Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2020
Jason sat in his living room alone, as he did almost every night; but on this particular night, he really needed some company. It wasn’t a Saturday night, a traditional night to be out on a date, it was just a Wednesday night, a lonely Wednesday night. He wasn’t in any kind of relationship, since Sally had broken up with him three months earlier. “We can still be friends,” she suggested. Yeah, that always works out so well. He pulled out his phone and found Eric near the top of his contacts. He pressed call, and Eric answered after two rings.
“Hi, it’s Jason. You’re not busy, are you?” Jason was pretty sure the answer would be no. Eric was a good looking man, who even went to the gym once or twice a week, something Jason would never do, and yet, Eric never had a girlfriend as far as he could tell. Eric had joined their small startup two years ago, and he and Jason together comprised the entire software development team: website, e-commerce portal, inventory database, everything. They had become good friends, in and out of the office, sharing many of the same interests.
“Nothing going on over here,” said Eric. “What’s up?”
“It’s just too quiet, wanna come over for pizza and a movie? It’s been a while.”
“One of your campy science fiction movies I suppose?” asked Eric.
“Not campy – classic! I have all the classics from the 50’s and 60’s.”
“I know, I’m just teasing you. I like those movies too. Which one tonight? The Day of the Triffids? When Worlds Collide? Forbidden Planet?”
“I was thinking about – Them!”
Eric was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know that one.”
“From 1954. It’s about these giant ants, as big as people, that terrorize a town. Well just come over and you’ll see. And bring some beer, would you?”
“Sure. Always up for a new movie.”
Jason thought about ordering the pizza, but decided to wait, in case Eric wanted something different tonight. He set his phone down on the end table, walked across the room, and rifled through the discs on the shelves next to the large screen TV. For some reason, Them! was not amongst the T’s where it belonged. “I know it’s here somewhere,” he mumbled, as he started a sequential search. There were over 100 discs in the science-fiction section alone, so it took a few minutes to step through them all.
“Aha!” he announced, finding it in the M’s. He popped it in the player, and sat back down on his dark green couch, flipping the footrest up for comfort. He wouldn’t have to put it down again; Eric would knock on the door and let himself in, as he had done many times before. Indeed, Eric did just that ten minutes later. Cassey, a 35-pound terrier with a white body and a tan face, barked several times until she recognized Eric. Then she went back into her corner and flopped down in her soft doggy bed. Eric hung his jacket in the closet, walked over to the couch, and sat down on the far seat, leaving a space between the two men. The ends had footrests, so the middle seat was typically unoccupied, unless Cassey was in the mood for company. “Did you order the pizza?” Eric asked.
“No, I wanted to see if you wanted anything weird tonight, like anchovies or something.” Jason started the disc; there were at least eight minutes of trailers to slog through before the movie began.
“No,” Eric laughed. “But I wouldn’t mind artichoke hearts if that’s not too weird for you.”
“That’s fine.” Jason looked through his contacts for the familiar pizza shop, when Eric interrupted.
“You know … giant insects are physiologically impossible.”
Jason looked up from his phone. “What?”
“It’s a consequence of the square cube law,” Eric began, in his didactic voice. “Say you make an insect ten times as big. Its mass increases by ten cubed, or a thousand, but the cross sectional area of each leg increases by 10 squared, or one hundred.” He paused to let Jason digest the math. “The insect is one hundred times as strong but a thousand times as heavy. Maybe you could make the legs a little stronger, or wider, but to reach the size of people, you are scaling the ants up by four or five hundred. Their giant bodies would rest on the ground, and their skinny legs would be unable to lift the weight. They would just lie there, immobile.”
“I suppose,” said Jason, ignoring the trailer that chattered in front of him. “You’re spoiling the movie though.”
“And there’s another problem,” Eric continued unabated. “The ant consumes oxygen and generates carbon dioxide according to its volume, but it breathes through spiracles, little holes in the sides of its thorax, which only increase with surface area. Oxygen would never make it to the center of its huge body, and it would suffocate in just a couple minutes. You and I have lungs and a beating heart and miles and miles of veins and arteries to solve the square cube problem, but an insect doesn’t. In fact, almost every organ between your neck and waist is there because of the square cube law. They are all surface-area expanders. You can’t take in nutrients and expel waste through your cell wall, like a bacterium, thus you have intestines and kidneys and lungs and heart and stomach, and so on.”
