At last, we here at the cobweb-covered JSH Book Club present an excerpt from my perpetually-coming-soon science fiction novel, Solar Station A.
Jane, our protagonist, is among the few early first-adopters of cutting-edge technology from Twinklepoint, a Florida company that puts interstellar travel in private spaceships into the reach of ordinary civilians. But as Jane journeys further and further out, she begins to learn that the Universe is nothing like what scientists back home have been telling the public.
For an asteroid that wasn't supposed to have an atmosphere, it was perfectly breathable and Earth-like. But why? How? Aren't there supposed to be trees or something, generating oxygen? Or a body of water creating, you know, an ecosystem with weather and such? I didn't ask Dani because I didn't want to look stupid. But she seemed as mystified as I was.
The surface of the asteroid was like a bad movie set. Barren, but with randomly-placed interesting rock formations spanning out to an abrupt horizon. If I'd seen it on Star Trek I'd have laughed at its papier-mache fakeness. As we hiked up to the cave, my thoughts turned to Cody. Before we broke up, the plan had been that he'd have come along with me into space. It's probably for the best that he didn't; he'd have tried to take over the whole thing like it was his spaceship. Outer space is not a good place to be cooped up with a control freak.
We stared at the cave entrance, uncertain whether to proceed inside. Spelunking is dangerous enough on Earth, but on some obscure asteroid? Sounds very ill-advised. I pictured myself trapped in an underground cave-in and thought about what I would do. For the first time since going into space, the horror of the great distance from Earth I had traveled was beginning to sink in on me.
The ground began to tremble beneath our feet, with a deep scraping, rumbling sound. Like someone dragging a cinderblock by a rope across pavement. It only lasted about three seconds and then all was calm again.
"Whoa!" was all I could muster.
"Innnnteresting!", she said excitedly as her eyes lit up, like all good scientists do when they've discovered something. "There's no record of tectonic activity here. But everything they think they know about this rock is clearly wrong anyway. This has to be related somehow to the anomalous atmosphere." She whipped out a little tablet and started tapping and swiping on it, then she held it up in the air. She looked out at the horizon with a disappointed look on her face. "Whatever it is, it didn't affect the asteroid's orientation by even a micrometer."
We stood there in silence as Dani pulled out some strange little device and pointed it at the cave, apparently analyzing something.
"No way I'm going in there now," I said. She nodded in agreement.
Then another odd sound occurred. It was the sound of movement, of something scuttling against rock. It was coming from the cave. I looked over at Dani and she wore a face of puzzlement that quickly turned to one of concern, and then one of panic. I looked back into the cave and saw what she saw: something was moving inside there. About the size of a kitchen stove. And getting closer.
"Let's get out of here," I whispered.
She didn't respond, and just stared at the whatever-it-is. Then it got close enough for light to reflect against it. Dani and I both began to made apprehensive little winding-up whining sounds like an old-school ambulance siren building up in pitch.
It was an insect. A giant insect. A giant fucking *bug*.
Her first instinct was to edge closer and start taking pictures of it. Mine was to back away and think to myself that nobody was ever going to believe me when I tell them this story, and so I most likely would not bother trying. She switched to the tablet again and started making hasty taps on it.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm live-tweeting this shit."
It crept almost out into the light, at the entry of the cave. It had a face that was comical and terrifying at the same time. Like a space walrus. Its body was like a shrimp or something, but it had big pointy hairs all over it. Uncomfortable minutes passed as it stood there staring at us and we stood there staring back at it. It's mouth-thingies were moist and undulating and it made me nauseous to watch. I kept looking away, then couldn't help myself and looked back for a moment, then away again.
"Look at that carapace. It's almost like a crustacean," Dani whispered, clicking away on her tablet's camera. "Jesus Christ. This is incredible."
"We could open a restaurant here," I said deliriously, trying to stay cool and snarky in the middle of my anxiety attack, "and fry them in butter."
I started backing away faster. I looked back at the Suncoasters, which seemed so far away now. I debated whether to make a run for it. What if these bug-shrimp things are like dogs and can smell fear? I remembered when I was a child, the neighbors had a Doberman that got loose. I was playing in the back yard and it was off its chain for some reason and came over and barked at me. "Don't run," my father had shouted through the screen door. And of course, what did I do? I ran. And that made it chase me. So I very gingerly, very slowly, backed away. I wonder what my father is doing right now? Maybe I should call him.
Then the creature did something neither of us expected, besides existing in the first place. It jumped. In my direction. Like, thirty feet in the air. Dust rose from the spot it landed only semi-gracefully upon. I made a sort of baby sound as I dodged it and ran back to Dani. I can't believe she was still just taking pictures, and I can't believe the next thing out of my mouth was:
"Am I in any of those? Let me see them before you tweet them."
She smiled and held up the tablet. I was blurry and my face wasn't recognizable; my arms were raised in horror at the bug, but it looked like I was welcoming it or worshipping it.
"Do not tweet that", I laughed.
"I'm going to try to get some more good shots of it and then we're going to capture it. Do you have any nets onboard? Or cages?"
"Shit. Here." She did some more taps on her tablet, then placed her thumb against the reader. She was unlocking her Suncoaster.
"Go in my ship and get a net. There's bunch of them laying around everywhere, you'll see some soon as you walk in there. They're black mesh, wadded up, in piles."
I welcomed the opportunity to get away from the giant critter. First I sort of skipped, looking back every other second to make sure it wasn't in chase, then bolted into a full run. I ran through her pod hangar and reached the door inside.
Her ship smelled like a combination of a laboratory and a library. Sort of a musty, rank smell. Not like someone who doesn't clean their home, unwashed dishes and dirty socks or such. More like dust, very old dust, and the disinfectant-and-cedar-shavings smell of a pet shop. Her ship was cluttered with boxes and crates and loose junk everywhere. Metal shelving crammed full of banker's boxes of papers. Crates of microscope slides, petri dishes, and chemical bottles. I was tempted to go sneak a look at her bridge but I didn't. I saw a pile of netting on the floor, just like she'd said. She had many cages too, most of them the size of dog kennels. There were two small metal poles leaning against the doorway and I dragged those along. I thought maybe we could use them to help nudge the thing into the nets.
When I got back to Dani, she was staring intently at her tablet. She looked up at me with an expression of astonishment. "Do you realize what this thing is"?
She didn't get to finish that thought, because that's when I screamed.
She looked behind her to see what I was screaming about. More of the beasties were parading out of the cave.
Some were very large, some were small, all were horrifying. Before either one of us could do anything else, several leaped high over our heads and then turned to face us, effectively blocking our way back to our ships. They began circling us like coyotes slowly assessing their prey. There were about two dozen of them, and occasionally one more would trickle out of the cavern. Their hopping was so erratic, one of them collided right into a large rock outcropping and smashed it. The creature didn't seem injured by it in the least. If one of them crashed against one of our ships, who knows what kind of damage it could cause.
I handed her one of the metal poles. She reluctantly took it and had a pained expression as she looked back at the bugs. She didn't have to say what she was thinking, it was obvious: as a scientist, she hated the idea of having to harm or kill live specimens of an extraterrestrial life form.
"So... what are they?" I asked.
"They're fleas. Giant fleas."
"Oh my God," I whispered. Their hairy quivering legs seemed a hundred times more disgusting now. If Cody were here, he'd already be trying to kill the thing himself. And probably getting eaten. Maybe he should have come along.