5030 words, short story
The Sheen of Her Carapace
Falling in love? Always wondered about that: falling, like it’s an accident, tripping over or something.
Our ship, Perseverance, drifted into the orbit of a planet we called Big Yellow. We were wandering lonely as a dust-cloud, having jumped away from some bad heat back in Primus sector; got our shields busted up, lost most of our fuel. So there we were, just sitting in the middle of nowhere, listless, aimless. I guess I was untethered too: isolated, restless, vulnerable to the gravitational pull of anything that might reel me in.
I suppose I realize now how lonely I’d been; alone in a crew of a hundred-an’-fifty souls, if you can believe that. Not many were my sort: all by-the-book uniform types; “yessir, no ma’am,” snap salutes and buzz-cuts.
No one else with skin like mine, that’s for sure. The discoloration was just a side effect of the gun-med drugs. Kept me alert but calm; eased the jitters; gave me a sure aim at two klicks. Earned me two stripes and a sweet pay raise, but I had to keep taking the drugs, so my skin was getting worse.
“You look like a walking bruise,” said Petrov, the medic. “You should let me check you over.”
“You think I look sick?”
“Well, it’s hardly . . . ” Her words drifted off. “All mottled purples like that. I’ve never seen such a strong reaction to the gun-meds before.”
“I’m fine, really,” I said.
“Just to be sure though, yes?” I didn’t reply. Her lips smiled at me, but her eyes did not. “Listen, I know you get a hard time about it.”
“Most just give me a wide berth.”
“But some of the others . . . I know there are real bruises under all that too. Can’t be easy.”
“You mean Mendez? Pretty rich, coming from the likes o’ him and the other exo-framers. If you ask me they’re the freakin’ weirdos.”
“I meant Siro.”
Gotta admit that came like a tail-slap from a raptor den-mother. Siro? That’s insane. That’s done with. But I don’t say nothing.
“I think you like standing out because you want to be hurt,” she says, just like that. “Because of your guilt. Over what happened between you two.”
“I mean, why would you do that to yourself?” I continued. “Have chromium exo-strands attached over your limbs?”
Petrov frowns. “At least their frames are covered up. But you look so different.”
“Guess this is how I’m supposed to be.”
“Doesn’t have to be. Why do you refuse the skin-bleach treatments?”
“I ain’t changing just to please A-holes like Mendez,” I said, louder than I meant. Petrov was only trying to be nice. But Siro—holy crap Petrov, what you go an’ say that for?
It was true that I’d wanted to get far away from that part of my life, so when the chance came I signed up and jumped aboard Perseverance. Ship needed gunners to keep bandits at bay, but it didn’t sound dangerous—until Big Yellow caught our drift, pulling us down without enough juice in the thrusters to kick ourselves clear.
The crew was pretty frazzled: out of the frying pan and all that. Too far out to reach the rest of the fleet with our sat-comms, plus we’d lost our Admiral during that skirmish on Primus, so morale had taken a kicking and discipline was ragged. Someone suggested firing distress flares, but we didn’t because you just don’t know who is going to come looking for you. It was just us and that was that.
All through the tense hours of gravitational descent we held meetings, planned some, prepped some: the Research team ran scans, looking for the usual stuff—oxygen, water, food, some sort of useable biofuel source, so we could do a quick “compact, compost, and combust” and get the hell away; the Medic team gave us shots for viruses that might be on the surface; the QM team ran a check on supplies, ammo, and atmos-suits; the Recon team geared up for touch down: kit-checks, going over call signs and drills; the Engineering team got to work on ship repairs, power-saves, and security lockdowns; and everyone made sure we were primed to defend ourselves from hostiles.
Turned out, we needn’t have worried so much. Big Yellow was pretty good to us: a breathable moist atmosphere, confirmed by our sensors as containing water, plus the planet had a bioenergy source—though it would take weeks to harvest and process enough plant matter to see us on our way. Even so, we weren’t too sure who or what else lived here . . .
First time out, the Recon vehicles stayed on-radio all the time and gathered a shitload of data. No hostile encounters, nothing more’n a few rodent-like creatures and a ton of creepy-crawlies, but that was to be expected, landing in a jungle. Things weren’t gonna be easy, but we could make it if we held it together for a while. Everyone breathed easier.
Second time out, not so good; the Recons went farther but lost contact. Thought we’d lost ’em for good. Eventually they reported back. They’d gotten surrounded by creatures, “bugs,” they called ’em, only they’re the same size as us. Most were pretty freaked out by that. No harm done though: “the bugs don’t bite,” Recon guys said. Reckoned they were being studied, so these bugs got to be smart—though one of Mendez’s homies makes a crack about “being probed.” Huh, any bug would be smarter than those guys.
Anyway, we debated our next move: we needed fuel but had to ration supplies. Staying on board weren’t an option, but leaving the ship didn’t appeal much neither. All told, the creatures made our minds up for us. They just came right out to the ship. Hardly surprising, a thing like that in your backyard—pretty soon you’ll come take a peek. Dozens of them showed up on the securi-screens.
Cue another meeting on board. Some were for just blasting away, crippled ship or nothing; some were for meeting ’em, try and communicate. Of course, Mendez and his gang were all for tooling up.
I just walked away. Doubt anyone even noticed. Got an atmos-suit on and went right out to meet them. Couldn’t tell you why. Not exactly sure I wanted to die, but looking back in my heart, I was ready; the heart that went numb after Siro—like it went black with frostbite or something. Anyhow, figured if I went out to see these bugs we’d learn something; maybe cut through all the BS on-ship.
I just stood at the bottom of bay doors. The creatures stood too, not moving, just . . . watching.
Then one of these bugs—“insect-folk,” I prefer to call them—moved forward, real slow. It wasn’t aggressive; more like curious; shy, even. One of their leaders I figured, perhaps came to make peace. And that’s how it started . . .
. . . the sheen of her carapace shimmering in the light as she came toward me . . . never seen anything so beautiful in my whole goddamn life, like living art . . .
I felt it was a “she” on account of a delicacy in her manner made me reckon her female but really, I got no idea if they even have gender. All those colors, some I was pretty sure I never seen before . . . the way they caught the light. “Iridescent,” Petrov says. Well, I was just mesmerized, no other way of saying it.
Time passed. Hours or seconds, I don’t know. Just me, staring.
They got these compound eyelike features, either side of their heads—hard to make out, but I’m certain hers were fixed on me so the two of us was just as transfixed by the other. I walked forward, real slow, hands out. I got near to her and reached out, nice ‘n’ easy. She flinched, but she didn’t pull away as I laid my fingertips upon her abdomen. It was cool to the touch, no friction at all, like porcelain. Cool, not cold; made me feel calm, peaceful. No one made me feel that since . . . him.
Her antennae twitched, and I could tell she was figuring me out too. We connected, reading each other, right from the start. Petrov said most of the crew were horrified, though some always thought a weirdo like me would get along better with some not-human kind. Whatever. It proved the “bugs” weren’t about to feed on our brains or nothing.
Eventually a few others came out the bay to join me. We all spent a long time just watching the insect-folk and them watching us back, no one too sure what should happen next. If there was a protocol for this kinda meet ‘n’ greet, it weren’t in the manual.
The insects started to retreat, all at once. I took it as an invitation. Don’t ask me how, but I knew they wanted me to follow. Nothing ventured, right? So they lead off into the jungle, and I go with them. The Recon team leader barked in my earpiece to stand-down, but I just disabled my comms and strode off.
Me and the insect-folk walk a few klicks, by my reckoning. The one that came to me first stays alongside me all the while, like she’s my guide. I reach my hand out, real gentle, brush my fingertips along her back. Her hind wing-pair thrummed away—letting me know she was pleased. That’s what I wanted to think anyway. A whole new planet laid out before me, but I could barely take my eyes off her. I was nervous, sure, but that excited kind of nervous you get when you go off into the unknown, too high on good feelings to be wary of danger. And when someone makes you feel like that, you just know . . .
