Warning: strong language.
Next day I went outside planning to harvest lichen, but once I felt the cool air, collector in hand, I knew I couldn’t return to the old routine. Not yet.
I went back to see the beetle.
I thought it might have bled to death in the night–or else it would be gone entirely, an evaporated phantom from my impossible nightmare. But it was neither. Impossibly, offensively, it remained just as I remembered, gigantic and alive.
Its sole remaining leg had ceased its frantic spasms and now sagged limply against the ground, like a relic of some obscure ritual. Its other leg sockets had stopped oozing gore. It seemed at peace. It watched me eyelessly, feathery antennae leaning as it caught my scent on the dusty air.
I stood tired, empty, and looked at it without malice. “What am I going to do with you, you son of a bitch?” The first words I’d spoken all day. They hurt my throat, but it was good to talk.
And then I noticed the smell.
The pungent odor that made me wrinkle my nose wasn’t coming from the creature itself. Looking around, I discovered the source nearby: a runny white pile of dung on the rock, knee-high, already semi-crystallized under the morning clouds. Elephant beetle shit.
My science training kicked in, and I identified the chemical I was smelling. Ammonia. The creature was excreting ammonia. Quickly I ran through some compound diagrams in my head. If I pre-loaded the organiprocessors with sodium oxide from the soil, then fed in the ammonia…
Yes. A viable fuel source. A way to survive without Dana’s help. And without Hildy’s, for that matter.
I strode back and looked the beetle square in its eyeless face. I was staring at an immobile, never-ending supply of energy.
“I need to keep you alive.” My voice seemed to rush out on its own, my thoughts lagging behind. “Water won’t be a problem. Our well has never run dry in three years. Food is trickier, since I can’t exactly catch slagworms for you, but I suppose I can figure out something for you to eat.”
I started circling the creature once more. “What about those legs? Guess you’ve healed up okay. Will they regrow? Do I need to worry about you running off? But if they don’t grow back, if you’re stuck this way, sooner or later either the worms or another beetle will get you at night. Either way, I need a cage for you.” I paused. “But it’ll have to be somewhere that Hildy won’t find you. God only knows what kind of visions she’d have about that.”
It listened to all these requirements in silence, slowly opening and closing its giant mandibles. It was an ugly, ugly thing. But I sympathized. I was feeling ugly myself.
I left it there and went back to the compound for supplies.
* * *
The spot I chose was a rough depression in the rock, fifty meters behind the compound. Rock formations ringed the depression, forming a high-walled natural bowl that would both keep my captive from escaping and hide it from Hildy. I loaded half a dozen forcebeam generators into a trailer, hitched the trailer to my dune tractor, and carted them out to the ring.
I planted the first one into a low spot in the rock, where the natural enclosure wasn’t steep enough to act as a cage. Its tip fused with the rock, leaving a meter-long metal rod sticking up in the middle of the gap, crowned with a little circular control panel. A few taps on this panel, and a shimmering purple wall shot out on either side, twice my own height. I cranked a dial, fading the forcebeam to discreet invisibility.
A similar procedure filled the other gaps, forming a very adequate jail. The whole thing took less than twenty minutes. As with yesterday’s digging, the activity helped my mood. For a while, working in the cloudy daylight, I could almost forget the rawness in my eyes, could almost ignore the constant icy weight that lurked inside me, still creeping toward some release I couldn’t yet see.
After I finished, I inspected the jail inside and out, searching for holes in my defenses. I rapped my hand against the forcebeam barriers, testing their strength, feeling the tingling resistance that grew more solid the harder I pushed. Finally I was satisfied.
Jittery with nerves, I drove the dune tractor back to where the beetle still sat waiting, patient as a stone. I backed the trailer up to it, lowered it to the ground, then got out to ponder the question I still hadn’t solved.
“If I were a handicapped elephant beetle, how would I get into a trailer?”
It was a joke without humor, my voice dead as the rocky wasteland that surrounded me. But the beetle’s antennae perked up, noticing. Then it did something utterly astonishing.
It extended it sole remaining leg, stabbed the ground, and slowly dragged itself forward. It extended again, this time grabbing at the edge of the trailer, and dragged itself again. I watched as three more such motions got it entirely onto the flat surface. Its antennae brushed the trailer’s front rail.
The beetle sat silent, waiting.
“You can move,” I said.
I was surprised that the single leg alone could bear the weight of the gigantic carapace. I was even more surprised it had managed to figure out this entirely new method of locomotion. As for the way it had done exactly what I wanted it to, as if sensing my thoughts, I could form no explanation for that whatsoever.
