An Old Friend
We left the Humvees at an abandoned Texaco station and hiked across the hills—and that flame-thrower was heavy. According to the specifications in the manual, fully loaded and charged, tanks and all, it should have weighed no more than 11.1 kilos—but somewhere along the way we lost the decimal point and Duke wouldn’t let me go back and look for it. So I shut up and climbed. Eventually—even with Tillie the Ten-Ton Torch on my back—we reached the valley where we had spotted the worms less than a week before. Duke’s timing was just right; we arrived at the hottest part of the day, about two in the afternoon. The sweat had turned the inside of my clothing clammy, and the harness for the torch was already chafing. The sun was a yellow glare in a glassy sky, but the valley seemed dark and still. The grass was brown and desiccated and there was a light piney haze hanging over the woods; it looked like smog, but there hadn’t been any smog since the plagues. This grayish-blue haze was only natural hydrocarbons, a by-product of the trees’ own breathing. Just looking at it I could feel the pressure in my lungs. The plan was simple: Shorty and his team would go down on the right flank, Larry and his would take the left, Duke would take the center. I was with Duke’s squad. We waited on the crest of the ridge while Shorty and Larry moved to their positions with their men. Meanwhile, Duke studied the Chtorran igloo. There was no sign of life; but then we hadn’t expected any, didn’t want any. If we had guessed correctly, all three of the worms would be lying torpid within. When the binoculars were passed to me, I studied the corral in particular. There weren’t any humans in it, but there was something—no, there were a lot of somethings. They were black and shiny, and covered the ground like a lumpy carpet. They were heaving and shifting restlessly, but what they were I couldn’t make out at this distance. Shorty signaled then that he was ready, and a moment later so did Larry. “Okay,” said Duke. “Let’s go.” My stomach lurched in response. This was it. I switched on my helmet camera, hefted the torch and moved. The helmet wasn’t a solid piece; it was a lightweight framework—a lot like the kind you see on cyclists. The camera clipped to the side of it was not much larger than the memory clip it held. From this moment on, everything I saw and everything I heard would be recorded for the log. “Remember,” Duke had said, “don’t look down if you have to take a leak—or you’ll never hear the end of it.” We topped the ridge without any attempt to conceal ourselves and started moving down the slope. I suddenly felt very naked and alone. My heart was thudding in my chest. “Oh boy …. “ I said. It came out a croak. And then remembered the recorder! I caught myself, took three deep breaths, and followed Duke. Was anybody else this scared? They didn’t show it. They looked grim. This side of the valley was rocky and treeless; it was the other side that was dangerous. Duke signaled and I stopped. We waited for the others to take the lead. Count to ten. Another signal and we advanced. We were going leapfrog fashion: two men would move while the other two kept lookout, then the first two would watch while the second two advanced. All three groups moved forward this way. I kept my torch charged and ready; so did Duke, but the climb down the hill was slow and uneventful. And painful. Nothing moved in the woods opposite. Nothing moved in the valley. And certainly nothing moved near the igloo—we watched that the hardest. Everything was still. We approached cautiously, three groups of four men each, spaced about a hundred meters apart. Where the ground leveled off, we paused. Duke sniffed the air and studied the forest beyond the chunky dome. Nothing. Still, he looked worried. He motioned Larry’s team forward. They had the Mobe IV with them—they called it “Shlep.” The dry grass crunched under its treads. We waited till they were about a hundred meters forward, then followed. After a bit, Shorty and his men took up their position to the rear. It seemed to me that the three groups were spread too far apart. Maybe Duke thought he was being careful by having us stretched across more territory; it’d be harder for the worms to overpower or surprise us. On the other hand, though, maybe he was being a little reckless too. Our combined torch ranges overlapped, but not by very much; we couldn’t come to each other’s aid as fast. I was about to point this out to him when Larry’s team stopped ahead of us. We approached to about thirty meters and then waited till Shorty’s group was an equal distance behind. Then we all started moving again. Duke looked a little less grim and I started to breathe easier myself—but not