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Nesting Habits of Enceladan Jade Beetles

The pink frost coating my face shield is, evidently, my own blood. The gas jetting from the pea-sized hole in my wrist spins me around, and for a panicked moment, I wonder if I have somehow been shot. I think I am screaming, but that would alert Station, and Ocampo is silent. Evidently, I am holding my breath, only wanting to scream, like the nightmare of being on the wrong side of the airlock.

Now the hissing has stopped and pain nails me to the ice. For a moment I am as frozen as everything else on this moon: the Jade Cliffs behind me, the glaciate-sea stretching slate-green to the horizon, Saturn’s rings pitched nauseatingly across the sky.

• • • •

Among mature jade beetles, Exo-coleoptera fodiens prasinus, males and females are visually distinguishable only by the striking dimorphism of their mandibles. Nest tunnels are excavated by female prasinus exclusively. Our investigation has shown that the leading edge of the female mandibles averages a width of only eight atoms, is comparable to amorphous fullerine in terms of tensile strength, and is backed by a bite force of up to fourteen thousand newtons.

• • • •

The specimen that chewed through my Terra-suit was female, then. My In-Situ Extremus class armor is designed to withstand micro-meteorites, the shrapnel blast of ice geysers, and the blunt force of a tumble down a mile-deep crevasse, but the beetle went through it like sponge cake. The suit tried to alert me, of course, but then, the suit alerts me every time I fart, and I was, moments ago, preoccupied with the delicate task of removing a specimen from her tunnel with forceps without damaging her. Their jaws may be sharper than a carbon scalpel, but the body of an egg-carrying prasinus is frustratingly easy to crush.

For perhaps two seconds, as the beetle made her way in, I ignored an alarm. I’ll never tell Amsel this. He says it’s the minor alerts that matter. Just last week, as we were lying in bed, he wouldn’t let me sleep until I promised to listen to my suit. But we’ve all been habituated to ignore alarms. It is the only way to get anything done. The well-intentioned “alarm-fatigue mitigation” patches only warmed the brittle buzzing into whale song and flutes, the alerts now voiced in a vaguely patronizing South African accent rather than the reproachful British schoolmarm.

Foreign Body Breach, Left Forearm. Armor Compromised. Pressure Event Emergent.

• • • •

To avoid being buffeted by thermal gusts, the nesting prasinus must grasp the exposed cliff face fiercely and tunnel into the jade as quickly as possible. The holes excavated by the beetles average two centimeters wide, one and a half meters deep, with a slight upward incline, terminating in a small chamber where the eggs are deposited on a bed of nutrient-rich spore dough. At this depth, the incubating eggs are protected from wind, reflected radiation, temperature swings, and precipitation. After laying up to three dozen eggs, female jade beetles swell, then expire in the tunnel, their frozen bodies plugging the hole, further protecting their offspring.

• • • •

I piss, setting off another alarm I still don’t really hear, because, even worse than the pain, is the realization that the beetle is still in there, a foreign body, the size and shape of a hab-grown soybean. I smear my face-shield clear with my good arm. I have a panicked impulse to dig the beetle out of my forearm with the forceps, but just as my suit seals the first hole with ferro-gel, there is a snap! and my arm is lifted by a second breach. I know, even as it happens, that the beetle has made her own way out the opposite side, ejected at a terrific speed. I piss again.

Alarms of different pitches overlap as another gel-patch stops the venting. I rotate my arm to see the exit wound. A bullet could not have made a cleaner hole. The pain is suddenly replaced by a numbing pressure and I sob with relief as I listen closely to the alerts that follow:

Pressure Event Critical. Emergency Compartmentalization Effected, Left Forearm.

Blood Loss Event Emergent. Emergency Cryo-cauterization Engaged, Ulnar, Radial Arteries.

Skeletal Injury Event Emergent. Left Radius and Ulna.

Report to Medical Immediately.

Just like that, my suit has amputated my left hand.

