreamless sleep.
And then an expansion of thought beyond anything he had ever known or conceived of, as he too, like Bill, became one with the world of Caledonia.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: