At Any Cost

Somewhere beyond the edge of camp, the things were waking up. Somebody had mentioned it would be better to adjust to their schedule: sleep during the day, be vigilant at night, stop being taken by surprise. That week’s leader had refused, every single time. They had made enough concessions.

The dusky purple of twilight settled over the treetops as people kicked dirt over the glowing embers of their dying fire. On top of everything else, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the whole wood was as good as kindling. They had nearly finished setting up camp for the night, and as the dozen or so remaining campers settled in for what was sure to be an uneasy rest, they rolled dirty sleeping bags onto dusty piles of dirt and leaves in a poor attempt to soften the ground at their backs. It was nearly winter. Jem sat at the edge of the tent circle, fluffing what now passed for a pillow. She hadn’t slept soundly in days, and it wasn’t because of what lurked beyond the tree line. The wood was filled with a million unfamiliar sounds–was that an insect? Some kind of bird? What makes a buzzing sound and also scurries up and down the trees at all hours? She wondered in silence. There was nobody to complain to any more.

She watched as a few of the others went to bed. Floating through the spaces between the zipped flaps of tents came the murmurs of pillow talk and the occasional sigh of pleasure–not everything had changed. She longed for the life she was used to: a life of clean sheets and fresh fruit and meat that didn’t come from whatever was crawling around. As she pondered her fate, resigned to a life of sore muscles and aching vertebrae, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up, her thoughts interrupted. Kelvin.

“You’re on watch with me, Jem,” he said, and stalked off to the edge of the clearing without waiting for a response.

Kelvin was, in every sense of the word, a redneck. Jem had never socialized with people like Kelvin before all this happened, and she thought it a particularly ironic twist of fate that they were the only ones likely to survive this hell. She found herself wishing she were a little more rough around the edges. Everyone at camp treated her like a burden, making a point of explaining every chore assigned to her as if she had never heard of washing clothes or boiling water. Instead of proving them wrong, she half-assed every responsibility they gave her. If they think I’m so useless, she thought, I’ll be useless. It occurred to her that sort of response was infantile, but Jem wasn’t particularly concerned with earning their good favor. She wasn’t here to make friends, now.

Jem groaned and followed him to the spot he had chosen. Leaning against the tree was the rifle, which she took, wrinkling her nose at its weight. She slid down to sit, facing the direction opposite her partner, and supporting herself against the trunk for a moment before it occurred to her that was probably the worst possible place to be if she wanted to avoid getting crawled on. She shuddered, and Kelvin snorted. Almost as if he had read her mind, he said,

“Tiny bugs’re the least of your problems. Look out o’er there,” he said, and pointed to a place between two trees, a few yards beyond the campsite. Stretched between their branches were thick strands of pinkish grey, and though she couldn’t make out much more than their color, she knew what the rope-like webbing meant.

Jem swallowed, grasping the rifle tighter. “They’re out here?”

Kelvin shrugged as he searched the forest floor, kicking over rotting leaves and disturbing tufts of dead grass.

“But that’s so close to camp!” she whispered, eyes darting back to the spot between the trees.

He picked up a stick then, reaching into his pocket and taking out a knife, and began whittling it down to size before responding, “We swept the area pretty thorough before settlin’ in. They may make their way over, but if they do… well, that’s why we’re on watch. So keep your pretty peepers peeled.”

“Hmm,” was Jem’s only response. A biting wind blew through the trees, and she pulled her jacket even tighter around her well-fed frame. Suddenly, she felt a little less irritated and a lot more anxious. She didn’t want to be responsible for the welfare of all these people. She barely wanted that responsibility over herself. She thought about the last time she was on watch. She remembered Henry.

He had been in the group from the start–the only one she’d really liked, even if he was a little gauche. Something about him had smitten her, and it wasn’t his good looks or even his strength. It was his attitude, she thought, and his unwillingness to bend. He was solid on all counts, and maybe even a little stuck in his ways. Henry had come from circumstances similar to Jem‘s, in “real life” as she now referred to it in her private thoughts. He hadn’t been so different from her. Henry hadn’t lasted too long.

“Have you ever…” she started to ask, and trailed off. Kelvin grunted. “Have you seen one? Up close, I mean,” she finished.

