by Jeff Chapman -
“The way I see it,” said the young, bearded man, “that old crone owed me a favor.” He rotated his spear, turning the mammothbug steak skewered on the end, cauterizing the edge of the meat in the flames of a lavabush fire.
The other man sharing the campfire raised his eyebrows. He was older. His brown hair was receding to gray and he boasted a scar that began at his forehead and crossed his nose before wrapping around his cheek. “I guess you’d have to see it that way, Jack.”
“That bug came within a few meters of smashing her,” said Jack.
“But you both made the kill. You’re lucky she didn’t ambush you.”
“I thought of that.” Jack leaned over and poked his companion in the ribs. “You don’t get to be old without thinking like a hunter, right, old man?”
Jack’s harsh cackle grated on the older man’s ears.
“I took the long way out,” said Jack. “Never saw her again.”
“You weren’t really gonna shoot her were you?”
Jack Shadrow touched his steak to test its warmth then thrust it back in the flames. “Don’t know. A scythegun would have made quite a mess of her.”
Carl Bonhom rotated his steak a quarter turn. The fire snapped, leaping to snatch the dripping grease. He wondered how far he could trust Jack. Should have let the woman have the legs. Hunters needed friends, not enemies.
The two men rested in a shallow recess below a lava rock outcropping, their backs to rock, their faces to fire. Parked to their left was a biodiesel lava-rover with a trailer hitched to the back. Ropes secured a pile of neatly wrapped bundles--the edible parts of two mammothbugs. The pile swelled higher than the roof of the rover. Jack and Carl had done well.
Beyond the fire’s halo loomed the cold blackness of a winter night. Neither hunter had ever trekked out this far, but the abundance of an untapped hunting ground justified the expense of the truck and the fuel and the risk. Tomorrow they would start home, a three-day journey over rock, through drifts of ash-stained black sand, and around crevices to the Palmer Trading Company camp at Adagio, where they would trade the squishy meat for solid coins. Jack would get drunk on his earnings at Maddie’s—if she would let him—and Carl would get tipsy and they would point at landmarks on a map as they planned their next foray. At least that’s what Carl expected to happen. He chewed the cooked edges of his meat while he pretended to listen to Jack prattle on about his exploits in an Adagio brothel.
“You should join me,” said Jack. “There’s a couple mature ladies there that I’m sure you would enjoy.”
Carl grunted. Jack was such an idiot, but he handled a scythegun and power saw with such consummate skill that Carl would be more of an idiot not to partner with him. “My daughter’s tuition at Trinity is due soon. I can’t afford to waste any money.”
“As much as we’re going to make on these hauls, you could send a few of the brothel girls to university. Give your daughter some company.”
Carl scowled at the association.
Jack cackled but a moaning somewhere out in the blackness cut the laughter short. A punctuating shriek brought both men to their feet.
“What was that?” said Jack.
Carl absently allowed his steak to sink into the fire where the edges of the meat bubbled and blackened. His chest tightened and every experienced nerve in his aging body told him something was wrong, that there was something to fear.
“Sounded like a mammothbug,” said Carl.
“Can’t be. They’re diurnal.”
“I know.” Carl sensed movement to his right. “Aaiiieee!” A biscorpiabug--the length and thickness of a man’s thigh--scurried toward the fire. The red, venomous stringers on the ends of its bifurcated tail arched over its body. Carl slammed his spear down on the intruder, scalding it with the hot meat. The bug stung the steak as it writhed to escape until Carl skewered its abdomen with the spear point, putting an end to it.
“So much for that dinner,” said Jack. “Those things are afraid of fire.”
Carl stared at the dead bug. Dark yellow juice oozed from its splintered carapace. He’d heard that these bugs added a new segment to their length as they grew. This one had lots of segments, an old mature one, kind of like him, and you didn’t get to be old doing stupid things like running toward a fire.
“They are,” answered Carl. Sweat slicked his skin which stuck to his clothes. “Or should be. Something’s wrong, Jack.”
The shriek sounded again, but closer, streaking through the darkness like the bolt from a crossbow. Both men grabbed their scytheguns.