Ivan pulls out a different flash drive, inserts that into the laptop, and his XO turns out the lights again. Ivan glances up. “For those of you who are not familiar with bugs, this is one of the most highly classified parts of our work.”
That first picture of the fallen bug always shocks them. Maybe it’s the distorted face, or the stained housedress. Its white crab claws are tangled in heavy stainless-steel fishing mesh. The swampers know how to make snares for anything.
The timed series shows the body melting away, decomposing. Nothing about it is natural; there is none of the orderly progression of scavengers. Barely hours after death, its torso is already buried in fungal mats. The human skeleton falls apart unnaturally fast, the pelvis gone to crumbs in days. Only the hollow shells of the crab claws are left behind.
“That was a 36-year-old housewife from Terrebonne Parish who vanished ten weeks before these remains were found. Her husband and kids were never found. Reportedly she chased down a law enforcement truck, running barefooted at sixty miles an hour on a sandy levee. She yanked the driver out the open side window, three hundred fifty pound military veteran, tossed him sixty feet away into the pines, gone. Then she reached in for the passenger, but he got lucky. The vehicle crashed, the passenger dove into the bayou, he barely escaped. Word to the wise–if it’s deep enough water, salt or fresh, the bugs generally won’t follow you in. We don’t know why.”
“Six months after that, the kidnapped driver was ID’ed among the dead at a raid site. He’d been implanted as a bug. He was shot down with other bug troops who were attacking a group at a parish church.”
A series of crooked cell phone pictures shows people in slashed, muddy church clothes holding children, carrying people wrapped in bandages, or crouched in the cover of brick walls reloading an assortment of shotguns, machine pistols, and hunting rifles of wide vintage. He says, “Perhaps they didn’t expect a church group to be that heavily armed, but they’d been having raids from several bug labs in the area that year. Maybe these bugs came from further out. It’s a little unclear what their intent was.”
“As always,” says the smartest person in the bunch, annoyed. Joyeux still looks about fourteen, wearing her ruffled pink shirt and fluffy black skirt and striped stockings.
Ivan aims the laser pointer at a screen list of names of kidnap victims by parish in the area around New Orleans for six years prior. Ivan clicks to the next screenshot, a list of recovered remains. It shows asterisks for those found tangled with with bug parts. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell which one of several bodies had the implants.
Ivan looks at the polymath in the ruffled shirt, nods at her.
She says, “Strange things happen to human bodies when bugs implant them. Like social insects, they have specialized types. The basic worker drone in these pictures, you can see the reach on those claws. On raids, there’s a scouting type who leads lots of the worker drones. Scouts can move too fast for our snipers to keep a gun scope trained on them. And there’s even faster types known.”
Ivan pulls up diagrams of those, then the roster of known types.
The polymath goes on, “Here’s centralized command types we’ve confirmed at the raid level. They control regular bug troops with highly modulated UHF signals. These other types have standard military purposes.”
He clicks through diagrams and some rare few photos, allowing her to explain each shot.
She says, “Shock troop cavalry, sappers, engineers, distance artillery, area-effect bombardiers, some little bitty insectoid drone-type air surveillance, support troops like quartermasters who drive ordinary trucks. Those guys provide 50-gallon drums of sugary fluid when the bug troops don’t have enough to scavenge, out in desert areas where they last longer. They don’t bother feeding them in the swamps, such as Dismal. They don’t last long enough. The locals tell us that by the second day the bugs are starving, they’ll eat raid victims, scavenge anything organic, rip logs open for the termites. Byt the third or fourth day they’re falling apart in a wet climate.”
Ivan puts up some sat shots, nods at his XO.
The XO says, “They’re pumping out numbers to generate so many raids. These bug troops make moderately effective terror weapons, but how are they processing so many kidnapping vics? Among the briefing notes there, we gave estimates on their logistics. We have theories on where the raids are coming from, the reasons, who’s testing new prototypes, who’s buying their services.”
