Tickle Swarm

An excerpt from my novel, Leech Girl Lives, coming soon from Spaceboy Books. This excerpt was first published in Spain-based Underbrain Magazine in Spanish translation and English.

Art Credit: Bouman

Margo and Jasper were celebrating. They each probably had drunk a whole bottle of wine. They were leaving a small gallery in the Sculpture District. They were going to get something to eat. Their cyborg helpers followed several paces behind.

Jasper had just finished his medical exams. In less than a week, he would officially be a licensed physician. He would be the youngest surgeon in the Bodily Safety Department.

With their arms over one another’s shoulders, Margo and Jasper ambled through the cluttered streets between the gaudy facades of buildings in the Sculpture District, toward the more utilitarian structures of the Culinary District. Playfully they argued over which restaurant they would go to. Jasper wanted pasta. Margo wanted steak.

Suddenly the cyborgs stopped. Together they started blaring out a shrill, barking alarm. A Danger Alert. Like everyone else out on the streets, Margo and Jasper stopped what they were doing and turned to their cyborgs’ screen-faces. The screens pulsed yellow and red with the alarm until an unsmiling woman wearing the blue and black striped uniform of a Community Safety officer appeared.

The officer said a five-year-old boy was missing. A breach in the Bublinaplex dome had been discovered near where the child had last been seen. The breach was near where the Sculpture District and the Culinary District met. Citizens of the Bublinaplex were advised to avoid the area and to keep a close eye on children and the elderly. Anyone in either district was advised to remain indoors until the breach was closed and any threat isolated. The officer also said it was unknown whether the boy merely had wandered through the gap in the dome or if something from outside had found its way inside the dome and dragged the child out. The Pest Control Department, the officer assured viewers, had been deployed.

“Damn lobopods,” cursed Jasper. Any time there was some risk of someone being attacked by something from outside the dome, Jasper immediately expected the worst.

But it was not unheard of for a lobopod to drag a child away through a breach in the dome. Because of his medical training, Jasper knew what a lobopod could do to a person. Their bites made wounds he hoped he’d never see again but knew he would.

“You don’t know it was a lobopod,” said Margo. “You don’t know the kid isn’t just lost.”

Jasper walked quickly ahead of Margo and changed direction. His cyborg trailed behind. Margo jogged to catch up. “What are you doing?” she said.

“I’ve been trained to take care of a lobopod bite,” he said. “I have a responsibility.”

Margo didn’t argue.

On the inside, the edge of the dome was a flat, empty space and the ground was carpeted with artificial turf. When they found the breach they were surprised to see their old friend Thorsten standing beside it, wearing the green and black striped uniform of a Pest Control officer. Beside him, salty mist and the wet stench of acrid rot seeped through the jagged, triangular opening. A few feet away, on the opposite side of the crack, stood Thorsten’s cyborg.

Margo no longer saw Thorsten as often as she did before she started seeing Jasper. The reunion at the edge of the dome was awkward. “Oh, hi,” said Thorsten, looking up from his sketch pad. He was doodling while he was supposed to be guarding the breach.

Margo wasn’t surprised by his divided attention, but Jasper was outraged. “What are you doing? Where’s your weapon?” demanded Jasper. “Have they found the boy?”

“Weapon’s right here,” Thorsten mumbled, raising the low-voltage electric prod — what Pest Control officers use to zap anything that might try to enter the dome — that hung from his hip. He didn’t meet Jasper’s eyes. “Boy’s still lost.”

“Is there a search party out there?”

“No.”

“Is one on the way?”

“Not sure.”

Margo bit her lip. She knew Thorsten cared about saving the boy, but he was just doing his job. Standing guard by the breach, making sure nothing came out and no one went in, was his job. He could doodle while doing that. Anyone could. The problem was that Thorsten didn’t make any effort when he spoke to Jasper to sound like he cared. And this, Margo knew, would infuriate Jasper.

“I can’t believe this,” Jasper snapped. He looked at Margo. “Wait here,” he said, then dashed off. His cyborg followed close behind.