Kelvin stopped whittling and turned to face her, his nose inches from hers. “Are you kiddin’?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Miss, most anybody who sees one up close doesn’t come back to tell of it. Mostly.”

Jem nodded, but pressed on. “Mostly?”

Kelvin sighed and set down the knife and stick. “You ever see someone with a bite?”

Jem trembled again, and hugged the rifle to her chest, leaning against it for support. She hadn’t seen a bite.

“We had a guy a while back. Back when everything went to shit and we were still thinkin’ we could avoid ‘em if we holed up. Got bit by a little one, barely bigger’n you. Least that’s what he says. Said. Anywho,” Kelvin picked up the knife and went back to whittling before continuing his story.

“He got bit on the leg somethin’ awful–I mean, pus and gunk all runnin’ out, and… Sorry. You probably don’t want to hear about that. Anyway, he’d been close enough to get bit, and he got an eyeful and then some. He told me what it looked like but… I don’t know if he was right. In the head, I mean. By that time his fever was pretty high and most of what came out his mouth sounded nuts.”

Jem coughed and turned around again, staring out into the green-black of the nighttime forest. The wood was mostly quiet now, and she breathed in the silence for a while before she began to speak. She remembered Henry–his piercing blue eyes locked with hers as the thing dragged him away.

“What happened after he got bit?”

Kelvin paused and answered, “We didn’t stick around to find out. He lasted for a couple days and then he got so stiff he couldn‘t move, and his eyes wouldn’t stay open. And he smelled nasty. It was like he was rottin’ from the inside or somethin’. We got overrun around that time and had to leave him. Shit!”

Jem jumped up, rifle in hand, before Kelvin waved for her to sit back down.

“Just nicked my finger on the knife,” Kelvin explained, “Gotta grab a bandage. Sit tight for a second, will ya?”

“Alone?” she whispered, but he was already walking away. Jem took deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. She would be fine, she told herself. He was coming right back. For a while she concentrated on her breathing, listening to the steady sound, in and out. And then she held her breath. For the past few weeks they had been wandering this forest, avoiding the enemy against what she perceived to be very narrow odds. She wondered if she had gotten used to the sounds somehow, after all this time. But it wasn’t familiarity tricking her senses–save for the rustling of leaves and the gentle snoring of Gina in her tent, there wasn’t a single sound. No scurrying creatures, no birds, no insects. The woods were silent.

Panicked, Jem’s eyes widened as the realization struck her. What could silence an entire forest? She supposed she knew, but it wasn’t until she turned to look towards Kelvin, returning with a fresh bandage, that she forced out the word: “Bugs!”

Kelvin’s eyes strayed up to the treetops as he stood frozen in place, his rifle several feet away. Lowering itself to the spot where he stood was one of them, pincers snapping and dripping with pink foam. Jem screamed, and the thing lurched forward, Kelvin’s shoulder now caught between its gleaming appendages. The camp awoke quickly, men and women leaping into action, as Kelvin thrashed in a feeble attempt to free himself.

Without thinking, Jem raised her rifle and fired into the thing’s back. It burst open with a fresh outpouring of grey-pink webbing, falling to the ground as it released its hold on Jem’s frightened partner. It dissolved there into a pile of foam, staining the ground as it sunk into the dirt. Kelvin’s face had been completely drained of color, save for a streak of red across his cheek. Hands quavering, she reached forward to wipe away the blood, followed it to the source, and felt the scratch on his shoulder. It was deep.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group was starting to gather around. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle, a wall of backs surrounding the two on the ground, eyes frantically searching the forest canopy for any sign of movement. Chests heaving. Legs quaking. Mouths exchanging panicked whispers.

“Do you see anything?”

“Where did it come from?”

“Are there more?”

“There’s never just one.”

Time ticked by at a snail’s pace, the moments stretching into what felt like an eternity, and still there was no indication of more of the bugs. They couldn’t be sure, but after fifteen minutes or so of standing at the ready, five of them broke off from the group to search the perimeter, leaving the rest behind to wring their hands and strain their ears for any change in their carefully placed footsteps. Jem sat, powerless to do anything. Coming back to herself for a moment, she hurriedly wiped the blood from her hands and onto the ground beside her, and brought a tentative hand to his wrist. There was a pulse–faint, but steady. Jem lowered her head to his chest and watched it rise and fall: slow, irregular. She didn’t know what any of it meant. The rest of the group returned. For now, it seemed, they were alone.