Never really knew what I should call her. If they have names they ain’t told me, but it felt right to call her something, so I decided on “Rose.” Used to know someone called Rose I liked; suppose that’s why.
I stayed through the night. They watched me closely all the while, all up close around me, their antennae twitching close to my face. Rose never left my side, and I liked that—felt like she wanted to reassure me.
I think they figured out how and what we breathe and eat because after a while they brought me some clear liquid in this shell-like thing. Didn’t smell of anything, so I thought what the hell, an’ I drank it. It was water, close as I could tell. Then later they brought me some leaves. They smelled okay and were dark green, so I figured probably full of good stuff. I bit off a bit. It tasted like spinach, so I munched some more and didn’t feel unwell or nothing—bit like one of them macro-salads they lab-grow back on ship.
Guess I already knew I was staying forever.
Days passed with me being center of the universe, so it felt. As they studied me I was picking up some of how they are. They live in groups in these kinda cave pods made of some chitin-like substance they chew out, like wet, mashed-up chalk in all different colors, and use their proboscis to paste on. Once it has dried hard and smoothed out, it is beautiful—colors flowing together, half-patterns appearing and then blendin’ into something else. They take pride in this, I think; like it’s a sort of art for them. Shows they got a “sense of aesthetic,” as Petrov would say.
Though they ain’t got our tech, they don’t seem to need any. No electrics but no need for heat, as it’s always warm; their food grows on trees—reassuring me they weren’t about to tuck into yours truly—and they don’t need vehicles because they don’t need to go nowhere. They got water and sanitation figured out good enough; pretty tuned into nature I’d say. Simple, uncomplicated, balanced. I liked that. There was something relaxed but efficient about them: they got what they need, need what they got. No frills, no fuss. The peacefulness of it all was pretty sweet—felt like somewhere a person could really get their shit together.
Days later one of our Recon vehicles pulls up nearby. The insects were all agitated by that, and I was anxious too. I didn’t want a situation, so I went out to meet it.
The Reconners looked shabby, ragged, desperate—I saw them for what they were I guess: crooks and mercenaries. (In my head I’m already thinking of the crew as them, rather than us, I notice.) Just looters with lasers: come to steal but prepared to hurt. But Petrov was with them too, so maybe there was hope.
“Captain Nkuru wants you to report back,” shouted one of ’em.
“No shit,” I said, “since when was she voted captain?”
“Since just after you disobeyed orders,” shouted the Recon team leader, “you goddamned stupid—”
“Since the crew council voted her in, shortly after you left,” butted in Petrov. “She wants to know what you’ve learned.”
“Get in the vehicle, you fucking freak,” said the Reconner. Petrov said nothing but the look in her eyes told me it was the only way.
Later, during my debrief with Captain Nkuru—in which I was pretty close to being court-martialed, like I could give a crap—she told me she wanted me to go back, befriend them, and then get them to move on. Turns out they live right over the top of some vein of minerals that could give us a payday to return home with. Captain gave me the details, but I wasn’t listening. Can’t go digging under someone’s house just because you think you’ve struck oil.
I was confined to med-deck, with Petrov running “observations” on me: testing for viruses an’ such. Reckon she was also ordered to do a psych-eval too, only she was real subtle about it, just making conversation, not taking notes.
“So?” she said.
I smiled. Where the fuck do I start? I told her what I could.
“I was worried.” I look in her eyes, and I know it’s true. “How did you know they wouldn’t harm you?”
“Just did, I guess.”
“Exactly. You guessed.”
“It was more than that. They liked me.”
Petrov shook her head a little. “I think you just want someone—or something—to like you.”
I ignore that. “I’m sure they liked me.” Petrov raises her eyebrows, but I continue. “It’s like I’m in tune with them. I . . . I can’t explain, except that, after a while with them, I kinda get what they mean. Least I think I do.”
“You think. Do they speak?”
“No; well yeah, sort of. They ain’t got speech, but they have a language of sorts. It’s all scents and symbols from what I figured.”
“Not how we know it. They emit a spray from that long thin part they all got.”
