T’was the night before . . . the Eve of Feast, a time of joyous celebration, when I wandered our abode. Using every aspect of my sensorium I could not detect any movement with the place, even the infestation of small scurrying creatures who sought refuge from the harsh winter cold were still. The moltings were waiting in the chamber in anticipation of the Feast day to come.
The children were . . . safely and warmly nested in the nursery as I entered and scurried over their shiny new forms that glistened from the light filtering through the skylights overhead. I checked the guards and adjusted the restraints on each of the thirty youngsters so that they would rest undisturbed by the others.
Rest was ever a problem with the freshly molted young, so full of energy and vigor, anxious to put their new forms into action, scarcely wanting to waste so much as a moment in sleep. I knew that all were probably ravenous from the molt, but I was also wise from our previous broods and knew that high energy food so soon after the change would be damaging to their tender bodies, not to mention being extremely wearing on all of us adults. Tomorrow, after they digested the high carbohydrates and rich sugars of the feast, and prepared their young bodies for their next stage of growth, my mates and I would hide someplace and pray that their competing bodies didn’t do too much damage to the furniture and fixtures.
One of the children had shifted position, cramping two of her rear legs into an awkward bend. Knowing how pliable her chitin was at this point I gently massaged each leg straight and placed a kiss on her brow. Her mandibles moved in eating motion, mimicking her siblings. I knew that anticipatory visions of the sweet things they would soon consume danced in their heads.
Carefully I pulled myself backwards from the brood chamber and stood outside my own sleeping chamber for a moment. In this quiet moment I reflected on all of the preparations that had been made for Feast Day. I mentally checked carefully for anything that I might have overlooked. Satisfied at last that nothing had been omitted I pulled on the small cap that would cover most of my sensorium, leaving my ears open to hear any stirring of the brood and my lesser eyes free, to
detect the first morning light. My mates had all donned their full scarves, blocking out all sensory inputs so that absolutely nothing could disturb them. I could scarce fault them for this: In the morning they would be the ones who had to ride herd on the young. They needed their rest, the poor dears. I hoped that they were fast enough that the children wouldn’t eat one of them again this year. Carefully I backed into the chamber and arranged my limbs about me. I clasped the fore manipulator of each of my mates with my nether limbs and settled down for a well-deserved and long nap until dawn.
When out on the yard there arose such a. . roaring sound that I released my hold on my mates, sprang from my bed, scurried down the hall tunnel to the observation shaft , clambered up, opened the wards, and looked out of the turret.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow. . .enabled me to see despite the late hour. The dropping temperature had frozen the residual moisture in the air so that everything was coated with a layer of sparkling frost. It was an unusually clear night so the stars gave the scene a bright luster equal to that of a cloudy mid-winter day. I wondered at the sight, for I had never seen the stars so clearly; a smear of bright dust that bisected the heavens. But this small wonder was nothing as to what next came into my sight as I peered about for the source of that roaring sound.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear . . . in the distance, so far that I could only see its vague outlines, was a vast silvery artifice. The tree line hid its lower parts while above I could see a huge arcing shell easily vast enough to cover our entire city. Portions of it shimmered in the faint light as if some great heat source were at it’s base. I opened my eyes wider to see if I could gather better definition when a second wonder appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
Over the treetops came a disjointed, swooping monster. As it moved near my abode I was able to discern more details about the thing. It was twice my own length with runners along both sides. Above the runners were pods, four on a side, open front and back, that hung on some sort of wing arrangement. Perhaps they were what made the monster move, I surmised.
On it’s back was one of the pesky creatures that had infested our place since late summer. The actions of these peculiarly strange and indecent creatures had greatly disturbed our society. Their uninvited intrusions into our daily life were an uncivilized outrage. Nevertheless they did strive to give full benefit for their intrusions and I, more tolerant than most, was willing to let them be. But, like most, I did hope they would soon tire of us and return to wherever they started.
The little driver, so lively and quick, that I knew in a moment it must be .. the “Da-Ka-Tor-Ni-Ko-Las”, one of the Who-Mhens, as they called themselves, who had chosen my home for his particular target. Despite his obvious attempts to tame his vehicle it darted up and down and twisted from side to side like a drunken beast.
Its movement was akin to the detritus that blows about prior to a spring storm and zooms skyward whenever it hits an updraft. Crash, and it took out a portion of my hedgerow that marked the decorative border between my property and the town’s. Crash, and it glanced off the top of the barn where I kept our mounts. Crash, and it descended to the very cover of our domicile. From the clatter and clang of its arrival I wondered at the intelligence of these things. Ni-Ko-Las climbed down from its perch and moved quickly about, as if checking the vehicle for damage. I noted that one of the runners on which it now rested had been bent in the encounter with the barn, making the whole vehicle lean crookedly to one side.
Apparently the driver, if that is what it was, satisfied himself that all was in order for he returned to the back and opened a side compartment. I marvelled at how smoothly the door had fit into the skin, would that our own artisans could work metal that well: we’d have less trouble with pests, that’s for sure. Ni-Ko-Las had taken a large sack from inside the vehicle and placed it on the ice while it pressed the door back into place. Then it took a long prod from somewhere on its person and began to probe the ground. I watched until it disappeared behind the peak. I was immediately alarmed: Obviously the creature was searching beneath the ice for the entrance to our home and had ventured very close to the shaft where the young would emerge. I flew down the observation shaft and hastened to the great room at the bottom of the shaft, only to find that the creature had preceded me.
