From the author: Dr. Cole Optera’s experiments in teaching insects how to communicate has unexpected consequences which force him to re-think his idea.
Dr. Cole Optera leaned in toward the tiny, six-legged creature. Its unblinking eyes stared back at him.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Say something.”
The creature sat silently. Its leg twitched. Not precisely the sign of intelligence he’d been hoping for, not after all the time and effort. Not after all the ridicule.
Optera sighed and set the beetle back in its enclosure. There was still something wrong with his methods... some factor he wasn’t considering. He rubbed his head. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to concentrate. When he opened them, he caught sight of the digital clock, its bright red numbers chastising him for being up so late, for skipping dinner (again), and for drinking too much coffee past sundown.
Resignedly, Optera stumbled to the hotel room bed and threw himself upon it, still fully clothed in the slacks and button-down shirt he’d donned so many hours ago for his conference presentation. He flicked the light off on the beetle sitting perfectly still in his enclosure.
If he’d stayed awake a moment longer to tidy up his workstation, then he might have heard the bug, with a voice no louder than a whisper, say “Hello?”
If he’d have paused for another moment to double-check the lid on the beetle’s enclosure, none of it might have happened.
Sleek, smooth glass. Climbing, crawling. Upward.
Carpet. Cleaning solution, harsh and sharp.
A door, closed. Squeeze under through the tiny space. Freeze in the shock of bright light.
Frantic crawling. Under again. Back into the dark.
A noise. A being. Breathing.
Up the woven cloth. Closer to the noise.
A head. A face. An earlobe. Concentrate, form the words.
Across the hall from Dr. Optera's room, Dr. Jennifer Lorenz woke with a start. She scratched her ear and rolled over, but her mind was already awake with that awful, nagging feeling that she'd forgotten something... something very important.
"Food?" she muttered to herself. Why was she thinking of food? Did she forget to have dinner again? These conferences were always a bit hit or miss with the meals. She'd spend far too much time trying to catch the eye of a generous donor or the attention of an expert in her field, and by the time she made it to the buffet table, the caterers would already be cleaning up.
But no, she had eaten today. She'd ordered a burger in the bar downstairs afterward while she talked with that crazy lunatic scientist, the one who was trying to teach his beetles how to talk. After finishing her burger, she'd wrapped up the fries in a napkin and made some excuse, anything to get away from his ravings. These kind of conferences always brought out the weird ones.
And yet... there was something about food.
Unable to remain still, she sat up in her bed and leaned over to the nightstand where she'd kept her purse. She never liked to leave it too far away in strange places like this. The zipper stuck, but she managed to pry it open and took out the napkin-wrapped fries. For some reason just having them out of her purse, sitting on the nightstand, made her feel more settled. Obviously, she must have simply been worried that she'd forget them, like that apple she'd put in there once and forgotten about until it was nothing but a pile of mush in the bottom.
She clicked off the light, yawned, and rolled over. With the peaceful satisfaction that she'd remembered something very important, she drifted back off to sleep.
The rooms are full of food for us.
They give us all we need.
Wait in the day, tucked into the mattresses’ layers.
Tonight, we talk. Tomorrow, we feast again.
Optera couldn’t sleep. He had new beetles shipped to the hotel room overnight, but when he came back from his shower, they – like the others – were gone. He spent the evening tearing apart the room, combing the carpet to discover how they’d escape. This conference was going to be a complete bust without at least something to show the others during his final presentation. He'd have preferred to have his original beetles, but even brand-new ones would do for demonstrating his methods. He certainly couldn't demonstrate with an empty cage.
He needed more beetles, and he needed them fast.
Unfortunately, it seemed that his only solution was to beg for some off that worthless Dr. Pitterknuckle, the only other scientist he knew of that would have brought beetles to the conference.
“Can I help you, Dr. Optera?” The clerk, Jillian, asked as he leaned over the front desk.
“Yes. I need to know the room number for a Dr. Pitterknuckle.”
“Room 153, sir."
"Thank you." Optera turned to leave, but as he did, he noted a plated sandwich at his feet.
“What is this?”
“This sandwich. Did you put that there?”
“Why, yes. I’m feeding the hungry.”
“Well, the hungry." Jillian screwed up her face. "Bugs, perhaps. Yes. They need food, too, don’t they?”
“Well, how do you know they’re hungry? Do you always leave food out for them?”
“I… I just know,” Jillian said, shrugging. “Doesn’t everyone leave food out for the bugs? It’s the sympathetic thing to do. Humane.”
“Where did you hear that? In school? On TV? On the news?”
“Well, no. I don’t rightly recall.”
Optera frowned as he made his way down the corridor to room 153. At each of the doorways sat a plate or napkin, on which rested some sort of food. "What is wrong with these people?" he muttered under his breath, though he had a sinking feeling he might already know.