• • • •

The Jade Cliffs of Enceladus are comprised primarily of panguite olivine, the dust of which is crucial for the survival of sub-surface ice-worms, Exo-annelida Glaciephage, which metabolize the mineral as a form of antifreeze. Without the jade beetle’s nest excavations seeding the surface, the meter-long ice worms would not proliferate. As the sloughed skins and metabolic waste of the ice-worms is an important nutrient source for the liquid ocean below, the loss of this crucial feedstock would impact the entire Enceladan ecosystem. It is not an exaggeration to say that the amorous energy of the jade beetles sustains of the biology of the entire moon.

• • • •

Physical Trauma Event Emergent. Asmothene Administered.

Psychological Trauma Event Emergent. Terra-hope Administered. Stim-stat Administered.

Report to Medical Immediately.

I try to wiggle my fingers—but the gauntlet doesn’t move. A few garnet gems skitter on the ice. It doesn’t seem like enough blood for such a dramatic injury. I’m having a hard time believing this.

“Suit, please repeat the alert about compartmentalization.”

Pressure Event Critical. Emergency Compartmentalization Effected, Left Forearm.

If it had been a single entry wound, my suit would have gel-patched and sterile-bonded, sealing my suit and arm at the same time. I could have walked back to station a whole man. But because there is a secondary hole, exactly opposite the first, and because the damaged monitors make assessment of the limb unreliable, my suit has made the executive decision to cut my hand off. The ferro-fullerine fiber of the inner lining constricted above the breech, slicing through my arm and sealing the compromised area with the same foil-thin material.

At least the pain has been amputated as well. I’m still woozy from the beetle’s assault and grateful for the throbbing lightness the drugs offer. My hand has been walled off like the doomed chamber of a damaged submarine, the few sacrificed for the whole.

Whole. Hole.

All hands on deck.

The drugs are having an effect. I sit. Or maybe I fall onto my ass.

The ledge is wide and stable enough for me to work without rigging, but now I can feel the moon spinning, and there is a danger of stumbling toward a slope and dropping off the escarpment. So I stay put, trying to accept what has just happened, what a bug bite has cost me.

My mind turns toward Amsel, his tool belt hanging low on his slim hips. A geologist, he smashes his beloveds to powder and incinerates them with a portable spectrograph. Thinking of Amsel helps distract me from the hand, so I picture him eating his apples cores instead of throwing them out. I think of him, right this minute, mapping the ice, miles away but still on the same moon, with me. He is out of my league in more than a few ways, and I have managed to keep him enchanted.

“Why are your bugs called prasinus?” The memory of him tackling me, pretending to be outraged, brings a smile to my lips. “These are jade formations, not emerald.”

He will help me through this. Again and again, he has carried me through.

Ocampo coughs in my comm, making me flinch, “You are all lit up, bug man. What’s going on out there?”

It took her long enough. I don’t answer right away. Instead I examine my arm again. The gel-patches look like wads of calorie-gum shoved into the holes, harmless except for the slimmest slivers of blood around the rim. The suit’s arm is still attached, intact, but inside, I try to picture it: compartmentalized.

“Report,” Ocampo demands. “What just happened?”

My hand is there, just under the armor, entombed, already freeze-drying. The integrity of the suit, fingers, wrist, is hiding the truth. A sleight of hand. I try to wiggle my fingers and this sets off another burst of alerts.

Trans-dermal Terra-hope Administered, Second Dose. Report to Medical Immediately.

“Answer me, bug man. I know you’re awake.”

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” I say.

“I’m reading ‘broken arm.’ Did you fall? I got up to use the toilet and I came back to fucking Christmas lights.”

“My suit broke my arm. Compartmentalized.”

“Crevasse? Did you slip?”

“No, I’m on the surface, right where I’m pinged to be. A jade beetle chewed through my wrist,” I say. “Suit decided to cut its losses.”

There is a silence as Ocampo digests this. I listen to her suck popcorn kernels from her teeth.

“Well, shit, man . . . that’s tough.”

“Are you laughing?

“Did you hear me laugh?”

“I can hear you smiling,” I say.

