Carapace

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CarapaceThe island was uninhabited.  It had been on the maps for decades, lying somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean below the Pitcairn Islands, but having no name, no accessible valuable resources, or signs of previous habitation, or even signs of pirate visitation.  The only visitors over the years had been the occasional research team or wealthy patron looking to buy and develop on the lush but inconveniently located and somewhat small isle.  But whom to buy it from?  Claims on the island were disputed, but not fiercely.  There was no place to land a plane or helicopter.  Flyovers showed a mountain range circling the interior of the island, and within that circle, dense canopy under which, no doubt, a rich menagerie of creatures happily lived out their lives without any knowledge of the wider world.

Detra had come a year prior.  She’d been warned by her mentors that there was nothing to find on that forsaken island.  She’d used money borrowed from a wealthy friend to finance the trip.  Her friend and his companion frolicked on the beach for a week, while Detra did as much surveying as she could.  She took myriad pictures.  She didn’t have an expertise yet.  She knew a little about a lot.  And she saw birds, insects, and fish that she’d never seen before.  They might be new species.  They might be known ones.  Once, she thought she saw a tortoise basking in the sun beside a pool.  It was far away and could have been a trick of the eyes.  But on her second-to-last day on the island, she found the strangest land animal she’d ever seen.

When the creature first appeared, Detra had been startled and charmed at the same time.  A most unexpected and unbelievable sight, it looked like a little armadillo, only with iridescent red, purple, and orange scales.  It wasn’t shy or skittish.  She’d sat still and let it amble closer to her.  And on closer inspection, she saw that the scales weren’t scales.  They were the shells of beetles.  And the beetles were somehow attached to some kind of a rodent.  A vole, as it turned out.  A friend who studied rodents told her it was the biggest vole she’d ever seen.  Detra didn’t have the proper permits and permissions to take the living animals with her.  So she took as many pictures of it as she could.  And she brought back a few dried out beetle shells, fused shells so hard and rigid that she took to calling them carapaces.  Her discovery was convincing enough to get the attention of a researcher at her old university who—like her—wanted to make a name for himself, Dr. Rudolph.

Detra had never had any classes with him.  But she had heard that his career thus far had been mediocre.  He had little interest in the animal she called the Armored Vole.  The study of that creature he would leave to Detra and her team.  And he warned them to work fast and hard, for as soon as her beetle-vole animal was proved not to be a hoax, other more seasoned researchers would descend upon the isle.  Dr. Rudolph himself was more interested in some of the plants that Detra had photographed.  He wanted to discover some natural botanical substance that might produce a wonder-drug.  Scientific glory and monetary prosperity.  Nothing too ambitious.  Still, he had managed to procure funding, assemble a group of twenty scientists (mostly graduate students), arrange transportation and supplies, and draft a basic research plan (with help from the aforementioned graduate students) in under a year. As far as Detra was concerned, he could have any glory and money that came of his research.  As long as she could have her armored vole.

After the research group arrived on the island by a lengthy sea voyage, they set up their base camp and their communications array and solar panels.  They had brought diesel generators for emergencies, but didn’t want to use them.  Even the least nature-conscious member of the team was awed by the inexpressible pristineness of the island.  The beach was clean of the detritus of modern civilization, though it was littered with the trash of nature, rocks, and shells, and broken branches and torn off fronds from the giant palms that grew in the forest beyond the beach.  Bird cries and insect songs echoed from the forest.  The island may have been forsaken by humans, but it was rich with other life.  Part of what made it forsaken was the mountain range that rose out of that forest.  Detra and her friends hadn’t gone past the mountains.  It was dangerous climbing.

The research group had brought climbing gear, and a few of them were experienced rock climbers.  They would make the attempt to scale a cliff they had identified as feasible while others would try to find a way through the mountain.  Detra imagined a valley beyond the mountains, filled with all the long-lost creatures of the earth, dinosaurs and dodos side by side.  But in reality, she feared a dark forest filled with predators.  The island was supposedly too small for large predators.  Detra would be content finding a gaggle of armored voles and spending all her time studying them.  The four other people on her team were also fascinated by the prospect of seeing one.  And over the year, she’d tried to eke out some theories based solely on her picture, notes, and observations of only one specimen.