much; this was still worm country. We were close enough now to see the construction of the igloo in detail. I estimated it was four meters at its highest point and fifteen in diameter. It was made of layered rows of light-colored wood paste and chips; it looked fairly strong. All around the base was a jumble of dark vegetation so purple it was almost black. The scent was faint, but cloying nonetheless—like honeysuckle, but tasting of something fruitier. I would have expected the dome to be more cone-shaped, like a beehive because of the way it must have been built, one layer at a time; but no, it was more of a mound—a spherical section with a flattened top. The door was a large arched opening, wider than it was high, and shielded by an interior baffle—like the “spirit wall” the Chinese used to put behind their front gates to keep ghosts out. We couldn’t see into the hut. There was no telling if there were worms inside or not. Larry paused at a safe distance and unlocked the Mobe. The rest of us stopped too, all keeping our same relative positions. Larry stood up again and sent two of his men to circle the igloo; he and the remaining man, Hank, moved around the opposite way. Shlep waited alone, its radar turning back and forth in patient unquestioning rhythm. The rest of us watched the front door. In front of the dome was something I hadn’t noticed before—had it been there last time?—I didn’t remember. It was a kind of …totem pole. Only it looked like, I don’t know, a piece of blast art, perhaps. Like something half-melted, a liquid shape frozen in the act of puddling. What the hell was it? A signpost? A mailbox? It was made of the same stuff as the dome and the corral. There was one large hole in the base of it, then three more of decreasing sizes placed almost casually above, oddly off center, and a score of ragged tiny holes all around. The thing stood more than two meters high, half the height of the dome, and directly in front of it. After a bit, Larry and his men reappeared, each having circled the dome completely. Larry signaled that it was all clear. There was no back door; we couldn’t be taken by surprise that way. “All right,” Duke signaled back. “Send in the Mobe.” Larry waved and turned to Hank. He unfolded the remote panel on the man’s back and armed Shlep. The Mobe’s bright red warning lights began to blink; it was now unsafe to approach. If its sensory apparatus detected a large heat-radiating body close by, the EMP-charge on its back would flash, instantly roasting everything in the dome and probably a good way beyond—like a microwave oven, but faster. EMP stands for Electro-Magnetic Pulse; it’s a burst of wide-spectrum high-energy radio noise. Very wide spectrum. From radio to gamma. Very high energy. Linearly amplified. It probably would have been simpler to just toss a grenade into the hut and duck, but Duke wanted to capture this shelter intact. We needed to learn everything we could about the Chtorrans. The EMP-flash would kill them without destroying their bodies or the dome. Larry waved again and Duke snapped, “All right, everybody down.” This was probably the most dangerous part of the mission—we had to lie down in the grass to minimize the effects of stray radiation from the flash, but the position left us vulnerable because we couldn’t use the flame-throwers if we were surprised. Hank lay down with the remote panel and sent the Mobe rolling forward. He had his eyes pressed into the stereo sight and was looking solely through the eyes of the Mobe now. Beside him, Larry kept uneasy watch. The other two men had stretched a protective flash-foil in front of all four of them—the remote antenna stuck up beyond it—but the Mylar struts were refusing to stay anchored and the men were having to hold them up by hand. The rest of us were far enough back not to need foil, but we stayed down anyway. The Mobe was in the dome now. Again we waited. The minutes ticked off with deliberate hesitation. The only motion was Hank’s hands on the Mobe controls. He was murmuring as he worked and Duke was listening to his comments on a disposable (it would have to be) earphone. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Hank stopped disgustedly and said something to Larry. Larry stood up, swearing softly. Hank turned back to his panel and did something, then sat up. The others let the flash-foil collapse. The Mobe was coming out of the hut now, operating on its own guidance. Had it flashed? No, the red warning blinker was still going. Hank hit the remote and disarmed it; the light went out. The rest of us stood then, brushing ourselves off and checking our weapons. The Mobe said there were no worms in the hut—but Duke never took a machine’s word for anything. Mobes had been fooled before. Maybe the worms were cold-blooded, or perhaps they didn’t give off much heat while they were torpid. Larry was going in to see. The supposition was that at this time of day the worms should be slow and Larry should be able to burn them before they came fully awake and active. We wanted that shelter, and any piece of worm we could get. So he was going to try to scorch them lightly—enough to kill, not enough to destroy. It was tricky and dangerous and not recommended for those who wanted to die in bed. But if they were in there, Larry would get them. If not … Well, that was why the rest of us were waiting outside with torches. Larry put on his O-mask then, stooped and entered, the man with the grenades right behind him. Insurance. The grenades had suicide fuses. I didn’t envy either of them. They bent low inside the “foyer” and disappeared to the right of the spirit wall. Silence. And again we waited. A bee-or-something buzzed around my right ear and I brushed at it in annoyance. A drop of sweat trickled from my armpit down my side. The insect buzzed again. I studied the plants around the base of the dome through the binoculars. They were scraggly clumps of something that looked like midnight ivy, mixed with something else that looked like sweet basil—or black marijuana. Both were a deep, intense shade of purple, almost black and almost impossible to see clearly. The coloring of the ivy must have shaded off into the ultraviolet because it seemed oddly out of focus in the bright sunlight—as if each curling leaf were outlined with hazy red neon. The ivy was streaked with fine veins of white; the basil stuff was spattered with red. We were close enough for the cloying scent to be annoyingly pungent. I assumed it was a product of the basil stuff. At closer range it would be overpowering. At last Larry and the other man reappeared, angrily pulling off their masks. Larry’s face was white. “It’s empty!” he shouted. “There’s nothing here!” Duke said, “Damn,” and kicked at a rock. “Shorty, keep an eye out. McCarthy, come with me.” Then, abandoning his carefully staked-out position, he stalked toward the dome. I followed, struggling to keep up. “How long has it been empty?” Duke asked. Larry shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me. You know as much about their nesting habits as I do. But it smells warm …. “ Duke shoved past him and ducked into the doorway. I started to follow, despite myself, then stopped—my mouth was dry. I stared at that dark hole of the entrance as if it were death. I couldn’t take another step. And yet—I wanted to, more than anything. I peered cautiously, but couldn’t see beyond the foyer. The interior was unlit. I took a step forward, tried to convince myself to make it two— Abruptly, Duke exited, straightening and almost bumping into me. He shot me an absent-minded look of annoyance, then turned to Larry. “Check the enclosure. See what’s in it. Post lookouts on the other side—but keep in sight of each other.” He turned back to me. “You. You’re supposed to be a scientist. I’ll give you ten minutes to inspect the inside of that nest. Then I’m going to burn it.” “Huh? But we’re supposed to—” “Never mind what we’re supposed to. That thing is full of eggs! You think I’m going to leave them here to hatch?” I didn’t bother to answer. The question was rhetorical. I bent and entered the worm hut. The spirit wall was more than just a baffle behind the door. It joined the roof low enough to force me into a crouch, forming a circular cross section and becoming two inward-curving passageways, one to either side. They followed the wall of the dome—how far around, I couldn’t see; the ends were lost beyond the curve. The right passage was ramped upward, the left curved down. The floors were made of the same spongy material as the walls and the roof, only a lot stiffer. I crouched-crawled into the branch on the right; that was the way Duke had gone. He’d entered the right channel; he’d exited from the left. The passage led up and around through ninety degrees of arc and opened onto a circular room eight or nine meters in diameter and just tall enough to stand in. I had a flashbeam, but it wasn’t necessary here. There was an opening two meters across in the center of the roof. Light streamed in through this, as well as fresh air, but the temperature wasn’t as cool as I had thought it would be inside. In fact, it was almost stuffy. There was a strong, stifling smell about the nest, somehow familiar; a sickly sweetish odor, but I couldn’t place it easily …. The room seemed smaller than I’d expected and the ceiling was lower than it had appeared from outside—of course, that upward-sloping ramp—this was the top part of the dome. There wasn’t much here. Maybe this was just the attic. What was in the bottom section? There was a large hole in the middle of the floor, ominously dark. I hesitated. I was a scientist—supposed to be a scientist; at least that’s what it said on my pay vouchers—but that didn’t keep me from being afraid. I stood there indecisively and sniffed that odd-flavored smell …. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed something about the walls; they had a peculiar way of reflecting the light. I forgot the hole in the floor for the moment and turned off my flashbeam; the walls seemed almost—no, they were—translucent. The glare from outside was forcing its way through the material of the dome. I inspected closer and found that it wasn’t a hardened wood paste at all, but some kind of dried wood-foam—a much lighter substance, but no less sturdy. Wood chips were suspended in it like raisins. I poked it with my knife and it was like carving hard paperboard. The walls of this dome were actually tiny bubbles of cellulose-based glue. That explained their peculiar light-transmitting properties, and they were probably excellent insulators as well. I sliced off as large a chunk of the wall as I could and dropped it into my sample pouch. The rest of the room was featureless. Almost unused. I moved to the edge of the hole and peered down. I shone my light around. Another room, larger and deeper than this one. And just as empty. I turned off my flashbeam and hung it on my belt. I took a breath, took a second and a third, then lowered myself down into the chamber. I turned on my light again and shone it around in a circle. Against the left wall was the opening of the ramp leading upward. The exit. Against the right wall was another opening: a ramp leading downward— Right. The ramps spiraled. But to where? I shone my beam down the rightward tunnel. It disappeared into curving oblivion. I didn’t like it. How deep did this nest go? I followed it down. And around. And around. And around. One hundred and eighty degrees—at least, that’s what I guessed—and I came out in still a third chamber; this one was the largest of all. And yes, there was still another tunnel spiraling downward again. But it was unfinished. It wasn’t lined with the chewed up foam; it was just tunneled into the dirt and it dead-ended halfway around. Duke was right. The dome was empty. I retraced my steps upward. Where were the eggs Duke had seen? I reentered the lower chamber, this time to explore in detail. I widened the beam of the light and angled it around slowly. The most noticeable things in this room were large, wet-looking chunks of chewed-up something hanging from the walls—globs of grayish slobbery material, like masticated asbestos. Some of the globs were almost a meter in diameter, and some were covered with a fine blue fur of threads; some kind of fungal growth, I guessed. They had a sharp, wet, mildewy odor. If there was a pattern to their placement, I couldn’t see it; the globs were stuck as casually on the walls as pieces of chewing gum. I suppressed my distaste and cut off as large a sample as I could and bagged it. If these Chtorrans were truly intelligent creatures, you couldn’t prove it by this nest. There were holes of various sizes in the floor here. Some of them were as small as gopher holes. A few were large enough and deep enough to hold a good-sized man; these were close to the walls. The very largest was against the forward wall of the dome. The next largest two were against the rear. I inspected the largest hole first. It was dark, it was empty, and it had an overripe stench. There was some kind of debris at the bottom; I couldn’t identify it. I decided not to climb down. Besides, there didn’t seem to be an easy way to climb back up. The next hole was some kind of a well. It just went straight down and disappeared in blackness. A toilet, perhaps? Could have been; it smelled like it. I didn’t know. What kind of droppings did Chtorrans leave anyway? I was beginning to realize all the things we should have known, but didn’t. The last hole was the one with the eggs. The hole was up against the back wall and it was full of them. There were shiny things, each about the size of a tennis ball, deep red but bathed in a milky white ooze that made them look pearlescent. There must have been hundreds of them—how deep was the hole? It was almost perfectly circular and about two meters wide; it seemed to be as deep as the others, but the level of eggs was almost close enough to touch. So I did something stupid. I laid down the torch. I unbuckled the tanks and took them off. Then I sat down on the floor and lowered my feet into the hole and started to climb down. I miscalculated though, and slipped. I dropped—squish! —into the eggs; it