“Proboscis,” said Petrov.
“Yeah. An’ they pattern shapes in the air, carrying messages in their scents. I just breathe it in like I’m supposed to be reading the message, but really I’m just caught up in the spell of it.”
Petrov stares at me, like I’m the alien, and she’s trying to read my message but can’t make it out. “And you told the Captain this?”
Perseverance was in power-down mode so we could store up juice, so it was like perma-night on board. Most crew stayed in quarters when not on duty. I couldn’t sleep on board no more. Somehow the air didn’t feel quite right: too recycled, fake—plus I didn’t wanna breathe in what someone like Mendez had already breathed out.
Couldn’t stop thinking about Rose. The way she observed me, curious about me, made me feel important, whereas Petrov observed me out of suspicion. I had to see Rose, but I was confined to ship, Captain Nkuru’s orders. Felt cooped up an’ skittish, so I took to roaming ’round the ship like a cat on a hot titanium roof.
On the way to the mess hall, I brushed past Mendez and his posse. It was bound to happen.
“Ahh shit,” he says to me. “Now I gotta go have a detox scrub. Who knows what bugs the bugs might have,” he said. All his cronies laugh. Assholes, I thought, but I didn’t say it. No point—an “exo” like him could squash a regular like me like . . . a bug. Could’ve pointed out their frames were kinda like exoskeletons the insect-folk have, so they were the bug-like ones . . . but why bother?
One of them shoves me as they go past. Their internal hydraulic system makes ’em way too powerful, and I crashed against the wall. If I weren’t purple already that sure as shit would’ve done it. But lying there all groggy-headed got me real clearheaded at the same time.
Went straight down to the armory and got myself suited ‘n’ booted with Recon gear and a long-haul supplies pack. The young corporal on duty challenged me a little, until he saw theplas-machete strapped in my thigh holster. Whatever. I was out the ship and gone. Orders be damned.
I found Rose easily, like I had a trace of her scent or something. Like she wanted me to find her. When she saw me, her antennae made this little dancing move. Yeah, she was pleased. It was good to be home.
Over a few more days, I began to recognize some of the scents the insects secrete, as well as some of their gestures. It’s how you put them together: a certain scent with one gesture means one thing, but with a different gesture means something else. Somehow I got a sense of what they’re saying. I mean, I’m never gonna have the faculties for all the scents, but I learned to make some signs with my hands, nice and big—they seemed to know what I meant.
This time it took two weeks for the Reconners to track me down. I noticed it first in the reaction of the insects; antennae all twitching at once, frenetically scurrying around. Minutes later, I picked up on the rumble of vehicles—typical of those Recons, no attempt at stealth, like they didn’t have nothing to be afraid of; as if this place was their backyard.
I got my las-gun and tried to tell Rose to stay put and keep all her folk together. I wasn’t sure if she got my meaning—guess she never seen me so anxious either—but there wasn’t time to explain a second time.
Half a klick away, three Recon buggies crashed through the foliage, scattering anything that lived in the undergrowth. I got myself tucked up high into the leafy canopy, well out of their sight line, and waited.
Eventually the Reconners stopped and got out. They were all kitted up for the kill, a dozen or so of them. Petrov was there too though, so it meant they were gonna play good cop first.
They took up guard positions. Most weren’t really watching out though—just shooting the shit, chewing baccy, swigging liquor. Discipline must’ve slipped back on Perseverance. The old Admiral would’ve had them in the brig for that, but now it was a slacker regimen—I could see it all in their swagger. Kings of the frickin’ jungle. I knew now there was nothing stopping them from crossing the line.
Petrov stayed in the vehicle. Looked like she was about to puke, all tense and frowning. One glimpse of her face was enough to tell me how this was gonna go.
One of Mendez’s goons spoke on the sat-comm: “Perseverance, this is Recon. In position. What’s the order?”
Up in the trees I couldn’t hear the reply from ship, but I saw the dude give a nod to Mendez, and he pumped his hand-rifle.