“I am not. It’s just . . . this is a profoundly shitty moment for you is all. You have my respect right now. Seriously. I’m sending a rover.”

“I can walk back.”

“Like fuck. Do not move. Sit down. Stay awake. Describe what you’re seeing.”

“What I’m seeing . . .”

“Keep talking,” I hear her chair creak as she engages eight terminals at once. Ocampo wears basketball shorts and flip-flips every day. She’s never suited up, never left the station, and sometimes sleeps in her chair, lightly dusted with yeast-crisp crumbs, her braids tangled with her headset. She doesn’t know the first thing about biology, geology, or mineralogy. She doesn’t need to. I know she’s happy to have something interesting on her monitors right now. This is exactly what she signed on for.

We’re a crew of fifteen, the cheapest possible assessment team, tasked with establishing environmental impact and best practices for an anchor colony. In five years, if things go well, there could be an inflatable town where Station now sits, with habs and halls named after us, a small seed-city bustling with non-violent convicts, scientists, and their chipper, well-drilling robots.

Nothing in my report will come as a surprise: Impact of a human colony is relatively disastrous and wholly acceptable; colony will interrupt delicate chains of balance, immediately exterminating hyper-localized microbes and adversely affecting dozens of macro-species; cascading impacts will be largely unknown and unaddressed.

I know the keywords the board will look for: There are no sentients—on the surface at least—and no hostiles. And the jade beetle will continue to thrive as long as the cliffs remain unmolested. My report will guarantee their designation as a keystone species, preservation mandated. Our notes are supposed to be monastically neutral, but we all want a colony here. We want to matter.

This accident will trigger a review, though. Prasinus could be reclassified as a hostile. There are those on the board, from both the University and Terra corp, who would gladly terminate funding. Rather than founders, we might return as beaten prospectors.

“Ice,” I say.

“No shit. What does it look like? Paint me a picture, bug man.”

“The cliffs are crumbling, slowly, like an old castle. Saturn is rising, the color of a peach that’s already half-rotten.”

Ocampo sniffs. “Yeah, your suit dosed you with a bucket of Terra-hope. So that explains the poetry. Keep it up.”

“I mean . . . this relentless ice,” I say. “A fault of geysers in the distance, like a parade of ghosts marching toward the pole. And that sub-surface river of melt is just barely visible below . . . a blue vein.”

“That’s a quarter kilometer down. Not visible.”

“I can see it. Or maybe I can just feel it. A pulse. Like something buried alive. Oh my god. This can’t be happening.”

Asmothene Administered, Second Dose. Terra-hope Administered, Third Dose.

“Breathe,” Ocampo says. “Deep breaths through your nose and don’t think about the problem. I’m taking care of everything. Medical is already warmed up for you. You’ve earned a bath.” I have her entire attention. I am now a problem to troubleshoot, a system to keep within parameters.

I hear her take a deep draw on the straw of that bottle she keeps strapped to her chair. When complaints about sticky terminals and offensive music were anonymously escalated to Staffing, the response came almost immediately. Ocampo printed it out and taped it to the wall near her chair, with her favorite bits circled: Mahalia Ocampo’s record is untarnished . . . asset to the program . . . confirmation of the value of human agents . . . interpersonal issues to be resolved by mission community.

I have agreed to losing my hand, of course. In the drift of forms I signed, waiving my rights, and my decedent’s rights, to sue the University, Terra Corp, the Earth, or any institution ever again, I vaguely recall seeing language about ceding control of my body to the suit itself. My Terra-suit can act, in a surprising array of circumstances, as my legal guardian. But wouldn’t a truly intelligent guardian have looked at the gel-patches, seen that that they were holding, and tried to get me back to the station with my arm intact? Has it made a genuine decision, weighing the costs involved, or has it simply skittered down a bad-luck flow chart?

“It’s just my arm, isn’t it?” I ask Ocampo.

“You tell me.”

“I mean, my suit isn’t telling you something she isn’t telling me? Am I dying?”