was like tumbling into oyster-flavored Jell-O. For an instant, I thought I was going to lose my footing and topple face first into them, but I caught myself against one wall. Then I thought I was going to be sick. My throat went tight, and I had to swallow quickly—and painfully-to keep from retching. I was standing in a red and slimy-white mess up to my waist. Thankfully, these eggs must have been fairly young. I don’t think I could have stood it if I had found myself in embryonic Chtorrans. Carefully—I couldn’t move too fast because of my unsure footing—I gathered up as many of the still intact eggs as I could reach, bagged them and stuffed them into my pouch. I tried to lean against the wall as much as possible. The feel of those eggs was … uneasy. I was shuddering when I finally braced my hands against each side and levered myself out of that hole. Those eggs were sticky, and they smelled like raw fish left out in the sun too long. If I never saw another one, it would still be too soon. I was trembling violently as I shrugged back into the tank harness and picked up my torch again. Even if it had been for only a minute, that was still sixty seconds too long to be unarmed in a worm nest. I looked around then for something else to take samples of. There was nothing. Just the walls and the globs of Chtorran chewing gum, and I already had samples of those. I inspected the other two holes again. The pungent smell from the center one seemed stronger, which surprised me—I should have been used to it by now—but otherwise there was nothing I hadn’t seen. I followed the spiraling tunnels up and went out through the left-side passage. It was identical to the others. Duke was standing out front, waiting for me. He glanced at the mess on my legs, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he gestured over his shoulder. “Go take a look in the corral. Larry’s found something interesting.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I remembered what had been in that enclosure a week ago. I nodded and kept moving. The enclosure resembled a large frontier-type stockade about ten meters across, only circular. Its walls were nearly three meters high and slanted inward, as if the whole were an incomplete dome. The material was the same as the nest, but thicker and darker. There were the same dark plants around the base—the ivy and the basil stuff. I bagged a few of the smaller growths for specimens; the basil was the one with the cloying sweet smell. The leaves of the ivy were waxy and had a sticky feeling to them. There were also clumps of some spiky purple stuff; I took some of that as well. There was no opening in the corral wall. Instead, a steep ramp leaned against the side and up beyond by an equal length; it was rough-hinged to seesaw down into the center. Larry was perched at the top. He waved when he saw me. “Come on up.” The ramp was steep, but ribbed horizontally. It was not quite a ladder and not quite stairs, but something of both. Even though I had to use my hands, the climb was easier than I expected. “What do you make of that?” Larry asked, pointing down inside. I straightened carefully, making sure I had my balance before I looked. Even so, I was startled, and Larry had to grab my arm to steady me. The interior of that stockade was a swarming mass of—insects. Or if not insects, then something very much like them. They were large, most of them almost a half-meter long—although some were longer—and black and shiny. Their bodies were slender and jointed, and looked like lengths of ebony cable. Each was fringed with hundreds of flashing legs. They moved across the shadowed floor, twisting and whirling like an explosion of metal pieces. “Centipedes,” said Larry. “Giant centipedes.” “Millipedes,” I corrected. “Thousand-leggers.” He shrugged; it was all the same to him. “You ever seen anything like that before?” I shook my head. The floor of the corral was seething. The creatures were oblivious to each other. They raced back and forth across the dirt or curled into balls. They climbed over each other’s bodies or just stood and twitched nervously. Or they explored the periphery—several of them were chewing methodically at the walls. “Look, they’re escaping,” I said. Larry shook his head. “Watch.” I did so. One of the largest of the millipedes, nearly a meter long, seemed just on the verge of breaking through. He was almost directly under me and chewing with a vengeance; the sound was a sticky, vicious kind of crunching, like sizzling fat or grinding light bulbs. Abruptly he stopped and backed away. He waved his feelers about in confusion, then began to wander aimlessly—until he came to another section of wall. He tested it cautiously. After a moment, he began chewing