“Formation, on my lead,” he yelled. The rest of his crew of exo-framers primed their tools. Some had these shit-eatin’ grins that got me real riled up.
On my belly, I got my las-gun sighted and stilled my breathing. Lined one of them up and squeezed the trigger. He went down, a nice neat las-hole in his leg. The exo-frame would stop it going through bone, but it would sting like a motherfucker, and he’d be down a while.
The others freaked, firing rounds at nowhere in particular: they didn’t have a damned clue where I was. I took another, through the shoulder this time. He squealed. Petrov will fix you, I thought.Just go back to ship. Go back. Go back . . .
Mendez hollered to hold fire. All went still for a few seconds. I popped one more, right on the butt. Laughed my ass off as he went down, clutching his. It wasn’t gonna kill him though. Got to draw the line somewhere.
They scurried for cover, squatting down by the buggies. They looked scared; rare for a bunch of exos—too used to wading in toe-to-toe. That’s fine against bandits in Primus sector, where pace and power count. Don’t count for shit against an invisible sniper with a grudge.
Petrov got out of her vehicle. She was unarmed. Mendez yelled at her, but she must’ve known I weren’t gonna shoot her. “It’s just me,” she said, scanning the tree line for a sight of me. “Talk to me.” I didn’t say nothing in return. I slid down through the vegetation, staying out of sight. Petrov walked to the edge of the clearing, facing the foliage as if she were talking to it. I was only a few dozen yards from her, still hidden. “I know things didn’t work out on the ship,” she said. “But here’s a chance to get back into Captain’s good books.”
“Cap’n can go stick her books where she likes.” I said it quiet, so only Petrov would hear.
She turned to face the direction my voice had come from. “I suppose that is a ‘no’ then,” she said in a low tone. “You really mean to stay here, don’t you.” Petrov said it like a statement, not a question. She already knew the answer. She looked sad and shook her head. I’d seen that look before, way too many times, from way too many people: my folks, crewmates, Siro . . . means the same whoever it comes from. Disappointed in you. Only one never did it was Rose.
And then Rose was just behind me. She wasn’t supposed to be here! I was goddamn terrified for her. But she inclined her head-parts toward me, like she wanted to tell me everything is okay. I put my hand on her back and breathed. I felt her coolness, the gentle thrum that vibrates through her; watched the villi on her nape oscillating, like they were dancing in the breeze. Something calming about her presence I can’t explain.
“There’s something good here for me,” I whisper in Petrov’s direction.
She nodded. “How do you know you’ll be safe?”
“I don’t. Ain’t safe on board neither.” I saw Mendez edging forward, a few hundred feet back. “The insect-folk actually like me. Trust me too, I think.”
“What will you do?”
“Watch, learn, live. No orders, no drills. Just . . . exist.”
Petrov’s shoulders sagged. She’d tried.
Mendez was much closer now, blaster raised. “You got one chance to help us move them out. Only way I’m not going to blast you to hell, you stupid bug-fucker.”
Fucking Mendez. Wanting to kill everything that weren’t like him (as if being like him was so great). Never understood the insect-folk, never wanted to. And you kill what you fear, and you fear what you don’t understand, right?
Well, maybe I never really understood that guy, but I definitely feared him.
So I killed him.
One shot. A beauty, exactly where it would pass through his exo-frame. Surgical precision. Cutting out a cancer, perhaps. He stared at the hole in his side as his legs buckled.
Mendez’s crew was stunned. They shouted, cursed, made threats—the usual. They were gonna start shooting any second and this time they knew where to aim. But it was like they were waiting for someone to give the order.
Petrov turned to face them, holding up her arms. “No!” she yelled. Everyone froze. She went over to one of them, took his sat-comm radio, asked to speak to the Captain. She got pretty worked up, but I didn’t hear what she said. Eventually she was done talking and without ever looking over her shoulder, Petrov got them to haul Mendez’s body into a vehicle and move out.
Guess I made my choice, and I got to live with it. Strange thing was, I actually shed tears—mostly from all the adrenalin fizzing ’round in me, but it was the first time I killed someone (even though it was Mendez). Sometimes things just creep up on you like that.
