Sam sighed and turned back towards his bedside table, where The Field Guide to European Insects & Spiders lay open at the Bees, Ants & Wasps section.
He reached out his hand to pick up the book, and at that moment his eyes fell upon the small grey shape on his bedpost. Moving slowly and carefully, he crouched down to take a closer look.
It was a grey, thuggish-looking fly about the size of his thumbnail, with a slight speckling of the abdomen. Its wings were smoky brown and on either side of its broad head were slightly bulging, brightly coloured eyes. Protruding from the front of its head were sharp, blade-like mouthparts shaped like a V.
Sam recognized it immediately as a horsefly.
Keeping a watchful eye on it, he picked up the insect book and flipped through the pages until he found the section entitled Horseflies (Family Tabanidae).
Beneath a small illustration he read: Female horseflies need a meal of blood for their eggs to develop. Their bite is painful, and they readily attack people in the absence of livestock. Their preferred habitat is near woodland, streams and marshes.
Youre in the wrong place, said Sam.
Picking up an empty tumbler from his desk, he put it over the horsefly, slid a postcard underneath and held the glass up to the window.
He peered at the glittering eyes, watching him through the glass.
Youre a biter all right, he said, studying the spiky, beak-like mouthparts and the blunt, stubby head, but not a very smart one. Id better let you get back to where you belong.
He shook the tumbler and the horsefly disappeared off at speed over the hedge at the end of the garden.
Sam watched it fly away into the distance. Dont make any more wrong turns! he said, and closed the window.
But the fly had not taken any wrong turns.
On the contrary, it was a good deal more intelligent than Sam realised.
Somewhere in Aurobon, deep beneath the city of Vermia, General Hekken stood in the middle of a white, brightly lit laboratory and looked at the clear liquid that filled the glass tank in front of him. His long, black leather overcoat and peaked cap contrasted sharply with the sterile glare of his surroundings and his boots creaked as he leant forward to get a better view. Suspended inside the tank was a translucent bag filled with a dark liquid. Within the bag he could make out the movements of many small, yellow objects.
Hekken grimaced. Watching deadly viruses swim around inside the detached stomach of a mosquito was not his idea of a good time. But, he supposed, these things had to be done.
The thin man in the white coat next to him tapped his watch and nodded at the contents of the tank. Thats the longest theyve survived so far, he said, with a definite hint of pride in his voice. Nearly an hour.
Hekken watched as the strange, yellow organisms floated slowly past on the other side of the glass. Each consisted of a spongy, bulbous growth which tapered down into five thin tentacles waving behind like the fronds of a sea anemone.
An hour, repeated Hekken. Am I supposed to be impressed by this?
A worried expression appeared on the face of the other man. An hour represents good progress, he said nervously. Survival rates were virtually nil when we first injected them.
As he spoke, the bag inside the tank ruptured and the darker fluid began to leak out into the surrounding liquid, forming black clouds that swirled and spiralled down towards the bottom of the tank. Hekken noticed that the viruses had stopped moving. He sighed heavily and took off his cap.
Copyright (c) April 2006, Bloomsbury Press (USA). All rights reserved.
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