Warning: strong language.
I made the trip that same day, in my crater buggy, the blue barrel of sulfur bouncing behind me under its straps. Sulfur was a luxury on Alvennore, though you wouldn’t know it from the smell. It was the main ingredient in a fertilizer that could be mixed with the soil to attract an odd but delicious kind of fungus, the only edible thing that grew on this inhospitable world.
It was my last barrel.
Two years ago a drifter had wandered onto Hildy’s property and tried to steal something. She had hunted him down and blown a hole in his chest with her chem-pistol. Sure, the guy had it coming, but I’ve never forgotten the wild look in her eyes that day, a look that said she was capable of anything.
I knew I was getting close when I smelled the incense in the air. She rushed out of her compound to meet me as I approached, twirling as she ran.
“Rogan!” she cried. “I had a vision you would come!” She wore a strange, dirty patchwork dress, with denim and corduroy and all other fabrics and colors worked into the garment. She reeked of incense.
“Hildy. I came like you asked. I came to pray.”
She cocked her head. “Now why would you lie to me?”
“I’m not lying, I want–“
“Of course you are. You’re not interested in God. You came because you want something.”
I frowned. “Did your vision tell you that?”
“My vision?” She giggled. “But that’s silly. Nobody owns visions. Won’t you come inside?”
I followed her into the compound, dodging the strings of beads and stepping around the piles of knickknacks she had everywhere: crystals, old yellowing newspapers, bizarre glowing sculptures. I tried to steady my breath, in spite of my nervousness. Hildy was dangerous as that storm to the south, and not half as predictable.
“What’s new?” I said.
“Every day of my life I’m alone,” she said casually, no anger in her voice yet. “But you know that, Rogan. Nothing is new. Why are you visiting, if not to pray?”
“I…um, I need to borrow a medi-spanner.” No need to mention the sulfur just yet, though she had surely seen it on the buggy.
“Well! That’s easy, of course.” She rooted under a pile of junk and retrieved the device, holding it up. “Ta-da! What do you need it for, anyway? Something happen to Dana?”
I restrained a wince as I heard the name. I had the lie prepared already. I felt bad about it, but I couldn’t risk letting her know the truth–not even about Dana. I didn’t want things to get…complicated. If you knew Hildy, you’d understand. “Yes, she dropped a cargo crate on her big toe. I don’t think it’s broken, but she’s in a lot of pain.”
“Aw, that’s too bad.” She grinned and waggled the spanner in her hand. “But why are you lying to me again, Rogan? Much more of that and I’ll start getting annoyed.”
“I…I don’t know what you mean.” It seemed things were getting complicated anyway.
She stepped forward. The spanner was only a meter away now. “I heard you screaming. After you left, I saw where you buried her. I’m not an idiot. Do you think I’m an idiot, Rogan?”
“I…” I swallowed. I tried to act like a confused, grief-struck husband. It wasn’t very hard. “No. I’m sorry. It was my toe that got hurt, not hers. I just didn’t want to say anything yet…”
“Shhh.” I thought she would ask how Dana had died, but she only took another step closer. “I understand. I understand. Like I said, I had a vision.” Another step. The spanner was in reach of my arm.
“You need something from me.” Her voice went soft. “And I need something from you.”
Oh, no. She had to be kidding. “No…I didn’t…”
“Rogan.” Whispering now. Another step, and we were practically touching. She took my arm. “Don’t speak. I understand.”
Did I dare just grab the spanner and run? Who knew what weapons she had lying around? I had a chem-pistol in my left boot, but I wasn’t sure how much good that would do; she might be too crazy to threaten. Even if I got away, it was no good. Obviously she knew where I lived, and we were the only humans for kilometers in all directions. That couldn’t end well.
Yet if I spurned her advances, no matter how gently, I would never get the spanner. I was sure of it. And I needed that spanner.
I decided to do a bad thing.
I let her kiss me.
She kissed me a long time, her lips dry and cracked, her breath smelling of basil and something else I couldn’t identify. I endured. At the end, I pulled away just a few centimeters.
“You know her spirit hasn’t left yet,” I whispered.
It was a desperate ploy, the only thing I could think of. Hildy was a Mallitonian, and she’d told me before of her belief that the dead remain behind for seven days before passing on to whatever netherworld Mallitonians believe in. But she was so mercurial, I had no idea if she would care about this. I held my breath and waited.
She examined me sharply, but finally sighed and nodded. I exhaled. “But don’t keep me waiting,” she ordered. “That harridan will be gone from this world at midnight, and I want you, Rogan, I want you then.”
I nodded hastily, not trusting myself to speak lest she catch me in another lie. I grabbed the spanner and fled as quickly as I dared.
* * *
I washed Hook’s wound with a wet rag, carefully scraping away as much of the crusted ichor as I could, laying bare the wide crater and the long, slim gash beneath. Each rag became filthy at once, and I tossed each into a bucket and picked up another clean one. As I cleared away this mess, the smell was terrible, like rotten fruit. I kept silent, to keep it from trying to turn toward me. All throughout this procedure its single leg stretched and folded restlessly, but it made no other motion.
Next I ran the spanner over the wound, starting with the long crack and finally running concentric circles around the big gash, gradually layering the shell tissue. When I finished, the wound was completely gone, replaced by a surface that was irregular but whole.
I sat down beside the beetle, laid the spanner on the rock, and sighed.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, softly so as not to disturb it.
“I shouldn’t have thrown the rock. I need you and you need me, because we’re both trying to do the same thing: survive. You killed my wife, but you didn’t know what you were doing. Might as well get mad at the sky for a lightning strike. Hell, I guess even Hildy’s just trying to survive.”
Idly I picked up a pebble and tossed it aside.
“Christ, what am I going to do about Hildy? She expects me to go back there tonight–at midnight, I guess–and…and…” I shook my head. “I promised her I’d give her what she wanted, but I can’t, of course. I can’t. Even if I wanted to, even if I could make myself do it, you know I’d hear Dana’s voice the whole time–”
I twisted my mouth to keep from getting emotional again. Gradually the feeling passed.
“But if I say no, she’ll lose it. Even more than she’s already lost it. Who knows what she’d do? A man’s got to sleep sometime.”
There was a third option, of course. I had a chem-pistol. I could make my Hildy problem go away. But that wasn’t an option at all. I couldn’t be a murderer, couldn’t admit to thinking about it–not even to a beetle.
“You didn’t know what you were doing,” I said, more softly. “I can’t exactly use that excuse, now can I?”
I heard a scraping sound. I figured I’d gotten too loud, that it was trying to move again, but I was wrong. Hook was doing something else entirely.
Slowly, with unmistakable purpose, Hook’s single leg extended and dragged across the ground, moving back toward its body, scraping a single dark line in the reddish rock.
I waited, but no further marks were forthcoming. The hieroglyph lay where it was left, inscrutable and alone.
I thought again of the beetle’s strangely advanced nervous system, the ill-understood capacities it might possess, and wondered what it could be trying to tell me.