“It’s certainly a pretty one-sided deal,” said Leonard as he leaned back into his chair. “But what else would you expect? They’re bugs, not attorneys.”
The reporter nodded and scribbled a note in his pad. The dining table in the harvest facility’s executive lounge seated twelve, but only three seats were occupied, by the reporter and the company’s two harvester-team leaders.
In the middle of the table was a large wooden bowl of toasted honey-bugs. Tiny ant-like creatures, their sweetness was mingled with unparalleled flavor, and their shell yielded the perfect, lightly crispy crunch. But they were also incredibly rare, found only on the hostile surface of Khepri. All efforts to raise them elsewhere had failed, and per ounce they had become one of the galaxy’s most expensive delicacies, beyond even Earth-raised caviar.
“It’s a dangerous job you guys have,” said the reporter. “The death-rate here is incredibly high.”
“It was worse before the cutbacks,” said Leonard with a shrug. “We lost a team almost every month back then. But it’s been better recently, so the figures you have down might be a little high. Still, there have always been risky jobs, haven’t there? We get paid well for our work, and nobody comes here expecting an easy ride.”
That much was true. Everybody knew the job was hard and not without risks, though the loss of Alex’s team last month ago had still come as a shock. It had been a timely reminder to them all that even experienced harvesters could pay the price if they were careless. Rumor said a replacement team was inbound, but in the meantime, the remaining teams were reaping better harvests than ever.
“So why not use machines instead?”
“They tried,” said Leonard. “But the bugs don’t like the machines, and they don’t last long in this atmosphere anyway. No, the only way is with human feet on the ground. That’s why our product is so valuable.” He took a pinch of the lightly toasted honey-bugs and popped them into his mouth. They crunched between his teeth. “I admit it wouldn’t suit everyone. But for those with the stomach, it’s a way of life. I wouldn’t trade your boring job for mine in a month of Mondays.”
An hour later, Leonard and his two team-members stood in the facility’s northern exit chamber. The processing facility itself was a dull-looking structure with armor-plated outer walls. They had nicknamed it Candy Mountain.
“So what did he want?”
“The usual,” said Leonard, stripping off his clothes. Beside him, Ellis and Joanna were already naked. All three were shaved entirely clean of body-hair down to the eyebrows, and all were ridged with heavy muscle. “He wanted to know all about the most dangerous job in the universe.”
They laughed. They loved that reputation–it made them the rock-stars of the new frontier.
Each of them took an elliptical face-mask and a pair of ear-plugs from a long shelf against one wall. They inserted the plugs and fitted their masks carefully before heading through a nearby door into the closing chamber, where they waited to be covered.
The symbiosis of the bugs and their harvesters was a boon. The planet’s atmosphere was incredibly corrosive, and little could endure it for long. Even diamond and titanium degraded quickly, and the finest custom-made protective suits lasted only a day.
But the bugs endured it easily. The scientists said it was down to rapid cell regeneration, far faster than any animal on record elsewhere. And by happy chance, they were attracted to humans. The tiny things, barely a quarter of an inch long, would crawl onto any open skin they could find and form a living barrier between the harvesters and the hostile atmosphere.
And then they ate them at the end of it. It was a perfect reflection of humankind. The facility would roast and pack up the majority of the harvest, but kept enough living bugs on hand to fully cover all outgoing harvesters.
The face-masks were disposable, and equipped with microphones that would transmit to the team’s ear-plugs. Each would last for a single harvest only, and each contained tiny hyper-compressed air canisters, sufficient for a day’s breathing. They were lightweight but durable, and damaged visor layers could be peeled away as necessary to help maintain clarity. The last three layers would crackle when peeled free, a warning to any harvester running close to his equipment’s limit.
But aside from the mask and ear-plugs, every other part of the body was left naked to attract the bugs. The more skin you exposed, the more bugs you could attract. And the more bugs you brought in, the more money you made.
Nobody knew exactly what the bugs got out of it. Scientists had proposed several theories about human secretions, but nobody had been able to safely study the relationship. Still, whatever it was, the harvesters got the best of the deal–and all you had to do to get your share of the pot was let a million tiny insects crawl all over your naked body.
It wasn’t a job for everyone. But if you couldn’t stomach it, then you didn’t deserve the rewards.
