The Old Scout: Light in the Darkness
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue.
It was a slow night in the starport bar. Actually, it was none of those. There was never true night in the habitable twilight band of tidally-locked Erasmus, but it was always deep twilight, and that seemed close enough. And the Imp-standard clock on the wall claimed it was nearing midnight, so there’s that. The alleged starport was barely more than a klick-wide patch of level rock with a few huts and containers around the edges, and a spindly tower covered with nav and commo gear. The bar was the ready room in one of those huts, rather grandly referred to as a Scout station. And as for being slow, it was no slower than usual at a place that saw two or three ships a month, most of those small traders.
The old Scout who ran the place poured us all another round. He was clearly crazy, as were most Scouts I’d met, but he was friendly enough, and willing to swap stories and liquor as the three of us from the Woori’s Wager waited for the local factor to arrive from the back-country with our cargo.
“So, will you be leaving the port at all?” he asked us. We shook our heads. “Probably for the best,” he went on. “This isn’t the friendliest world. Miners go out looking for vanadium, or Sarsa gems, or any number of things, and a lot of ’em come back in bags. Sometimes a few bags.” He grinned and took a long pull of the Regina brandy we’d brought from the ship, then let out a satisfied sigh.
“Haven’t had that in too many years. But yes, the back-country will do its best to kill you. When I first got here, there was nobody around but a few dozen prospectors. I got to talking to one of them, and he told me about the jimmies.” He shivered and pursed his lips. “Everybody had stories about them, turns out. Big cat-like things, black as night. Fangs this long.” He held his thumb and forefinger wide apart. “Folks would see them skulking around their operations, and pretty quickly they found out that they were afraid of light. Shine a flashlight at them and they’d bolt off like jackrabbits on speed. So naturally people put up nice bright lights to keep the jimmies away from their camps.”
He shuddered and took another long drink. “If you think about it, on Erasmus light won’t ever change in any one place, at least not before we got here. Nothing had ever seen a bright light come out of nowhere like that. But it turns out…we figured it all out once it was too late…well, it turns out that the jimmies weren’t afraid. They migrate from edge to edge of the twilight band, you see. During one phase, they travel away from the light. Then once every few years, some kind of chemical trigger flips and they all turn around and head toward the light, where they mate and raise young on the bright edge of the twilight band. Then the cycle starts again.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. “Turns out us off-worlders arrived right at the beginning of a darkward migration. So every time we hit a jimmy with a bright light, he’d think he was way behind on getting darkward, and run off as fast as he could to catch up with the migration. And then, a few years later, they all kicked into brightward mode. Which meant that they saw all those well-lit camps as amazing shortcuts to where they were going.” He finished his glass and put it down a bit unsteadily.
“Something like two thirds of the people on-planet were dead within two weeks. Who knows how many of them died shining a flashlight at a jimmy, not knowing that they were signalling ‘Run straight over here and eat me!’.”
He smiled a little, refilling his glass. “We’re due for a brightward flip any time now, as it happens. Just a little something to think about if you do decide to go hiking.” Then he chuckled and set to work on draining his glass again.