Xavier Howell and the Chaos Effect
The Exploding Dung Incident
I thought to myself: Self, that’s not supposed to happen—just as the second dung bomb exploded.
Watching the smelly, sticky, brownish-green substance fly through the air like shrapnel, I realized I'd made a slight miscalculation somewhere. Crouched in one of the wheat fields that surrounded the colony on Kevin 5, I took a moment to review the parameters of my little beetle catching science fair experiment.
Mr. Finch, the colony's bug guy, had assured me the chemical I'd used in the traps would be poisonous to the black-bellied grain beetle. The heap of cow dung covering the trays of chemicals was meant to attract said beetles (again according to the illustrious Mr. Finch)—not blowup. Perhaps I should've consulted the colony chemist, too?
The third beetle-trap-turned-dung-bomb exploded.
That's when the smell first hit me. I tried very hard not to let any more air penetrate my nose or mouth. The endeavor was unsuccessful and so I gagged … repeatedly.
I cringed. I didn't recognize the man's voice (the colony was not that small), but his tone was certainly familiar. My reputation had preceded me. Turning around slowly, I came face-to-knees with one of the grain farmers. I couldn't remember the man’s name, but I might've been distracted by the fact that he was covered—from head to toe—in dung.
It was difficult to talk without first inhaling the putrid air. "Yes, sir?"
"What in—" His angry reply was cut off by the fourth and final explosion. The trap I'd proudly dubbed ‘The Hotel’ went out in a blaze of glory, spewing forth a cloud of brown surrounded by jets of yellow flame. The wave of acrid speckles struck the farmer's back and splattered my face. Again, my throat constricted in protest to the assault. My intense humiliation (or in other words: chagrin) turned toward more of a horror-type feeling, like can't-breath-because-of-terror, when I spotted the flames lapping up at the grain.
Probably in response to the expression on my face, the farmer turned around and swore. As my father says that I should never repeat swear words (no matter how appropriate), and that swearing is a bad habit anyway—I'll represent the farmer’s language like this:
He tapped the side of his head, right in front of his ear, activating an embedded communicator. "Strainger? We’ve got a fire here." The farmer paused while Strainger, the man on the other side of the communication, spoke. "Hmmm, yes, the Howell boy."
Again, I cringed. Am I really that bad?
"Deploy the snakes." The farmer said.
I perked a little at his statement. After all, the snake-bots were a (relatively) new addition to the Promise colony's arsenal and as of yet hadn't been deployed. New things were rare out here in the outer territories, so of course I had to see them in action. Unfortunately, it required me to stand and move over in order to get a good view. The farmer trained a deadly glare in my direction but choose not to speak any further.
From the top of a dome some … ten … twenty … a lot of yards away emerged five long silver objects. The snake-bots. They slid down the curved surface of the dome like water gliding downhill. Phuh! That was a flowery description. Note to self: get out of poetry class for the next few weeks before I turn into a girl.
The snake-bots disappeared into the long grain, their passage marked by the swaying of the tall stalks. The jets of water and fire suppressant crisscrossed the sky before the bots came back into view again. With remarkable coordination and efficiency, the snake-bots laid down a foam mixture until the fire was completely gone. Not more than a few feet of the field had burned.
Unable to contain myself, I whooped in triumph.
The farmer glared at me again. "If I were you, Howell," his voice dripped with disdain, "I'd show a little more humility."
"Sorry," I mumbled. I wasn't really sorry. The snake-bots were awesome. To my dismay a quick calculation proved that it was eleven more months until my thirteenth birthday. Lucky thirteen, I might be able to convince my father to get me a snake-bot. Dream on, self!
"Critcher, here," The farmer, (I remembered his name then, Bob Critcher), said with a cock of his head. "Yep, they did great. Report to HQ. I’ll handle things out here." Critcher’s eyes, small orbs peeking out from a mask of stinky brown poo, trained on me. "Explain yourself."
"Beetle traps. They were supposed to be beetle traps, sir." I folded my hands together, opened my eyes wide and pouted a little. Silly (and not entirely age appropriate), but hey, I was desperate.
Critcher cocked an eyebrow at me.
"You know, for the science fair. At school?" Still no reaction. I cleared my throat. "Mr. Finch, who's one of the judges, said that you're having trouble with beetles in your fields and I thought since I had to do an experiment for the fair anyway I might as well try and find something that'd be helpful to the colony since I noticed that those kinds of things usually win." Breathe! Gross, big mistake. The words came out in a rush. Babbling when I'm nervous is another of my annoying habits. Babbling and cringing—got to work on that.
Critcher folded his arms across his chest.
I swallowed. This was not going well for me. "I'm sorry?"
The old farmer held out one hand and wiggled a finger at me, commanding me to follow. In shame, I hung my head and tromped along behind him. Once I looked up toward the colony. The gray buildings stuck up out of the wheat fields like a pile of rocks.
I knew I should've stayed home today.
Critcher led me to the big dome in the center of the field. As we drew nearer, a section of the wall slid up allowing us to enter.
The small circular area felt confining after the openness of the field. The center of the room was slightly elevated and filled with computer screens and input modules. A large captain’s chair stood in the center of all the technological mayhem. Small hands attached to thin arms darted out from behind the chair, pushing buttons and turning knobs.
"Strainger, watch the boy while I go wash up," Critcher said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at me.
The chair swiveled to reveal a small man seated in it. He looked kind of like a little kid sitting in his dad’s office chair, I would've laughed (me being the kind of person that has a good sense of irony) but the expression on Strainger's face was far from comical. He eyed me seriously.
"Got it," he said with a nod.
The beady eyes watched me from under unkempt black hair. I smiled lamely and waved. Strainger may have blinked; it was hard to tell since his eyes were so wide and bloodshot. Dude, you need to get out more often, I thought to myself (I would never dare say such a thing to an adult even though he didn't look like one).
Feeling uncomfortable with such an unwavering gaze attached to me, I inspected the rest of the small room. In one corner were arranged a cot, a pile of clothes and some ration wrappers. Then it dawned on me, Strainger was a bunker. A bunker, or an "insider" as they preferred to be called, was someone who was afraid of wide open spaces (uh, agoraphobic, I think) and often spent their entire lives in one room. I shuddered at the thought. There are really people like that?
A door hissed open and, I'm not happy to admit, I jumped. There was a lot of tension in the room and I certainly wasn't expecting a door to open at that precise moment.
Critcher, looking remarkably clean considering his previous state, strode into the room. "Right, Howell, let's go find your father."
I swallowed. "He's gone." When Critcher placed his hands on his hips, I added, "On an exploration mission, honest."
"Fine, we'll just have to talk to Jamerson, then."
My stomach fell to the floor (not literally, it's a figure of speech). Jamerson was the head of the colony. And somehow I had a feeling that he being old chums with my father wouldn't help me one bit this time.
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