“You are not dying. Your suit reports to you first. Your numbers are acceptable on my end. Do you have something to report?”

I wiggle my other hand, my toes. “How far out is Amsel?”

“Your man is . . . eighteen point two kilos south and in good condition. On his way back. I’m recalling his team.”

“Don’t.”

“Already done. They’ll be home for dinner. And your own evac rover is eighteen minutes away. Keep talking.”

“This is my last out-mission,” I say.

“Bullshit. Who will molest all those bugs if not you? We’ll get you patched.”

“One-handed?”

“They’ll fit you with a feedback paw,” Ocampo says, “Grow you a stemmy in no time.”

“On Earth they do that,” I correct her. “On Mars perhaps. You know we don’t have stem-cell labs out here. We’re lucky we can grow kale. What would the board rather pay for, rehabilitating, at great cost, a one-handed exo-entomologist who hasn’t published in five years or just replacing him with an unsullied post-doc—oh, please, my hand!”

Isn’t this the hand that coaxed Amsel awake, just two days ago, tugging him gently to attention, because I have learned his secrets and I know that even though he hates to be woken, once he starts panting he will roll me over, hungry and in a hurry? Didn’t this hand reach back to hold him in a little longer when he was done?

“You’re fine!” Ocampo shouts in my ear. “This is my problem now. Just turn everything over to me. I’ve got you.”

“The hand will freeze-dry,” I say. “Preserved in the gauntlet. I’m a good candidate for reattachment.”

“Damn right you are,” Ocampo says. But we both know that the physician will not attempt surgery here. Too risky. Too cosmetic. I will remain one-handed until our mission is complete, until all the studies have been completed, until our return to Mars. Four years, at least. I try not to think about it.

The first drone-surveyors, seeing the Jade Cliffs on the horizon, compared them to an emerald city, and though Amsel objects on a mineral basis, the comparison is fair. The light here is verdant. Even with my back to the cliffs, there is a bamboo-tinged charge to the air. I look at the albino horizon, and try to tell myself that I haven’t lost my boyfriend.

A brilliant spark of panic breaks through the sedating drugs and sets my heart on fire. I sputter and gasp, as if my helmet has failed.

Terra-hope Administered, Maximum Dosage.

Report to Medical Immediately.

“Don’t tell Amsel,” I hear myself beg.

“I haven’t. But they know something happened. He asked about you.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That you broke your arm.”

“Don’t patch him through. I’m not ready.”

“I didn’t offer to,” Ocampo says. “Your ride is eleven minutes out. Your only job right now is to sit and breathe. Everything is under control.”

Ocampo goes silent but leaves her mic open so I can hear the rain-patter of her keystrokes as she conjures a tempest of scheduling reversals and protocol interventions.

I look around for the beetle that did this. The snow has been kicked clear by my stumbling and the blood mist has tinted the nearby drifts, but there is no sign of my prasinus. I suddenly feel sorry for the poor girl. If her berry-soft body survived the jets of air, she probably fell fifteen meters off the escarpment to the scree below, injured, disoriented, too exhausted to make a second ascent. Easy prey for mites or mixomorph shrooms. All of those eggs, fertilized and waiting inside her.

Now I remember that the engagement rings are not hidden in a sock in my locker. They are both on the same finger. The ring finger of my left hand.

• • • •

Some have suggested that the power of the mandibles is a result of sexual selection. While mates are indeed attracted by the chewing sound resonating on the ice floes, our surveys indicate that egg incubation rates correlate directly with the depth of the nest tube. This points to a strong survival selection driving the efficacy of the mandibles.

• • • •

The rings are identical: solid loops of terrestrial brass with a fine vein of Enceladan jade, thin as a geologic era. Jewelry of any kind is forbidden in the Terra-suits. But I know that Tam wears her nose ring. And I have always worn the silver chain Amsel gave me for our fifth anniversary. It was Martian silver, cheaper that Terran, but as he explained, “My love for you is mined by drones, not slaves.” The rings were custom-forged before we shipped out, but I didn’t plan to propose until were on our way back to the inner system, when I’d all but cemented my professional status: research complete, report reviewed, professorship guaranteed. I’d be able to afford an apartment with room enough for two, not just in the orbital hamster-tubes but on a real colony. Mars maybe, or if the lottery was in our favor, even Earth. For once, Amsel would follow me. That was the plan.