again, though not as industriously as before. “What happened?” I asked. Larry pointed. “He broke through.” I looked closer. Where the millipede had been chewing was a tiny black hole. A dark, pitchy substance was oozing out of it. “This is a double wall,” said Larry. “The inside is filled with something they don’t like.” I nodded silently. Elsewhere around the edges, other millipedes were repeating the performance of the first one, and there were numerous other holes with hardened plugs of the same dried, pitchy substance to testify to the millipedes’ persistence. “I didn’t know centipedes grew so big,” said Larry. “They don’t,” I answered, suddenly remembering something from my plague-aborted course in entomology. “And they don’t have four antennae either. Their mouths aren’t shaped like miniature garbage disposals, their eyes aren’t so large, and they aren’t herbivorous—they shouldn’t be eating those walls at all. These aren’t millipedes.” Larry shrugged. “Well, if they’re not, they’ll do until the real thing comes along.” “I don’t know what these are,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything that even resembles them before. Real millipedes don’t have as many legs or body sections. Look how they’re segmented—and what are those humps behind the eyes? And what are they doing here?” I indicated the enclosure. “Isn’t it obvious? This is the Chtorran larder. They like their food fresh. They keep it in this corral until they’re hungry. Look.” He pointed again. “See that? Somebody was having a snack earlier.” I saw a pile of discarded shells and disjointed body sections. I repressed a shudder—these millipedes were nothing more than food for Chtorrans. They were live lunch from the planet Chtorr! “Hey! These things are extraterrestrial too! The Chtorrans brought them! I’ve got to catch one!” He stared at me. “Are you crazy—? Those things might be man-eaters.” “I doubt it,” I said. “If they were, they wouldn’t be chewing on wood.” It sounded good to me. “They might be poisonous—” I shook my head again. “Herbivorous creatures never are; they don’t need it.” “How do you know they’re only herbivorous? They might have a taste for meat as well.” That made me pause—but not for long. “There’s only one way to find out. Help me down.” He set his jaw stubbornly. “No.” “Larry,” I said, “this is every bit as important as burning worms. Anything we can find out about them will help us destroy them.” “I’m not going to help you get killed.” “Then I’ll do it myself—” I took a step upward on the ramp; another one and I was beyond the wall; a third and it began to teeter precariously. Larry took a step back down to stop it. “Look,” I said to him, “somebody’s got to do it.” He didn’t answer, just took another step downward to counterbalance my weight. I stared at him until he looked away. I took another step up. One more and the ramp began to lower slowly on my side. I took another step and the rate of swing increased. Larry started to move—too slowly. He said a word and gave up. He adjusted his position to keep the ramp from moving too fast. “Okay,” he growled, “but if you get your legs chewed off, don’t come running to me.” I grinned. “Thanks,”—then had to grab suddenly to keep from toppling off. The ramp kept swinging—Larry rose above me unhappily—till my end touched ground near the center of the corral with a thump. I found myself balanced in an awkward position and had to scramble around in order to climb down more easily—or up, if I had to. I looked down warily. A couple of the millipedes had already begun inspecting the foot of the ladder, and one of them had even begun to chew on it. But so far, none of them had made any attempt to climb out. If anything, most were moving away from it. Had they learned already to associate the lowering of the ramp with predatory Chtorrans? It seemed likely. I swallowed and began climbing down. About a foot above the ground, I paused. I held my leg out carefully to see if they would jump or snap at it. One of them rose halfway up as if to sniff, but almost immediately lost interest. I waved my foot above another. He rose up too, and even grabbed hold; I flinched, but held still and waited as he flicked his antennae back and forth across the toe of my boot. After a second, he lost interest too and dropped away. I managed a weak grin and lowered my foot to the ground. “Well, that’s one more giant step for mankind.” I was breathing a little easier. The millipedes showed no alarm at my presence. If one did come in contact with my shoes, he either turned away or climbed over them as if I were just one more bump in the landscape. Mostly, they ignored me. I wondered if it would be safe to pick one of them up with my bare hands, or even with my gloves on. I