A fog of decomposition swirled about my ankles. You could hear the earth die.
Trudging through a wetland that had long ago succumbed to the poisoned atmosphere above it, I hurried to complete the survey for an atmospheric rendering station, the latest brainchild of clueless politicians and hacks to drum up business and take a slap at regenerating the planet.
The heavy environmental suit I wore and the inability to see through the death fog at my feet, made walking akin to traversing a lunar landscape, a series of hops and slides. It clung to my boots like a thick, yellow sauce, obscuring any debris laying beneath it. I stumbled and fell. A quick scan showed no damage to my suit, a puff of air puttering across my lips in relief. The smallest tear spelled disaster.
I patted the ground until I located the object that had brought me to my knees. Lacking any tactile dexterity, I waved my hands, parting the soup.
A rock? Maybe? A log?
I picked it up—“Shit!”—and threw it down. My hands sweated inside the heavy gloves. The fingers squeaked when I rolled them into fists against my thighs .
I’d heard rumors of human mutations but had never seen one—until now. I stared at the hind leg of a Jerusalem cricket, a potato bug. The scuttlebutt said that these bugs had grown over the years, feeding on the atmospheric changes. I thought it was all bullshit.
The toxic carpet drifted back, reclaiming the surface and obscuring the leg. Once more I pushed it aside and leaned on my knuckles. This leg was the size of a small child’s and it possessed the shriveled remnants of a human foot. Rivulets of perspiration ran down my arms and puddled in my gloves.
“What do I do with it?” I glanced at my truck, a hundred yards from where I knelt. “Better mark it and call it in,” I muttered. “ Someone will want to see it.”
I pulled a GPS stake from my pack and drove it into the ground. Switching on the attached signaling unit, I hefted myself to my feet and lumbered toward the truck but then paused by a large stump.
I smacked my face shield with the palm of my glove. “Crap, I forgot to log the serial number,” and turned back toward the unit.
My boot sunk in the barren soil up to my calf. It didn’t stop at the calf. The more I struggled, the farther I sank.
“Help,” I warbled inside the helmet, grasping for an exposed root with one hand and grappling with my communicator with the other. Up to my waist, now my chest, I screamed into the mic, “Hel—” and the ground gave way.
I came to in a dark, very dark cave. Alive and clad only in the work clothes I wore under my environmental suit, saturated and caked with mud, I shivered.
The air, dank and humid, smelled almost sweet. I rubbed the ground with my hand: hardpacked dirt, loose stones, but relatively smooth. The darkness clung to my face.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and crawled about a yard before collapsing onto a carcass. It crackled and crunched under my weight. I dug my toes into the floor and backed away. My heart ratcheted into my throat. I cringed at the sound of an excruciating squeal only to realize it was mine.
Something moved. I jerked upright, pedaling my heels and scooting backwards on my butt until I slammed my head against the wall. Dazed, a dragging sound, accompanied by labored wheezing cleared the haze.
I pinned myself against the wall, my breath frozen in my chest.
“He . . . phfft, phfft . . . died of . . . phfft fright,” a low voice hissed out of the darkness.
Paralyzed, I felt lightheaded. “Huh—” I inched along the wall.
“Phfft . . . don’t fear us . . . phfft phfft,” another voice intoned from my right.
“We mean you no . . . phfft . . . harm,” a third, graveled voice spoke from the darkness in front of me.
“Oka—” My voice thinned to a squeak.
“Did you choose to . . . phfft . . . to come here?” The graveled voice continued in an articulate and commanding tone.
“Ah . . . ah, n . . . n . . . no.”
“I am Cork.”
“Cork?” A hysterical laugh perched on my lips but went no further.
“Not my real name but easier to pronounce in our . . . phfft, phfft . . . our current state of mutation.”
“Mutation?” Don’t’ turn on the lights!
“Yes. Mutation. You will be shocked.”
Oh, shit! The air whistled through my teeth.
I heard a snap and then a click. A lighter flashed. My mouth gaped, the air refusing to leave my lungs.
A hideous creature stood before me. Wearing the remnants of jeans and a flannel shirt, it had only one foot. Upright, if that’s what you called it, it leaned heavily on the single foot. The other—foot—appeared to be the flesh piercing hook of a large potato bug.
Its body split between bug and human, with half a human head above the shoulders. The unhuman half consisted of a black surveillance orb with an antenna-like sensory organ protruding from the smooth plate above the orb. The other, human half had gray hair, a large ear, hook nose, and a hollow, deep set eye. The corners of the mouth drooped in a permanent frown and a waddle of skin gathered below the chin.
I wanted to throw up. “Ah, Cork, where am I?” The words dribbled over my lips.
Cork worked his mouth, a shriveled, pointed tongue darting in and out. He had no facial expression, but his lips moved in a labored manner.
“Ha! Phfft. Ha!” The mouth struggled. “This is what we have created. Phfft. Phfft.” Another, fully developed bug, the size of a small horse, skittered up, dragging a lantern. With considerable effort, Cork lit it.
A paltry light filled the room. Scampering sounds stirred up the dirt floor behind Cork. Dozens of pairs of orbs, like tiny stars against a black sky, gathered behind him—it. A sultry odor assaulted my nose.
Pressing my hand to my face, I cried, “What’s that awful odor!”
“Phfft. Fear.” Cork turned to the orbs. “Phfft. Phfft. Phfft!” They scuttled off stirring up the dust behind them.