But prasinus does not thrive in lab conditions, and pulling their delicate bodies out of the cliff side is akin to surgery, and . . . if I’m honest with myself, I don’t like how Amsel looks at Tam. So, I changed the plan. I was going to propose today. I was going to rendezvous with the returning geo-team, de-suit with them, and feign surprise at the rings on my own hand. I wanted to carry Amsel away with a grand gesture, make him feel like the princess for once. I was going to propose to my man, half naked, in front of everyone. In front of Tam.

But the rings are on the hand I must not think about—must not think of it as a corpse hand—both of them on the same ring finger. It had felt like bad luck to put them anywhere else.

I know Amsel will not flinch at my broken body. He’ll neglect his own duties to nurse me personally. He will say, as he did when I lost my sister and then my tenure, “Your trouble is my trouble.” Five years ago, Amsel had been exhausted and existential when he returned from the Kuiper to find me inconsolable on the Phobos orbital. I could tell he needed time to adjust to society, but how could he break up with me when my sister’s kidney stemmy failed? How could he ask for time apart after she died? So, Amsel will carry me through this darkness too.

But this time, I’m sure, it will confirm what he has not yet admitted to himself—that he is done with me. Resentment is the byproduct of burden. He is too good to abandon me after an accident like this, of course. He will stay near, sleep under my medical bed if he has to, and his love will continue to vent, invisibly, from a hairline seam without his noticing. One day, he will spoon some yogurt into my mouth, say, “I adore you,” look inside himself and realize that it isn’t true.

“Ocampo?”

“I am right here,” she says. “Your evac is eight minutes out. Talk to me. Tell me about your roaches.”

“You don’t care about prasinus,” I say.

“No, I do not. So bore me. What do you love about those bugs?”

My helmet amplified the sound of my weeping, wet and pathetic.

Terra-hope Administered, Dosage Exceeded.

“Did you just overdose me manually?” I am dizzy. Saturn’s rings are impossibly level. It’s the rest of the universe that is crooked.

“I just need you to keep your shit together for seven minutes.”

I sniff my tears back and allow myself to ask, “Do you like Tam?”

“I don’t like anyone.”

“Do you think Amsel likes her?”

“C’mon, man. This is why they shouldn’t send couples on assessment missions.”

“You said I should talk,” I say.

“About bugs!”

“He cheats. I know he does.”

“Bugs!”

“But is it cheating if I never told him he couldn’t?” I ask. “Amsel is a man open to possibility. It’s one of the reasons I love him. Tam is butch enough for him, with her shaved head and those tattoos of chisels on her collarbone.”

“Those are levels,” Ocampo corrects me. “Analog carpenter’s levels.”

“See? She’s compelling. Amsel is a sucker for engine grease on a sweaty shoulder. Tam talks with her mouth full, she laughs like a horse, swears like she’s dying, and she does that weird meditation every day. She’s gritty. Amsel has slept with women in the past, claims he loved them.”

Ocampo sighs and takes a long swig from her bottle, but she doesn’t interrupt me again.

“He first told me about it when we were living in a hamster-tube on Phobos Lagrange, both of us working as content sweeteners, touching up A.I. generated stories for the feeds, because neither of us had landed real jobs. This was what, almost eleven years ago? We were young and hungry, and in love, but that didn’t stop him from screwing a shuttle pilot. But he never lied about it. He waited to confess until a station-wide O2 austerity had incapacitated both of us. See how smooth he is? He knew there wasn’t enough air in the cabin for hysterics. The austerity lasted almost two days and everyone was obliged to lay down and sleep if they could. Standing up nearly made me puke. So I was in no condition to slap him, or even to demand details.”