Margo and Thorsten stood there quietly for a few minutes. Thorsten’s attention returned to his sketch pad. “What are you drawing?” Margo asked. Thorsten showed her. In the picture were a couple of characters Margo guessed were supposed to be superheroes because they wore capes. One was a guy in karate pants with anatomically incorrect bulging muscles and one was a woman with weirdly large boobs and almost no clothes. The superheroes were punching a thing that could have been half dragon, half bear. “Cool,” Margo said, unconvincingly. She’d forgotten how bad Thorsten’s art was.

Margo soon asked her cyborg, “Where is Jasper?” A map of their immediate surroundings appeared on the cyborg’s screen-face, and a blinking black dot indicated Jasper’s cyborg was inside a small sculpture gallery they’d passed on the way.

After several minutes longer standing there with Thorsten and not saying anything, Margo noticed something moving on the ground outside the breach. She tapped Thorsten’s shoulder to get his attention. Then he saw it too. A baby tardigrade, the size of a loaf of bread, was poking its pointy head through the opening. Thorsten knelt down and zapped it with his prod. The little tardigrade squealed and waddled away.

“Poor little guy,” said Margo.

“Nothing in, nothing out,” said Thorsten. He gave Margo a blank look, replaced the prod in its holster, then resumed doodling.

Jasper returned almost an hour later. A posse of five hard-faced men arrived with him. Their cyborgs followed after them. The men carried shiny, oversized weapons, swords and scimitars and axes, all with ornamental serrations and rows of spikes.

Margo recognized Ulrich Van Gogh standing beside Jasper. It was relatively well known that Ulrich was a maker of illicit weapons. He curated a small gallery, the location where Jasper had disappeared to. Through Ulrich’s dense blond beard, his expression was unknowable. Margo supposed he must have been relishing this opportunity to bring out the weapons he’d made and maybe even use them.

A loophole enabled Ulrich to get away with forging the deadly blades despite the rules against unsafe art. The rules simply forbid him from publicly displaying his creations. So he made them and kept them in a cache in his cellar. Occasionally he gave them as private gifts to his neighbors. Displaying the weapons was never Ulrich’s intention. He considered his weapons, and the weapons he made for his neighbors, a more trustworthy line of defense than what the Pest Control Department provided.

Jasper’s hand clutched the hilt of the dagger at his hip. “Has anyone arrived to search for the boy?”

Thorsten looked up from his sketch pad. “Not yet.”

“Then step aside.” Jasper glanced at Margo. Margo thought she saw him seeking her eyes for approval. He found only Margo’s frown. She glanced anxiously at their weapons. She was a safety inspector. She didn’t like this.

“I can’t let you go out there,” said Thorsten. He sounded like someone confessing a personal shortcoming more than a guard imposing his authority. He shuffled sideways to stand in front of the opening.

“Let us pass,” growled Ulrich from behind Jasper, “or the boy’s blood is on your hands.”

“That’s not how it works,” pleaded Thorsten. “You don’t even know he’s out there.”

“We know nobody is looking,” said Jasper. “And you, a Pest Control officer, know better than anyone what kinds of things he’s likely to meet out there. You know for every minute we wait, the odds in favor of that boy’s survival plummet. And here I am, a physician, ready to find him and give him whatever medical attention he needs. And here we are,” he said with a gesture to the others with the blade in his hand, “six strong citizens willing to risk going out there to make sure the boy is safe. The risk is ours.” Jasper stepped forward. His face was uncomfortably close to Thorsten’s. “What do you risk?” He asked, punctuating “you” with a poke of his finger in Thorsten’s chest. “We’re not asking you to go out and look with us. All we’re asking is for you to step aside. Is that too much to ask? Let us save that boy before it’s too late.” Jasper shoved Thorsten, who lost balance and fell to the ground. The physical violence, mild as it was, shocked Margo.

The violence shocked Thorsten too. For a second his face knotted up like he would cry. Margo knew it wasn’t the first time he’d been pushed to the ground.

What Thorsten did next didn’t surprise her, but it did disappoint her.

“Fine,” he said, standing up and stepping aside from the breach. He brushed the dirt off his pants. “Have it your way. Go on out there. All of you.” It was Thorsten’s job to stop them from going out of the dome, Margo thought. She knew Jasper was making things difficult, but come on. Couldn’t Thorsten do this simple job?

Margo stepped forward. “Don’t go out there,” she said to Jasper. “You know he’s guarding this breach for a reason. Do you have any idea how dangerous it is out there?”