Henry was Jem‘s savior. She had been hiding out with a bunch of her neighbors for three weeks before one of them finally lost it and killed himself. After that it was like a domino effect: others followed suit. Some people just wandered out into the woods and didn’t come back. Jem waited it out. Those people weren’t built for life after civilization, but they didn‘t have it so bad. There was plenty of food, the shelter was fairly secure, and Jem didn’t mind the boredom. Henry said later it was cabin fever–some folks just can’t adjust to the seclusion.

By the time this group had found her, there was just Jem and David. He was gone now, too. The others had come looking for supplies and weren’t exactly excited to see that they came with the added bonus of another couple of mouths to feed, but Henry had gone a long way towards convincing Kelvin to bring them along. She wasn’t sure what would have happened if he hadn’t been there. She didn’t have anything to offer these people besides what they could take by force, and there weren’t many women in the group. Somehow, she got by.

Kelvin didn’t wake until sometime the following day. By then, his wound had begun to fester, and though the odor sickened her more than once, Jem remained dutifully at his side. She wasn’t entirely sure why. She felt a little responsible, perhaps, for his present state. As the hours dragged on before he regained consciousness, Kelvin’s temperature climbed steadily, until Mark–the only one in the group with any medical training–insisted they cover him with cold, wet rags. Anything to keep the fever down, he said. Jem wasn’t so sure it would help. She wasn’t sure it was merciful to keep him alive at all.

Something had changed in Jem, even as it changed Kelvin. When he awoke, he did little more than ramble, so she did most of the talking. Mostly she just thought aloud, baring her soul after so much time spent stewing silence. It was nice to have someone to talk to.

She told him about her high school biology teacher, Mrs. Fitzsimmons. She remembered them glossing over the subject of evolution to appease some of the more influential religious parents. The class had spent maybe two days on the subject, but she had been fascinated by ideas like “natural selection,” and “survival of the fittest.” The strongest species gets the resources, the strongest within that species get to breed, making each generation more capable and more likely to survive. And then, a new element is introduced to the environment. Entire species could be wiped away with the arrival of a foreign plant or fish. Or insect. She thought that maybe their fate was sealed. All because they couldn’t adapt.

“Why are the bugs so interested in people to begin with?” she asked her sleeping ward. “There’s plenty of animals, and they don’t seem particularly picky about food. We left the cities empty, and they followed us into the woods. Why?”

It had started with farmers complaining about missing animals: cows, sheep, goats and pigs. It couldn’t be coyotes, but what could run off with an entire cow? And then they found the webs.

“And it seems ridiculous to me that we still don’t know where they came from. Outer space? Underground? Some lab experiment gone terribly wrong? When we still had a government, they should have at least been able to give us some answers. But I guess it‘s like my dad used to say: government isn‘t good for much more than spending tax payer money, covering up truths and ignoring facts. Of course, he didn’t believe in paying taxes, either, so maybe he‘s not the best example… Are you awake, Kelvin?”

Three days after the bite and there were still no signs of improvement, though Kelvin was resting more easily now. Jem changed his bandages three times a day–or every time the blood and pus seeped through and began to stain the sleeping bag. On the fourth day, Jem awoke to Kelvin sitting up, staring down at her.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he shifted his gaze to the wound on his shoulder, and as she watched he began to unwrap the dressing.

“Hey!” She jumped up, grabbing his hand and taking the gauze from his grasp. “Let me do that. Is it bothering you or something?”

“No,” he replied, “But I think it’s gettin’ better. It don’t hurt as much today.” His voice was shaky, his speech halted. His entire body seemed to be vibrating at once, though he insisted he was not cold.

Jem looked up to meet his eyes, placing a hand on his forehead and quickly pulling it away.

“You’re boiling up!” she shook her head, standing to exit the tent and gently pushing him back onto the sleeping bag. “I’m going to get Mark.”

“Wait,” Kelvin pleaded, “can you unwrap my bandage first? I just wanna see…”

She hesitated, noting the wild way his eyes fluttered back and forth from her face to the door of the tent, the fresh outpouring of sweat on his brow. He was deathly pale. Was he delirious, she wondered? The tent was frigid, pitched as far away from the fire as possible, and yet he was nearly nude. Jem wore two jackets and thermals and could barely contain her shivers. Finally, she decided to humor him.

