Dr. Optera’s Intelligent Bugs
by Wendy Nikel
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 his 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 and 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 that he’d donned for his conference presentation so many hours before. He flicked off the light on the beetle, still sitting perfectly still in its 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?”
And if he’d have paused for another moment to double-check the lid on the beetle’s enclosure, nothing else would have happened.
Sleek, smooth glass. Climbing, crawling. Upward.
Carpet. Cleaning solution, harsh and sharp.
A door, closed. Squeezing under through the tiny space. Freezing 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. Concentrating, forming 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 an 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 meals. She’d spend far too much time trying to catch the eye of a generous donor or get 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 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 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 comfortable. Obviously, she must have simply been worried that she’d forget them, like the apple she’d put in there once and ignored 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’d 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 escaped. 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 them 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 who might have brought beetles to the conference.
The clerk, Jillian, asked as he leaned over the front desk.
“Can I help you, Dr. Optera?”
“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 sandwich on a plate 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 can’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 Claus.
“What do you want, Optera?” he bellowed.
“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. But 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 get lunch.”
We reproduce faster when we’re so well fed.
It’s time to move on to bigger pastures.
Tag along in bellhops’ pockets and maids’ creaking carts.
Let us feast, and feast some more.
Dr. Optera sat on 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 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? he thought. They must be doing something to turn this hotel into a landfill of half-eaten food. There has 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, resting 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 crazy Optera hadn’t included her in his presentation. After all, she didn’t want anyone to think that she’d had anything to do with that insane experiment of his, even if she did provide the solution that put an end to the beetles’ feeding frenzy.
“I believe,” he said at his entomology lecture (the best-attended talk he’d ever given), “that the beetles were using their new understanding of human language 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 politely clapped 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 12 months of research.
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—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, spinning a web like 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, nothing else would 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.
Copyright © 2015 Wendy Nikel