They discussed those theories after dinner settling in on that first night.

“What’s in it for each creature?” Radley said, pointing with her bandaged hand.  She had learned the hard way how sharp the beetle carapaces were.  “That’s the deal with symbiosis, right?”

Morgan bit her bottom lip, then raised a brow as she raised her mug of coffee.  “Well, the voles are getting protection.  Instead of hiding out in hidey-holes, they could strut around out here and find food.  Maybe the carapaces also provide warmth during colder months.  Insulation.”

“It doesn’t get that cold on this island,” Lopez said.

Morgan conceded with a shrug.

“Unless the climate is different past those mountains,” Radley countered.

Detra watched her colleagues.  The team had only been together for have a year, but they were already bonded in scholarship and friendship over the trip and over their new favorite animal.  They had had this same conversation in varying versions a dozen times before.  “Vocal group brainstorming” is what Radley called it.  Detra would have called it “throwing out ideas,” but she didn’t want to make their youngest, most enthusiastic teammate feel self-conscious.

Kim had been as silent as Detra, sitting backwards on his folding chair, his arms crossed on the top of the chair back.  He rested his chin on his forearm and stared ahead as he began to speak.

“So the real question is, what do the beetles get out of it?”  He stared ahead.  “Say their elytra—the wing covers—and the thorax and everything hardens into this new thing, this carapace, but they lose their wings past the mating stage of their life cycle.  At that point, they would seem to begin to deteriorate.  Or they would if they didn’t find a vole and attach to it.  They send out pheromones or some other chemical signal to attract other beetles in that same stage of life and they all come swarming or crawling as it might be.  Attaching to the vole gives them nutrients they need to live longer than they otherwise would.”

Before anyone else could respond, he raised his chin and a hand, pointing a finger upwards.  “But if this attachment happens past the mating stage, how is it getting passed down?  The voles must be involved in the mating stage somehow.  Or maybe they’ve evolved some kind of chemical signal themselves that they send out to the beetles.”

“Are the voles naked—hairless, that is?” Radley asked, looking at Detra.

“It was too hard to tell.  It wasn’t shy, but it did run from me when I tried to reach out to it.  The shells are pretty light, but they seemed to be rigid.  So I was surprised when it ran so fast.  Pretty much the same speed I’d expect from a mouse.”

Kim shook his head.  “How does a relationship like this even develop?”

Lopez smiled and picked up one of the empty carapaces they had in their possession.  “Maybe a couple of beetles hitched a ride on a vole’s back one time and they found some tasty bug’s in its fur and the vole got some protection from being eaten by a hawk or something.”

The conversation continued and Detra half-listened to her team and half-listened to the night sounds outside of the tent.

“But anything that attacked the vole would be attacking the beetles too.  They would get picked off.”

“Unless they were hanging on tight.”

“To the vole’s hair?”

“They’d need to hang on tighter than that.”

“Exactly.  They would need to hang on as tight as that vole’s own skin.”

“No beak or jaws could crack this carapace too easily.  Claws would slip off of it.  Once the vole and the beetles melded into this symbiotic red armadillo thing, it was practically indestructible.”

“This reminds me of a story,” Morgan said.  And that brought Detra back, because she knew what was coming.

Detra smiled.  “What doesn’t?”  Morgan was the resident unofficial mythologist.  She was ever eager to link myth and science, legend and reality.  Aside from the fact that she loved the stories, she believed all stories originated in reality and might hold clues to scientific truths.

Detra was no story-teller herself.  She was a listener.  An eager audience.  She pulled a blanket around her though the air was temperate.  She held a carapace in her hand and grinned at how it glinted and sparkled in the light of their lamps and bulbs.  The others shifted too, like kids around a campfire, as Morgan began her story.

