ADAPTATION SERIES: Red Velvet
“Tevis, have you located Newell?”
“Who let him out?”
“No one. He’s part of Ops and has the overrides. But with our EVs in maintenance, he’s out there on foot–”
The pound of the colony commander’s fist on the table startled her; she had always thought of him as cool and calculated.
“What’s he doing out there? He knows we’re into the 220s of the year.”
“He sent a message he was going to see if he can get the beacon back online.”
“Get him on comm for me,” he growled through the clench of his jaw.
Tevis had anticipated this and pushed forward the PTT toggle on the console.
“CQ CQ calling CQ. This is A1DUP, Alpha-One-Delta-Uniform-Papa.” There was a faint hiss and crackle coming from the console speaker on her desk. She turned the volume up.
“Call again.” he said more calmly this time.
Tevis could see the vexing of muscles along his jawline and repeated the call signs. A second or two passed which seemed like an eternity.
“N2EEC N2EEC, this is AD2DB, Alpha-Delta-Two-Delta-Baker.” Relieved, Tevis let out a breath between her pursed lips.
The commander reached down and grabbed the call mic from the stand as Tevis pushed forward the PTT toggle once again.
“Newell, let’s not make this a rag chew. What the fuck-up are you doing out there?”
Tevis released the toggle.
“Trying to get the aerial back online, sir,” Newell said between breaths, “before the KapCo supply shuttle cruises past us for the second time. If we miss this window, sir, it will be another five days of rations.”
Tevis and the commander could hear Newell’s labored breaths as he trod through the soft sand with a heavy toolkit all of which was taking its toll on him.
“You know we’re in the 220s and what time of day it is. You had your orientation on the mites … you don’t want to be out there when they get to the surface–”
He snapped his fingers for Tevis to give him the conditions out there. “I am ordering you back here, immediately, Newell.”
Tevis brought up the ENV panel and swiveled it toward him. The temperature was up, and the frozen CO2 had already begun to evaporate. It was too late. He tilted his finger for Tevis to push forward the toggle.
“They’re out on the surface, aren’t they, Newell?”
“Yes they are, sir,” he responded, “but I’m double sealed. They aren’t getting in.”
The mites were bleeding to the surface to eat and mate. It has been 247 days since their last migration and the females velvet abdomens were flush with eggs waiting to be fertilized; the males purposeful in finding a host to carry their young. Newell had not been stationed here long enough to see this event before today, but the orientation videos he watched did not prepare him for what he saw now. When he reached the aerial, it looked as if someone had draped the antenna in red velvet. The thought of pushing away that many mites to locate the problem made his skin crawl. He dropped the toolkit to the sand, and the mites began to crawl onto it, the beacon seemed to be a magnet for them, and he was starting to think this was not such a good idea to be out here. His hero mentality had evaporated, and his idea of impressing Tevis seemed secondary at the moment.
“I’ve arrived,” he said through his helmet mic., his tone, regretful.
“What are you seeing, Newell?” The commander asked.
“A whole lot of mites, sir…” he answered.
“Get back here, Newell. We’ll spray you down, and you can survive in the chamber for 48 hours for quarantine and observation.”
“I’m already here, sir,” he said against his better judgment as he looked down at his chest and legs of his EMU suit swollen with clots of red mites that were crawling upwards toward his helmet. He swept his hand across the visor, smearing the mites on the Plexiglas, their viscous yellow insides spreading a swath across one eye, just enough to be bothersome like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He reached down to brush off the lid to the toolkit and flipped it open, the back of the lid crushing fistful of mites that set off a chemical wave through the colony, now agitated and swarming toward the disturbance.
“This is not going well,” Newell said through his mic.
Tevis wanted to grab the handset from the commander; she could hear the pulsing of blood in her ears at the rasp of Newell’s voice. She pushed forward the PTT button in anticipation.
“What’s happening, Newell?”
There was no immediate answer.
“Newell!” shouted the commander into the mic.
“I’m heading back, sir…” said Newell, the shout of the commander getting him to refocus.
“Good. We’ll be ready for you. When you reach the rim wait for further instruction.” Tevis released the toggle and she slumped into her chair with relief.
“Let me know when he’s in sight,” the commander said peering out the window and handing the handset to Tevis, then turning, he left without a word.
She waited until he left the room before toggling open the channel to Newell.
“Where are you, Irwin?” Tevis asked using his first name.
It was good to hear her voice, but he was beginning to feel he made a fool of himself.
“I’m still here, Tevis,” he said addressing her by her first name and disregarding her rank.
“I’ll be with you the entire way, Irwin. Hang in there. Our SAT will pick you up in another five minutes, and I will guide you in.”
