It’d been alive at one time, I think. Certainly looked like living tissue, however abstract. The first one simply a cluster of organs in a paper thin sack, like a placenta. In various spots, what looked like partially formed insect wings jutted out from the piteous mass. The one in the next case over discernibly less malformed, but still impossible to identify as any creature familiar to me.
This one had most of a body, but every limb save for one simply terminated in a stump. The one fully formed limb looked to be the arm of a baby. Protruding from its shoulder blade was a single fully developed insect wing about the span of my elbow to my wrist.
When I got close enough to the glass, perhaps sensing it, the wing abruptly began beating. At such a rapid rate I could hardly see it, the vibration rattling the cases to either side. “And yet it moves”, I whispered to myself. “And yet it moves.”
“I distinctly remember instructing you to stay put, yes?” I felt a firm grip on the base of my neck. “What have you done” I muttered, unable to take my eyes off the biological atrocities before me. “You give me too much credit. I’d have no idea where to start creating something like this. They were found this way when this compound was first seized. The enemy hadn’t any chance to set fire to it, as they did the labs of every other colony we’d claimed until then.”
My stomach turned. I put one hand on my stomach and struggled to keep my breakfast down. “What are they?” The voice took on a thoughtful tone, plainly much more accustomed to such sights than myself. “Well they didn’t do this surgically. No sign of stitches, no scars or anything of that nature. Each possesses different features of both Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and Acarina Sepulchrum. The common grave mite.
What’s known of evolutionary history precludes the birth of successful offspring between the two, nor anything even so developed as what you see. Mammals and insects are simply too distantly related for any possibility to exist of hybridizing the two by…ahem…conventional means. Figuring out how they managed this is the primary goal of my research.”
I winced, continually trying to look away. But every little twitch of its nubs captivated me. Witness to a crime against the divine author of life, supreme trespass against the animal kingdom and natural world it arose from. No natural circumstances could birth this. For what possible reason had the coldbloods debased themselves in this way?
“All’s fair in love and war, they say. These creatures are certainly not the product of love, but of the desperate ingenuity of an enemy which, at the time, we had on the ropes. The fact that we’ve not yet seen any hybrids on the battlefield suggests they regarded this line of research as a dead end, or ill advised. Perhaps there are depths to which even the dead will not sink.
I, on the other hand, do not limit myself in such a way. Least of all when uncovering the secrets of this project could hold the key to turning the tide of the war, even in the eleventh hour. That’s what drives me, anyway. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Even if they felt there was no need to continue down this path when existing weapons and tactics were proving successful, I hope I may yet find some diamond in this dungheap that will vindicate my persistence. That will justify everything I’ve so far done, and still have left to do.”
He handed me some bulky headgear which, when he audibly flipped a switch on the rear of it, revealed itself by a pair of dim red lights to be the same manner of goggles he himself had on. “Put these on. I’ve removed all the bulbs in the room, the others are terribly sensitive to light.” Others? I slipped the goggles over my eyes and, as I adjusted to the new light level, nearly wet myself.
Row after row after row of incubators, like a nursery. But inside of each, what I now realized the atrocities I’d seen before were merely aborted versions of. Infants, only possible to mistake for human from a distance, with various insectoid features. Some with three sets of beady black eyes and long, delicate antennae protruding from beneath them. Others with the bulbous compound eyes familiar to me from male grave mites I’d encountered in the trenches.
The one nearest me suckled on its segmented, chitinous thumb with glistening mouth parts as little vestigial wing nubs on its back periodically vibrated. Instinctively I tried to back away, but the door was on the other side of the mess before me. The great, unforgivable offense. I’d not come ready for this and still couldn’t accept it, even as it surrounded me. I began to whimper.
“Oh stiffen up. You’ve seen worse in the trenches, I’d wager. And if in the end we are swallowed up by the dead, what difference will any of this have made? If instead we can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, who will judge us? Do the victors not write the history? Will anyone still alive by then truly condemn me for doing what was necessary to ensure the future of our kind?”
I had nothing to say. Instead, as I noticed he held a pristine mercury arc rectifier in his extended hand, I took it and followed the outer wall to the exit. On the way I switched off my goggles as soon as I felt sure I could make it to the door without them. I simply didn’t want to see any more if I could help it. As I set the goggles down just outside, I heard him quietly chuckling to himself. As if I was childish to react as I did.
Perhaps it really seemed that way to him, endless months slaving away in that darkened room of inexcusable errors warping his notion of human decency. I felt ashamed to realize that I could see his side of it, even if I didn’t ultimately agree. That, should he discover some miracle weapon, future generations would likely venerate him as a visionary and hero of the war. Textbooks would simply omit the ‘unnecessary details’ of exactly how he’d done it.
On my way back to the broadcast studio, I noticed more bulbs on the world map had gone dark. Faulty batch, they’d tell me. So I didn’t bother asking. Instead, I approached the cluster of agitated officers animatedly discussing the matter and eavesdropped as inconspicuously as I could manage.
“What do you mean, it’s gone? I received an inventory report from depot 109 by radio this morning. It can’t simply be gone.” Another reached out as if to calm him down, but be recoiled. “Overrun, just in the past hour. Manufacturing complex 320 as well. We over-extended our defenses, if you’ll recall I advised against it when it was proposed.” The other fellow made some sarcastic remark about the clarity of hindsight.
“Then we’ll recall the remaining tanks to the factories two hundred miles south and shore up their naval defense by re-routing carriers from-” The other fellow somberly shook his head. “You don’t mean to tell me…” But in fact, he did. “They didn’t stop at depot 109 but pressed their advantage, I just came back from listening to gunfire and screaming by radio. Couldn’t raise anybody of ours. Have a look at the board.”
The first fellow did a double take. Indeed, the light in question was now dark. I too could have sworn it was lit just a second ago. Our own bunker complex was the lone red bulb on the board, but it was rapidly being encroached upon by unlit bulbs on all sides. Our territory shrinking by the minute, gobbled up by the ravenous ranks of the dead.
The repairs went mercifully quickly. The magnetron was also faulty as it turned out, but I already had a replacement on hand. After giving the whole mess a few minutes to warm up, I had Betty try it out and received glowing approval soon after. “It’s going out clear as a bell! Why, I could kiss you!” I allowed it so as not to sour the occasion, and soon after was showered and ready to hit the hay.
Stay Tuned for Part 9!