A Plague of Beetles

By Kara L. Stern
Copyright 1999

"OW!" Crichton yelled. "That REALLY hurt Aeryn."

"What happened?" Aeryn asked, concerned.

"You hurt my finger when you closed that panel. Try to watch what you're doing?" he mumbled around his finger.

"Here, let me see that." she said.

Crichton extended his injured finger for Aeryn to examine. She looked at it. There was a small red mark where the flesh had been pinched but the closing panel hadn't even broken the skin. Aeryn sighed.

"This is nothing Crichton. There isn't even any blood. This is nothing but a boob."

A what?!" Crichton gasped, surprised.

"You know, a boob. Isn't that what you call a very minor injury on Earth?"

"That's a boo boo Aeryn, a boo boo, not a boob. A boob is something else."

"Really, what?" Aeryn looked up at him with interest.

Crichton looked down at Aeryn. She was laying on her back under the wing of her Prowler trying to fix the portside engine which was making that irritating noise again. Her hair was tangled and damp with sweat and grease. Her gray tank top was sticking tightly to her body and it had a little tear in just the wrong place. Crichton found the whole look very attractive. This was definitely the wrong time to talk about boobs.

"Never mind." he said. He retired to sit on an overturned crate and suck his injured finger while she worked. His mind wandered. Here they were in the repair bay, just off of Moya's main landing bay. The landing bay was enormous. It still awed Crichton that Moya, a huge and graceful spaceship, was a living creature and that she was willing to transport them about. Compared to her, he and his shipmates were like lice, or intestinal parasites. But Moya seemed to like them, had gone to great lengths to persuade them to stay when some of them had been talking about leaving her. It was actually a little humbling.

Crichton felt a tickling sensation and looked down. One of the ship's beetles was trundling across his hand.

Every Leviathan had ship's beetles, D'Argo had told him. They were just part of shipboard life, like foodcubes or spacesuits or recycled air. They were pretty little things, about the size of his thumbnail. They had ten legs and three sets of wings (which didn't work very well) and were brightly colored in metallic red and green and blue and gold. You saw them occasionally clinging to a wall or sitting on a table when you walked into a room but, when spotted, the shy little things quickly dashed for cover.

Crichton had apparently been sitting still for so long that this beetle didn't realize that he was a living being and had just walked onto his hand and started climbing up his arm. Or, living on a living ship, perhaps the little beetle just didn't recognize the difference. Crichton carefully lifted up his hand and looked at the little creature sitting on his wrist. It was red with blue and gold spots and waving green antennae. But the beetle, disturbed by the movement, took off and bumbled through the air into the landing bay proper where it crashed into the nose of the Farscape 1 and bounced across the floor, coming to rest on it's back. Then the tiny bug righted itself and resumed it's deliberate march, a tiny speck of vibrant color making it's way across the vast landing bay floor.

Crichton jumped a foot when Aeryn tapped him on the shoulder.

"Did you hear me Crichton? I said come on. We have to help D'Argo move those canisters of fruit stew up to the mess hall now."

"Sorry Aeryn, I was lost in thought."

"Well, what were you thinking about?"

"I was watching a ship's beetle crawl across the floor and thinking that we are as big to them as Moya is to us."

Aeryn gave him a puzzled look. "What an odd thing to be thinking about. The beetles are just vermin. Ignore them."

"But they're pretty Aeryn. They are such bright colors in the vast...tanness...of Moya's decor. And have you ever noticed, no two are the same."

"I really haven't spent that much time looking at them."

"I have." Crichton said. "There are three that I always see in my quarters. I call them Larry, Moe and Curly. Larry's a deep red color with gold spirals and green dots. Moe is gold with blue freckles and he's missing a leg on the left side. Curly's green with a gold design that looks kind of like a happy face on his back. When I wake up in the morning or come in in the evening I'll find them sitting on the back of my chair or clinging to the wall by the door. They keep me company Aeryn."