The XO waits for the rustle of paper to die down, and nods at Ivan for the next pictures. He says, “These shots are sat scans taken in IF with artificial contrast, next to daytime shots of the sort you might see anywhere online. This is where they’re making bugs out of bodies taken prisoner.”
The infrared shots show huge regular compounds which don’t show up at all on the ordinary commercial sat shots. “They’ve put up camouflage netting to hide it in the regular visual spectrum, but honestly, they’re not even trying hard on the rest of the spectrum.”
His new Coroner says sharply, “They must be pretty sure no authority will care.”
Ivan smiles. “Then we’re doing our job right, for now.”
She grunts, nods, and goes back to speed-reading the briefing notes.
One of the medical corpsmen asks, “You said earlier Subject Mary is of interest because he’s so damn fast. You think he can fight bugs?”
Ivan says, “I think he’s not trained or equipped for it, no, but the raw speed and force are certainly there. We do not have directives to train or equip him under the current circumstances. That may change if conditions shift. As I said, our current mandate is observational only. Any questions?”
“Is Subject Joseph likely to lose Subject Mary to those bug labs?” says another medical corpsman, worried. “I mean, take all his traits and make him into a bug–”
Ivan nods for the biologist to take that question.
The biologist snorts. “Oh, it’s worse than you think. Subject Mary’s telomeres don’t shorten with each cell division, the way they ought to–in the way that stops us from cloning most animals. That means anybody could clone that guy’s stem cells. We could do it, if we substituted the nuclei in donor eggs, implanted those in surrogate mothers, like they did with Dolly the sheep. Humans are harder, but it’s been done. We think bug labs do harder things all the time. All our sighting reports prove they hold human bodies for weeks while the bug implants settle in. Now, if they did clone Subject Mary into human eggs, the clone babies would still have to grow up, they gotta raise those babies like regular kids. After the kids are a decent size, then they could implant entire bug armies into copies of that body. There’s something to look forward to.”
“Hate it when you do that high-tech happy talk that you do,” says the polymath in the striped socks. “When our pet optimist says Mary’s telomeres don’t shorten, anybody know what else that means?”
“Cancers?” says the third medical corpsman, after a silence.
“Plus cell cultures that can divide and live forever,” says the Coroner.
Joyeux snorts. “With no idea what it means for our subject’s personal longevity. Yeah, there’s been some discussion whether maybe Subject Mary should die in a fire before the bugs can kidnap his bad, bad little ass.”
“Too late,” says Ivan’s XO. Everybody looks at him. Ivan nods, and he goes on, “I said earlier we had some big news– results just came in. We’ve already found a large group of grown men with the same mRNA sampling results. All kinds of apparent age range in there, birth documents give them a spread of ninety years, lots of odd health problems–so, no idea who did it, or when. They’re all pale guys, not like our guy Mary, but that’s trivial. Regular gel electrophoresis for regular DNA set off all our alarms, so we ran regular sequencing on some distinctive areas. Their genetics are extremely close to Mary’s. Closer than full siblings. Clones.”
The biologist rests his head in his hands. “Yeah, yeah, c’mon folks, stop yelling. It’s news to me too. Nobody knew when we were gonna get the sequencing results back.”
“What do you mean by large group?” asks their new Coroner.
“Well over two hundred identified subjects, about one fifth of them deceased,” says the XO. Over the gabble of questions, he holds up one hand. “But the bug troops have passed up some of those live guys. Bug soldiers had the chance to grab clones during four different raids out there in Virginia, near Dismal Swamp, ran right past them, and the clones started shooting, bug troops got shot all to bits. The clone guys over there are heroes in the local stories, that’s how we noticed them in the first place. These clone guys actually seem to repel bugs. Of course we’d like to know why.”
“They probably smell wrong,” says the polymath. “Like Subject Mary smells all odd to people.”
“Does he really?” the corpsman asks.
Other people nod at the question. The biologist asks, “You ever smelled a snake den?”