“That’s smart,” Ocampo concedes.

“It’s calculated. I hated him for it. But, it granted me a certain amount of dignity. I let my tears fall, pooling in my ears, and he cried too, seeing how hurt I was. It was a very quiet, agonized, and . . . a horizontal crisis. I remember whispering, ‘You’ve uprooted my heart.’”

“The drugs wipe out your inhibitions, make you say everything you think, but you don’t need to tell—”

“—I made no ultimatums, demanded no restitution. What did I have to bargain with? I knew, even then, that if I wanted him, I couldn’t hold him too tightly. An occasional shuttle pilot. It’s not too high a price.”

“Long missions get weird,” Ocampo’s voice is as gentle as I have ever heard it. “Voices . . . smells get under your skin. You know what they say, ‘better to fuck your crew than to kill them.’ You can’t take it personally.”

“Listen to you!” I say. “Where has this therapist Ocampo been hiding?”

“Eat shit, one,” Ocampo says. “And two, I thought the bugs were harmless. They’re classified at zero threat. Was it defending its nest?”

“Probably just thought I was more cliff.” Though the ivory matte of my Terra-suit looks nothing like the glinting bluffs.

“Maybe she just chewed by instinct,” I say. “Turned her head toward the closest object and started in, horny to dig, horny to lay eggs, forgetting everything else, shoving the dust behind her to rain down on the ice sea, seeding this moon with life.”

“Your evac is four minutes out,” Ocampo says. “I want you to lie down and rest quietly for a min—”

“Tam and Amsel work together, what, six hours a day? That’s different than a shuttle ride isn’t it? I had that feeling, when I shook her hand at orientation, of meeting the future. And I’ve gone out of my way to be kind to her, wanting to be liked by someone Amsel likes. I shared my perishables, asked about her family, because I hoped she’d think twice about replacing me. And here’s the terrible part. I like her.”

“I feel you, okay?” Ocampo says. “Shit isn’t easy. But look southeast for me. See that gray plume under the leading edge of the rings? That’s your man headed home to station. He’ll arrive forty-two minutes after you. You’re in the shit right now, but you’ll feel better when you see him.”

I look and see what might be an ice-geyser and might be a mid-range Badger Scout-class Terra-rover kicking up powder as it avoids the spongy fields where ice-worms congregate for as-yet unknown reasons. The sensors do a good job of mapping traversable terrain. But then, until recent observations proved otherwise, we’d thought that jade beetles were harmless. That rover might fall through the ice before it reaches station.

I realize I’m taking out loud. “Another beetle could chew through my helmet before the evac reaches me.”

“I’m going to tell you something you’re not supposed to know,” Ocampo says, in the voice you’d use to keep a child from smearing shit on the wall. “Since we’re having a heart to goddamn heart.”

“Tell me.” I feel better than I should. It’s the cocktail of adrenaline and mission-approved psychotropics, but I’m wondering if I even wanted that hand. “I’ve been unburdened,” I say. “I’ve crawled out of a very narrow hole and am suddenly in the emerald light.”

“Are you listening?” Ocampo asks.

“Yes.” I try to focus on her voice.

“I have a protocol that can lock your suit. Seize you up like a statue. Every joint. I hear it’s a claustrophobic experience.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“You’re talking like someone who might be thinking of jumping off a cliff. If I hear you stand up, if your ping drifts in any direction, I’m going to lock your ass and use the rover arm to carry you home.”

“I’m not suicidal,” I say. “I’m a man in love. I even love the people my boyfriend loves. My report is about us: the importance of the minerals, the worms, the entire biome. It’s an argument that our passion is joined at a molecular and cosmic level. My bugginess and his rock-encrustedness together forever.”

“You’re stoned. Two minutes until you have visual on the rover.”

“I didn’t think they’ve fucked yet,” I say. “They’re never alone except on out-missions, and everyone knows where everyone else sleeps in station. But I know better than anyone what kind of intimacy is possible through a face-shield, what eye contact means when other sensations are deprived.”