Aeryn shook her head. "Foolish fancies, I think that you don't have enough to do Crichton. And we can solve that problem, at least temporarily, by joining D'Argo at storage bay two and helping him move the canisters up to the mess hall."

"Foolish fancies...right." Crichton sighed as he followed Aeryn out of the repair bay. He was very fond of Aeryn Sun, maybe more than just very fond, but her habit of dismissing things she didn't understand as unimportant really bothered him. If she really cared about him, he felt, she should be willing to examine new thoughts and ideas that were important to him. Instead, she dismissed them as foolish fancies.

On the way to storage bay two, which was right down the hall, Crichton saw five more ship's beetles. Three were walking along the wall and one was on the corridor floor. He carefully stepped over that one. The fifth came up from behind him and flew right into the back of his head. Crichton spun around in surprise and watched as the small bug bounced back down the hall. The beetle righted itself and, oddly enough, took off again and flew up the hallway, just missing his ear. The beetles rarely flew unless they had to. They preferred to crawl to their destinations. It was slower but, generally, much safer.

Crichton shook his head as he resumed following Aeryn. Seeing six beetles in less than half an hour was unusual.

When he reached the door to storage bay two Crichton found Aeryn and D'Argo waiting for him.

"What's wrong with him?" D'Argo asked.

"Oh, he's still sulking because he got a booby on his finger."

"It's a boo boo Aeryn, not a boob, not a booby, a boo boo."

"What's the difference?" D'Argo asked.

Crichton sighed. "A boo boo is a small wound. A boob is a portion of female anatomy. And a booby is the kind of prize I get for bringing the whole subject up in the first place."

"A portion of female anatomy?" Aeryn asked, intrigued. "Which one?"

Aeryn and D'Argo looked at Crichton expectantly.

"I don't want to talk about this right now." Crichton stated.

"He's really in a bad mood isn't he." D'Argo observed.

"Oh, I know what it is." Aeryn said. "It's that thing about the beetles isn't it?"

"No it's not." Crichton lied.

"What thing about the beetles?" D'Argo asked.

"Crichton is keeping three of the ship's beetles in his quarters as pets. He even gave them names."

"I don't keep them as pets. They're more like roommates."

"Ship's beetles?" said D'Argo, surprised. "Those are just pests. If I see one in my quarters I crush it. Like this."

D'Argo stepped on a beetle that was crawling toward the door to the storage bay and crushed it with a quiet cracking sound.

"Hey!" Crichton said. "You didn't have to kill it. It wasn't hurting anything."

"It was annoying me." D'Argo stated. "For a bug that's a capital crime. Now, we have sixty canisters of fruit stew to move up to the refrigeration unit in the mess hall. Let's get started or it will take all day."

D'Argo hit the door switch and the storage bay doors opened. D'Argo, Aeryn and Crichton stared into the storage bay in open mouthed shock. It was swarming with beetles. They were thickest around the piled canisters of fruit stew but they were everywhere in the room. They were crawling on the walls, the floor and the ceiling. They were flying through the air. There must have been millions of them.

With a funny buzzing sound a beetle flew into Crichton hitting him right between the eyes. It bounced on the floor, then took off again, buzzing back into the room.

"Uh oh." Crichton said. "This can't be good."


"Well of course the canisters are damaged." Rygel humphed. "I got a great deal on them. We got sixty damaged canisters for the price of forty undamaged ones."

The crew had convened up in Command. Everyone was there. Crichton, D'Argo, Aeryn and Zhaan stood on one side of the main console facing Rygel on the other side. Chiana sat curled up on top of the map table. Even Pilot in his hologram form was present, staring intently at Moya's indignant crew.

"I don't believe this." Crichton said. "Did it ever occur to you that damaged containers might contain spoiled food? We could have all gotten food poisoning."

Rygel looked down his nose at Crichton. "Hynerians don't get food poisoning."

