By Sunny Moraine
Illustration By Katie Rose Pipkin
“Cassie, come on.”
All little sisters whine. Cassie is aware of this, but Mona has it down to an art, refined and perfect: That rising inflection capped by an apex of sound cutting into the eardrum, and a sharp drop-off tying it up in a neat bow of annoyance. It’s a whine that tugs with all the force of physical hands. Cassie stands between two gently undulating trees, pink dome of the sky rising over them all.
Cassie hates her full name. Mona knows this. Mona is standing a few yards ahead, her little hand held in their father’s, who is looking at Cassie with quiet concern.
“Cassie, honey — what’s wrong?”
Cassie looks up at the trees, which are still just a little way in front of her. She’s clinging to that distance. She had agreed to this camping trip because she had thought off-world camping would be fun. Off-world parks aren’t dangerous. They’re kept just wild enough.
The trees are covered with caterpillars.
“I don’t like them,” she mumbles, and Mona rolls her eyes in an ecstasy of exasperation. I’m twice her age, Cassie thinks. This is so stupid.
“Sweetheart, I told you — they can’t hurt you. They’re like the ones back home. They turn into those butterflies we saw back at the port. I thought you liked those.”
“I did,” Cassie says. Her voice is starting to rise. “I just… there’s a lot of them, and I don’t like them, is all. The butterflies were nice, but these are…” She trails off, knowing she won’t be able to get it into words. The fat, gray, jelly-like ugliness of them. Their bristling fur. The way they seem to be making a sound that hovers just outside the edges of what she can hear.
“So you don’t want to go hiking?” An edge of impatience makes its way into her father’s voice. “If you don’t want to go, that’s fine, but make up your mind. We’re losing daylight.”
Cassie looks off through the trees. When they landed back at the port, she had thought they were pretty, so tall and slender-graceful, moving like seaweed in a current, brightly-colored butterflies flitting through their branches. Now the waving branches look like long arms, the tendril-leaves like fingers that might grab her.
And the caterpillars. Thousands of them, crawling slowly up and down the papery green bark. Covering the tree trunks as far into the forest as she can see.
Why don’t they hate it too? Why can’t they see how gross it is?
“I don’t wanna go,” she mutters again. She glances back toward the camp.
“Okay, then. Go back to the tent and stay put until we get back. Get a fire going, maybe.”
Mona waits until their father has turned before she sticks out her tongue and protrudes her eyes, ending with a mocking laugh and turning to follow. Cassie watches them go. She’d like to chase them down and kick Mona’s snotty little legs out from under her.
But the caterpillars. Their bodies are pulsing like the big, gray veins of some larger animal. Cassie shivers and turns away, back through the thinner trees, the lighter forest the caterpillars don’t seem to inhabit.
At length, the rage and frustration fade, and she feels stupid. It had been so cool a few hours ago: The new trees, the sky the same light pink as a rose petal, the curve of the reddish gas giant that the moon orbits sinking below the horizon, the spongy ground under their feet, the pleasant bob of the lower gravity. Now she just feels nauseated, the low gravity not helping.
She stands in the clearing where they’ve made camp, alone, the trees whispering their tendril dance over her head.
So what if they’ve gone on without her? She brought her pad, and it’s loaded with books and shows. She can get a fire going. Maybe even make some dinner. She looks up at the deepening rose sky. The days on the moon are short, only about two thirds of Earth’s. They won’t even have time to get that far, she thinks. They’ll have to turn around and come back soon.
They’ve already gathered a pile of firewood, but when she arranges it like her father showed her and tries to light the kindling under it, it sputters and goes out. She huffs an exasperated breath, and tries again; this time a weak flame catches for an instant, but popping hisses escape the wood over it. Too wet. Cassie sits back on her heels, and pushes her hair out of her face. Figures.
Tiny, gnat-like things buzz around her face, trying to sip at the sheen of sweat on her skin. The moon is humid, and that’s something else which seemed pleasant before, and now only serves to make everything more miserable.
Cassie pushes to her feet, and makes her way back to the tent, crawling inside and flopping down onto her back. She could read. She tries, but anger makes her tired. At last she sleeps, the pad falling flat onto her chest with a muffled thump.
She doesn’t dream so much as she remembers: A scattered collection of fragments, not all of them in order, not all of them making any sense. Watching the moon get bigger in the transport’s window, hazy green and brown and ringed with clouds, close enough to old images of Earth to look familiar, but different enough to emphasize how unlike Earth it is.
The port, busy with researchers and other vacationers. The iridescent blue-purple of a butterfly landing on her arm for a brief moment. The long line at entry, the body scan, the antiseptic beam, how it had made her uncomfortable. They have to make sure we aren’t bringing anything alive with us from Earth, her father is saying. They have to make sure the environment here doesn’t change too much because of us. She had understood that. Invasive species, something mentioned in a school bio class.
