My entire world narrows to the five square inches of the Mercury app’s screen space. This is not an app I have been able to open before. These are not words I have typed. Someone is there.
We are not alone.
The cursor in the lower block is blinking. Its flash is impatient. Beckoning.
“Hello,” I type. “I am here.” I hit enter, and the words appear in red in the upper block, just below “Hello? Anyone is there?” I wait. Nothing.
I open the web browser and run some of the usual searches, but I can’t focus. I keep coming back to Mercury, checking for new words. Finally I close the app, choking down my fear that it’ll stay dormant once I click that little x in the corner, and reopen it. I hope (and there’s that word again) that this may refresh the app, that there will be a new message waiting, but although Mercury blessedly reappears, there’s nothing new. Just “Hello? Anyone is there?”, followed by my “Hello. I am here.”
“Who are you?” I type. Unable to restrain myself, I add “Please write back.”
There is tumult along the wall. Onochie yells in his deep voice. He’s kenned movement at the edge of lanternlight and heard a rustling in the brush. All those not on duty take their weapons to hand join those on the wall. I go too. Even in my somewhat unencumbered status, I still hold to the rule of all who live within the wall. When they come, we stand. I am about fifteen meters down from Onochie, with Isioma and Ejikeme. Eji is a sour dullard, but he has his grandfather’s rifle so I am glad to be with him. Isioma is only thirteen, just old enough to stand the wall. Her stance is all tension and fear. I wish she would relax, so I whisper to her “It’s okay. They can’t climb up. Too tall for them. Probably just a wanderer, looking for prey.” She nods tersely but doesn’t respond, her eyes searching the black beyond the guttering light. “They almost never attack, you know,” I add. “Not unless they’re starving or mad. They prefer to catch us outside, alone or in small groups.”
I wince when I see her shoulders rise. The wrong words. I’m better with the laptop than I am with people. Her father and uncle were lost five years ago, scavenging beyond the wall. I open my mouth to try a different tack, but things get exponentially worse because the scorpion makes me a liar and charges the wall, coming out of the blackness directly in front of us, scuttling unbelievably fast on four limbs, its two pincers snapping with the sound of dry branches breaking.
I’ve studied real scorpions, the arachnid type. We have some of them here. They look a little scary, but are small and easy to avoid.
This creature, the scorpion we fear, doesn’t look exactly like the arachnid—the legs are off by number and placement, and the stinger is longer and more whip-like. But it looks enough like one that the name stuck, back in the early days. The real difference, and I think (this is part of my theory) why we fear them so much, even beyond their habit of killing us, is the face. It’s their physical characteristic that still looks the most human. Two forward facing eyes, though bulbous and multifaceted. A prominent, bladed nose. High cheekbones marked by small plates of chitin, and a leather-lipped mouth—broad but still undeniably human-looking, with rows of teeth that are almost like ours, if slightly too long and far too sharp.
Isioma screams and Ejikeme bellows, shouldering the rifle. He’s too slow. The scorpion hits the wall with a sound like thunder, and I feel the stout wood thrum beneath our feet. I never leave the safety of the walls, but I’ve heard the tales of those who do, and some claim to have seen scorpions as big as one of the old automobiles, but I never believed them. Exaggerations, no doubt, intended to impress.
I was wrong. This scorpion is huge, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Easily as big as a motorcar. It slides back from the wall, momentarily stymied.
Eji finally fires the rifle, but he hasn’t taken time to aim properly. A spark flashes on the thick plate of the scorpion’s back and the precious bullet whines into the night. I hiss in annoyance and shout above the ringing in my ears “The face, the face!” Eji grunts in response and aims again, but by then the beast has crashed into the wall again, this time moving slower and balancing itself as it pushes upward, rising on its legs, its midarms and pincers scrabbling against the wood.
Eji leans out, trying to get a better shot. The scorpion’s tail lashes up, and I can see it’s going to strike him right in the face. Isioma crashes into me, pushing me down around Eji’s feet and I end up on my back, looking up. Her face is a rictus of fear, but she swings her machete, the thin muscles of her arms tensing like wet rope. The blade strikes the tail just below the base of the stinger’s bulb. It knocks the strike aside before it hits home, half severing the tail.
A hiss from the other side of the wall, a sound like steam escaping from a can of old food thrown into fire, only infinitely louder. There’s a scrabbling thud as the scorpion slides down the wall. Isioma grabs my forearm and I clamber unsteadily to my feet.
“Well done girl,” Eji mutters, “though if you’d swung harder you might have severed the stinger altogether.” Typical.
Isioma smiles under the sweat and fear. The scorpion backs toward the dark brush on the edge of our light, and for a moment I think it’s going to turn wounded tail and scuttle off into the dark. But it pauses and turns its face (its too-close-to-human abomination of a face!) to the three of us. It cocks that face slightly to the side, as far as it can with no neck. It reminds me of a dog, trying to understand how to reach a piece of chicken on the shelf of the food house. But its eyes flash, and there’s something beyond hunger, beyond low cunning. It charges, and several things happen almost at once.
Eji fires again, and this time mostly hits the mark. The scorpion staggers at the bullet crashes into its face, and I see a blossom of dark ichor and chunks of armor fountain outward from its cheek. It’s an off-center strike, not a killing blow, but it’s a critical hit. The scorpion stumbles to the left, skittering sideways and bracing itself with its front pincers. Onochie comes out of nowhere, the biggest and strongest of us, his shoulders bunched and corded as he thrusts with his long spear. The tip is fashioned from a scorpion’s stinger, and it finds the gap in the beast’s armor just behind its midleg. Onochie drives it home with a hoarse cry that turns into a shout when the spear disappears halfway up the shaft into the scorpion’s guts. Onochie dances back with incredible grace for a man his size as the scorpion’s tail whips wildly in its death throes.
Ejikeme grunts in satisfaction and leans his rifle against the top of the wall. Isioma gasps. I just stare, watching until it’s dead and still. The humped body is half-limned with our flickering light, half-shadowed by the darkness of the wilderness.
Tomorrow they will butcher the carcass. The meat is tough and dry. Some believe it’s poison and consuming it leads to taint, causing scorpion children to be born where otherwise a normal baby might have been if not for the contamination. That much I do not believe, and I can find no evidence for it. But the armor is useful for strengthening the walls and splitting into smaller pieces for the scavengers and guards to wear. The stinger would go to Onochie, to tip a new spear.
I stagger to my pallet and sweat through nightmares about the beast’s face. Its eyes and how it stared at us and the wall, like a problem to be solved.
I don’t remember to check the acer.