"But the rest of us do." Zhaan said. "I don't relish the prospect of having to treat everyone for stomach cramps and vomiting at the same time."

"That would be your problem, not mine." Rygel said. "If you don't want to eat the fruit stew that just leaves more for me."

"No one is going to eat the fruit stew." D'Argo stated. "Twelve of the canisters have ruptured and are leaking all over storage bay two."

"Only twelve?" Rygel said. "Then we're still ahead by eight canisters."

"There is a problem." Pilot stated. "Some of the stew has dripped down into the tier below."

"What's under there Pilot?" Aeryn asked.

"Moya's air recycling machinery." Pilot stated.

"Uh oh." Crichton said. "That's bad. Is the machinery ok?"

"No." Pilot said. "Some of the machinery has sustained damage and is clogged with stew. Our life support is currently on emergency backup systems. Those systems were not designed to take over indefinitely. The primary systems must be fixed. And soon."

"We're on it Pilot." Crichton stated. "Come on Aeryn, Chiana, strap on your tool belts. Let's go fix us some machinery."

"No way!" Chiana said. "I'm not going down there with those creepy beetles. You go. I'll wait right here."

"What have you got against the beetles?" Crichton asked.

"They are creepy, crawly things that have ten legs. I'm staying as far away from them as I can."

"Have it your way." Crichton stated, exasperated. "C'mon Aeryn, let's go."

Down under storage bay two Crichton and Aeryn shined flashlights up at the machinery. Dripping fruit stew had apparently gotten into the lights and shorted them out. If not for the flashlights it would be pitch black.

The machinery was crawling with beetles. The beams of the flashlights glinted off bright metallic bodies and reflected colored light off in every direction. It was a bit like being in a disco.

"That's cool. How do they do that?" Crichton said.

"How do they do what?" Pilot asked from Crichton's comm badge. He was trying to direct the DRDs in the cleanup of the spilled stew but the sticky stuff gummed up the little robots even more effectively than it did the life support machinery.

"Reflect the light back in different colors like that."

"I believe that the light is reflected off of the beetles' body through the transparent colored wings."

"Like a gel on a stage light." Crichton grinned.

"Crichton, pay attention." Aeryn said. "This is no time for inconsequentials. How are we going to clean all this up? The DRDs are useless in these conditions."

Aeryn handed Crichton a DRD. He turned it over and shined his flashlight on it. It's wheels were frozen in place, covered with sticky gunk. As the small robot hummed and swiveled it's eyestalks in discomfort at being held upside down, three beetles landed on it's underside and began to feed.

"You know Aeryn, maybe the beetles aren't part of the problem. Maybe they're part of the solution." Crichton said. " Pilot, if we clean up the barrels in the storage bay and make sure no more of them leak down into the machinery, how long will it take for the beetles to lick the air recyclers clean?"

"Hmmm, let me make some calculations." Pilot replied. "Approximately thirty two arns."

"And Pilot," Aeryn asked, "how long before the backup life support systems fail?"

"Hmmm, I'm afraid that will happen in twenty two arns."

"Damn!" Crichton swore. "We're not going to make it are we?"

"Well," Aeryn replied, "Cleaning up the mess in storage bay two is a start. Let's make sure no more of that stew leaks out of those canisters and drips down here. Maybe some of those containers of stew are salvageable and we can move them up to the refrigeration units in the mess hall. Perhaps an idea will occur to us while we work."

Working in a storage bay buzzing with beetles was unnerving. Aeryn, Crichton and D'Argo were constantly waving beetles away from their faces and brushing them off of each others backs and hair. The little beetles were constantly landing on them and trying to crawl under their clothes or into their ears or mouth. Every step crunched with crushed bugs. And the noise of a million clumsy beetles buzzing around crashing into the walls, the ceiling and each other was unexpectedly loud and distracting. About half way through the job they had to take a break. They went a little way up the corridor and leaned against the walls and shook beetles out of their clothes.