“Hey, Jo,” said Ellis, as the bugs began to form a thick layer on his legs. “Do they ever get up inside your…well, you know?”
“Yeah, every time,” she said. “Hey, it’s all money, right?”
Leonard laughed, and started to say something about her being weird. But as the bugs climbed up over his groin, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Part of him always expected things to go wrong at that point. The first time they’d crawled over him, they’d actually given him an erection. That had been embarrassing enough–and in his mind’s eye there were always visions of much, much worse.
But the bugs continued crawling up without incident, and soon all three were clad in living suits. The crawling sensation was itchy, but reassuring. It meant you were protected.
The lights turned green, the secure doors opened, and they marched out onto the planet’s surface.
The job was simple enough, at least on paper. Head out, find a cluster of bugs, and lead them home. There were box-traps all around the base that would capture them once they were nearby, but live, close human flesh was the only thing that would attract them.
And even once the body was completely covered, the bugs would keep coming. They’d crawl on top of the others, forming a heavy, shifting mass around the harvester that could become several feet thick. Movement was difficult then, like marching neck-deep in molasses, and you needed strength, and fitness. It was no job for the weak.
“We’ll hit the sixteenth quad,” said Leonard.
“You sure? It’s dodgy out that way.”
“I’m sure. Alex’s team was scheduled there this week, and nobody’s hit it yet. We cleared out the western side yesterday, and Stu took his team South. I know it’s a hike, and rough ground, but I think we’ve got a great chance of finding a large mass.”
Ellis and Joanna simply nodded. Leonard’s instincts were rarely wrong, and over the last two years his leadership had made them rich.
The sixteenth quadrant lay to the north-east, four miles away on the other side of a stretch of thick vegetation. The ground was tough on Khepri at the best of times, with unstable, uneven ground and one hundred and twenty percent of Earth’s gravity to contend with. But the green areas were worse. Aside from the thick, vine-like plants that sprouted all over, there were some strange, lumpy things that emitted foul fumes, and hollow fungus-like growths that contained enzymes that the honey-bugs hated. If you fell into one of those they would scatter and leave you naked–after that, it was a dice-roll whether the enzymes or the atmosphere killed you first.
Neither one was a clean death.
The atmosphere had left no trace, but the fungi were Leonard’s hot pick for what had claimed Alex’s team. Others had vanished in more barren areas, and those he put down to poor leaders who didn’t know the ground well enough, or who had panicked when things went south.
But Leonard had a cool head, and knew the ground better than anyone. There were neither any surprises nor any tumbles into evil fungi, and within three hours they’d cleared it–good time for the terrain, though the return trip would be slower and tougher if they found the kind of mass he was hoping for.
The vegetation yielded to an open plain–easier going, but it was a mixed blessing. There were no more evil fungi to contend with, but the ground in the Sixteenth was renowned for its instability.
“I hate this place,” muttered Ellis.
“Don’t we all,” said Leonard. “But the honey-bugs love it. Let’s spread out and find them. I’ll bet both of you dinner that there’s a good mass around here somewhere.”
The trio fanned out, with Leonard heading north, and after ten minutes he spotted what he was looking for. A quarter-mile ahead the ground was lightly rippling, the unmistakable sign of a large mass of bugs beneath.
“Ellis, Jo, get to my position.” The pair both acknowledged. He waited, watching the shifting ground as the two made their way to him.
“Told you,” he said, pointing at it. “What’s that, a size-four group?”
“Looks like it,” said Ellis. “Or damned close anyway. Man, I love your instincts! It’s only a shame they’re underground.”
“It beats not finding them, right? Let’s lead them back to the Mountain.”
They walked closer, every step slow and careful. With the bugs gathered underground in a thick mass, it would be even more unstable, and more than one harvester had lost their life when the ground collapsed. But after several cautious minutes they drew close to the edge of the colony, and the first bugs began to crawl out towards them.
“We’ve got them,” said Leonard. “Hang back here for few minutes, and then–”
There was a sudden stiffness to his arms. The bugs could be heavy at times, but instead of shifting, flowing and crawling as they usually did, they all began to freeze in place. More bugs continued to crawl up onto him, all freezing still, until he couldn’t move at all.
“Wait up, guys,” he said. “My bugs are acting all weird.”
