• Published 22nd Mar 2022
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Don't Bug Me - Starscribe

Amie was prepared for a difficult season as a camp counselor. She wasn't prepared for her entire summer camp vanishing from Earth, and reappearing in a strange new world. Now they're bugs, in a world that seems to hate them. Survival not guaranteed.

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Chapter 3

Amie headed straight for the building, cutting across camp with a growing sense of purpose. Her brother was safe, and for a little while she could count on him staying that way. Wes wasn’t good with people, but he was good at staying unnoticed. Besides, a set of eyes on the outside of camp would probably be useful.

What will we see up there once the sun comes up? Maybe Lakeville was still at the base of the mountain, just concealed by their shock and disorientation. Maybe they were floating on a spaceship, or a platform held aloft on a giant turtle’s back. Given her own transformation, Amie would probably believe almost anything.

She wasn’t alone for the whole walk back. As the trails got bigger and the tents more numerous, she saw other campers making their nervous way up, traveling in small groups.

She didn’t recognize a single person, but she expected that. Not a single one of them was human. She saw dozens of the same black bugs, with the same green shells and green eyes. The same clear wings.

They came in different sizes, and had other subtle details that she could probably use to tell them apart with enough time. They all had fins on their heads, and those varied wildly. Some were short, others wide enough to extend almost to their horns. Some had shorter horns, some had more holes in their legs, others fewer.

Not one of them was orange, or lacked the damage to their legs. She felt a strange camaraderie from these bugs. Every one of them was disgusting and inhuman, but so was she. They couldn’t judge her for anything they weren’t themselves.

Maybe half the former campers had squeezed into oversized clothes. But they weren’t cut for wide back legs, or tails, or the complex joints of their shells. They might look less embarrassed than she felt, but they also struggled and stumbled when they walked. We can probably design something to fit these bodies, but where would we get the fabric?

Amie could dismiss her embarrassment for now, if only because there were so many others in the same state she was in, and the urgency of their survival. They could worry about things they didn’t need once they knew what the hell was going on.

The transformation had erased almost every distinguishing feature. None of the bugs looked older than she was, or younger. She couldn’t even tell which ones were guys or girls, at least not without looking closer than she wanted. Line them up in ranks, and they would seem like near-identical siblings.

They spoke very little, and all she did hear was frightened whispers. Some campers thought they’d been cursed, while another suggested they were victims of a strange weapons test. Neither felt quite right—she could imagine strange bioweapons, but why make a swarm of gross-looking alien bugs?

The multipurpose building was the largest in camp, surrounded by a dozen smaller structures. Every kind of adventure was out here, from the actually fun stuff out on the trails to the boring robotics and bioscience labs that her brother had spent most of his time inside. There were other buildings too—the camp clinic, aquatic center, staff housing, offices, and shops.

It was the only place the ground was fully paved, and the lights were all on. Not just in the multipurpose building, but the offices and clinic as well.

Mr. Albrecht might not understand memes, but he knew how to keep a camp in order. The multipurpose building was completely transformed as she approached. The front doors were wide open, and a folding table rested there, with two bugs propped up on chairs behind it. There were two lines leading inside, one for each sex.

She waited her turn, as the bug behind it asked the name from each creature who entered. She found her recognition of the voice grew the more times she heard her ask the same question.

“I’m Amie Blythe, Mrs. Albrecht,” she said, before she could even open her mouth. “Does the boss know what’s going on here?”

The bug flipped through the printout in front of her for a few seconds, then turned it aside for a much smaller list of staff. She put a check by a single name, holding the pen in her mouth. It looked as uncomfortable as it was imprecise, and the pages were covered with several disorderly scribbles.

“No one has a clue,” she admitted. “But we’re figuring things out together. Staff are on stage, head there. We have a lot of panicking campers right now.”

We have a lot of panicking bugs, Amie thought. But she didn’t correct her, just hurried through the door into the huge room.

A movie was playing on the oversized screen, a colorful Disney film about fish. A few dozen campers were scattered in front of it, with blankets and sleeping bags. She couldn’t see the usual dividing line she expected between girls and guys sides—but how would anyone even know which bugs were which?

Horse bugs were much harder to tell apart than humans. Instead, the only real distinctions she could see were the insects wearing clothes, and those that didn’t.

Far more campers weren’t bothering with the movie. They stood or paced or curled up in small groups all over the room. Against the wall, several large tubs of ice cream stood frosted over and melting, without a single interested soul around them.

Probably for the best that Wes didn’t come. He would hate the crowd. Amie dodged her way through it, listening for familiar voices. She caught a few of her favorite campers in the press, including several all standing up by one window. They had a backpack of various camping supplies between them, and spoke in hushed whispers.

She slowed as she passed, eyeing them. Almost all of them had deeper, masculine voices. The campers who wanted to go out on pioneering and wilderness survival trips skewed heavily that way. She knew each of them by name, at least she normally did. Not a single one of these had bothered adapting their clothes.

“How are you adventurers holding up?” she asked, stopping beside their table.

“Amie?” Several turned in her direction.

“You’re all screwed up too.” One stepped forward, gesturing at the six phones out on the table between them. “Look what we’re doing.”

She hopped up beside him, hesitating long enough to see. If his voice hadn’t told her everything she needed to know about this kid, this display sure would. Each of these phones were running an app she’d never seen before. A single cable was connected to one, stripped down to the electrical contacts and with a usb stick on the end. “What’s this, Rick?”