“Thanks, Tevis.” He needed to focus on her voice and knew that any stray thoughts could open the door to panic. But It was getting difficult, the smear across his visor had changed, uneven, like a melt. As it was, he had to contort his head in the helmet to see below the distortion, and even that was no benefit for his non-dominant eye. He was covered in mites, but he knew not to brush them away this time, so he shook his head, which seemed to work for short periods of time before the visor was covered again. Fortunately, he could see below the distortion to his feet and follow the footsteps he had made getting here, occasionally shaking his head to clear his visor, but it was becoming more frequent, and he was starting to get dizzy from it.
“I have you on SAT, Irwin,” she said with a lift in her voice as she zoomed in on his coordinates, but froze at the site of the red mass surrounding him and pooling from the beacon tower. She let go of the toggle in time for him not to hear her gasp and could taste the bile in the back of her throat.
It made him feel better that at least she could see him. “Just keep me on track, Tevis… it’s getting hard to see my steps.”
“You got it, Irwin. You’re heading in the right direction.”
Although the mites were small, only a shirt button in size, the sheer number of them made his knees wobble from the added weight. Another shake of his head to clear his view and he almost fell over.
Tevis could hear his breathing becoming shallow and faster, and she knew panic might be setting in. “Slow down your breathing, Irwin. One step at a time, and breathe in deeper. I’m right here with you. We can do this.”
This was the longest conversation with Tevis since his arrival over fifty days ago when he attended her orientation briefing. He knew she was of Native American heritage and he tried to imagine her face right now, her rounded chin and full lips, her high cheekbones and narrow eyes framed by her raven black hair. He thought his status and lack of social skills would never get her full attention, but here he was, and he had her full attention. Don’t blow this he kept chanting to himself. Don’t blow this…
Tevis tried to keep him focused on her. “Where are you originally from, Irwin?” She asked while monitoring his progress.
“Ah… um… East Coast… New Jersey….” He replied and almost stopped to answer her.
“Keep your pace up, Irwin.” She said a bit more commanding. Maybe it was not a good idea to distract him like that. She knew he seemed to have a thing for her, his nervous glances when the crew was in the canteen together, the crack of his voice when they worked the same shift as he performed telemetry maintenance in and around the control center. She wanted his safe return.
He was in good shape, taking longer strides and keeping his breathing under control, but he thought he could smell the scent of burning plastic, his mask, so he picked up his pace, stepping on more and more of the mites pooling around him. Another shake of his head and it dizzied him, dropping him onto one leg where he felt the squish of mites on his knee and gloved palm. It repulsed him, and he sprang up and shook off the mites from his arm and could see the bright yellow splotches on his suit and glove.
“You okay, Irwin?” she asked with concern.
“Yeah… just got a little dizzy trying to clear my visor. I will remember to stop next time before I do that.”
Tevis continued to monitor his progress, thinking back of her time here. This marked her third cycle on J147b. She was one of the original team members remaining and knew what the mites could do to a person. Twenty days after landing here, she had almost lost her life from a bite. Fortunately, removing her leg before the infection spread saved her. What no one had known at the time was that had a female mite bitten her, it would have deposited thousands of eggs into her bloodstream. They knew very little of the mite’s life cycle, and with a reduced budget this year, they did not have the resources to get an exobiologist on site. All they knew was not to go out in the 220s during the mite’s yearly migration to the surface. Maybe if she had let Irwin know she was wearing prosthesis as a result of a bite, he wouldn’t have ventured out. But why would she, it’s not something you just come out and say to someone upon arrival, and she wanted to keep that part of herself, private.
What troubled her at the moment was the size of the mite field, visible from above. In the three cycles she has been stationed here, she has never seen this many. From the view on the SATcam, the soil had turned velvet red and her glance out the window at the crater rim above, confirm what she saw on the screen.
Newell was in sight now. “I can see the base, Tevis.”
She looked out the window and saw him standing along the rim in a wash of red spilling over the edge into the crater. She toggled the overhead to notify commander Ricklefs.
Moments later, Ricklefs arrived, he looked out the window and was disturbed by what he saw, the flow of red spilling into the crater toward them. He grabbed the mic.
“Newell… stay there!” He waved his palm for Tevis to toggle off the mic. “I can’t let him in. He will endanger all of us. You of all people should understand that, Captain?”
Tevis felt the knot tighten in her stomach. She knew he was right. There would be no way of separating him from the mass of mites. “Yes, sir.” She replied.
“Good. Do what you must. He turned and left, leaving Tevis to herself.
“Sir, where should I approach? Irwin asked.”
Tevis couldn’t bring herself to answer.
“Sir? Are you there? Commander? …. Captain?” His voice beginning to rattle.
Tevis toggled on the mic. “Irwin…” and he heard the death sentence in her tone.
“No… No… You can’t leave me out here!”
“We have no choice, Irwin,” and this time he heard a sharp inward sob. “We can’t open the doors for you. We have no way of killing them without killing you in the process. You will have to see if you can wait them out, then we can come out and get you.”