Leonard frowned. This was new. In six years of harvesting, he’d never seen them act this way. So what had changed? He looked around for anything different in their environment, some kind of unknown predator, but saw nothing. It all seemed normal, almost dull.
Slowly and ungainly, Leonard’s legs stretched out forwards, carrying him in an unsteady step towards the colony.
“Whoa, whoa,” said Leonard. “What the hell?”
“Hey, what happened to hanging back?”
“It’s not me, it’s the damned bugs.” Leonard fought to hold his legs in place, but the bugs were shifting, the living suit settling into its own rhythm as it marched him forward. “I can’t stop them!”
“Nor can I,” said Ellis’s voice over the intercom. “What the hell is going on?”
Leonard was silent. He didn’t know.
The bugs marched them out over the shifting mass, and though Leonard expected them to sink into the unstable earth ground, the bugs beneath formed a firm platform that kept them up. Leonard had some sense of his direction, and though he didn’t know exactly which quadrant they were heading towards, he knew they were heading towards those at the very edge of the facility’s harvest boundary.
On the side of his mask was an emergency beacon button, but he couldn’t lift his locked arm to push it. As far as anyone in the base knew, they were simply out hunting for a good mass. They’d rarely been out for less than twelve hours at a time, and had often come close to the full twenty-four–nobody would start worrying about them for hours. Beads of sweat were forming on his face, and his mask had begun to mist up.
“We’ve got to do something,” said Ellis. “Anything!”
But there was nothing to be done. None of them could move, or resist the relentless marching of the bugs.
As they crossed an unfamiliar ridge, the broad entrance to a tunnel came into view, and they were marched straight down into it. Leonard expected utter darkness after that, but narrow blue veins in the rock glowed lightly, their dim fluorescence enough to see by.
The tunnels twisted and turned, and the bugs marched them along relentlessly. Leonard’s body moved more quickly under their power than it ever had under his own. It was efficient but clumsy, and as they rounded one corner he felt his ankle twist painfully. The bugs didn’t slow. They kept on marching, jarring his ankle over and over.
At last the tunnels opened up into a single broad chamber, and within it sat six bugs–but vast ones, unlike any Leonard had ever seen, all facing a broad, four-foot tall stone pedestal in the middle. They were similar in form to the honey-bugs, but far larger–each was easily ten feet in length from head to tail, and six feet high as they stood. Their front legs were extended forwards, but instead of ending in simple points they splintered into long, delicate-looking fingers, three on each hand.
The pedestal itself was intricately carved with unfamiliar symbols and shapes, and on top of the pedestal were six silvery platters. Each was a little over half the size of a man.
The bugs coating him suddenly moved, crawling up over his face mask. For a brief moment he was blind, but then he felt it being pulled from his face and they all scattered, leaving him naked but for a simple pair of now worthless earplugs. The atmosphere stung his skin and eyes, but it was softer here, far less corrosive than the atmosphere at the surface.
He stumbled on his twisted ankle, and as he fell to the ground he looked around quickly for his mask, hoping that he could grab it and push the transmit button to send a distress call. But all three of their masks were being carried around the edge of the chamber by a group of scuttling bugs. When they finally stopped, they dropped them against the far wall in a pile with dozens of other identical, corroded face-masks.
Leonard stared at the pile, and then back at the six giant bugs. They were all looking at him and his companions, but had not moved. He turned to the exit, looking for any way out, but the entrance was blocked by a seething mass of honey-bugs. They couldn’t hope to run. Their only hope of escape was to get to the pile of masks, and–
Something hard grasped his arm, and then his ankle, and he was lifted into the air as though he weighed nothing at all. He heard Ellis and Joanna screaming and yelling, and then heard their voices suddenly muffled, but he couldn’t look to see what was happening to them. He was lowered down, and felt cold stone beneath his naked flesh.
He looked down his body. One of the giant bugs gripped his ankles, and then he felt something starting to pull on his arms. His limbs were drawn out against each other, and he screamed as he felt the bones of his shoulders and hips dislocating. He heard Ellis and Joanna screaming as well, and all too late as his flesh began to tear apart, he knew the truth about the honey-bugs of Khepri.
The deal wasn’t so one-sided after all.
An ex-pat Brit living in California, Rob divides his time between work, writing, table-top games and assisting his wife with wrangling their two cats. He has one story published at Acidic Fiction, and another forthcoming at Stupefying Stories.