His wings buzzed nervously, and he looked away from her. Being recognized evidently robbed him of a little of his confidence. “Well, uh… no one’s getting any service right now. But there’s this app you can install, gives you a mesh network with everyone else using it. We can send messages, make calls. And if anyone does get a connection, it shares with everyone on the mesh. We’ve been using it for… approved things. But now I think everyone should have it.”

She reached over, patting his back with one hoof. The same way she would’ve done with a particularly strong knot on a rope bridge. “Nice, Rick! I’m sure your phones were sitting in your suitcases this whole trip waiting for an emergency. But if this isn’t an emergency, nothing is. I’ll bring my phone later, I want this. My brother too.”

Rick beamed. She couldn’t see it in his eyes exactly, their faces just didn’t express emotions as clearly. But she felt it radiating from him, the same way she would feel heat coming off the pavement on a warm day.

It was that instant she realized just how many emotions she could feel. The room had a pallor looming over it, a fearful pressure like watching eyes peeking at them from every shadow. There were little islands of other feelings, like Rick’s pride. I’m probably just imagining things. Of course people would be afraid and confused after what happened. I don’t need impossible senses to know that. “Stay out of trouble,” she said, backing away from the group. “You see any of my other kids, grab ‘em. Even the ones too scared to overnight. Got it?”

That elicited a few groans, and just as many nods. They might not like her instructions. But few other counselors spent nights with their kids in makeshift shelters high in the mountains, with animals prowling in the dark. Giving swimming lessons just didn’t build the same camaraderie.

She hurried past the projector screen and up to the stage. The camp had plenty of staff for normal emergencies, but how could such a small group deal with this?

Few bugs up here looked any different than the students down below. Whatever process had melted them down into hideous monsters also erased anything she could use to tell them apart. And if bugs got old, she saw no sign of it here—there were no gray hairs and wrinkles on creatures that had neither hair nor skin.

She recognized Mr. Albrecht from his sideways military cap and jacket, which lent him an air of authority his identical form couldn’t otherwise.

From the sound of things, one of the office staff was giving him an inventory. They were separated into a much smaller group—most of the stage was taken up by a pack of other bugs more or less her own age, many of which were in no better shape than the adventurers down below. They whispered and cried and huddled together, on the edge of a dozen different mental breakdowns.

Not Amie, though. So long as she had purpose, she could focus. The strangeness of her situation could wait.

She made her way to the front of the counselors, though she was a junior hire. As far as leadership went, her and the others from this summer would be last in line for anything. Still, she had to know.

“Starlink is completely dead, sir. Landline is giving us nothing—and no response so far on any radio frequency. Nothing.”

She settled onto the ground just behind Mr. Albrecht, at the front of the counselors. She recognized the speaker by voice as well. Nate Conners, the camp’s IT guy, had lost so much weight he could’ve split into three different bugs. He even sounded healthier, despite the inhuman reverberation.

“I want good news, Nate. I have almost a thousand terrified people in Stella Lacus Adventure Camp. What do we tell them?”

“Well, uh…” He looked to one side, then the other. None of the other staff spoke up to support him. “Power system is still working. Cistern still looks full. Good thing we went off-grid last year?”

“Yes, these frightened children will be overwhelmed with joy they can relax in an air-conditioned building while we gradually mutate into melted puddles of flesh.”

Someone cleared her throat, drawing their attention. When she spoke, Amie knew her too. That was Mrs. Martinez, camp’s head cook. “Season was supposed to end in two weeks. That is what we have in the freezer. Maybe we stretch to three, with some empty bellies. If the food truck doesn’t come, we have unhappy campers.”

“Noted,” Mr. Albrecht said. “For the moment, we will focus on keeping everyone safe. We’ll speak tomorrow about alternate ways we can call for help. Inventory, I want you to check on fuel and get back to me. The buses are out of the question, but we might be able to take a Humvee down to Lakeville for help in the morning.”

“Assuming we aren’t shot on sight,” someone else said. “God, what are we?”

“We don’t know the same thing hasn’t happened in Lakeville.”

Amie could keep quiet. She wasn’t important enough for her opinion to matter here, really. In a few minutes they would just tell her to go down to the campers and keep everyone calm. But Amie hadn’t come to Adventure Camp all these years to keep her mouth shut now.

“Lakeville isn’t there.” She stood up, stepping forward. Her voice identified her, and she could see several bugs from her side glare harshly at her. She ignored them all. “The road hits the interstate, then dead-ends.”

Several bugs turned on her, including Mr. Albrecht. He didn’t glare, at least not that she could read. It was hard to tell what a bug wanted from her. “How do you know that, Counselor Blythe?”

She’d probably get herself screamed at if this was the military—but it wasn’t. She was just a camp counselor who taught people to make shelters and tie knots. “First thing I did when I woke up was hike up to Lookout Point,” she said, a little more confident. “There isn’t a cloud in the sky right now. There’s not a valley down there like there should be, there’s another mountain. Lakeville isn’t there.”

Mr. Albrecht swore under his breath. “Well that’s… not ideal. Alright, everyone. Counselors—I need you to do what your name implies. Keep the camp from tearing itself apart. In the morning, report for breakfast with your assigned groups. We’ll disperse to cabins and tents after that.

“Office staff, along with Counselors Poole, Reyes, and Blythe, come with me. We have work to do.”

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