“Okay, but let me rewrap it afterwards. You should be resting.”

“You know,” Kelvin said, squeezing his eyes shut and snapping them open again, “It looked funny.”

“What do you mean?” she asked him.

“It reminded me of someone. In my dreams, I see it again. It had these green eyes, like…” He pointed to his eyes and then hers, then stopped to examine his fingers. Cyanosis had settled into his nail beds, either from the cold or lack of circulation. Where had Jem heard that word before, she wondered? Probably from Mark, she guessed.

He had already unwrapped some of the gauze, and through the fibers Jem could make out the slightest change in color. She raised her eyebrows–maybe he was right. Maybe he was getting better, after all. And then the bandage was off, and what lay underneath was exposed. Her heart sank into her stomach and rose again with a fresh outpouring of bile. She leapt up, rushing from the tent, and spilled her dinner onto the dirt. Eyes closed, she watched the memories of weeks ago unfold on the back of her lids, retreating to something close to normal.

Winter had been fast approaching, and the campers began packing five or more people into each tent. Two people in most sleeping bags, trying to combine their respective body heat into something more tolerable than the steadily escalating chill beyond the tent flaps. Jem slept alone.

In the sleeping bag next to hers, the man turned over and sighed, brows drawn together in silent consternation. Jem recognized that look from the first time he’d seen her, sizing her up, trying to decide if she was worth saving. She’d nudged him gently.

“Henry,” she’d whispered, scooting herself closer to his slowly stirring form. He rolled over and groaned, and his other neighbor on the floor of the tent shushed him impatiently. Rubbing his eyes with mittened fists, Henry allowed himself a smile and answered Jem.

“You’re always getting me in trouble. What is it?”

Jem bit her lip and said, “Where did you grow up?”

Henry groaned again, and now his neighbor shoved him testily. Jem suppressed her laughter long enough for him to answer.

“A little suburb not far from here. My dad was a veterinarian and my mom was an accountant in a big firm. Pretty basic stuff,” he said, rolling over to lay on his back, arms folded behind his head. Somebody had stolen his pillow hours before, and it was just like Henry to sleep through it.

“What about you, Jemmy?” he’d asked, poking her in the head until she finally had to smack his hand away.

“I hate it when you call me that,” she’d grumbled, but softened immediately when he turned to face her. Damn him, she’d thought, fighting back the urge to pinch his cheek. “My father owned a textile factory a few miles away. We lived closer to the city. He didn‘t come here much.”

“So what were you doing in town?”

“My mom moved here after the divorce,” she’d said, turning onto her back again to peer through a hole in the roof of the tent. She never had gotten used to seeing so many stars at night, like pinpricks in the blackness of the sky. Dad had told her once that they were air holes poked in the top of the box they lived in, when she was old enough to know it was nonsense but young enough to eat up every word.

“So you went with her, then?” Henry asked, drawing her back to the conversation. Jem nodded. “Why?”

She hadn’t thought about it much, but tried to give an honest answer. “I don’t really know. I never made a decision one way or the other. I just… well, it sounds stupid. But I wanted to wait it out. I didn’t want to have to choose.”

“Because you loved them both, right?”



Henry was quiet for a moment, and the silence began to weigh on Jem. Fearing his disapproval, suddenly self-conscious, she’d asked,

“What are you thinking?”

He’d said, “I guess for me it would have come down to being comfortable. I mean, my parents never split up so I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but out of the two of them my mom made a better living and was around a lot more. I probably would have picked her.”

Jem thought about this and nodded.

“It just comes down to survival, right? You do what’s necessary to get by.”

“Exactly,” he said, and lowered his voice even further. “Like, if we ran into another group and they had a better chance of survival, I’d jump ship right away,” he’d paused before adding, “I’d want you to come with me.”

Jem hadn’t said anything, but carried the resulting smile with her until morning. She would have followed him anywhere.

“What did it look like?” Mark had asked her, and though it was all she could picture no matter how hard she tried to force the image from her mind, she couldn’t form the words to explain what it was that she thought she had seen. Jem had been lying on the ground, trying to remember how to breathe. He hadn’t waited for an answer–she’d heard his screams from the tent moments later. That had been hours ago.

