Here is my entry for the June 2021 WEP Challenge, Great Wave. Neville, a Space Fleet Academy cadet, is serving on the military freighter Mariposa, which carries thousands of refugees from their destroyed colony planet to their new home, the planet Simel. Neville’s duty is being the captain’s liaison with the passengers. I wrote about Neville’s previous adventures here:
Neville was on the bridge for his daily debriefing with the captain when he detected a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. He spun around. And stared in stupefaction at a great wave of pink … insects? Mice? The tiny creatures – hundreds of them – flowed like a tide from the navigator’s station up the wall, disappearing into the ventilation shaft above the pilot’s chair. The last one lagged behind, sick or lame, before it too escaped into the shaft.
“I think they did something bad,” Sarni, the navigator, said faintly. “What are those things? I only turned away for one moment, and now my holo screen is blinking. There should be a star map there, but it is just blinking.” Her voice rose to a screech. “Where is my star map? I need to lay a course.”
“Tergio!” Captain Moss bellowed into the intercom for the chief engineer. “Report to the bridge. Find her star map.” Then she glared at Neville. “Cadet! Find those things and destroy them. I don’t allow … pests on my ship.”
“Destroy how?” Neville asked helplessly. “What are they?”
“Find out what they are, where they came from, one of the passengers, no doubt, and kill them,” she yelled. “It’s your job. We can’t have such pestilence on my ship, especially if they eat star maps.” Then she gulped, her cheeks turned pink, almost the same color as the fleeing bugs had been, and she winced. Much calmer, she said: “They probably did something to Sarni’s com-link. They’re a menace if they could do that. Find them, research them, deal with them. I want them off the Mariposa before they damage any more equipment. That’s your priority, cadet.”
“Yes, captain.” Neville swallowed his useless objections.
He collided with Tergio, the chief engineer, as he fled the bridge. Now what? he wondered, stomping towards the passenger holds. He couldn’t ask every passenger in the seven holds about those beetles, could he? Over nine thousand refugees had boarded the Mariposa for this trip to Simel. One of them had obviously smuggled aboard something he shouldn’t have. And then those stowaways escaped. And the Mariposa was a three-kilometer long freighter with tons of old equipment stored everywhere. Argh!
As it happened, he didn’t have to search at all. A short spare man with a mane of auburn hair assaulted him as soon as he crossed to the B section.
“You’re the liaison, aren’t you?” the man demanded with obvious irritation. “Norman or Nathan?”
“Neville,” Neville said. “Yes, I am. Do you have a problem?”
“Yes. You do too. I had a crate of my research arthropods, but someone pried open the lid while I was in the mess hall. They escaped. You need to find them.”
Neville stared. “Pink things?” he murmured. “Like a cross between a bug and a mouse?”
“Yes, yes! Did you see them?”
“Yeah. They just damaged the navigator’s station on the bridge.” Neville struggled to suppress his hysterical laughter. “Instead of displaying her star map, her holo vid screen now blinks. We can’t navigate. The captain ordered me to find and destroy your critters. What are they, anyway?”
“No!” the man cried. “You can’t destroy them. They are my future on Simel. They are priceless.”
“The captain’s orders.” Neville shrugged. “You should’ve had a better lock on that crate of yours.”
“I’ll talk to the captain myself,” the man declared. “I’m Professor Berum. I was the top entomologist on the planet. Lead me to her.”
Neville complied. The entire bridge listened in breathless fascination to the explosive argument between Captain Moss and Professor Berum. At first, the captain was adamant, but in the end, after much pleading and some passionate insults on Berum’s part, she relented and agreed to stay her execution order, if the scientist helped Neville recapture the beasties. Immediately.
Sarni, the navigator, still muttered mutinously, as Berum and Neville left the bridge.
“They are dusters,” Berum explained. “A household might have a family of them, no more than twenty, and they would take care of all the dust, dirt, and dead hair in a house. No need ever to vacuum or dust or even wash the floor.”
Neville, who had often been on cleaning duty at the Academy, grunted an affirmative. “But why pink?”
“To be instantly visible,” Berum said. “Pink is a color rarely used on furniture or walls or floors. I researched.”
“How do we catch them? What would attract them?”
“Chocolate. I researched that too. It’s one of those universal food staples people brought with them to every human colony in space. They grow cocoa beans everywhere.”
Neville shouted a short laugh. “So we’ll just get a couple of chocolate bars from the mess and go around waving them? Come, dear bugs, here is your treat!”
“We-e-ell,” Berum said weakly.
They did get chocolates from the mess. Optimistically, Neville installed Berum’s empty crate – the bugs’ abandoned home – on a small float loader to trundle with them, and they started their sweep of the ship. While they walked, Berum told Neville that his millipedes were genetic constructs, created and patented by him. They usually avoided people and worked best in an empty space. “When the owners are at work,” Berum clarified.
It took all day. “I think my dusters want to get to the passenger holds,” Berum speculated. “Lots of dust and dirt for them there, but too many people. They wouldn’t do it.”
Neville was more concerned about the warp drive, but to his relief, they didn’t find any pink varmint there. Eventually, they arrived in engineering, the section Neville avoided all day. By now, even he was tired, and the much-older Berum visibly sagged.
“You!” Tergio snarled. “I have a nasty surprise for your creepy-crawlies, Mister. A perimo pulse. As soon as I finish this pulse emitter.” He lovingly tapped an unfinished gismo on his workbench. “Tomorrow morning at the latest. That would be it for the bugs on the Mariposa. Kaput! Hah!”
“We came to check your section.” Neville shook his head in disapproval. Nothing could be gained by frightening the old scholar.
“Is it chocolate?” Tergio demanded. “For me?” He brightened and stretched his hand for the bar in Neville’s grip. “I love chocolate.”
“It’s for Berum’s bugs.” Neville danced out of reach of Tergio’s fingers.
“Come on!” Tergio growled.
Then a pink wave hit the floor, coming from all directions and flowing towards Neville and Berum. And their chocolates.
“Lovely,” said Neville, watching the bugs scurrying into their crate and forming pink mounds around several chocolate bars inside.
“Gross!” said Tergio.
“My dusters!” Berum cried happily.