|Ecdysis By Bryan Derksen
by Bryan Derksen
© Bryan Derksen -- all rights reserved
I hated everything in the entire universe, and wanted it all to go away. It was just one of those kinds of days.
The National SSRF Symposium on SCABS Research was being held in a hotel convention center in Spokane this year, and I had been asked to deliver a major address on a study Bob and I had been jointly conducting back at the hospital. Actually, I had been pretty much forced into the role by default. I was normally able to worm out of this sort of thing and let Bob go instead; I knew I wouldn't enjoy it, I never had, and I didn't mind letting Bob further cement his public image as the world's foremost SCABS researcher. I was probably just as good as him, but I had simply never been interested in the fame.
This year, though, Bob had been unavailable for public speaking. I couldn't fault his excuse; if becoming morph-locked (at least as far as the public knew) in a non-speaking form with massive dyslexia wasn't a valid reason to decline a public speaking engagement, I didn't know what was. But even with all those handicaps, I suspected that my own public speaking skills were only marginally better than his were right now. I had been dreading my twenty minutes at the podium, the bare minimum time I'd been able to haggle my address down to, since well before my flight out here.
Don't even ask how the flight went. Airlines don't install seats that can accommodate people with anatomies like mine, and the food was enough to make even a roach gag. Not that I had the bad manners to eat in public view, of course; some people were overly sensitive about such things and had a hard enough time just being on the same plane as me. But I still felt like complaining about it. I would have complained about rice farming in Cambodia right now, if anyone brought the subject up.
I sighed and shifted uncomfortably in my chair in the front corner of the auditorium; this one at least had a hole in the back to stick my abdomen through, but it was really designed for thick-tailed vertebrates and as such it still wasn't quite right for an insectmorph like me. I should have been going over my notes one more time before taking the podium, but I was too busy twitching and fidgeting to concentrate on that. I felt like I was sweating under my carapace, which was of course impossible, and I tugged on my suit jacket in an attempt to scratch the crawling itches the sensation produced. Just normal stage fright, I tried to assure myself for the thousandth time that day. I had always been a rather shy person.
But as my time to go up approached, my anxiety became worse than I can ever recall it being in a situation like this. I had given lectures and presentations before, of course, had even taught a few classes over the years. But never while stuck in a form like I currently wore. As much as I prefer to ignore such irrational concerns, I found myself descending into a mild paranoia; I watched the audience behind me from the outer edges of my eyes, semi-convinced that the three hundred or so distinguished researchers and scholars were secretly staring at me and thinking nasty thoughts.
You're going overboard here, I berated myself firmly. Quit it. Focus on something else, ignore the rest. It wasn't easy to focus on just one thing with near-omnidirectional compound eyes, but I somehow managed it; I chose the most familiar person in the room and watched her instead. Lisa Underwood was sitting with a small group of other reporters at the side of the auditorium, trying their best to follow what the various presentations were all about and distil something from them for public consumption. She was the only other person here who was a Blind Pig semi-regular, and she'd interviewed me once or twice before on other SCABS-related subjects. I'd never really got to know her on a personal level, but we'd got along reasonably well.
Having finally centered myself again, I was able to return my attention to my notes just in time to skim them once more as the last speaker before me finished and began packing away his slides. It was a good thing I knew my stuff by heart, I merely had to remind myself of the points I wanted to cover.
The presentation actually went okay, though with everyone staring at me like that the sensation of internal sweating only increased. I was able to run largely on autopilot, ignoring the outside world and not really thinking much. But then came the questions, forcing me to pay more attention to the audience. What was wrong with me? I had an increasingly difficult time concentrating, and if I had had eyeballs I would have been flicking them back and forth looking for an escape route.
As I reflected on that I suddenly noticed that my vision had begun to go cloudy, and for an instant I almost panicked. But then I finally realized what was actually going on, and gripped the edges of the podium even tighter. Damn it! Why didn't I recognize these symptoms earlier? I fumed at myself. But on the plus side, now I knew exactly what I had to do. "Um, ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid I have to excuse myself," I interrupted shakily. "I'm sorry. Something has... come up..." I didn't wait to hear a reaction from the audience as I turned and hurried to the side door. My legs felt stiff and clumsy; I tried to move carefully, as if worried they might break. Which, in a way, I was.
I had to get to my room, someplace private where I could lock the door and be alone for at least the next few hours. And from the feel of things I had to get there soon; I had overridden my urges almost too long, convinced they were from simple stage fright rather than protective instincts. I headed toward the stairs at the far end of the hallway, not wanting to go through the lobby to reach the elevators. There were too many people around. Instinct said I should be alone for this.
As I reached the second floor, I suddenly felt the sound of someone running into the stairwell behind me. Chasing me! I redoubled my effort, straining my muscles as much as I dared; normally I could outrun any Norm with ease, but in my current condition I was in real danger. My hearts pounded with the sound of the high-heeled shoes coming ever closer. "Dr. Derksen, wait!" I heard my pursuer call out. "What's wrong?" I recognized the voice; it was Lisa. She must have followed me almost immediately after I'd left the auditorium.