I hesitated in the outer tunnel. These were unpredictable creatures, and obviously had resources far beyond our own. Best I study it a while before venturing to challenge. Besides, since I stood between it and the brood chamber. It could threaten them only at its own peril.
It was dressed . . . with an integument of some sort of hairy down from top to bottom. At first I thought this an odd sort of exoskeleton but then realized that its own shiny carapace was beneath this – I could see glimpses of it as the creature moved about the room. From my vantage it was a bright red color, not unlike the fluid of some of the warm things we found in the woods.
The creature must have been warmer inside than out, for puffs of water vapor came from a pipe near its head and circled its head before dissipating. It was broad in the middle and tapered toward both top and bottom, a most unlikely arrangement and one that made me wonder how it could remain erect without toppling over. The middle jiggled fluidly as it moved about, making me wonder if the creature had yet filled out its body. Perhaps it had recently molted and had not yet completely filled out its new form. It was a strange thing for certain, looking quite unlike a person. The abdomen and waist were absent, and it had only two limbs for manipulation and one lower set for motion, a poor arrangement to anyone’s mind. No matter how hard I looked I could see no evidence of mandibles and wondered how the creature communicated. I heard the creature’s small huff-huff sounds as it moved quickly to examine each item in the room.
Earlier in the day we had carefully cleaned each of the brood’s old exoskeletons after the young had emerged. This was no small matter, for their first impulse, sparked by their body’s need for minerals and protein, is to eat the carapace. One of my mates had lost half a limb earlier in the day when one of the brood moved to consume its shell. She wouldn’t tell me which of the children had done it, so I knew it had to be Scamp, the cute little rascal who’d always been my favorite as well, even when he gnawed one of my feet off. We had arranged the molts into a circle, facing the entrance so they would be the first thing the children saw when they entered in the morning. If I reduced the input to my eyes the empty shells would look just like the angelic little tykes their occupants had been days before, the cutest little buggers you ever saw. Of course my broods had never stood still for anything except digestion. That was their heritage from part of my own lively nature, I suppose.
Curiosity held the better of me, I suppose, for I stayed my position and watched as Ni-Ko-Las pored over every item in the room. From it’s sack it produced a astounding array of metal pieces that it quickly assembled into a tree-like structure in one corner of the room. No sooner had it finished this then it began attaching a wondrous assortment of devices to the tree. Festoons of colored lines descended from many to connect to others. Various spots on the devices sparked red and blue and yellow and green while their shiny surfaces reflected every stray light. All in all it was a wondrous sight to behold and gave the great room a sparkly, festive appearance.
The creature’s efforts must have been taxing, for it collapsed onto the floor near the sack. The poor thing must be ravenous to have expended so much energy in such a short period of time, I thought. The creature situated itself by folding its lower limbs in a most disturbing way. How could it do that without breaking its joints, I wondered? As if that wasn’t surprise enough, the creature, without warning, reached up with its manipulator limbs and cracked its head open!
At that point every one of my hearts stopped cold: I was fearful that the creature was going to moult right there in the middle of my great room. But it didn’t crawl out of the opening as I half expected. Instead the opening exposed a tiny round thing with two small eyes and a number of strange openings. Clouds of vapor emerged from one of them.
It reached into the sack, extracted a block of something, and began peeling back a covering. The tantalizing sweet scent that struck my antennae was so overpowering that I feared it would wake the young and send them into a premature feeding frenzy. I had lost half of my first brood that way, inexperienced as I was in those early days. Never before had I smelled so strong a sweet as what the Ni-Ko-Las creature held. It made my limbs quiver in an almost sexual dance and forced me forward into the room.
The creature made a cry and came erect with a confusing twisting and unfolding of limbs. Using its two manipulators to snap the covering closed, it scrambled backwards toward the entrance. I kept moving forward, waving my forelimbs and moving my mandibles in placating motions, meaning no harm. But my efforts to stay it were to no avail, for it reached beside its head and, with a blast of warm air, rose up through the shaft.
Although I was disappointed that I could not detain Ni-Ko-Las I was gratified that it had left the sweet. Happily, the sack contained several identical items, all of which I surmised contained further sweets. After a moment’s reflection I placed one in each carapace for the young; they would enjoy a special high energy treat. I secured the rest in a cubby for myself and whichever of my mates survived to enjoy the next evening, after we had driven the last of the brood out into the cold.
That done I made my way back to the observation shaft and once more ascended to the turret. Ni-Ko-Las had apparently entered its vehicle for it raced along the surface, glanced off of the berm where we kept the bodies of my parents for the Spring breakfast, and rose into the sky, heading back the way it had come.
Perhaps it was my imagination, or an overly dramatic sense brought about by the season, but I will swear to my dying day that I heard it call out as it disappeared from sight, “Sweet feast to all, and to all a good night.”
[With apologies to Clement Moore]