Andi loved the beach. That's why they went. The undead of winter: skin-shearing wind, rain like small-caliber bullets—it didn't matter. The sound of the surf in all its ferocious brown froth and sharp-edged waves didn't deter them from a walk on the flat, depopulated expanse of sand and sodden vegetation. She felt the lure of the shells, or what was left of them. Miles and miles of mangled exoskeleton. The charm had no effect on Charlie. But it was the space she occupied and was therefore where he had to be.
“What the hell is that?” he asked, that being a ham-sized piece of greenish-white flotsam sticking out of the sand like something clawing its way up from a grave.
“I can't imagine,” Andi said, delighted by the find. She knelt to free the object from the sand, carefully digging around it like a crime scene investigator or an anthropologist, just like on TV.
When it didn't come free, she dropped to her knees and dug into the sand with mittened hands, bulldozing the wet, gray grit away from her treasure. “You could help, y'know.”
“I could, but then I wouldn't be able to watch your backside wiggle.” Charlie was a great admirer of feminine backsides, and Andi's was unquestionably top-tier. It didn't get any better than that. But, oh my, can it wiggle, he thought.
“Dig, you horny swine,” she said. “Or else.”
They quickly freed the still unidentified object, which Andi rinsed in the frigid surf. “I don't think it's a shell.”
The slantwise rain had Charlie squinting and shivering. “Let's take it inside. The light's better.”
“What a wuss,” she said as she carefully stowed her prize in a plastic, Piggly Wiggly grocery bag. “Okay. Let's go. I need food.”
He gave silent thanks and linked arms with her for the march back to the beach house, his mind consumed with alternating thoughts of warmth and bourbon. And Andi. Wiggling. The flimsy grocery bag clutched in her free hand had already fled his mind.
Lunch was soup. Bean and bacon, accompanied by grilled cheese sandwiches—his specialty. He used mayo, a squirt of chipotle sauce, and a slab of cheese somewhat thinner than the average yoga mat, all compressed on thick raisin bread. His motto: screw the soup.
The lunch dishes done, Charlie endeavored to lure Andi into the bedroom where they might investigate the many wiggle-related elements of her anatomy. Sadly, her focus remained on the bony remnant from the beach.
“I'll bet there's more of it out there,” she said.
He offered discouragement, but gently. “If so, it's probably spread across acres and acres of sand. Could be buried deep, too. We'd need shovels. Cranes, maybe. Earthmovers. Toddy?”
“Shovels! Great idea. I think I saw a tool shed when we parked the car.” And just like that, she launched herself on a mission, out of reach. Fully clothed and motivated. “C'mon! We need to get back out there before someone else finds 'em.”
Evidently, she had failed to notice how empty the search area was, then and now. “I'm not too worried,” he said.
“You're gonna make me do this alone?” she asked, the question punctuated by the sound of her zipper racing chinward.
He held up an empty grocery sack. “Perish the thought. Lemme just grab another layer or two of arctic weather gear and—”
“I'll get the shovel and meet you on the boardwalk!”
Andi disappeared, though her scent and the exclamation marks with which she spoke lingered. Charlie sniffed appreciatively then zippered up and headed for the wooden walkway that linked their rental unit with the northern reaches of the Gulf of Mexico.
She had already begun a new excavation. Midway between the boardwalk and the water, Andi attacked the beach as if looking for survivors of a mine disaster. Bits of wind-born sand stung Charlie's eyes before he altered his approach. “Find anything?”
“Yes! It's another one of those whatsits like we found this morning.”
“What if they came from the same creature?”
“I don't find that comforting,” he said. “Especially since we have no idea what the first thing is. If it's a left-something, and you just found the matching right-something, then we could be faced with a really large something.”
She stopped digging long enough to fix him with one of those are-you-nucking-futs looks that women develop around the onset of puberty.
"How can I help?"
"I've got this chunk," she said. "Why don't you look for more." It wasn't a question.
"All righty." He paused, searching for a diplomatic way to phrase the next question. "Uhm. How will I know if it's a piece of the same critter?"
She rested her forearms on the end of the shovel, panting slightly. "Ignore shells. Look for anything that might be a bone."
"Like a leg?"