***

“There is a legend about these beetles,” Morgan said.  “For they turned the tide of a war once in the age of iron.  This war, it ravaged an ancient land whose name is lost to us now.  And which modern country can lay claim to this heritage, I do not know.  I only know that the land was fought over because it was a lush one.  Coveted.  Those who were native to the land were mostly peaceful, but they had learned to defend their home.  When the armies fought, they ruined the very land for which they were fighting.  If the war did not end, the land might never recover.

“One day a great and noble warrior, a native of the land, battled bravely until he lost his armor even as he was locked in single combat.  It was said a flock of beetles appeared and swarmed about him.  They were magnificent, red and gold and purple in hue, blazing like the sun itself.  The warrior’s enemy watched with curiosity.  The warrior covered his head, fearful that he would be eaten to death by beetles before he was beaten to death by his enemy.  But when the swarm settled, the warrior and his enemy saw what the beetles had done.  They had formed a plate of armor on the warrior’s chest and back and legs and arms.  With no weapons, the warrior dodged blows and fought with his bare hands.  When he was struck, the armor—the beetles—took the brunt of the blow.  The carapaces of the beetles proved too hard to shatter.  And their soft bodies beneath cushioned the impact on the warrior’s own body.

“But while their carapaces showed no cracks, the beetles did fall as they died from absorbing the blows to the warrior.  For every one that fell, others took its place by spreading their wings, exposing themselves but keeping the warrior covered.  But soon, so many fell that the warrior was exposed once again.  He took wounds, but he kept fighting.  Whenever he fell, he rose again.  He managed to grab a hammer from his enemy and use it to deal his own blows.  Soon, his enemy too was forced to cast aside armor that was bent and broken.  And soon, the warrior dealt the final blow to his enemy.  And his enemy fell.

“But the warrior did not rejoice, for all around him, he saw the dead bodies of the beetles who had shielded him, preserved him, never failed him.  Despairing, he searched until he found that two were still alive.  They were a mating pair and clung to each other even as he lifted them gently in his bare and bleeding hands.

“The warrior became king that day for his deeds.  His first decree was that the fallen bodies of his fellow warriors be gathered and carried back home for proper tribute.  And to that number he included the thousands of beetles who had armored him in his time of need.

“The mating pair he cared for himself.  The beetle, named the King’s Shield, was to be revered from that day forth.  None could harm the beetle without facing death themselves.

“The beetles were respected.  They became the emblem of the king.  And soon, they became so revered that they were worshiped.  Never again did the beetles themselves form a shield around the king or any warrior.  But when they died, their carapaces were gathered and used for shields and armor to protect their land.  Soon the beetle began to die out.  When they no longer lived and swarmed and thrived in the wild, a small number were raised in captivity.  Then the art of raising them foundered and faded.  There weren’t enough even to make the smallest of shields.  Then the shells began to be used as currency until they too were lost.  How they were lost, no one could tell.  The shells were supposedly indestructible.  But as my father always told me, everything living eventually dies and everything that doesn’t live eventually fades.  The world changes as it turns and churns through the greater skies.

“But that was long after the king died.  When the king passed from the world, the beetles still thrived.  And on his deathbed, after he remembered the birth of his children and his long and happy life with his queen and all his friends and beloved people, he remembered the beetles.  He remembered how they had defended him and his land—their land.  He had become one with them.  All their hearts beating as one.  And all breath becoming as one.  Each mind thinking all together.  He lived through war.  He died in peace.”

King's Shield

“Why did the beetles help him?” someone asked.

“Were they commanded by a god or spirit?”

Detra smiled at Morgan’s restrained exasperation, as evidenced by the twitch of her lip.  They all knew her story was over, and now the discussion would ensue.

“That part about being one with the beetles…sounds like a hive mind,” Lopez said.

“Like how the vole and beetles are here, now?”

Kim nodded.  “Like they were trying to be more than what they were.”

“Evolve?”

“Too slow.”