“More like some kinda freakin’ raptor dinosaur,” the surveillance squad sergeant says with relish, as if she’s proud of it.
The corpsman frowns. “So do you think the family could bribe or threaten Joseph into– I mean, what guarantee do we have that Joseph’s icky relatives wouldn’t just kidnap Mary and sell him off?”
The biologist grins. “None, my cynical friend. No guarantees at all.”
“So do we just sit by and observe if somebody does try to take him?”
The sergeant snorts. “That trio? They’d probably deal with it before we could help out. Subject Joseph has said he served in Afghanistan just after the Soviets pulled out, we haven’t confirmed that. He told his partners that he fought bugs out there, nearly got killed by them. We have recordings of that trio talking about their nightmares. All three of them talk about being chased by bugs.”
Joyeux chuckles. “So yeah, we believe there’s a zero risk of Subject Joseph voluntarily cooperating with bug labs.”
“He finds out, he won’t tolerate bug labs operating on Navarre properties in the way that past family members have.” The XO’s tone can be very dry. “Once he finds out, the money is not gonna impress that guy.”
“You mean there’s going to be a helluva row when he turns things upside down and shakes the whole damn family tree?” says the Napoleonic scholar, with relish.
“If the law firm shares that data with him. They have been avoiding it,” says Ivan’s XO.
“Ahhh, because the money does impress them?”
“Yeah,” says Ivan’s XO.
“So do we know if the trio really have fought bugs?” the new Coroner demands. She waves at one of the thicker wads of report. “Subject Joseph’s burn scars don’t prove what made them.”
“We haven’t been able to trace where any of the trio might have been when they got traumatized like that.” The polymath scowls at the sergeant, who scowls back.
“So, if there’s no proof, why would we believe the story?” the Coroner demands.
“A skeptic,” the biologist says. “I like it.”
“You would,” says the polymath in the fluffy skirt, and snorts. Then Joyeux says, “Subject Mary drew some… quite accurate bug anatomy pictures, trying to explain things to his partners. Where would he have learned it?”
Before the Coroner can speak, the XO holds up a hand. “Yes, we’ve got scans of his drawings. That comes next in the fun and games today.”
Ivan pulls up a different computer file.
The XO says, “Subject Mary did some pretty accurate sketches, we think Subject Joseph drew in the scale markings on it. Here Mary diagrammed how the back of the claw is bumpy, serrated, like an arthropod. There’s good detail on the hinge. This next drawing shows a bug that’s bigger than any bug we’ve seen so far. He described this as a nest guard, not just one of the regular drones. In the ordinary drone bugs, this joint can give a back-handed slap that punches holes in truck door panels and cuts people in half, not just smashing flesh wounds.”
Ivan clicks through a series of slides. He says, “More sketches we found recently. Here’s the extra sensors along the base of a long antennae found on scout bugs who also scent-trail. We know those details are accurate. Here, Subject Mary drew out how two bugs can lock together to form what he calls a mantis bug. He said it shoots a laser-based distance weapon. Which is what Subject Joseph said burned him in combat. Which, reportedly, is cutting the hell out of Red Army units out in the western Taklamakan desert.” Sat photos show burned-out Chinese tanks. A few shots are marked with indicators of the range of the weapons.
“The mantis power requirements, that’s the damnable thing we can’t figure–” mutters one of the physicists.
Ivan nods. “Other important concepts in Mary’s drawings haven’t been confirmed. Too much for our time today, so you were given a list of items which look like serious trouble if they are true. If you see any signs of confirmation within your areas of expertise, run to get that data to us.”
“Hornet bug?” says one of the medical corpsmen, horrified.
The polymath says coolly, “Yeah, that’s an area-effect weapon, the bug explodes in a cloud of gas. Chemical warfare, like the sarin gas attack in Japan. No confirmation yet but some odd incidents point to that. It may all be fairy tales, or the whole bug may be self-consuming. Nothing much left after 48 hours.”