"Or a tail, maybe. Or a skull...."
"A skull? Ya mean like a fish head?"
"I mean like a skull. Like the other end of whatever this is." She stabbed the shovel into the sand and levered a greenish-white artifact to the surface. Definitely a mate for artifact number one. She rinsed it in the surf and placed it carefully on the end of the boardwalk.
"There!" she said, pointing a few feet away. "There's another piece." She turned away from him and spied still more. "Look! There, too! And there—dig. Dig!"
He couldn't match her zeal, but he refused to quit before she did, no matter what. The pile of parts grew. They called them bones for lack of a better word, but they didn't resemble any bones he knew of, though his familiarity with skeletal parts faded rapidly once he ventured beyond fish and fowl. Charlie could recognize a Buffalo wing as well as the next guy, but when it came to these things, his imagination was sorely taxed. Andi's, however, was merely piqued.
The sun, rapidly becoming a smudge on the winter horizon, provided too little light to continue. To his great relief, Andi signaled a halt. "Thank God," he groaned. "I need a drink. And food. And then maybe some sex. And then sleep. And then—"
"Help me," she said, oblivious to his needs. "We need to get these inside so I can figure out how they go together."
"Yeah." She gave him a look of impatience. "Of course. What'd you think I had in mind?"
"I dunno. You've got a shell collection. I just figured—"
"These aren't shells," she said. "They're bones. I'm sure of it."
"What kinda bones?"
"How should I know?" She stepped carefully through the dunes and climbed up on the boardwalk. "I'm going in to get something to carry these on. I'll be right back."
Haulsmuch, the maintenance overseer, couldn't remember a time he had ever been so angry. A mere two duty cycles before they were scheduled to rotate home, some germ-brained worker announced the discovery of an eater—an adult eater no less—in one of the on-board hothouses. An eater—on his ship! Worse still, nothing had been done to hide the discovery from the science overseer or the flight crew.
They killed the nasty thing immediately, of course, but they utterly abandoned common sense at that point. No attempt was made to hide the news. The flight crew refused to leave the backwater planet they had been parked on forever, and the science types refused to do any more work until the infected hothouse and all its contents had been spaced. They'd all be living on half rations while new crops grew. Worst of all, the ship would be quarantined for as long as it took to prove the infection had been eradicated. Knowing what sticklers the science and flight crews were, that could take a lifetime. One of his, obviously, not one of theirs.
On the floor in front of him, the offending worker had withdrawn into its carapace. Not a single appendage remained visible, though a steady nervous vibration emanated from it. "Proud of yourself, Crapmuncher?" Haulsmuch asked.
Not surprisingly, the worker was too terrified to respond.
"Next time something like this happens, come get me. Don't try to think through your options; you don't have any. Call me. Understood?"
The worker quivered in the affirmative, or close enough to satisfy Haulsmuch. "If this happens again, I'll feed you to the eater before we kill it."
The carapace contracted still further, and the maintenance overseer sighed in resignation. "Get the others. Harvest everything. Call me when you're done."
Charlie slept well that night, even without Andi sharing his bed. The dark hours passed quickly. He rose as the sky transitioned from black to gray and found Andi slumped forward on the table with her head resting on her crossed arms. Bones from the beach sprawled in front of her.
Circling the table slowly, Charlie hoped to identify the skeletal creature without waking Andi, but a varied viewing angle made no difference. The thing remained a mystery.
He appreciated Andi's efforts, however. The bones—if bones they were—seemed to be lined up in an appropriate manner. Though not connected by tissue, the joints made sense in a sort of spidery fashion, there being an abundance of arachnoid knees and elbows. The head bore an impressive set of long and lethally edged teeth. Charlie touched a cutting surface in the upper jaw, convinced that very little pressure would be needed to sever the digit.
Andi stirred. Charlie leaned down and kissed the back of her neck. "You been at this all night?"
"Mmm," she said.
"Want some breakfast?"
She opened one eye.
"Coffee it is." He set about making some. "That's one hell of an impressive thing you've got there, whatever it is."
"Really? Does it smell?" He sniffed. "I don't smell anything. Do you?"
"No," she said, "but look at the joints. Any places where I tried to fit two pieces together. It's all crumbly."