“Attain a higher plane of existence?”

“Yes, maybe, something like that.”

“You think that’s what might be going on with the vole?  The beetles had enough sentience to identify a more highly developed organism than themselves and latch onto that organism in an attempt to…gain their essence.”

“And eventually gain sentience.”

“It would be like us trying to brain-suck an alien from an advanced civilization.”

Morgan chuckled.  “You guys ruined my story.  Everything doesn’t have to be dissected and analyzed.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted when you told your stories,” Lopez said.  “To find the link between what we conclude about our environment now and what our ancestors thought was happening in their environment then.”

“Yeah tomorrow morning, not now during story time.  Story time is hallowed.”

“You know, these carapaces really are pretty tough,” Kim said.  “You probably could fashion a weapon or shield out of them.”

“Definitely a weapon,” Radley said, holding up her bandaged left hand.

***

Less than a week, again.  That’s all Detra had before she realized she—they—had to leave.  That’s all she had before she received what she thought was a dream, then a vision, and then, when she found she wasn’t the only one, a visitation.

By then, she’d heard Morgan’s tale of the King’s Shield two more times.  By then, they had done well, finding a nest of voles not yet attached to beetles and setting up cameras to watch them.  Radley had found a couple of dead mature armored voles too.  So they had begun dissections and necropsies to start mapping the basic anatomy of the symbiotic relationship.  They had started doing basic cellular and molecular assays, even sending one shipment of frozen samples back to the mainland for more sophisticated tests.

Detra had seen the beetles flying around, unattached.  They looked a lot like the iridescent green beetle that flew around during summer back home.  Only the ones on the island looked like the ones from Morgan’s myth.  They were red and golden-orange and purple.  They flashed and glinted in the sunlight.  Detra had been afraid of bugs as a child, and still didn’t like the feel of an insect crawling on her.  But when one of the island’s beetles landed on her bare arm one day, she just looked down at it.  It seemed to think she was a tree.  It sat and preened and aired out its wings.  It made a strange humming sound, like a cross between the drone of a bumblebee and the hissing of a cicada.  Detra saw the beetle rub its back legs together and suddenly, like a flint, she saw a spark and felt a tiny jolt.  It startled her and she jerked.  The beetle leapt up and flew away.  Detra looked at her arm, expecting a burn mark, but the spark, if it was a spark, must have been as harmless as the spark of static electricity.

She was actually filled with wonder and overwhelmed by all her team had discovered.  And then, one restless night, she dreamt or thought she dreamt, a vivid vision of a figure armored in beetle carapaces, much more elegant-looking than the clumsily charming little armored voles.  The figure stood in the midst of the tent she shared with Morgan, Radley, and a woman from one of the other research teams.  Detra sat up in her cot, only curious at first.  She thought it was only a dream after all.

The figure appeared to be on fire, though Detra felt no heat from the flames that engulfed the figure—the warrior?  And the flames weren’t like the flames of fire.  They looked more like flames of light.  Like the ghosts of flames.  The warrior didn’t speak, but lifted up one of the whiteboards from the conference tent.  And for some reason, it was at that moment that Detra decided what she was seeing was no dream.  The warrior—Detra couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman—had drawn something on the whiteboard.  When Detra realized what it was, a dread different from the immediate fear at the invasion of her tent and her sleep rose up her stomach into her chest into her throat.  She could not speak.  She couldn’t even turn her head to see if her tent companions were seeing what she was seeing.  Her body remained immobile.  Her gaze remained frozen on the whiteboard.

There was a dark wavy line that streaked almost diagonally across the board.  Below the line was an area filled in with evenly spaced dots.  Above the line and close to it was a series of boxes.  Arrows led from the boxes to the dotted area below the wavy line.  That line, Detra realized, was the shoreline.  The dotted area was the ocean beyond.  The configuration of the boxes was the exact configuration of the research base camp.