They had set to work trying to pry the black, scaly growth from Kelvin’s skin, but all their efforts only seemed to cause him pain. Someone remarked that the bite might have been contained to the shoulder, and if they amputated his arm… but then Mark had lifted the blanket and they saw the spreading scales across Kelvin’s stomach. The familiar, hardened flesh. It hadn’t been there a few hours before, when Jem had brought him fresh towels. Then he started coughing up the pink foam, and someone else said what nobody else wanted to. They didn’t wait for it to spread further.

One morning, just before sunrise, Jem crept past the night watch and into the forest. The ground was slick with rain, and as she climbed over a fallen tree she slipped and landed, legs splayed out but unbroken, at the bottom of a hill, far from the light of the campfire. This section of woods wasn’t part of their usual route, which Jem had long ago realized was nothing more than a disjointed circle. She pulled out a flashlight and shone the beam beyond her muddied boots, out into the opposite side of the clearing. There lay several bugs, maybe even a dozen, resting peacefully together. So close to camp, she thought. The trees around them were shrouded in webbing, which Jem took to mean they had been there at least a day. Why haven’t they approached the camp? One of the bugs stirred, stretching its scaly legs to brush the side of another, and they rolled into each other, locked in a sleepy embrace. Jem felt a tug at her stomach. She watched them for a while before heading back.

Jem and Mark made their way through the brush, tiptoeing past a pile of sleeping bugs. She lagged behind a bit, and watched, until he pulled her roughly to her feet and forced her on. Once in the clear, he turned on her with the full force of his exasperation.

“What the hell was that?” he asked her, pointing towards the woods.

Jem shrugged, holstering her weapon, and said, “I was just looking.”

“For what?”

She wasn’t sure how to answer, and finally decided she wasn’t worried about what he thought anymore. She had been thinking for a while.

“Doesn’t it seem odd to you?”


“The way they all sleep together like that. How they follow us where ever we go. How there’s always more of them and less of us. Don’t you see what it means?” she asked him, placing a hand on his shoulder which he quickly brushed off.

Mark stood and stared her down for a moment, incredulous, before responding.

“What does it mean, Jem?”

She looked back towards the tree line.

“We don’t have to die.”

Mark didn’t say anything. A few of the others were watching them now, and Mark made a point of stepping back, separating himself further from Jem.

“We can survive, one way or the other. We can stop running. We can live, no matter what that means. Don‘t you see? We’re fighting a losing battle, but… We can change!” she shouted now, unconcerned by their worried looks, their disbelieving faces.

“Jem,” Mark said, holding his hands out in a gesture of pleading, or perhaps warning, “You don’t mean that. You’re just tired. And hungry. It‘s okay–we all are.” His face was gaunt, eyes sunken into pallid flesh. The rest of them didn’t look much better. Supplies were short.

Jem cast her eyes towards the ground, then back to the tree line. He was out there, somewhere, she thought. These people didn’t mean much to her, but if she could persuade them, she would take them with her. The more the merrier, right? And it would be better than this. She looked into their disbelieving eyes, each carrying with it a note of impatience. There would be no convincing them. She nodded and followed the rest to set up camp, her outburst set aside until later, fuel for hushed chats around the fire.

That night, under cover of darkness, Jem left her post and stole away towards the clearing with the sleeping bugs. She left her gun, and her knife, and her canteen. Sliding herself along the ground, she peered out from behind a large oak and watched as the bugs began to awaken. They stood fully erect, shaking the dew from their feelers, grooming each other’s pincers. Jem waited until they all rose, and searched each face, straining to find the one she was looking for. She rose, and stepped into the clearing, and they all turned to face her. A low hum rushed through the crowd of bugs, and somewhere near the back of the clearing one scuttled forward as the rest parted to let it pass. It was slightly larger than Jem, and as it reached the spot where she stood, it raised itself on its hind legs to meet her face to face. Its eyes were so blue, so familiar, so welcoming. Honey, I’m home. She realized she was smiling. The hum of the bugs changed in pitch as Jem unbuttoned her jacket, letting it fall to the forest floor, holding out her arms, ready to make her choice.

Ashley Rose Nicolato lives and works in Philadelphia, PA. Since her induction into the world of Star Trek at the age of six, she has been an avid fan of all things science fiction and fantasy.

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