I coughed and sneezed and then spat out a clot of dirt. Cork thumped onto the floor, crossing the human leg in front of him and bent the bug leg in an awkward hyperextension opposite of the motion of a normal knee. Painful to watch, I stared at the hook protruding from the pantleg.
“You’ll get used to it,” he assured me as if I were staying.
Flight my only option, I gasped, “Get used to it? How do I get the hell out of here?”
“You want to leave?” Disappointment tinged the gravely hiss.
“I’ll show you how to get out, but first . . . phfft . . . don’t you have any questions? Aren’t you curious about—” he swung his good arm around the cave “—this?”
“Not really. Okay, what happened? How is it you can speak to me and the others can’t? Why are some fully developed potato bugs and others, like you, have only partially mutated and can speak?”
“For someone who wasn’t curious, you ask a lot of questions. Phfft. Phfft. First, Jerusalem crickets not potato bugs. A bug sounds like you want to crush us . . . phfft . . . under your heel. Jerusalem cricket sounds more official and less distasteful. Second, toxins. With the thinning of the ozone layer and the excessive use of chemicals, we poisoned ourselves. The chronic absorption began many generations ago, accumulating more toxins with each generation. Of course, the planet also warmed, and all the vegetation died off, burned off, until the earth could no longer recover. Now, you live in self-contained plastic suits and sealed environments, eating bland, chemically processed foods. You try to determine what went wrong in complete denial that the planet is dead, and we killed it . . . and ourselves along with it. Am I . . . phfft, phfft . . . correct so far?”
I stared at my toes and rubbed the tips of my fingers.
“The fully developed crickets are our young. Although much larger than the normal cricket, they have completely mutated and cannot understand our speech. Some, like me, for whatever reason, don’t fully change. I’ve seemed to retained some of my human speech, but, as you heard, the greater the time between use, the more difficult it is . . . phfft . . . for me to speak. I expect to eventually lose it altogether.”
I rolled my eyes up and peered out from under my brows. “How long have you been down here?”
Cork raised his one shoulder. “Thirty, forty, fifty years. Who knows? Who cares? It all seems to run together.”
“Where do the others, not the young, the other . . . half-crickets—”
“Ah, yes. Where do they, did you come from?”
“I was an attorney for a large oil corporation.” Cork chuckled. His face didn’t move but his teeth rattled together. “I started noticing the changes. My fingers and toes were the first to go. Chaffing, scaling, turning pale nearly transparent. The fingers shriveled and died except for the middle finger, index finger, and thumb.” He held out the mutated hand—claw—with its double opposing thumbs. “I heard rumors of places like this and investigated the possibility . . . phfft, phfft . . . as opposed to the obvious alternative.”
I jumped at a sudden loud crash. A cloud of dust rose not more than three feet from me. A rancid smell seared my lungs. A violent hacking shook me and my eyes watered. When they cleared, a far worse image made my skin crawl. A mutation somewhere between a complete cricket and a decomposing human body writhed and moaned on the floor of the cave. The legs bent, flapping, the feet a mixture of toes and claw, it scratched at the hardpacked floor. Clothing ripped away, remnants of a woman’s anatomy hadn’t completely dissolved but what remained was tragically maimed and distorted. Hairless, its primitive orbs fixed on me a haunting glare, the shriveled human eyes dangling by strips of flesh from empty sockets. The body quivered and regurgitated a slimy excrement from an orifice below a shredded lip. The lip quivered, then the orifice emitted a horrible, scraping cry and more slime.
Cork’s teeth chattered. “Sometimes the transition is difficult to watch. The body fights and a perverted mixture of both forms results. This one should’ve chosen the alternative.”
His chattering crescendoed. I thought his face might even break into a laugh. It didn’t. His teeth continued to click. He was laughing, but at whom?
I lowered my eyes. A pile of flaking skin lay in the dirt below my clasped hands. I choked. The tips of my fingers had turned white. I shoved them into my pockets.
“Don’t fight it. You won’t . . . phfft, phfft, phfft . . . won’t win.”
“Bull shit. How do I get out of here? You’re a bunch of fucking mutants. Where’s my suit?”
“It’s useless. It tore when you fell into our cave. The face shield shattered. You’ll have to take your chances until you find another one.” Cork pointed along the far side of the cave. “There’s a gathering of roots about fifty yards down that wall. In the center is a hole. That’s your exit.”
I scrambled across the floor, then ran along the wall, feeling for the roots in the dimming light. I ran from Cork, but not far enough.
“You’ll be back,” he hissed. “Don’t fight it. Don’t leave. We can help you. You’ll learn to live with us.”
The chattering faded. Spasms of air filling my lungs, my face smashed into a large root, knocking me to the ground. My heart pounded against my ribs. Fear soured my tongue.
From the floor, I saw a dull orange cast between the roots and clambered up toward the light, my feet chucking clods of dirt as they sought purchase. I don’t know which was worse, the acrid smell accosting my nostrils as I neared the surface or the unintelligible “phffting” against Cork’s chattering teeth.
I poked my head out of the ground a mere 20 feet from the rear wheels of the truck. Pressing my hands against my mouth, gagging, I raced for the truck and the emergency containment suit inside.
Sitting in the truck, my lungs burning, my throat raw, the suit’s filtration system cleared the alien air from my lungs.
“I’m okay. I’m not one of them. I’m safe in my suit,” I reassured myself.
As I pulled on the last glove, I glanced at my hand. The pinky had shriveled and bent sideways. I searched the truck until I found a pair of pruning shears and placed the pinky between the blades.
“I am not one of them. I am not one—” the shears snapped shut “—of them . . . Phfft . . . Phfft.”