Once Rose and I got back amongst the insects they came around me, all buzzing and stuff. Guess they hadn’t seen no one cry before—like they got to study and process it. Rose stayed up close, stroking my face with her antennae—so gentle, like she was trying to comfort me. It worked. Sensitive folk, the insects.
Life went on, and I learned more all the time. I watched them chatter with their scent-gestures, getting a handle on it all, and I think I figured out what Rose found so curious about me. They love colors and to them, certain colors are “auspicious.” (There’s a word Petrov would’ve used.) A fine word for “lucky,” but anyway, purple is their thing and with me looking like a damson-berry ’cause of the gun-meds, I think I was a kind of good omen.
It was never a sexual thing with me an’ Rose—haven’t even figured out yet how they do it—but I could live without that. We had ourselves a sort of intimacy that was like a stage beyond sex: a feeling of well-being, without all the huffing ‘n’ puffing that goes with it.
They don’t consider themselves individuals the same way we do: Everything is social with them, all about the group. I think they even share thoughts. Sure as shit that would freak out most folk back home, but the insects make it work. Access to information, ideas, decisions. Got an equality to it, like everyone is part of the community. A lot we could learn from that. Then again, not sure I’d wanna know the thoughts of guys like Mendez. But anyway, I don’t have to think of them no more: Perseverance went on its way a good while ago. Heard it from miles away.
Rose has been spending much of her time alone of late, not so much with her kind but not so much with me neither. I figure she’s been getting a bit of a hard time from some of the others. Pretty sure I’m the reason.
Don’t know if I make them nervous, ’cause maybe they didn’t reckon on me sticking around. Maybe I’m just too strange for them after all, but Rose hasn’t been interacting with the rest like normal. Maybe my weirdness is leaving its taint on her too. I wonder if being close to me was just some sort of interesting experiment, or maybe even some sort of rebellion against the ways of her own kind. Perhaps some attempt on her part to be . . . different.
The other day several of them surrounded her, all frantic gesturing, and there was a definite sour note in the air. Rose was low on her hind legs, like she was hemmed in by them all. I saw a few of them gesture in the direction of me and also my las-gun, propped up inside the pod. Reckon they’re still shaken by what happened with Mendez. Probably the biggest thing to ever happen ’round here. Was a first contact for them too of course, except they can’t just fly off, or forget all about it—not with me still here. Maybe I thought I could be their protector, but now Perseverance has gone I bet they’re wondering who they really need protecting from.
Rose turned in my direction, and then away; didn’t respond when I waved to her. Don’t have to be human to get what that meant. Maybe now my gun-meds are wearing off and my skin ain’t so colorful I’m not as exotic as I was. Not auspicious.
I watch as she crawls to an empty pod . . .
. . . the sheen of her carapace shimmering in the light as she turns away from me . . . never seen anything so beautiful in my whole goddamn life; like living art . . .
I could never hurt her, or any of ’em. I’ve broken beautiful things before, and I ain’t going back to that. I pick up my las-gun. A few of the insect-folk are watching me, but that’s ok: I want them to watch—even if Rose can’t look my way. I dismantle the las-gun piece by piece, laying each part carefully on the floor in front of me, hoping my meaning is clear. You kill what you fear, and you fear what you don’t understand, right? Well, I understand, so there’s nothing to fear.
Once it is done I sit there, knees up into my chest. It is a damned humid night. I just stare at what is left of my gun, just a scatter of pieces that didn’t make sense; parts without partners, odd-shaped bits that have no meaning when they’re apart from the others.
I feel dismantled. I’m a piece removed.
Reckon I will head out alone once it gets light. I think of Siro, all those years ago, and I feel cold.
Richard Webb writes long and short SFFH fiction and has been published in Teleport Magazine, Legends (NewCon Press, BloodMoon Rising, ReMastered Words, and StarShipSofa, among others. He was the winner of the British Fantasy Society short story contest 2020. He lives feral in the wild, carving out stories on trees with his bare claws.