I let out a sigh of relief and skidded to a stop, realizing that despite my raging instincts I wasn't actually under threat. But I still definitely didn't want company right now. "Nothing!" I called back, my voice even raspier than normal. "I've, uh, got to go to the bathroom?"
Lisa wasn't even slowed by my feeble excuse, and a second later rounded the flight of stairs immediately behind me and skidded to a stop as well. She stared at me for a moment and I tried to shrink into my jacket to avoid her gaze. "You don't look so good," she observed worriedly. I couldn't really tell how she looked herself, by now the transparent chitin covering my eyes had fogged over to the point where I was nearly blind.
"I can handle this," I assured her. "Please leave me al- ack!" I cut myself off as I was struck by an involuntary spasm, and struggled to suppress it. It was more like an urge, actually; an urge to inhale as deeply as I could and push. I had entered the final stage, and still had two floors to go before reaching my room. I had to get rid of Lisa!
"Really, what's wrong?" Lisa asked again, clearly concerned. She even stepped forward to support me if I should loose my balance, though she didn't actually touch me yet. I was used to that reluctance in people, and tried to wave her off and ease her conscience. I realized that I would have to reveal the truth; she was a very good and persistent reporter, there was no other way I could think of to get her to leave me alone quickly enough.
"I'm moulting," I grunted. "I should have felt it coming sooner, it caught me off guard. I'll be alright, I just have to get to my room. Alone."
"Moulting? As in, shedding your skin?" Lisa asked with some incredulity. Not much, though; she'd probably seen all sorts of stuff around SCABS.
I nodded. "Yes. Please, I... it's a private thing. I'll talk to you later, but right now-" I was cut off again by another spasm, more powerful than the first, and I heard a cracking sound reverberate in my head. "Oh no. I've got to go..." I turned and began struggling further up the stairs, hoping I'd given Lisa enough information to satisfy her and also hoping she wouldn't tell it to anyone until I was able to talk to her again and ask her not to. But mostly I was just hoping I could make it to my room in time.
Almost immediately I realized that at least two of those hopes were in vain. My rapidly failing exoskeleton prevented me from climbing the stairs at more than a shuffle, and after a few laborious steps I sensed Lisa come up beside me. "You need help," she insisted. I shook my head and tried to continue on my own, but after a moment I reluctantly forced myself to see the truth. I did need help. Even more reluctantly, I nodded.
I heard Lisa take a deep breath, steeling herself, and then felt her tentative grip on my shoulders as she tried to support me. Her assistance actually wasn't all that useful, but I could use every little bit and I didn't want to waste her effort. We started up the stairs again together, moving slowly but steadily. I tried a breathing exercise to keep calm; in through the spiracles, out through the mouth, just like when I'd had nostrils instead. It seemed to work for a while. We were almost on my floor before I was hit with the urge to push again. There was another cracking sound, and a slight release of the pressure that had been building inside me. Lisa let go of me with a small cry of alarm. I leaned against the wall and gingerly felt the back of my head. Sure enough, my skull had started to split open. "'sokay," I grunted. "It's supposed to do that. I'm fine. Gotta hurry though."
"You've done this before?"
"Three times." Then I started pulling myself up the remaining few steps, and Lisa went back to helping support me. She actually seemed surer of her grip this time, for some reason. I guess I was more obviously in need now that my head was visibly cracked.
"We're here," Lisa reported. "Which room is yours?" I gestured down the hall and we headed in that direction; I didn't remember the number and I couldn't really see any more, but I kept the tips of my antennae brushing the walls as we walked and indicated when I smelled my room's door. Sight wasn't really a roach's primary sense in any case. I fumbled in my pocket for the key, but as soon as Lisa saw what I was doing she reached into my jacket and retrieved it for me herself. She opened the door and I stumbled inside, struggling to get my jacket off. I popped a few seams in my urgency.
Lisa followed me in, closing the door behind us and flicking on the lights. I cringed and silently cursed; she obviously wasn't going to go away yet. "No light," I forced the words past my throat. Having someone present was bad enough for my instincts without being out in broad daylight too...
"Sorry," Lisa responded, and quickly flipped the lights back off again. I relaxed slightly, tossed my jacket aside, and lowered myself to the floor. "Is there anything else you need? Water, or... or... bandages..." she trailed off as I crouched on all sixes and heaved, finally satisfying the need to push that had built up to intolerable levels.
CRACK! "Ahhh," I moaned in relief as my carapace split all the way down my neck and partway down my back; the release of pressure was wonderful, and the itch there was soothed too. I drew another breath and pushed again, extending the crack a little further. Then, my immediate need satiated, I paused to take stock of the situation.
"That... is really disgusting," Lisa observed distantly.
I let out a coughing chuckle. "You can go if you want," I offered, hoping she'd take me up on it. But she didn't. "Then just watch," I told her with a sigh. "Don't interfere. Talk after." I took a deep breath and pushed again, wanting to get this moulting over with as quickly as possible.
