They wrapped up within a few minutes, nobody being eager to prolong their stay in the jungle any longer. They’d been on the move another 10 minutes or so when the rain finally stopped, though with the dripping from the treetops above, even that offered only a partial reprieve. Water dripped from above, the jungle’s own unique internal rain. For half an hour they pushed through the darkness and growing heat with the sound of water droplets striking the undergrowth drowning out most other sounds they might have heard.
Except for the insects. As soon as the rain stopped, they seemed to magically appear; Dann suspected that most of them had been there all along though, unnoticed, if the increasing number of tiny bites he was covered in was any indication.
The buzzing of the bugs increased in proportion to the silencing of the falling water; by the time the showers were done, the air was a thick, hot blanket of buzzing bugs. Even Rose wasn’t immune, her grey artificial skin as covered with bugs as any of the others, though she was bothered by it far less.
The constant itching and buzzing quickly became intolerable. “Into the water!” Dann half-shouted, half-spit to avoid getting any of them in his mouth.
“Good … idea,” Cobb added around a mouthful that made him cough and spit vigorously. The three dove head-first into a broad stream rushing past with the extra water the rains brought. It was shallow; they were near the level of the deck beneath the earth. The rivers flowed through channels constructed for them, false bottoms in place to mimic the bottom of a natural river. They were designed to provide habitats for a wide variety of aquatic inhabitants, and the false bottom had layers of real dirt, sand and detritus commonly found in river environments. Most of that was legitimately natural, the result of the simulated weather acting on the real jungle around the banks.
After a few seconds of blessed relief from the insect attack, Rose’s voice rang out over the rush of the water. “Out! Out right now!”
Not seeing any immediate threat, the three nonetheless splashed as quickly as they could to the bank and climbed out, then stared quizzically at Rose, who’d beat them to the opposite shore. Movement caught Dann’s eye; he turned in time to see a long branch floating … no, he thought, undulating through the water. It was dark brown and looked for all the world like a flexible tree branch, until it slithered up and onto the bank they’d just vacated. Swatting at the bugs that were already making their return known, he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks Rose. Guess we wouldn’t want to run into that thing.”
Rose shook her head. “The snake? That was harmless to you. It feeds on much smaller prey. The danger was from the school of carnivorous fish approaching this location.”
All three of them visibly blanched, scanning the water. Cobb spotted them first, a silvery school drifting downstream from the east. They were hard to spot until one would suddenly dart off in another direction before drifting and rejoining the school. He shivered and pointed them out.
“Piranha?” Jackson asked a touch of strain in her voice.
“Yes,” Rose confirmed. “There are a number of them in the rivers, of various species. Contrary to what you may have heard, they won’t eat you and strip your bones, but if you startle them, they could injure you badly enough that the wounds would attract other predators.”
“Yeah … I’ll take your word for it, I think,” Dann said, shivering again and slapping at the bugs. “I’ve seen the movies. Those things freak me out.”
“How’d you know they were there, Rose?” Cobb looked a bit pale too.
“I can see wavelengths of light you can’t, and my visual range and acuity is better. I could see them in the water despite their size and the distance.”
“The bear, too?” Jackson asked. “Even through the trees?”
“Well, I can’t see through the trees,” the android replied with the first smile Dann could remember seeing on her face, “but I could see well enough through even small gaps between them to see what you were walking into.” The smile vanished as quickly as it’d appeared. “We should get moving. The bugs are drawing blood from you.”
“Oh c’mon, they’re just bugs,” Jackson scoffed. “You don’t think they’re going to suck us dry do you?”
“Given enough time, they could. But the danger here is your scent. Piranha aren’t the only things that can damage you enough to draw predators. You’ll want to return to the water shortly.”
Dann caught his breath to avoid cursing. “With those things in it?” Returning to the water appealed almost as much as the burning itching that was rising over his exposed skin where the bugs were feasting. “Who decided this was a good thing to put on a space ship, anyway?”
It was Cobb that answered this time. “My team was also responsible for installing a lot of these riverbeds. I don’t—ow!—” he slapped at a large mosquito on his cheek—”I don’t know all the details, but I don’t think anyone expected the jungle to get quite so … wild. They were more worried about it surviving at all than that it might survive too well.” He cleared his arms with a growl. “Almost wish Burstein could see this! He was so worried this whole biome would fail …”
They moved on again, as quick as they could, but sticking to the water when possible. Rose would warn them whenever they got too close to anything too dangerous, and with the assistance of several stretches of quick-moving river, they doubled the pace they’d managed the first day. By sundown, they were halfway to the cryo-bay.