"Enjoying yourself Crichton?" Aeryn said acidly. She was trying hard not to show how very much having bugs crawling all over her bothered her.

"Not particularly." he replied. "This is definitely too much of a good thing."

"This was never a good thing." D'Argo grumbled. "As soon as we fix the air recyclers I am personally going to exterminate every beetle on this ship!"

Pilot's voice came from their comm badges. "That would not be a good idea. The beetles are necessary to Moya's continued well being."

"They are?" Crichton said. His surprise was echoed in the others' faces.

"Of course." Pilot said. "They have several functions. They help keep Moya's interior clean by eating particles of organic matter too small for the DRDs to see. They also eat molds and fungus that might infect her. Sometimes they can clean up substances that the DRDs can not. Like fruit stew. They are in symbiosis with Moya. As am I."

"And also," Pilot added, "as are you."

"We are in symbiosis with Moya? Cool, I like that!" Crichton beamed.

"Of course." Pilot said. "You perform tasks necessary to Moya's health and well being that neither I nor the DRDs nor the beetles can perform. In return, she provides you with shelter, food, air and other things you need to survive."

"This is all very interesting." Aeryn sighed. "But we still have twenty six canisters of fruit stew to move."

"Right." D'Argo agreed.

As D'Argo and Aeryn started to walk back toward the storage bay Crichton saw something.

"Hey Aeryn, wait up a sec." he said.

As Aeryn stopped and half turned around Crichton reached out and removed something from her shoulder.

"Hey little guy." he said to the thing in his hand. "How'd you get all the way down here?"

"What is it?" Aeryn asked.

"It's Curly." Crichton said. "He came all the way down from my quarters to help us clean up fruit stew."

"Really? How can you tell?" Aeryn asked looking down at the bug in Crichton's hand.

"See the smiley face? I told you, every beetle is different, like snowflakes."

"Don't lose him Crichton. If you take him back into the storage bay you'll never see him again." she said.

"I'll keep him safe." Crichton promised. He tucked the smiley faced beetle into his jacket pocket and buttoned the flap.

"Can we get on with this?" D'Argo asked.

"Yeah, we're coming." Crichton said. "And D'Argo, try to step on as few beetles as possible. The little guys are important."

Two more of the canisters ruptured while Crichton, Aeryn and D'Argo were moving them, spilling fruit stew all over Moya's corridors. Fortunately, that stew didn't spill in an area where it would damage anything important. As soon as the sticky stuff was spilled, beetles started to appear on the scene. By the time the remaining forty six canisters were delivered to the mess hall the bugs were hard at work cleaning up the spill. While D'Argo, Aeryn and Crichton returned to storage bay two to clean up more of the mess, Rygel and Zhaan got to work transferring the stew into new containers. Chiana, who wanted to be as far away from the beetles as possible, volunteered to scour the ship for more appropriate containers. Finding enough clean containers in which to store all that stew was going to take some time and effort.

Six arns had passed and so far no one had had any bright ideas on how to fix the air recycling equipment before the air ran out and they all suffocated. They only had sixteen arns left.

After another two arns Crichton, Aeryn and D'Argo had cleaned up as much of the mess in the cargo bay as they could. What little spilled stew remained could be safely left to the beetles and posed no further threat to life support. Tired and edgy, the three returned to the mess hall for a little food and time away from the beetles. Even Crichton was beginning to feel that, symbionts of Moya or not, if he never saw another one of the little bugs it would be too soon. In the mess hall, Zhaan and Rygel were just finishing transferring the stew to undamaged containers. Every jar, tin and plastic tub they could find had been pressed into service. Even the decorative glass vase Zhaan had picked up at the bazaar on Nisklin had been filled with stew, covered and sealed with wax.

"I hope you're happy." D'Argo groused at Rygel. "Every bug on this ship has had a good meal but I'm starving."