The dirt track away from the port. The rattle of the bus, puffing water vapor. The walk away from the road toward the campsites, watching the other people peeling off. She had wondered then, thinking about the oncoming night, if she would be able to see their fires.
Before, during the drive into the forest, a swarm of butterflies flooding across the track, surrounding the bus. Engulfing it. A soft gasp of surprise from a couple of people in front. An even softer pat pat as the bright color smacks against the windshield and scatters across it like spilled powder.
The butterflies disperse. The forest swallows them, until it’s just her and Mona and their father. And the trees are covered with caterpillars. In her dream they seethe — a pulsating, gray mass bristling with mindless malevolence.
She can hear them now. It’s the sound of chewing. Horrible, always eating, and the beautiful forms they take after are just a lie. This feels more solid and more true than that scatter of multicolored powder. Now, they swarm up out of the leaf litter, no end to them. Out of the forest like a tidal wave, coming toward her, that awful wave of sound pushed before them. She can’t move, and they are on her feet, up her legs, deceptively soft, and cool, bloodless jelly things, up her arms. She closes her hands, and feels them squish and ooze between her fingers. She feels a sharp pain by her elbow.
They are chewing her skin. She doesn’t wake herself with a scream. She can’t make a sound at all as they flow in a bristling, gelatinous wave into her mouth.
She comes awake with a jerk. She sits up, the dream already fading, her head throbbing. It’s dark outside, the interior of the tent lost in shadow. She turns and opens the tent flap, crawling out onto the mossy ground. “Dad? Mona?”
She sits in front of the tent for a few minutes, her knees drawn up against her chest. Why would they still be gone after dark? Maybe gone for drier firewood, she thinks. But why would both of them go?
At last, she turns back to the tent. There’s a bag in there with flashlights and a q-phone. So she can call someone. If she has to. Which she won’t. But a flashlight might be handy right about now.
She finds the bag after a little fumbling, hands combing through the contents; a couple of lighters, cans, dried food — until her hand closes on a plastic cylinder, and she pulls it out and presses the nub set high on the neck. Light flares, hurting her eyes, and she feels a flush of relief.
The relief dies when she realizes: The q-phone isn’t here. She rocks back on her heels, gnawing at the inside of her cheeks. It’s…
It’s with her father and Mona.
She crawls back out. It’s all she can think to do. Inside, the tent is stuffy, and the longer she stays there, the smaller it feels. Outside, the night is humid and fragrant with decaying plant matter, but at least she can breathe. She listens to the sound of her breath, the whisper of a breeze through the trees, the two blending together. Listening for the sound of her father, Mona, anything that isn’t part of this alien rock, which is feeling more alien by the second.
She jerks, swinging the beam up toward the trees; they tower over her, the shadows between them hard and ominous, and she utters a soft cry. Seconds later she’s embarrassed, but before that she sits immobilized, staring up at the unfamiliar stars.
Just her imagination. Just nerves.
But she does hear something off in the trees. Not chewing. Rustling. She raises the beam again, her breath catching. “Dad?”
She sees a shape move past the edge of the beam, gray in the dimness. An animal, she thinks. Something that comes out at night.
Which is far from comforting.
The rustling fades, and when she doesn’t hear it again for a long time, she begins to drowse in spite of everything. She keeps her back to the tent, the flashlight in her hands, watching. Eventually, no matter how she fights it, she falls asleep again, the flashlight beam flickering against the tree trunks.
She opens her eyes to that flicker; it might be what’s awakened her, but what really jerks her into awareness is the understanding of what that flicker means. The battery is dying, and the sky is still dark. She shakes the flashlight, not sure what good it’ll do, but the flickering seems to subside.
The rustling again. She raises the beam but the flicker makes everything shifty, uncertain. “Hello?”
She sees a shape, and she’s sure it’s human — or humanoid — moving through the trees, and making its way closer.
The flashlight isn’t just flickering now, it’s dimming. Along with the loss of visual certainty comes uncertainty of other kinds. She doesn’t know how she should feel, if this should be something comforting or not — she might not be alone.
“Are you from another camp?”
Still no answer, but for a split second she sees the shape more clearly — small, maybe no taller than Mona. It pauses between two trees, then moves again, still coming closer, though not by any direct route.
“I’m missing my dad and my sister. Did you see anyone?”
Nothing, but the shape is closer still, and in the shaky beam it raises a shadowy hand, beckoning her, nodding.
She stays where she is, ripples of disquiet up and down her skin. “Do you know where they are?”
It seems like a stupid question, but there’s another nod, another beckoning wave, a motion off into the woods.