He had noticed a powdery substance near many of the joints but chalked it up to sand.
"Touch one of the pieces," she said. "Any one. Doesn't matter."
He did, and a fine rain of powdery white particles drifted down. It clearly wasn't sand. "Maybe we should take a sample somewhere and have it identified."
"Mmm," Andi said. "Wake me when the coffee's ready."
Seesfar and Ponderslife stood over the lifeless maintenance overseer. Like the hothouse where they found the remains, there wasn't much left to examine—some bits of shell, an over-articulated appendage, fluid stains, and a disturbingly long piece of something from Haulsmuch's digestive system. A pair of workers huddled in a twittering ball nearby. Neither appeared injured.
"You there, quit sniveling and stand up."
One of the workers managed to comply, but it was a less than noble effort.
"Did you see what happened?" Seesfar demanded.
"Eater," it said, as if the admission would cause it the same untidy end as that suffered by the overseer.
"Obviously," Seesfar said. "Has it been caught, or is it still running loose?"
The worker collapsed. "Loose," it said.
Ponderslife clicked a mandible in thought. "For the longest time, I believed eaters were merely a distraction, legendary creatures meant to entertain the hive on long missions."
"But you've seen one? Alive?"
"No, but I'd love to. Science is—"
"Yes, yes, science is god, and god must be fed; knowledge is food, blah blah blah."
"Careful, Seesfar. There are those on board who take their religion seriously."
"When the initial reports came through, I thought we would be safe. If they only found a single adult, then we had no need to fear their offspring. Aren't they the true terrors?"
"They're all terrors," Ponderslife said. "They eat, and they excrete. That's it. They have no brain function—high, low or in-between. Their sole purpose in life is to transform useful material into shit."
"From plant to fertilizer."
"From anything organic to fertilizer. Even their mode of procreation is mindless."
"They're dissolving," Andi said, her voice flat and as devoid of excitement as it had been overloaded when the bones first appeared. "Look. All of it. It's turning to dust."
Charlie ran his finger through the powder on the table. "Looks like cocaine."
"How would you know what cocaine looks like?"
"From TV. It looks like this, right?" He corralled the powder with a cupped hand. "We need to roll up a hundred-dollar bill and sniff it."
"Great idea! Call me when the hospital discharges you."
"I'm kidding, okay? Chill. Geez. What else can we do with it?"
"Let's sweep it in the trash, pack our stuff, and go home."
Charlie tried not to smile. "The weather is supposed to clear; we can afford to stay another day. The beach is still empty."
Andi looked through a rain-streaked window. "Mmm. This looks like a great day to stay indoors. Maybe take a nap." She stretched in a languorous and thoroughly un-nappy way.
Charlie brightened. "Lemme clean this up. I'll join you in a jiffy."
As Andi ambled into the bedroom, Charlie swept the powder from the table into a wastebasket. He used a wet paper towel to clear the residue from the wooden surface and then followed in Andi's footsteps, tugging at his belt as he went. He never noticed the first faint stirring of activity in the trash.
The order to go on quarter rations came as a surprise only to the workers, who reacted with a predictable level of panic to any change in routine. In fact, workers would be lucky to get any food at all. Those who starved could be replaced eventually; they had an abundance of frozen worker larvae. A few were bright enough to recognize the unfairness of it all but knew better than to complain. There was always the chance the emergency might end before the food stores did.
Dealing with an eater infestation was new to most of the crew, regardless of status. All surfaces, not just decks or hothouse access ways had to be kept free of moisture. Dead eaters had to be burnt, and their ashes dumped in an acid bath, lest their desiccated tissues escape. Contact with water invariably led to the rise of eater spawn, tiny organisms with a microscopic share of their parent's size, but a full helping of their life mission.
The ship would remain sealed throughout the quarantine. Until then it would sit, submerged, in the body of water the natives called the "Gulf of Mexico."
Ponderslife frowned as he inspected the garbage chute into which Haulsmuch had stuffed the second eater, and where he'd fallen prey to the third. Someday, when the science crews were allowed to communicate with the various sentient species they studied, someone would have to apologize. Assuming, of course, that any survived.