"Here," Rygel said pleasantly. "Have some fruit stew."

Rygel offered a bowl filled with the stew to D'Argo.

"Get that stuff away from me." D'Argo pushed the bowl away, upsetting it and tipping it onto the floor.

"Watch what you're doing you big lummox. That was my lunch." Rygel snarled.

"There seems to be plenty more." Aeryn observed.

"Well, I'm not cleaning that up." D'Argo stated. "I've just spent the last seven arns cleaning that stuff up and the smell of it makes me sick."

"Where are the beetles when you need them." Crichton sighed.

"One of them is in your pocket." Aeryn noted.

"Yeah, that's right!" Crichton brightened. "Curly can give us a hand."

Crichton opened his pocket and reached in to find Curly and feed him a bit of the spilled stew. But his happy expression turned tragic as he removed a crushed bug from the pocket.

"Oh no!" Crichton exclaimed. "Curly!"

Aeryn looked down at the pathetic little body in his hand.

"He must have gotten crushed when you fell against that crate."

Crichton sighed. "Alas poor Curly, I knew him Horatio."

All of the others looked as Crichton as though he had gone crazy.

"Never mind." he said.

He looked down at his jacket again.

"My IASA jacket, it's covered with fruit stew and dirt. I'll never get it clean. This is the last of my clothes from Earth that I have left and it's ruined."

Zhaan smiled. "Don't worry John. I have some solvent that can clean anything out of cloth, even fruit stew."

"That's IT!" Aeryn exclaimed. "Zhaan, how much of that solvent do you have on hand?"

"I made up a whole batch of it a few weekens ago, enough to last for cycles."

"Can it clean machinery as well as it cleans cloth?"

"I don't see why not."

"Aeryn! That's a great idea." Crichton enthused. "But we don't have enough time to clean off all of that machinery by hand."

"Use a hose." Rygel suggested.

"That's another great idea Scruffy. I didn't know you had it in you."

"But won't spraying them with cleaning fluid be bad for the beetles that are all over the air recycling machinery?" Aeryn asked.

"Who cares about those bugs?" Rygel asked, his voice dripping disdain.

"Moya does." D'Argo informed him. "They are her symbiotes."

"Really!" Zhaan asked, fascinated. "What do they do for her?"

"Let's get into this later." said Crichton, seeking to bring them back on track. "Can anyone think of a way to clean the machinery off without harming the beetles?"

They brainstormed for awhile without success. Then Chiana walked in.

"Is it safe? Are there any of those creepy beetles in here?"

"No live ones." Crichton sighed.

"Good." Chiana joined them at the table. "Is there anything to eat? I'm starving."

"Fruit stew?" Rygel offered.

"Sure." Chiana accepted. "Hey, this stuff's not bad, kind of sweet, but not bad. I can see why the bugs like it so much."

"That's IT!" Crichton exclaimed. "We use the fruit stew to lure the beetles off of the machinery. Then we can spray it down with Zhaan's solvent and fix it without hurting them."

"Who cares if you hurt them? The more of them you kill the happier I'll be." Chiana said.

Crichton and Aeryn left D'Argo to explain to Chiana about the beetles while they looked for a good place to set out some fruit stew, close enough to the air recycling machinery to attract the beetles but far enough away from it not to damage anything important. When they found a good place they went back up to the mess hall to get the stew. While they moved the stew Zhaan and D'Argo put the cleaning fluid into some fire extinguishers and collected cleaning equipment and tools. The plan worked beautifully. It took three arns for the spilled stew to attract most of the beetles from the machinery and another six arns to clean it and get it working again. They were finished with the job with five arns to spare.

"Well, that's done." Aeryn said as the air recyclers hummed back to life.

"Yes it is." Crichton agreed. "God I'm tired."

"It has been a very long day." D'Argo said.

Zhaan and Rygel joined them walking back towards Command.