Reaching room 153, he knocked on Pitterknuckle's door.
The man who answered was thick and red-faced, with a carefully trimmed, white beard. Optera had often wondered if, during the holiday season, children mistook him for Santa.
"What do you want, Optera?" he bellowed.
"I... I was wondering if I might borrow some of your beetles for tomorrow's presentation. Mine seem to have gone missing. I thought I might offer to buy you lunch today to compensate." He glanced over his colleague’s shoulder. “Oh, never mind. I see you’ve already ordered room service.”
“I did?” Pitterknuckle turned around and stared in awe at the mounding plate of food on the table. “Oh. I suppose I did. No, actually, that’s not for me.”
“I’m sorry,” Optera said. “Were you expecting company?”
Pitterknuckle scratched his beard and then turned a brighter shade of red as though remembering something embarrassing. “It’s for the bugs.”
“The bugs? Your bugs you mean?”
“Sure. Bugs have to eat, too.” He nudged Optera into the hall and pulled the door shut behind him. “Come on, let’s go down to lunch.”
We reproduce faster when we’re so well-fed.
It’s time to move to bigger pastures.
Tagalong creatures in bellhop’s pockets and maid's creaking carts.
Let us feast, and feast some more.
Dr. Optera sat at a bar stool, staring at his drink.
Before him, the barkeeper had mounded up piles of crackers and hot wings and potato crisps and burgers. In fact, every kind of food that the restaurant served was also laid out on the table. Optera, misinterpreting this generosity, had reached for a fry, only to be scolded by the barkeeper.
"Oy! That's not for you, man! Feeding the less fortunate, here!"
The 'less fortunate' refused to show their beady, bug-eyed faces, nor would they answer when Optera ran through the hallways, calling out to them, begging for them to see reason. The other guests had heard, of course, and threatened to call the authorities.
"Those little monsters." Optera slammed down his drink. "They're abusing the powers I gave them!"
A woman who'd been sitting two bar stools down took one look at him, picked up her drink, and found a different table.
But how else could they be staging this coup? They must be doing something to turn this hotel into a landfill of half-eaten food. There had to be a way to correct this imbalance.
"Hey, weren't you talking with that pretty scientist last time you were in here?" the barkeeper asked. "I take it that didn't work out?"
"Who? Dr. Lorenz? Oh, no. We aren't together. She's just a colleague. She studies..."
"What?" the barkeeper asked. "What does she study?"
Optera threw back the last of his drink, placed a few dollars on the table atop some egg rolls, and raced from the bar.
Lazy and well-fed, the food now comes to us.
They do just what we say.
With their malleable minds and their unending stores of food.
This is the life we deserve.
Resting, eating, rest some more.
We didn’t even hear them coming.
The terrible creatures with their too-many legs.
They spun their webs among us.
Initially, Dr. Lorenz wished that that crazy Optera hadn't included her in his presentation. After all, she wouldn't want anyone to think that she had anything to do with that insane experiment of his, even if she did provide the solution that put an end to the beetle's feeding frenzy.
“I believe,” he said at his entomology talk (the most well-attended one he’d ever given) “that the beetles, with their new understanding of human language, were using it to their advantage. The sleeping mind is quite open to suggestion, and the beetles somehow knew this. Their desire to be fed was perhaps simple, but left the ecosystem unbalanced. Therefore, I had to restore the balance using their natural predators."
His speech did receive a standing ovation, though, particularly from the hotel owners. They only now, it seemed, realized what a disaster it would have been had the health inspectors found out. After the speech, Dr. Optera brought her the carefully packaged box containing her spiders.
"I couldn't have done it without you, you know. They were quite effective hunters. A toast," Dr. Optera declared, holding up a glass of champagne, "to Dr. Lorenz and her spiders."
Well, maybe he isn't all that bad, she thought as the crowd clapped politely for her. Her dislike for him softened even more when the conference director asked her to be next year's guest of honor, and it disappeared entirely when a rich investor offered to fund her next twelve months of study.
Back in her hotel room, after a glorious evening of basking in complements and praise, Dr. Lorenz double-checked her pillow for bugs. She lay down, and – exhausted from the exciting, unexpected events of the day – she closed her eyes and allowed herself sleep.
If she’d stayed awake a moment longer to tidy up her workstation, then she might have noticed the spiders, with a coordinated effort that was most un-spiderlike, spin a web resembling a ladder up the edge of the enclosure.
If she’d have paused for another moment to double-check the lid on the spiders' enclosure, none of it might have happened.
With the words of the two-leggeds, we negotiated.
We will uphold our end of the bargain.
Six-legged and eight-legged together.
In time, the world will be ours.
This story originally appeared in Acidic Fiction.