poked one of the creatures with the tip of the torch and immediately it curled into a ball, showing only its shiny black shell. Okay, so maybe that established they were cowards, but they still had mouths like miniature scrap-metal processors—you know, the kind that can reduce a new Cadillac cruiser into assorted pellets of steel and plastic, none larger than an inch across. I decided to play it safe. That was when I found out how ill-equipped my sample pouch really was. I didn’t have anything to carry them in. A plastic bag? Uh uh, they could go through that in seconds; a creature that can chew its way through wood foam and wood chips isn’t going to be stopped by anything less. I wished I’d had the foresight to bring some wire-based netting. Should I risk my canvas pouch? It didn’t seem a good idea. I had no guarantee that a captured millipede would stay politely curled up all the way back to base or until I could find a proper cage for it. I wondered—I was wearing a polymer-asbestoid liner between myself and the torch harness, also a shock vest. The vest alone should be enough—at least I hoped it would—so I began shrugging out of the tanks again. “Hey!” called Larry. “What the hell are you doing?” “Taking a shower,” I called back. Then, “Relax. I know what I’m doing.” He scowled doubtfully, but shut up and looked unhappy. I took off the liner and dropped it to the ground, then I pulled the tanks back on. Two of the millipedes explored the plastic-looking shirt without much curiosity, then wandered away. Good. I hoped that meant they’d found it inedible. Quickly, I poked the three nearest specimens with the nozzle of the torch. They curled up obediently. I rolled them onto the asbestoid cloth, made a sack out of it, and tied it at the top by looping the sleeves around and tying them in a hasty knot. My pouch was beginning to bulge like the belly of a pregnant hippo—and I must have looked every bit as proud. As a sample-collecting trip, this was turning into quite a bonanza. First the eggs; now the millipedes. For good measure, I added a piece of the enclosure wall and some of the pitchy substance that filled it, also a few of the discarded shells and body sections from the recent Chtorran snack. Larry was visibly relieved when I began climbing out. I think the idea of a man going willingly into a Chtorran larder—even if only to look around—was too much for him. He waited until I was almost to the top and then shifted his weight to seesaw the ramp up from the center and down the outside. We climbed down together; it was wide enough for that. At the bottom, Larry looked at me with grudging respect. “I gotta admit,” he said, “that took guts. I wouldn’t a done it. I don’t like bugs of any kind.” I shrugged. “I was only doing my job.” “Well, I wouldn’t trade with you,” he said. This from the man who had gone into the dome first to see if there were worms inside. “Come on, let’s go see if Duke has figured out where the worms are hiding—” And then all hell broke loose. There was a purple chirruping sound and a sudden cry. Larry went white and grabbed for his grenade belt. We heard the roar of a torch and from the other side of the nest puffed a gout of black smoke. I dropped my sample pouch and went charging after Larry. I saw Shorty first. He had his legs braced firmly apart and was stabbing a finger of flame at something large and black and writhing. It was totally enveloped by the fire and smoke—the burning carcass of a worm! I kept running—now I could see beyond the curve of the nest. There was another Chtorran there. I skidded and stopped in sheer horror—I had seen the pictures, yes, but they hadn’t prepared me for the incredible size of the creature! It was huge! Nearly twice the length of a man, with bright red fur, and more than a meter thick at the head! Its eyes were black and lidless. It reared up into the air and waved its arms and made that chirruping sound again; its mouth was a flashing maw. “Chtorr!” it cried. “Chtorrrr! Chtorrrrrr!” I was fumbling with the safety on my torch; the **** thing seemed frozen. I jerked at it unmercifully. I glanced up, half-expecting to see that crimson fright charging down on me—but no, it was still reared up in the air, half its length. Its fur was standing stiffly out from its body, revealing its skin of deep purple. Abruptly, it came back to ground and lowered its head; its eyes were like black searchlights fixed directly on me. I braced my legs as Shorty had shown me and steadied my flamer—damn! Larry was blocking my shot! He was just pulling the pin on a grenade— The worm moved then. So did I, sliding sideways to catch it before it could bear down on Larry; he was closest. It turned toward him and streaked across the ground like