Ivan says, “We got a tourist’s cell phone footage of a striped black and yellow bug exploding onto a building in NOLA, but 24 hours later, our agent found very little evidence at the site. Just some evaporating oily stains.”
The sergeant rolls her eyes. “Talk about plausible deniability.”
“Eeeeww. Thank you, I didn’t want to break for lunch anyway.” The polymath in the fluffy skirt makes a face.
Ivan says, “Good, let’s move on to our camera project. Now, shifting to evidence which we do have.”
The XO works on a different laptop. “Always fun, attempting surveillance in swampy areas of the Southern states. Our photographers adapted dive casings for high-speed cameras. Sometimes they get startling stuff out in the woods. Damn bugs seem to hear camera drives a good thousand yards away, which means regular living must be painful to them.”
The blurry video shows ordinary bug drones running in cut-over woods. They are freshly hatched. The claw arms have just begun to emerge from their bellies, swinging at nothing, agitated. “Notice how our high-speed cameras are still not fast enough on those claw-snap gestures. They use a trigger formed like that of mantis shrimp, which we are also studying.”
Joyeux says, “So, hey, Ben, when are your optics crew gonna cough up what they found out about bug-type vs. shrimp polarized eyesight?”
The biologist just growls, slouching in his seat. “Not for awhile. Need better samples.”
“Oh, hey, did those ugly Hawaiian sewage buckets of yours crack another tank this week?” The polymath fluffs her skirt.
The biologist glares. “They’re called stomatopods.”
The XO holds up a hand. “You guys can argue after the meeting.”
“–first we’d have to be able to preserve soft tissues for evidence, we can’t just assume the bugs use hyperspectral and circumpolarized light vision just because the calcareous remains are similar to stomatopods–” the biologist mutters.
“Mmm, has anybody figured how to test Subject Mary for that kind of thing? He sees awfully well in low light too. Or how about those other guys, those clones? You can imagine this arms race going on, huh?” She smiles sweetly.
“Not yet, no, we haven’t tested Mary for anything like that. Observational mandate only, remember?”
“Let’s get back to bugs. Aging bugs,” the XO says firmly.
Ivan nods, and the XO clicks on another video of bugs.
These bugs are staggering through the same woods. They look drunk, imbalanced, their joints coming apart under them like the legs of horror movie zombies. “They last about four days in wet swamp, longer in dry conditions like that Chinese desert. Or in Afghanistan. Red Army estimates say each Taklamakan bug lasts about a month to six weeks.”
The polymath says, “Tell them about the bees!”
Ivan nods agreement.
The XO says, “The swampers say various species of bees don’t like bugs. Any colonial bees, not just European honey bees, will swarm at that smell and attack bugs. That includes you if you got bug juice on you while fighting. Agitated bees are the best warning you’ll get of bugs raiding in the area, too. But the bee colonies are getting scarce down there near the bug labs. Some large property owners, like those guys with the Navarre properties, have hired aerial spray companies to kill bees for over a decade now. These are official campaigns to eradicate Africanized bees, somehow they get parish funding in spite of other budget constraints.” The XO clicks through pictures of company logos on choppers and on biplanes fitted with spray bars.
“Thing is, spraying ins’t justified. Normal commercial hives in these areas are not aggressive until bug troops get near their hives or foraging areas. Bees can smell that stink for miles.”
There’s a picture of bee swarms coating bodies so thickly the details cannot be seen.
“You really want to wash it off quick with soap, use some kind of degreaser, if you ever get bug ichor on you.” Ivan’s XO uses a laser pointer to indicate one body left alone by the bees. “Human, there. Killed by a bug just before the bees swarmed.”
“So we checked bee genetics. Are those dangerous Africanized strains? No. The spray campaigns are unjustified. But it turns out the African species of bees really hate bugs, and bug labs. That might explain why bug labs haven’t set up in places like Congo or Nigeria or any of the rift lakes. If the aggressive bee strains weren’t so dangerous to people and livestock, we’d want to import them here.”
