• 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 4

It was a rough night.

Not just for Amie—compared to most of the other campers, she was coping fantastically well. With almost everyone sleeping together in the same room, she heard everything.

She couldn’t sleep. From the number of other voices, from the people shifting around in the dark, she wasn’t the only one. How could anyone possibly get comfortable in a body that just didn’t make sense? No matter how she tossed and turned, the body never felt like hers. She was imprisoned in a cell that always kept pace with her, moving faster than she could escape.

Without tiredness, she could do nothing more than turn over the words of Mr. Albrecht’s meeting in her mind. She could not sleep soundly, filled with hope that the adults and people in charge would make all her problems go away. She knew with certainty that no one in camp had a clue what was going on, or how to fix it.

The smart, wise adults had come up with nothing better than her and her younger brother had out in the woods. All the staff’s hope centered around calling for help to the federal government, or some other sympathetic organization.

She could not return to check back on her brother that night. But whatever other strangeness was happening at the Adventure Camp, there was another fear that went deeper.

He looked different. Every single camper, every member of staff, would all notice him instantly. There was no way to hide him and pass him off as one of the numberless black bugs. But the real difference was why.

There was no trouble getting the camp to wake up again. Sometime before dawn, the collective weight of campers decided they were done tossing fitfully and everyone got up. Lights came on, and campers made their slow way out to the showers.

“Breakfast in your usual groups,” called another counselor. That was Counselor Poole, the oldest and most senior of their number. He had been throwing her dirty looks during the meeting last night, for sticking her head where it didn’t belong.

But once she was mixed in with the crowd, she didn’t attract a second glance. Unlike her little brother, she looked basically the same as all these other victims.

Not having any campers as her specific responsibility meant breakfast was the perfect time for her to slip away, vanishing into the trees and away from the slow procession to the showers. She moved cautiously at first, until she was far enough from the busy parts of camp that no one would be looking for her. Then she tried to run—only to trip on her face, and slide along the dirty gravel.

Well that was unpleasant. She rose unsteadily, taking things more slowly after that. So my instincts about how to run are all wrong. I’ll have to remember that.

Her brother’s tent was on the north side of camp, about as far up the mountain as anyone could be. That meant there were few others wandering up here. The few she did see barely gave her a second glance. How many were campers trying to get away from the claustrophobia of such a large group? How many were counselors off on their own private missions?

Amie didn’t stop to ask a single one of them.

She didn’t expect to find the tent occupied, not with how awful her own night had gone. Wes had actual insomnia, so surely this transformation would be doing him no favors.

She heard him snoring through the canvas before she even reached it. Lucky bastard.

She didn’t want to wake him, not if he was getting the rest she was denied. But he had to know what was happening. She stopped outside his tent, then rapped on the metal pole with one of her new, stupid hooves. “Wes. Wes, we need to talk.”

It took her a few tries to get him to stop snoring. He squeaked, shifted around inside the tent, then groaned. “Amie?”

“Are you decent in there?” Her eyes darted back and forth, scanning for observers. “Sun is coming up. You need to know what happened.”

It was only a distant line over the horizon, bright orange spreading slowly over the mountains. For the first time in her life, Amie couldn’t appreciate the beauty. She was much too agitated.

“Of course I’m not,” he said, exasperated. “Clothes don’t fit right anymore, remember?”

“Right.” The tent wasn’t tied shut, the flaps just overlapped in front of her. She pushed them open with her nose, then slipped inside.

The tent had fallen into clear disorder since her last visit. His carefully-packed belongings were now scattered on the floor, clothing and snacks and camping supplies spread with no particular order.

Being smaller meant that her brother still fit in his sleeping bag. He sat up in the cot, looking as bleary-eyed as anyone could. The tiredness was almost infectious. But why hadn’t that worked on any of the other campers? From their complaining, Amie guessed that few had managed to sleep. “You were gone all night,” he said. “I assume that means something good. Or something bad.”

“Both.” She explained everything in a rush, what little there was to say. “So nobody knows what is going on. Mr. Albrecht is keeping everyone calm, for now. But I don’t know how long anyone will listen. Right now it seems like he has a plan, but it’s a lie. There’s no cell service, no satellite, no phone lines. We’re completely isolated up here.”

He nodded grimly. “Pass me that big plastic bag.”

She looked down, then rolled her eyes. Or tried to, anyway—her eyes didn’t work the same way. If she wanted to focus on something, it was just an effort of concentration. She didn’t feel her eyes move, or that any specific part of her eyes was more sensitive than the others. Weird bug stuff. “You’re not supposed to have food in your tent.”

She took it in her mouth, lifting it up onto the cot beside him. The bag was full to bursting with snacks. Amie set the bag down, then went on, ignoring Wes as he fussed with it. “The plan is still to ask for help. Once the sun is up, they’re going to try to drive one of the jeeps out there. They’re been working all night to get the pedals usable at our size.”