hot lava, a flowing red silkiness. Stiff-armed, he flung the grenade. It arced high—simultaneously, Shorty’s flame flicked across that purple and red horror. It exploded in a tongue of orange—and then exploded again as the grenade shattered its writhing form. There was another explosion in the distance, and then it was all over. Shorty cut off his flamer and its roar became a sign, then faded out altogether, leaving only the sizzle of burning worm, the insistent crackle of it blackening flesh, and a smell like burning rubber. Duke came stumbling through the smoke. “Anybody hurt over here?” He gave a wide berth to the still-burning carcasses. Shorty called back, “We’re okay. I got ‘em both easy.” He grinned. “And Larry wasted a grenade.” Larry mock-scowled. “Well, I couldn’t wait all day for you.” To Duke: “Everybody all right on the other side?” Duke nodded. “No problem. That worm never had a chance, but I was worried when I saw the other two headed this way.” “Hell, boss, you oughta know better than that,” Shorty boomed jovially. “Fact is, Jim here saw how well me and Larry were doing; he decided to take a nap.” Duke’s eyes flickered over me. “He’d better not have,” he muttered. Shorty ignored it. “How big was the one you got?” Duke shrugged. “About the same as these. Maybe a little bigger.” “How about that,” Shorty said, directing it toward me. “We just burned two and a half tons of worm.” Duke said sourly, “We were almost caught by surprise.” He turned to Larry. “Thought you said that dome was empty.” “Huh? It was—!” His face looked confused. “You saw that yourself!” “I didn’t inspect it all, Larry—I took your word for it. I only checked for eggs. It was your responsibility to check the other holes.” “I did!” Larry insisted. “They were empty! The Mobe tapes will confirm it!” Duke narrowed his eyes. “Larry, those worms came charging out of that dome. I saw it myself.” “And I tell you that dome was empty—if it wasn’t, you think I’d be standing here now?” “I can confirm that,” I said. They both looked at me. “Remember? I went into the dome too, and I poked my nose into everything. I didn’t see any worms.” Duke closed his mouth. He studied his boots for a moment. “All right,” he said. “Let’s drop it for now.” He turned and walked off. Larry looked at me. “Thanks, kid.” “For what?” I said. “That dome was empty. Duke’s gotta be wrong. The worms must have come from the woods.” “Uh uh,” said Larry. “If Duke says he saw them come from the dome, then that’s where they came from. There was something we missed, Jim—both of us. We haven’t heard the end of this.” I shrugged and followed him. We passed between the two crackling worm carcasses toward where Duke and the others were gathering. Larry looked unhappy, so much so that I wanted to say something more to him, but Shorty caught my arm. “Leave him be, Jim. Let him work it out for himself. Larry’s that way.” “But it’s not his fault—and nobody got hurt.” “But somebody could have been,” said Shorty. “It was his responsibility to check out that nest and he thinks he failed. In Larry’s eyes, a reprimand from Duke is pretty serious.” He added, “If it were me, I’d be feeling that way too.” “Oh,” I said. I thought about it. “Okay.” Then I remembered. “Oh, I forgot my sample pouch. I dropped it when the excitement started. Wait a minute—” I broke away and started back toward the enclosure. Shorty nodded. “I’ll wait here.” It took only a moment. I dashed around the smoking worms and up to the foot of the ramp. The pack was where I had left it. I scooped it up and hung it on one shoulder, checking the contents as I walked back. I came around the nest in time to see the biggest worm of all attacking Shorty. Shorty was just turning toward me, grinning—then there was that chirruping sound, “Chtorrrr! Chtorr!” and a section of the nest wall next to him fell away. A thick, purple-red body streamed out, all mouth and grabbing arms. I couldn’t reach my torch! The gorram pack was in the way! “SHORTY!” He was already turning toward the worm, sudden realization appearing on his face—and then it was on him. He didn’t even have time to yell. I found my hands and I burned them both. I held the torch on them and burned. Bright gouts of flame. Searing tongues of flame. Red and black and orange! Roaring, cleansing fire! I held that trigger firm and squeezed, squeezed and screamed. The flame-thrower screamed too. I played it back and forth across the worm long after the thing had ceased to writhe. Then I turned it on the nest and burned that too. I didn’t stop until it was completely aflame and the roof had collapsed. But by then the torch was out of fuel anyway and they had to pry it out of my hands.
“The universe does not give first warnings. Or second chances.”