“Question– why don’t the bees attack those buildings directly? The places you’re calling bug labs?” one of the database specialists asks.
The biologist is rubbing his eyes again, but he says, “Excellent question. No, we don’t know why. It might have something to do with scent, again, something that’s hard for humans to notice and test for. We can’t get in close enough to those places to take swabs off things. We speculate that maybe the labs have something painted on exterior walls or walkways which kills or repels bees if they get close. We know the Kurds on the Pakistani border, especially in bug raid areas, will paint stuff on trees and walls of houses to attract bees. They want bees around, they’ll tell you they want their fruit trees and their poppies pollinated–lots of poppy fields up there– but it’s also because the bees give them warning, maybe even stop the bugs.”
Ivan clicks on pictures of caves. “The other folks who really swear by bees are the Afghans, up in the mountains. These are folks living near smuggling caves where opiates get stashed before heading north over the passes. As with China, in dry lowlands, the bug drone types last days and days longer than they do in our swamps. They also have some other weird comm types with some really odd signal-jamming capability.”
He pulls up pictures of a burned French personnel carrier. “Villagers there have seen platoons of American carriers fold up like paper, choppers fall out of the sky, missiles twirl back and hit their own batteries. Freak air currents, like hell. Nobody believed it when the Afghans or the Pakis or the Kurds talked about it. But we know that nothing in NATO-compatible gear that marched up to those caves has ever been recovered.”
There’s a rare few vids of combat sequences. The XO says, “Some clever Syrian pimp figured out how to use online auctions to sell footage of troops skewered by crab-arms, some of them Pakis, some ours. One vid pinned it down to which actual caves it was. Our surveillance engineers put gobbling noises through their audio editing lab. Most of the troops never had time to respond.”
One vid provides shouts, Bandit, two-thirty. There’s only three shouts for info on possible targets they’d been told about in briefings. Bogie dope, bogie dope.
If Ivan never hears that phrase again, it’ll be too damn soon.
The XO goes on, “Nobody even knows what targets they got briefed on. A series of car bombs took out a bird colonel and four of his staff in Kandahar, and then suspiciously sudden ill health struck here at home, too. Two senior one-stars died of heart attacks in Virginia, and another is relearning how to use a spoon. It may be a civil war we’re fighting.”
Ivan looks around at the faces of the people in the room, while the still shots of the bug remains click through. The fierce old Seminole woman in the claw-torn apron always gets to them. So do the shots of the cars with the scraped, punctured doors, the burnt-out church where bug-fueled flamethrowers went through.
Of course Ivan has his statistics unit chopping data on all that money sloshing in and out of those bug lab compounds. Somebody will tell him to back off if he’s doing it right–give him a hint where the rot has reached. Or maybe put him in the bed next to the one-star who’s learning to feed himself.
It’s just a question how much his team can get first.
“It took our first forensic pathologist six weeks to assemble decent information on the bug remains we had. It doesn’t make for pretty reports.” Ivan takes a breath. “And just so nobody gets the news in garbled fashion, yes, our previous Coroner was a casualty of a large, sustained bug raid five months ago. He got us our first good samples during that raid, but it got him killed.”
The Coroner grunts. “I’ve read his summaries. Sloppy work if you want it to stand up in courts-martial.”
Courts-martial. That hangs silently in the room for awhile.
The Coroner glances up, cool as ice. “The lack of detailed workups is understandable under crisis conditions, but nobody was moving fast enough to capture remains that fall apart that fast. Records like that would never hold up under inquiry.”
“You think you can do better?” asks the polymath.
“Given resources to get there timely, of course. My predecessor was much more interested in studying how to fix the specimens properly, stop their deterioration. He was right. Absolutely, that process had to come first. Giving field staff simple procedures to preserve things is vital for establishing normal ranges on ordinary drone bugs. Even more so for studying less common types.”
