“Watch out for sniders tonight.”
I turned away from another breathtaking Rasan sunset. Behind Enrique and Firey Plummet, the moon shone below the glittering webwork of one of the mechs’ space stations. The stars were coming out on my first night on Rasa.
“What,” I asked, “are sniders?”
“A fascinating example of the inventiveness of natural selection,” said Firey Plummet, his artificial voice buzzing from the speakers on his squat environment suit.
“Not something you want to surprise you.” That was Enrique. He was human and didn’t need an environment suit. Our mentor was dressed in his usual layers of khaki, which struck me as uncomfortably warm for this muggy night in what would have been Earth’s southern China.
Rasa had the same basic land forms as Enrique and my home timeline. Those big forest capped limestone pillars you see in the backgrounds of famous Chinese paintings. Except this landscape had no people in it. the vegetation at the top was all various forms of grass inhabited only by various forms of invertebrate and bird. No mammals, no lizards, not even bees. Something had wiped all those forms of life out in this version of Earth. I hoped to be the one who discovered what.
“Are you talking about spiders?” I asked, “snakes? Land crabs?” Those last could grow to the size of an easy chair, but as far as I knew they were herbivores and lowland animals.
“Yes,” said FP, “snakes.”
“Not exactly,” said Enrique. “There are pit vipers in the lowlands, but they can’t get on top of these karst outcroppings. At least without significant…” He wiggled his fingers. “…derivation from their ancestral bauplan.”
“Cladistically, they are still pit vipers.” FP’s voice synthesizer was good enough that I could hear his annoyance.
“They’re attracted to heat, so zip up your tent.”
Well, I did and nearly drowned in the sweaty, un-moving air. It took hours for our campsite to cool off. And when it did, the snider found me.
I was finally drifting off when something impacted the fabric of the tent over my head. Four pointed feet scrabbled for purchase on the slick fabric, and the animal–the mass of a kitten–slid down the tent and plopped to the ground.
A few seconds later, another creature jumped into the tent’s other side, followed quickly by a third.
I decided to open my tent and look outside. There was no way I could sleep with these creatures bombarding my tent and no way I could stop exhaling the warm air that attracted them. At least, I told myself, I deserved to see what a snider looked like.
My tent zipped up from the bottom. Readying my flashlight, I opened up a small hole in my protection.
Something skittered across the beam of my flashlight in a blur of spines and legs. Tarantula? I thought before I moved my flashlight and caught it crouching.
Slitted eyes glared at me over over a scaly lip and a pair of flexing…fangs? No, those were legs, legs evolved from teeth folded like switchblades. Behind the eyes, lower jaws gaped, split, folded backwards into spindly grasshopper-like hind legs. A round, spiny body rose behind these legs like the abdomen of a spider and a forked tongue flickered out between those fang-forelimbs. Toothy mandibles scissored under its body.
It leaped the way nightmares leap. One moment of terrified distraction and it was clawing at the end of my flashlight, flexing out the fangs folded behind its forelimbs. With a disgusted cry, I shoved my flashlight and its loathsome passenger out of my tent and zipped up the hole.
I spent the rest of the night in the dark shivering, listening to the patter of viperous bodies against my tent. I only managed to drift off near dawn and woke too soon to the sound of birds and the smell of cooking meat.
Carefully unzipping my tent, I discovered Enrique and Firey Plummet hunched over a fire. Enrique was warming his hands while FP had plunged one of his metal claws directly into the flames. Between the pincers, a round, spiny body popped and hissed.
“Good morning,” said Enrique. “Tomorrow, it’ll be your turn to catch breakfast.”
This story was inspired by this tumblr post about the evolution of snakes. It takes place in the same universe as Fellow Tetrapod.