Jasper touched Margo’s hair and the side of her face. He made a face that she guessed was supposed to look reassuring but came off as condescending. “Don’t worry, babe. We’ll be alright,” he said. “We won’t go far.”

One by one, Jasper, his blade-wielding posse, and their cyborg helpers crouched down and crawled through the crack in the dome. Spores and filth from the Fungus Wasteland coated the dome’s exterior, making its supposedly transparent surface mostly opaque. From the inside looking out, the search party was impossible to see.

Margo and Thorsten waited together for the search party to return. Thorsten stared at the ground. Margo used her cyborg to search for updated information about the missing boy. She found nothing new or helpful. She also tried to pinpoint the location of Jasper’s cyborg, but the tracking function didn’t work outside of the dome. Margo and Thorsten didn’t speak.

Something like two hours later, Jasper returned. He was covered in blood. He was breathing hard, ragged breaths and speaking too rapidly to understand. He was alone.

He was about to duck back inside through the breach when Thorsten’s cyborg stepped forward. It held him back with surprising strength. Jasper screamed. He tried scrabbling around the cyborg on his hands and knees, to no avail. It would not let him back inside the dome.

Thorsten frowned at the screaming man.

“Damnit Thorsten let him back in!” said Margo. “Let him back in right now!” Thorsten’s expression didn’t change. Jasper’s speech had dissolved into terrified sobs. Only fragments of sentences about what had happened to the others could be understood. Something about no trace of the child. Something about a tickle swarm.

Jasper fought Thorsten’s cyborg until he was exhausted. Thorsten said nothing and didn’t intervene. His cyborg’s job was to stop anything outside the dome from coming in. Apparently it was better at its job than he was at his. Margo pleaded with Thorsten to make his cyborg let Jasper back inside. It was the first time he’d refused to do what she wanted him to.

Three more Pest Control officers eventually arrived. They wore protective suits and face masks and they’d brought a quarantine bubble, a glass sphere on wheels that was filled with fungicide and chemicals to kill any tickle swarm mites Jasper might still unknowingly be carrying. They put him inside the glass sphere immediately after allowing him back through the breach.

Much later, when Jasper gave his official testimony, he said it had started when one of the search party members chuckled to himself after making an off-color joke. Tyler Kahlo was his name. Margo remembered his broad face and tiny nose. No one else had laughed. Minutes later, the joker started giggling, first quietly, then with more fervor and then, fully, hysterically. He was wiping tears from his eyes and having a hard time breathing.

Tyler fell on the ground. He clutched his stomach. He wiped blood from his eyes. The others stepped back but by the time they realized they’d stepped into a tickle swarm, it was too late. Thousands of bloodthirsty mites, each no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, were already clambering between toes, behind knees, under armpits and anywhere else they could crawl and elicit laughter, releasing the serotonin the creatures craved into the bloodstream of their victims.

The only explanation for Jasper’s escape was luck.

Once discovered, the desiccated bodies of the others were immersed in chlorine to destroy the microscopic eggs that would have been laid in their mouths, lungs, and intestines.

For defying Thorsten’s timid attempts to forbid the posse from leaving the dome, Jasper was found guilty of High Recklessness.

Thorsten was given a mild reprimand for allowing Jasper and Ulrich and the others to leave.

Weeks after the failed search, the missing boy’s body was found in a ceramics gallery at the bottom of an unusually large vase.

Margo meanwhile tried to keep up her normal working and crocheting routines as much as she could while Jasper faced banishment.

One day she was about to start a new project and she told her cyborg to bring her a swatch of red yarn from a peg on the wall. The cyborg picked up the yarn and then slipped on the cluttered, clothes-strewn floor of Margo’s bedroom. The fall broke its ankle. Embarrassed about the apparent lack of safety of her own bedroom, Margo told no one. She made a conscious effort to keep her bedroom floor a mess for fear of being asked why she’d started keeping it neat. Over the years, Cuthbert had repeatedly told Margo that the mess on the floor of her room was a disgrace. Jasper had never made any comments about it.

She convinced herself Jasper would eventually be released and she would soon be able to ask for his help with the cyborg’s ankle. He was never released. The cyborg’s ankle healed weird.

For more of Rick Claypool’s writing, visit rickclaypool.org.