Above the base camp, the warrior had filled in the area that seemed to coincide with whatever was beyond the mountains.  The warrior pointed to it now and then held up a hand toward Detra.  Silently burning with red-golden flames, the warrior’s head turned slowly from side to side.  And suddenly, the flames vanished.  Detra saw nothing but black.  She hadn’t realized how brightly the light of the flames had shown.  She narrowed her eyes and waited for them to adjust.  By the time they did, the warrior was gone.

***

The next morning, Detra realized she wasn’t the only one who had received an uninvited visitor the night prior when people started sharing stories at breakfast.  Three other members of the research group, all from other teams, reported they had seen figures in the night.   Not all of them used a whiteboard to make their point.  One team had rolls of giant graph paper that they fed into some modified seismographs they’d brought.  Some of that paper had been torn and the figure, or warrior, who had visited their team member had drawn the same depiction of the camp and ocean, and the same forceful arrows.

None of the flaming warriors had brandished any weapons or outright threatened the researchers, but their message was clear.

Leave this island.

Detra, being the reason that everyone was there in the first place, felt as responsible for their lives as Dr. Rudolph.  She and the ones who’d received the visitations tried to convince him to heed the warning.

“It’s obvious now this island is inhabited.  And we are not welcome,” Detra said.  All twenty researchers were present at the impromptu group meeting.  They hadn’t had an official meeting yet.  That was supposed to happen weekly, with each team sharing their findings just before dinner.  The first meeting had been scheduled for the next day.  It was a day Detra had been looking forward to.  She looked around at her fellow researchers.  Some appeared alarmed.  Others thoughtful.  But the majority looked doubtful and even curious.

Something had happened to their colleagues, those looks conceded, but whatever had happened was another mystery for them to solve.

Even her own team peered at her questioningly.  Morgan, who was close to a best friend as she had on the island, was the only one whose expression suggested that she took Detra’s warning, the warning of the warriors, seriously.

Dr. Rudolph looked nervous, but not about the warriors.  He held up his hands in a calming gesture and stated in frank terms that there was their funding to think of and there was no solid evidence that any of those visions were real.  It might be that one team of researchers was being pranked by another.  Aside from giving everyone admonishments about exhibiting professional behavior even while out in the field, Dr. Rudolph took no actions.

Detra did not want to wait until someone ended up dead with a spear in the back.  The next ship was scheduled to arrive in two days to receive more samples, bring more supplies, and take a couple of researchers home for whom some urgent personal matters had come up.  Detra was determined to make sure that all twenty people were on that ship.

***

“How do I convince everyone to leave and never come back?” Detra asked her team as they gaped silently at her.

“Dee, we get that this vision freaked you out,” Lopez said, holding out his hands in an appeasing manner, much as Dr. Rudolph had.  “But going from being the person who brought us to this island to being the one who wants us all to vacate and never come back is an extreme reaction.  The rest of us  didn’t see this vision, so we’re…confused.  You’ve got to give us more to go on.”

Radley nodded.  “Yeah, let’s bring the others in here too and just write down your accounts, get those maps together, look at it like it’s research.”

“What’s wrong with your shoulder?” Morgan asked.

As they were speaking, reasoning with her, Detra had been furiously scratching over her right shoulder.  But it wasn’t her shoulder that itched.  “Just an itch.  I’m not used to it being this muggy.  I feel all gross.  It’s like a t-shirt label back there.”

Morgan stepped behind her.  “Let me see.”

“It’s not research, guys.  It’s reality,” Detra said.  “I don’t want to leave either.  You have no idea how much I was looking forward to tomorrow, blowing everyone’s minds with our findings.  Getting my mind blown by their findings.  But this is not worth dying for.”

Kim raised his brows.  “Who said anything about dying?”

“You said the guy on fire didn’t say anything.  Didn’t have any weapons.”

Radley sighed.  “Then again, they did come in the dead of night and—what is it?”  Her gaze flicked over Detra’s shoulder.

Detra turned her head.  “What?”

“There’s a…beetle stuck to your back,” Morgan said.  “It’s one of the armored vole beetles.”