“I’m sure the rest of the world is excited to make friends with the horrible bug monsters.” He managed to get the bag open, dumping its contents of oversized granola bars, packs of beef jerky, and fruit snacks onto the cot in front of him. “You want any of this?”

“Nah.” She waved him off without even thinking. “I’m not hungry. But there’s one other thing you need to know. Wesley, I don’t know how else to say this, but you’re… different. I didn’t see a single other camper who looked like you, or any of the staff.”

He gave up fighting with a trail bar and just put it in his mouth, tearing the wrapper off with sharp teeth. He ate in ravenous bites, practically swallowing the huge thing before her eyes. The smell coming from that thing, how could he stand it? “Is that a bad thing? We’re all freaks, who cares what flavor.”

“No, but…” Her wings opened, buzzing nervously. She recognized the sensation now, along with the slight lift she felt when it happened. Or maybe she was just imagining that part, since a creature with wings ought to fly. “We’re all the same freaks. Everyone in camp is a black bug like me. Not identical—there are subtle differences. I think with some practice I could identify people from the way they look. But you—you’re going to stand out the instant you leave this tent.”

“That’s weird.” He pawed thoughtfully at the bed in front of him, before selecting another trail-bar from the pile and tearing that one open too. “Wonder why. I would think it came from being out on my own, but I was with you during the storm. I bet dozens of other campers were out too.”

She nodded. “I covered for you with your counselor, said you were feeling sick and that I’d check on you. You might be able to lay low for a while before they notice. They’re still figuring out the damage right now—the lower part of camp wasn’t included, it looks like, so we don’t have the lake or some of the cabins down that way. Sounded like a few campers ran off into the woods after the storm, too. They’re going to send out a few of us to track them down, including me.”

“If anyone can find them, it’s you,” he said, his mouth full of dried granola bar. “You think we’re gonna wake up from this nightmare anytime soon?”

The smell was so awful she actually retreated, spreading both her wings. Her fins flared out too, as though subconsciously making herself bigger compared to something so repulsive. “You sure about eating that? Smells like it went completely rotten when we crossed over.”

He finished chewing, waving her off. “Tastes fine to me. Maybe black bugs don’t like granola.”

She hadn’t even considered that possibility. They’d both transformed, so why should they have the same preferences? “Oh, one more thing. Give me your phone. There’s a kid in one of my groups, Rick—he can install something on them, so they talk to each other without a tower. I’ll bring it back to you.”

He gestured to one particular spot in the pile. “Right there. Not sure how we’re supposed to use phones without any fingers.”

“Very carefully,” was her only answer. The real one was even grosser than the way humans usually used them. How many times had she taken hers to the bathroom, and now she had to put it in her mouth?

She stole a little pouch from his stash, a fanny-pack the other students had mocked him for wearing. It was the perfect size to stash a phone, and clip over her shoulders without covering the wings.

Before she could make it out of the tent, Wes rolled out of bed, then caught her by the shoulder. “You sure you want to go out there alone, Amie? You lost as much as I did. No Mom, no Dad, no… human.” He laughed, she didn’t.

She felt the tears coming before they arrived. She shouldn’t let him see, not with how much he would be counting on her. But even if they were both hideous monsters, he was still her brother.

She embraced him, her whole body shaking with strangled sobs. Her body wasn’t made for it, and the sound that came out instead was another reminder of how wrong she was. A high trilling sound, like a dinosaur sound effect from one of the Jurassic Park movies.

“I’m sorry I brought you along this year, kid,” she stammered. “You should be at home right now, planting flowers or… whatever you do in that garden. Spending time with your nerd friends. You should be at home with Mom and Dad.”

He held her, as awkwardly as any sibling hug could be. “Maybe. But then you’d be up here alone. I couldn’t live with that either.”

“You wouldn’t know.” But arguing was silly. After a few seconds she let go, breathing in sharply. She wiped her eyes, but felt no moisture. She couldn’t cry.

She felt better anyway, far more than any night’s sleep. So many of the other campers, almost everyone here, had to face this alone. Not her. “I’ll mention you to the nurse while I’m out there. She’ll probably want to look at you. But you being different might be the key to getting out of this. Maybe you’ve got the human secret in there somewhere.”

He giggled. “If I figure out what that secret is, I’ll let you know. But if it’s all the same…” He yawned, wings opening in time with his mouth. “I’m going back to bed. Get me if anything crazy happens.”

Something crazy was waiting for her just outside the tent. The sun was up high enough to light the mountains with brilliant orange, spreading from their peak to all nearby. The view wasn’t as good as from Lookout Point. She wouldn’t be able to see the valley, even if she wanted to.

But she could see some things, including a mountain standing before them instead of a valley. Adventure Camp wasn’t on the edge of the range anymore, but right in the middle.

If she squinted hard enough, or at least deluded herself into imagining she was squinting, she could just make out something two peaks away. A village of houses nestled into the rock, with the trees felled all around it. Smoke rose from it in little lines, and figures moved about between squat stone houses.

At least they weren’t alone.

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