The XO pauses, looks down at a cell phone text, shows it to Ivan, who nods. The XO says, “Some good news, folks. The photo team got pictures to confirm reports of mantis bugs in Mississippi. And the folks down there nailed one in an ambush using carbon fiber crossbows.”
“Lucky,” says the sergeant, in her dry voice.
“No kidding,” says the XO. “They say they pickled the bug for us in cheap vodka two nights ago, and last night they added the stuff we’ve asked them to use on bug remains, but it might be pretty late for that. Yeah, they say it’s in pieces already.”
The biologist groans, the physicists make faces. Ivan’s team and his superiors groan whenever he updates them on new bugs, what kind of human bodies they’re using as implant victims, and what maybe the specialist kinds can do. Most of the personnel in this meeting room are too new at it to groan, but they will.
Ivan’s XO reads a followup email on his laptop. Frowning, he says, “Witness testimony said a weird head-jerk thing happened when the bugs changed tactics in the field. They scattered and split up after they lost the mantis bug, but they kept fighting.”
The biologist snaps, “Bugs generally don’t fall back, they don’t scatter, they don’t run away. It’s been anecdotal that bugs are capable of breaking up into small units under local command, but nobody had proof before.”
Ivan says, “They don’t do it often, which suggests problems. We want to know what those problems are.” He nods to his XO.
“Along with figuring out Subject Mary’s capabilities and provenance, learning those same things about this–” the XO’s forefinger points up at the picture of a denim-clad farmer sprawled over fractured white crab claws on the side of a muddy road, “–is our current operational mandate.”
“I still want to know how in hell anybody in authority combined those two things. Subject Mary’s drawings of bugs came late in the course of surveillance, right? So how did anybody tie in features of interest on Subject Mary with ways and means for stopping bugs?” the Coroner narrows her eyes at all of them.
The polymath smiles at her. “Oh, you mean, checking on that chain of bureaucratic command there, along with my idea of checking out all those HQ personnel who really don’t like bees?”
The biologist scowls. “We don’t have proof there’s covert urban bugs.”
“Just lots of rumors,” the polymath shoots back. “Besides, hey, a reasonable question. Why did HQ hire us first, and then combine these two surveillance cases? Is it just administrative history, just accidentally who worked with who some decades ago, is it just some chain of command thing, or– is there other relevant information that we’re missing?”
“Civilians ask the damnedest things,” says the XO, straight-faced.
The squad sergeant snorts. “We’d like to know that too. Subject Joseph really doesn’t talk about bug combat much. We were doing surveillance for awhile before we picked that up. He said Subject Mary rappelled down a line from a chopper, saved his ass in combat, and drove off bugs to do it. He even said he didn’t know how Mary drove off bugs. We got that a long time after we started working on this. So… how did anybody know there was any connection?”
The polymath makes a prissy face, and mimics, “That’s not in our operational mandate. Such unjustified paranoia–“
“No, but it might impact our survival in the field,” drawls the sergeant.
Ivan shakes his head. “Folks, hate to say it, but you know asking won’t get us anywhere. ‘Humor us, please tell us, paranoia is a built-in feature of our training,’ won’t get us any new answers.”
The polymath says, “Oh, so you tried already.”
“Right,” Ivan agrees, not blinking. “Give me some new evidence, I might get somewhere with it. Coming in with data, saying, ‘These are the facts, I know what you’re up to, here’s how we can help out on this bug problem,’ is a very different argument.”
The polymath sits up straight. “Or how about saying, ‘Now, right, we know, and this is how we’re putting a stop to it right now.'”
Ivan still doesn’t blink. You don’t dare blink in arguments with Joyeux. “That takes a lot more work, just for sorting out what’s happening and what choices we have going forward. That’s not the easy road.”
The polymath flops back noisily in her chair. “Wouldn’t want that, would we? Might get bored.”
Ivan coughs gently into his hand, and meets the gaze of the new Coroner. “Oh, I don’t think there’s a lot of risk of that with the new forensic data that’s been coming in. If you’d like to present what you’ve got so far on the Moldovan cases?”