Now I can really see his rover out there on the ice-sea. Amsel and Tam headed imperceptibly home. Really, it’s nothing more than a snow plume tethered to the surface by a tiny fleck. It looks too small to count on, too distant to trust. An eyelash on a face shield. Hard to believe that both of them fit inside that dot, Tam and Amsel, and smaller still, their hearts, and inside those hearts, invisible to me . . . what?

Oh, I have tortured myself, and now, with Terra-hope turning somersaults in my veins, I have the revolutionary thought that maybe I can let it go. If there is happiness to be had, let Amsel have it, that broad-shouldered, open-hearted bastard. How can he fit into the tunnels I dig?

And suddenly, my own evac rover jostles into view, crisis-orange, taking the precipitous course directly over the cliffs. Ocampo is in a hurry. Soon it will roll to a stop and open its bay, inviting me to lay myself down in its infallible care.

• • • •

Once hatched, the prasinus larvae chew easily through the brittle mother plug, their first meal. They exit the nest tunnel, dropping to the surface to begin foraging on the surface of the sea. Their exoskeletons harden quickly in the light. Little is known about this stage of the jade beetles’ life cycle, except that it is largely solitary and dangerous. Of the three hundred larvae which may emerge from a single nest, less than ten percent of the females return to dig their own burrows, having mated somewhere on the wind-scoured surface. It is not uncommon for jade beetles to lose several of their legs during their journey. The carapaces of the egg-carrying females soften as they near the Jade Cliffs. The swelling and dehydration which forms the protective plug would not be possible without this late-stage metamorphosis, but the soft-bellied prasinus is vulnerable to opportunistic predators such as the scag worm and pill mite. To protect the next generation, the prasinus mother discards her own defenses.

• • • •

“I’ve made a decision,” I announce.

“I do not advise making decisions while doped up on Terra-hope. You should be able to see the rover now. Can you see it?”

“This is a decision I made a long time ago. I’m just now realizing it. Lose a hand, grow a spine.”

“Side effects of Terra-hope include: impulsivity,” Ocampo reads from a menu, “. . . mistaken sense of wellbeing, feelings of untethered grandeur . . .”

I might write an account of this for the feeds. Human-authored nonfiction is still in demand. And my prasinus paper will be completed soon enough. I’ll have plenty of time to revise during quarantine; because the beetle pierced my skin, Amsel won’t be able to touch me for at least five days. It’s better that way. He will take it badly—but the poor man just doesn’t know how to stop being mine. I realize, with awe, that some part of me wants this. Compartmentalized. Separated. Free.

“Patch me to Amsel, please. Private line.”

“Bad idea,” Ocampo says. “You can tell him anything you want tonight. With a clear head. In person.”

“If I wait, I won’t have the courage.”

“Negative,” Ocampo says.

“I just lost a limb. Let me talk to my lover.”

“Christ!” I can almost hear Ocampo blush.

“Patch me in,” I say. “Some of this has got to be on my terms.”

I will keep the rings as a kind of engagement to myself, a reminder that no matter how bad it gets, some good portion of me remains intact.

Ocampo is silent, fuming, and manually bringing the rover the last fifty meters.

“Open a line or I will not board that evac.”

“I can pick you up with the arm,” Ocampo says with a weary voice that tells me she won’t humiliate me that way. She sighs and crunches popcorn kernels between her teeth. “Okay, bug man. You’ve got your private line.”

“Hello? Are you all right?” Amsel’s voice is its own drug. It starts the moon spinning again. A wasp-buzz alarm lets me know that my heart rate has spiked. I ignore the alarm.

Eli Brown

Eli Brown lives with his family in a California oak forest where the squirrels hide acorns in his garden.

His novel, Cinnamon and Gunpowder, about a cook kidnapped  by a female pirate, was a NPR Book Review Staff Pick and a finalist for the California Book Award.

A Yaddo fellow and featured reader at Litquake, Eli earned his MFA from Mills college. A bar in Texas has named a drink the “Cinnamon Gun Powder” in his honor.