It was the work of ten minutes to drive the trailer and deposit it, beetle and all, in its new home. I reactivated the entry barrier and stood outside for a moment, staring at the thing where it remained placid, an innocent murderer. It flexed its claw coolly.
“Captain Hook,” I murmured, and didn’t realize till the words were out that I had given it a name.
I drove the tractor back to Hook’s original resting place and got to work collecting the dung. Right away I carted it to the nearest organiprocessor, a little device in a metal hut a short way from the compound. I held my breath to avoid the stench as I shoveled the stuff into the hopper. Then I pressed the button, and in ten minutes I got more battery charge than Dana and I could have gotten from lichen, together, in two whole days.
I cried for a long time, though I couldn’t have said why.
* * *
It was going to be a hell of a storm.
It lurked on the southern horizon, swirling vast and slow, sending out tendrils of darkness into the lighter clouds that fled its approach. Weather on Alvennore was slow; it was morning now, and I guessed the storm wouldn’t hit till nightfall.
Dana loved storms.
I flicked off the forcebeam generator at the entrance and walked into Hook’s cage. Hook was over at the opposite end, just sitting there. I dumped out the sack of apples in a pile.
This was the fifth day of its captivity. I had figured out by trial and error that apples were its favorite food. Hook would have nothing to do with meat, which was just as well, since that took the most energy to create. It sniffed at broccoli, nibbled at carrots, but apples were the only thing it really seemed to like. Of course, there was no genuine Earth-grown food on Alvennore–or at least none I’d ever seen–but the synthesizer made reasonable imitations of quite a few items.
“Dinner,” I said. It dragged itself slowly across the rough rock, clack-scraaape, clack-scraaape. That was the really creepy thing I’d discovered. The only time it moved was in response to my voice. Other sounds didn’t faze it. What was that about?
This morning, as it settled down to breakfast, I noticed something new. Instead of guzzling its food straight from the ground, it was spearing each apple with its hook and raising the fruit to its mouth. It ate several bites at a time, turning its morsels awkwardly with the unwieldy arm to get at all sides.
I collected the dung and took it to a container outside the enclosure, then came back to watch some more. Hook was still doing it.
“What are you doing?”
It paused, antennae twitching, ready to claw its way toward the voice again. After a time it settled down and resumed eating in the same way as before, like some enormous fussy gentleman hunched over a table. The sight was utterly absurd. I laughed. The sound was edged with a sudden anger that surprised me.
“What are you doing?” I said again, still laughing, even as I felt the rage build inside me. Dutifully Hook turned toward me and began scraping in my direction again. I backed away, leading it in a circle. “You have a brain the size of a peanut. You’re a bug, for Christ’s sake. You’re not supposed to be learning.”
Except I remembered now that wasn’t quite true. Something in the old exobiology files about elephant beetles having a surprisingly sophisticated nervous system, even some of the structures that are normally associated with telepaths.
But I had certainly never expected anything like this.
“You’re not supposed to figure out how to move with only one leg. You’re not supposed to come when I call. And now you’re picking up your food like a goddamn person…”
I tossed a pebble at it. The beetle ignored it. “Why are you following me? Huh?” I was raving now, but I didn’t care. I threw another rock, and another. “Why am I stuck with you, instead of Dana? Why am I picking up your shit while she lies buried in the ground? What am I doing here?”
I clambered to the top of a modest outcropping and lifted a heavy rock. My voice went quiet. “I know you can hear me,” I said. “If you’re so smart, why don’t you answer? Why don’t you answer, you son of a bitch?” And then, with a final roar, the question I’d been cradling inside me all week: “Why did you kill my wife?”
I sent the rock crashing down from the height of my little mountain.
With a hard crunch the rock rolled away, leaving a terrible open hole in Hook’s armor. Thick purple fluid oozed from the wound, and a long line of purple droplets sprouted from a crack that reached nearly the full length of its shell.
My ragged breath slowed. I got down from my makeshift battlement and sat on the ground.
I expected to cry again, but no tears came. The ice inside me had melted, and in its place was nothing. I sat empty and silent. The monster, who had made no sound through the whole ordeal, stopped its own motion at last and sat beside me, waiting for me to speak.
* * *
Hook’s new wound didn’t heal as its legs had, and when I checked on it next morning the whole area was a mass of dry and blackened ichor. I couldn’t bear to call to it again, but I got as close as I dared to the pincers and rolled an apple toward it. The mandibles clacked weakly, but it didn’t eat.
I knew nothing about elephant beetle biology, but I felt pretty certain Hook would die if I didn’t do something soon. What I needed was a medi-spanner to fuse the crack in the shell and cover that awful hole.
I didn’t have a medi-spanner. But I knew who did.