The crack in my carapace finished extending down the length of my thorax. I began hunching my back, widening the split and further loosening the chitin from the underlying membrane; I was getting ready to start coming out now. One last check revealed that Lisa hadn't budged; she was frozen in either fascination or horror, I had no way of telling which without eyesight. In any case, there was no turning back. I began the struggle to pull myself out of my old shell.
Moulting is a powerful, awesome experience for insectmorphs. It is a form of rebirth, with all the feelings of terror and wonder that go with that sort of thing. I had never been in any given insect form long enough for it to happen to me until this one, but I had confidentially discussed the matter with some of my insectoid patients and the attitude seemed universal. The process was one of the major aspects of being an arthropod.
My head came out first. The mouthparts are the hardest to pull out of; the mandibles and other hard appendages wedged inside their exteriors, and pulling out the lining of one's mouth and throat is not terribly pleasant. Freeing my eyes and antennae from their now-inert sheaths of old chitin was incredibly refreshing, on the other hand, and quite a rush after the smothering blindness that immediately preceded it. The previous times I had moulted I had usually paused at that point to savor the sensation, but with Lisa still standing over me I didn't want to delay.
I got to work on my limbs next, which were trickier since I couldn't use my hands to help the process along as I had when I had peeled my face off. I struggled with the problem for a few minutes, loosening the old chitin's grip on me and beginning to slide out centimeter by centimeter. It was hard going, though, and soon my hearts were pounding from the effort.
"Do you need help with that?"
I started, having half-forgotten Lisa's presence. But I quickly regained my composure and shook my head. Lisa looked dubious, but also obviously relieved. I sighed and returned to my task.
Once I had pulled my hands through my wrist joints it was much easier going, as I had expected. My limbs were now weak from bonelesness, though even without a chitinous exterior my skin had a fair degree of stiffness. With a final surge of effort I cracked open the seams of my abdomen and crawled completely out of my skin. I was reborn.
I was also exhausted. I lay sprawled in a carefully-arranged posture on the carpet next to the empty husk, my soft white body heaving and glistening with secretions as I recovered. Breathing was the only thing I could think about for a while, the air pressure in tracheae throughout my body helping to keep it rigid while my new layer of chitin hardened. Lisa helped by staying where she was, nearly motionless as she watched; I felt incredibly vulnerable right now, and my gut was doing flip-flops just having her this close to me. If any part of me got bent out of shape now, It'd probably be stuck that way until the next moult.
But on the other hand, on a more intellectual level, it was comforting to have her here...
After about ten minutes my new set of vocal cords had stiffened enough to allow me speech again, and I was able to climb up onto the bed to put myself on a more even level with Lisa sitting in a chair. "That was incredible," Lisa began. "You said you've done that before. Do all insectmorphs?"
"All arthromorphs," I whispered, not wanting to strain my voice. It had always been a little weak, since it had been the last thing I'd managed to give myself before completely morph- locking. "It's how we grow, and how we replenish worn skin. It's not unusual, most reptilemorphs do it that way too."
"How come I've never heard of it, then?" Lisa sounded a little annoyed that there were still facts about SCABS that she didn't know. If she only knew how much she didn't know...
"There aren't many insectmorphs," I explained, "and most people would prefer not to know much about us. Also..." I hesitated, trying to think of a good way to put it. "...almost without exception, this is an intensely private thing for us. Bugs are vulnerable while moulting, every instinct screams to be secretive and alone when the time comes. This time I thought it was just stage fright and I heroically forced myself to resist it," I finished with a wry grin of embarrassment. The facial expression was lost on Lisa, of course.
"Oh. I'm sorry I intruded, I had no idea..."
I waved off her apology. "S'okay, I guess I needed the help getting up here safely. I dread to think what would have happened if I'd ended up stuck in that stairwell." I hesitated again. "Still, I'm surprised you stayed. I'm sure that wasn't pleasant to see, it even grossed me out the first time I did it."
Lisa shivered slightly and glanced at my husk on the floor; in the dim lighting of the room it probably looked quite terrible. "I'd be lying if I said it was," she responded. "But I'm a reporter. I couldn't leave without seeing things through. No offence," she quickly added.
"None taken. As a scientist, I would have stayed for the same reason. Still... uh, I hope you won't mind if I ask you not to report this particular story?"
"Of course. Confidentiality and trust are very important in my field."
"Mine too. Thank you."
"On the other hand, I never covered any insectmorphs in my series on the lives of SCABS. I even did something on a fishmorph's life, but never insect. I wonder if perhaps I should sometime?"
I smiled resignedly. "Most folk would rather not know about us, I suspect."
"Then it's high time they did learn a few things," Lisa huffed. "Ignorance can only breed contempt and misunderstanding."
"Maybe... maybe later," I whispered. "I'm in no shape for an interview right now, I'm still hardening. And then I'll have to eat."
"Oh, I wasn't suggesting anything right now," Lisa quickly assured me. "I'm sure you're tired, I don't want to overstay my welcome. Perhaps we could meet later, if you're interested."
I agreed, and Lisa soon discretely left the room to head back downstairs and deliver my apologies to the audience for the hasty exit. It would be hours before my carapace returned to its normal dark brown pigment, and I was quite tired. I climbed off the bed and crawled under it to get some rest.
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