Detra pushed down the panic that began to rise in her chest.  “Can you get it off?”

The others suddenly scrambled and joined Morgan.  Detra imagined micro-tentacles extending from the beetle’s legs and through her epidermis and dermis and into her heart and maybe her spine and up to her brain stem and—

“Someone should take pictures,” she ordered in an effort to calm herself.  She grabbed a gown someone handed her.  She slid off her shirt and donned the gown, leaving it untied in the back.  And she stood still while her friends took pictures and started gently prying the creature off her back.

She felt no pain, only a burning itch, and the occasional pinch that felt like a hair being plucked.  And once Lopez set up the video feed to the monitor before her, she saw what they were doing.  Morgan used forceps to remove the beetle’s legs.  They were embedded in Detra’s flesh and when each one was removed, she felt a crackle in her skin as the itching subsided.  Radley held the beetle’s body in position with some tool Detra had never seen before that looked like scientific pliers.  Kim kept up a running commentary, even though he knew Detra could see what was happening, interrupted by occasional asides from Lopez, like how the situation reminded him of an episode of his favorite sci-fi show, or how he wouldn’t think ticks or bedbugs were so bad from now on.  It was meant to distract her, but the mention of ticks only made Detra worry that the beetle carried some rare disease that it might have already passed on to her.  She would have to insist on being quarantined on the ship and upon arrival.

It seemed longer, but it only took a little over ten minutes for her team to get that beetle detached.  Detra closed her eyes as she heard the body clang into a waiting sample container.  It was already dead.

It was trying to be symbiotic with you, she thought.

On Detra’s instruction, Radley and Lopez went to the other teams to tell them what had happened and to find out if any of the other people who had been visited had beetles attached to them.

They all had.

And before lunch, the camp was invaded by the beetles.  Detra wondered if the dead ones had released some kind of homing chemical.  Some of researchers who were from the eastern part of the U.S. mentioned it was just like the return of the cicadas.  Only the island beetles brought a sense of dread to everyone.  After what happened to Detra and others who’d had beetles attached to their backs, no one wanted the creatures near them.  None of these beetles flew.  They all crawled.  The flying ones were about an inch long, but these crawling monsters were three to four inches long.  They crawled over and into everything.  No one dared to kill any of them for fear the scent of a dead one’s blood and guts would bring even more beetles.

And more and more of the researchers began to wonder if Detra was right.  If they should leave.  Everyone gathered in the meeting tent that night, sleeping in shifts so that those who were awake could help sweep away the beetles that were still trying to crawl inside.  Even bathroom breaks were taken in pairs.  Detra stayed awake and every once in a while, she counted the people in the tent to make sure no one vanished.

Few could actually sleep.  Everyone was waiting for morning and for the ship.  Even Dr. Rudolph had given up on convincing anyone to stay.  But they also worried that the beetles would follow them home.  They had to make sure that didn’t happen.

Strangely, Detra was confident it wouldn’t.  And she was right.  By morning, the beetles were gone.  No one could spot a single one in the camp, in the equipment.  They packed up everything as quickly as they could.  The boat was due for the afternoon.  Some worried that the beetles would hitch a ride on their equipment or on themselves.

By noon, a few of the researchers began to relax and wonder if they were all being intimidated by something harmless and natural.  But then everyone heard the humming and then everyone saw the swarm.  It circled between the camp and the mountain face.

And then everyone began to pack faster.

By the time the ship arrived, they had a procedure in place to assure as best as they could that they didn’t let any of those beetles onto the ship.  And that included quarantining Detra and the others who had been…attacked by the beetles.  Before the beetles’ invasion of the camp, Kim had joked about them possibly laying eggs in Detra.  It didn’t seem a joke to anyone anymore.

But as Detra watched the swarm from the boat that took her, her team, and her research back to the ship, she knew there were no eggs, no hitchhiking beetles.  They needed no other land.  They had their land, their home.  And they had defended it well against all invaders.

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel

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