She doesn’t know why she does it. It’s more than stupidity; her father told her if she was ever lost out here, ever separated from him, she was to stay put and wait to be found. And she nodded, filing the instruction away. But when he said that, they were sitting comfortably on the couch at home, and she hadn’t thought about sitting alone in the dark with a dying light in her hands and an entire alien world closing in on her. Those things hadn’t seemed possible. Now, all the rules feel like they’ve fallen away completely.
So she gets to her feet, clutching the flashlight like a talisman. She’s in among the trees before she really knows it, nothing but shadows and swaying green trunks in front of her. She follows the figure, speeding up when it does, trying not to lose it among the trees. Until the light abruptly dies and she stops dead, trying to listen but with every sound drowned out by the harsh rush of her breath. She hadn’t been lost before. She had just been alone. She had not really — not fully — imagined that things could get any worse.
She sinks to the springy ground. Should have stayed put, she thinks hectically. Should have listened. “Oh, God,” she whispers, and covers her eyes.
The ugly weight in her chest is less heavy. She can find the camp now. And Mona and her father might be there, mad at her for scaring them so much, but there. And this whole vacation is going to be cut short. She’s going to pester or bully or just flat-outdemand that they all go home.
She gets to her feet and groans as she forces the muscles in her calves to unclench. She rubs her face; it feels disgustingly grimy, her hair tangled and matted with nervous sweat. I’m going to get a shower, she thinks. When this is over, first thing. I’m going to take the longest shower ever.
She feels the sound first. It takes some time to make its way past her eardrums and into her brain. But once she’s heard it, she can’t stop hearing it. Just at the edges, but swelling, close. She whirls, unthinkingly raises the useless flashlight like a club. Thousands of generations’ worth of genetic memory seize her at once: threat, response.
What response she can give.
She doesn’t call out. Her throat is clenched like a fist. She turns, her gaze sweeping the trees.
It’s the shape from the night before. Standing and watching her, though she can’t see his or her — or its — eyes. She can feel cold detachment. Maybe a kind of curiosity.
“Help,” she whispers. But not to it. And it is an it, she knows that now.
It moves forward in a kind of shamble, and none of what happens next surprises her: It starts to disintegrate, chunks of it dropping off. In a few seconds, it’s close enough to see. It looked gray last night in the deep shadow, but now she sees it is gray, and it isbristling, the surface of it a churning mass of little bodies surging toward her.
Cassie runs. She makes it five yards and hits a tree, jerks herself upright and stumbles on. They didn’t get it, Mona and her father. Do they get it now? In the end, did they get it as well as anyone could? Cassie is screaming as she runs, breathy screams that sound more like sobs as she stumbles again, her ankle twisting. She goes down hard, grasping at the trunks around her, trying to drag herself back up. She gropes at the soft bark -- too soft. Coming apart in her hand. Swarming over her arm.
Ecstasies bring a kind of clarity, even ecstasies of terror. No one ever saw it coming, she thinks with a bizarre calm. They did — all those checks at the port — but they didn’t really. They didn’t stop us from coming. Invasive species. And sometimes the invaded species learn too much from the invaders. The caterpillars slide up her legs, her arm, over her shoulder, soft and cool against her neck. Hundreds of tiny legs against her mouth, wriggling between her lips. She sees gray, then an explosion of color.
And the chewing.
“Cassie!” Mona sprints into the clearing. She’s been worried, though she’ll never admit it — worried about her big sister, though at least she’s had her father with her, and they hadn’t even gotten all that lost.
But there had been sounds in the darkness. She hadn’t liked it.
“Cassie!” She stops; there’s the tent, the remains of a fire, but no Cassie. There’s something else here, and her breath catches in her throat. Shimmering in the morning light, moving with the dappled shade.
Butterflies. Butterflies on the tent, butterflies on the cold remains of the fire, on the ground and on the trees, dancing their way around the clearing. Like a present the dawn left for them. And — she looks around again — all the ugly caterpillars gone.
“They must’ve changed overnight.” Dad behind her. “Where’s Cassie?”
“I dunno.” Mona can’t stop looking. She fumbles in her pocket for the phone, but she knows it won’t be able to capture everything. “Cassie’ll be happy. She hated the caterpillars.”
“Even though these are the same things?” Dad sounds distracted, and for a moment Mona is nervous. Where is Cassie, anyway? Why isn’t she here to see this? “Dammit, I told her not to leave the camp.”
“We’ll find her,” Mona says. And just like that, she’s distracted again. “Man, they are so pretty…”
One lands on the back of her hand. She looks at it, enraptured, and she sees that instead of the familiar curled proboscis, it has tiny hooked jaws. And it’s chewing.