“That’s not true!” He shouted through his mic. “You can vacuum the hatch and kill them! Please… don’t leave me here.”
“You are not wearing a pressurized EMU, Irwin. And even if we left one in the hatch there would be no way for you to transfer into it without the mites getting in it with you. You need to wait them out.”
“I can’t, Tevis… I think my outer suit and visor have been compromised-– I don’t know how much longer it will hold up.” He began to panic and had been so focused on her voice he had not realized he was in total darkness from the mites covering his helmet. He shook his head, but couldn’t knock them clear, so he reached up to swipe the visor clean, and the weakened section ripped free, the mites pouring through the gaping hole.
Tevis could hear his screams being choked off in silence. She swiveled away from the window and began to dry heave, hearing only a hushed rumbling coming through the speakers. She lifted her head and glanced over hev shoulder, out the window And could see his clotted arms frantically attempt to remove his helmet before toppling into the crater. He started to slide down the face but was halted by a mass of red pushing back. And suddenly he was being passed up to the top of the rim like a mosh pit of fans raising one of their own until he disappeared beyond her view with the drape of red receding with him.
Tevis could feel the phantom burns in her limb and reached up onto the console to shut off the feed from the SATcam and mic. She stayed there with her hands clutched together and her head resting above her knees and under the shade of her dark hair until she no longer felt nauseous. Ten minutes had passed before Tevis took a deep breath and sat up. She pushed her hair behind her ears and wiped her eyes. Maybe it was time to leave this rock, she thought.
“Captain,” came a voice from behind.
Tevis turned to see the new arrival. His patchwork indicating he worked in the mining division.
“Commander Ricklefs granted my request to see you.”
“Come in, private.”
He stepped quickly and deliberately toward her and stood at attention. “I knew Newell, ma’am, ” he said? “We had arrived together on the same shuttle, and I heard what happened to him. We all did. He thought very highly of you, ma’am.” From his pocket, he pulled out a small sack and stretched out his hand. “Ma’am, this morning, Newell handed me this and told me that if anything were to happen to him, ma’am, I should give this to you,” he approached Tevis and placed the small sack upon the console desk and stepped back.
She sat staring at it, wondering why he would have ventured out knowing something might happen to him. The new arrival was stationary. “Thank you…” she said reading his tag… “Percy.” He turned on the balls of his feet and left.
She took a minute before picking up the sapphire blue bag, gently untying the knot at the top and sliding its contents onto the table. From within slipped an intricately carved scorpion, a gypsum blade and a note. How would he have known this? Then remembered a conversation she had in the canteen not long ago with Newell seated quietly at the end of the table, listening to her saying to the others that she had one cycle to go and couldn’t wait to get back to her home in Carefree, AZ, where the only thing she needed to worry about was a scorpion or two. She unfolded the note and read it, making her smile through tearful eyes:
“The scorpion was carved from the soft stone found along the rim of the crater, but you will notice there are no segmented lines engraved onto the abdomen or tail. For your remaining time here, carve a segment line every twenty days, starting from the head to the tail. Both your time remaining and the carvings should be met at the same time. Thank you for your kindness – Irwin.”
She picked up the gypsum blade and carved the first two lines into the abdomen and placed the contents back into the sack and sat staring out the window, thinking about Newell and being home.
“Image: “Red Velvet Mite” by Judy Gallagher is licensed under CC-BY 2.0. The image that was resized, cropped to fit required size.
I started on a triad of shorts, where the idea came from my studies in Ecology, specifically, from The Economy Of Nature by Robert Ricklefs on Species Adaptation.
According to Ricklefs, all species adaptation is driven by their encounter with a variety of environmental factors deriving from one of three sources: 1) Exposure to the Physical and Chemical; 2) Exposure to predators, parasites and prey; 3) And finally, exposure to individuals of the same species.
The first of my shorts addresses the Physical & Chemical aspects of adaptation as is titled, Red Velvet. My story is based upon the 1962 research of biologists Lloyd Tevis and Irwin Newell of their observations of the Giant Red Velvet mite of the Mojave Desert. The mites have quite an interesting life cycle, where they migrate to the surface once a year to eat, mate, and for their larvae to find a host. The story takes place on the exoplanet, J147b, where a new arrival (Newell), is trying to impress his female mentor (Tevis) and gets stranded during the yearly migration of red velvet mites to the surface. If you have any Arachnophobia tendencies, you may want to stop reading, here. This short may not be for you…. it will make your skin crawl….
As a writer, the part that really excites me is the etymology and origin of taxonomy. The genus and species of the Giant Red Velvet Mite (Dinothrombium pandorae) is the perfect alien for my story. Dino, is derived from the Greek word, deinos, meaning terrible and Thrombos, a lump or clot. This particular species is named after Pandora who was sent by Zeus to bring evil to the human race as a counterbalance of Prometheus, disobeying Zeus, who gave the gift of fire to the humans.