"We have checked on the beetles." Zhaan said. "They have almost finished cleaning up that stew you put out for them down the hall."

"It was amazing." Rygel enthused. "That vat of stew was a seething mass of beetles. You could have picked them up by the handful. I wonder how they taste...."

"Knock it off Renfield. Those are Moya's beetles." Crichton warned. "You start eating them and she might drop you out an airlock."

"I wouldn't eat all of them. And besides, I'm one of Moya's symbiotes too."

"Well, leave them alone." Crichton admonished. He was looking over his shoulder as he walked, talking to Rygel and Zhaan. Consequently, he didn't see the DRD zipping down the hallway toward them and he tripped over it, falling ungracefully to the floor. He lay there while the others laughed and the DRD squeaked indignantly at him.

"Enough already," he said. "It wasn't that funny."

"Yes it was." D'Argo said as he helped his fallen comrade to his feet.

"No it wasn't. Ow, I really banged my elbow."

"Did you get another boo boo?" Aeryn asked.

"Hey, you said it right." Crichton smiled. The day hadn't been a total loss.

"I am picking up your human expressions." she said. "By the way, you never did tell us which part of a female's anatomy a boob is."

"No I didn't, did I."

Crichton looked at Aeryn. There was a beetle clinging to the left side of her chest.

"There's a beetle on your boob right now." he said.

"It's a big one." D'Argo observed.

"And it's blue." Zhaan noted.

"There's a big blue beetle on my boob?" Aeryn looked down at herself to check on the progress of the bug crawling up her tank top. She looked up at Crichton.

"What do humans call the breast on the right side?"

Three days later, they were still cleaning up messes in several parts of the ship but things were more or less back to normal. When Crichton had first returned to his quarters, all three of his little beetle friends were missing. Eventually, Larry had returned but Moe was still AWOL. Perhaps he had found another place on Moya to live but it was more likely that he was among the countless bugs who had been crushed while he, Aeryn and D'Argo had been moving the canisters of fruit stew, or dissolved when they sprayed the solvent on the air recycling machinery. That he might have personally killed another of his little friends grieved Crichton deeply. It was a little surprising to him to discover how much he had come to rely on seeing the tiny creatures around his quarters. Their cheerful colors had brightened up the place considerably and made him feel less alone. Now there was only one of the little guys left.

Crichton entered his quarters and went to the corner where he kept his little jar of fruit stew. The stuff was far too sweet for a meal (although Rygel could guzzle large quantities of the stuff down without any problems). It was even too sweet for a dessert. It was good on foodcubes though, especially the brown wafer like ones. But forty two canisters of a condiment was an awfully lot so Crichton felt no compunctions about appropriating some for his own use.

He took his jar of stew and dripped a little of it out on a plate and set it down. Soon, Larry came out of hiding and flew in for a crash landing on the table. He trundled over to the plate, climbed up onto it and started feeding on the stew. Crichton smiled wistfully. Then there was a second buzzing sound and there was another beetle on the table. It was not Moe, it was a new beetle, a bright red one with green stripes. This new beetle marched over to the plate and joined Larry at his meal.

"Well, hello little guy. What are you doing here? Are you moving in to help Larry keep my quarters spic and span?"

The beetle didn't answer but Crichton couldn't help smiling as he watched it slurp up stew.

"I'll have to give you a name. Hmmm, you look just like a Christmas tree ornament, all red and green with a big red dot on your nose. I know, you'll be Rudolph."

Rudolph ignored him and continued to lap up the fruit stew on the plate.

"Well, It's late. I'm going to bed."

As Crichton got ready for bed he kept an eye on his beetles. They were still dining on the stew when he slipped into bed. Crichton smiled, listening to them buzz and clink as they moved around on the plate.

"Good night Larry. Good night Rudolph."

Crichton turned out the light with a click.

Things were as back to normal as they ever were.