“I suppose,” remarked Jason for the second time in five minutes. “But here’s the thing, you have to suspend all that science when you watch these movies. You don’t fuss about warp drive when you watch Star Trek, do you?”
“No,” replied Eric. He seemed lost in thought, and started talking out loud to no one in particular. “Now if I were the size of an ant, I would be truly over engineered. Let’s see, I’m about 1.8 meters tall, and a good-sized ant is maybe half a centimeter long, knowing that they don’t really stand up, so I’m scaling by 360.” Eric could do math in his head like a calculator, a skill that often came in handy at the office. You could almost see the wheels turning behind his dark brown eyes.
“I can lift half my weight without too much trouble, so in miniature, I could lift 180 times my weight, with my disproportionately thick, muscular arms and legs. Of course, my hair-thin bones might crack, or my spine might collapse, but I bet I could lift 50 or 60 times my weight. And an ant thinks he’s hot stuff, lifting ten times his weight. Big deal!” He chuckled with superiority, then snapped back into reality. “Damnit! I forgot the beer.”
“Well, we have to have beer,” commented Jason, as the next trailer rolled across the screen.
“You order the pizza and I’ll go to the party store down the street and get the beer,” offered Eric. “I’ll be back before the pizza arrives.” He lowered his footrest, walked across the living room toward the front door, took his jacket out of the hall closet, and put it on. Jason didn’t argue, as Eric was practically out the door. Eric turned back toward the TV just as the movie was about to start.
Two policemen discovered a girl wandering through the desert in a state of shock. “I know what you’ve seen,” thought Jason, directing his mental monologue toward the young girl on the screen. “Giant ants, bigger than you are, ants that can bite a person in half with their crushing mandibles! Ants that devoured your parents in three or four bites! What was that first bite like? An arm? Or perhaps the soft fleshy abdomen? Did your parents have time to scream? Humans are no match for these armor-plated monsters with jaws of steel.” Jason revelled in the horror of it all. “Oh wait,” he thought, “I should pause it; Eric hasn’t seen this movie yet. … Nah, I can rewind it, I don’t mind watching it twice.”
Something made Jason look behind him, over his shoulder and toward the front door. It wasn’t a sound, or a shadow, it was nothing at all. Eric was gone, vanished into thin air. Only the dialog of the movie remained. Jason felt “left behind,” a doctrine of Christianity where Jesus returns and takes some people and leaves others.
He pushed the image from his mind, a childhood fear. “Religious nonsense! Superstition! Eric left for the store and I didn’t hear the front door, that’s all. I just didn’t hear the front door. I was watching the start of the movie and …,” he looked behind him again, then back to the TV. “I didn’t hear the front door, that’s all.”
He leaned back in the couch, adjusted his glasses, and picked up the phone. “Let’s see, pizza. With sausage and pepperoni and green peppers and, … artichoke hearts.” But he put the phone back down on the end table and looked around the room once more, as the black and white flick continued. The policemen were questioning the terrified young girl in the desert, trying to figure out what she saw. Yes, he was very much alone, as he tried to put his fears back into the box. “Eric went to the store, that’s all. He’ll be back in ten minutes.”
The movie played on, but Jason never ordered the pizza.
Each tree in the forest seemed identical and artificial, as if they were mass produced in a factory. There were no branches, no leaves, no roots, just uniform beige trunks several meters tall, and wider than arms could encircle. Most of the trunks lay flat on the ground, pointing in the same direction, perhaps blown down by a hurricane force wind or some other natural disaster, though a few trunks remained upright, and a few pointed in different directions, as might happen in the chaos of a storm. Eric sat on one of these fallen trees, his hands pressed against the surface, which should have presented the rough texture of bark, but felt more like cloth, or perhaps rope. More fallen trees lay ahead of him and to either side. Although the scene was unfamiliar, even surreal, the movie continued to play in his ears.
“I’ve fallen asleep.” He almost blurted it out with some relief. How else could he explain his situation. “The movie is so boring, I already drifted off. I’m having a bizarre dream, but I can hear the movie in my sleep. It’s happened before.”
It only took a few seconds for logic to dismantle this fantasy. “No, I was on my way out the door to get some beer. I walked through the front door and landed … here. Wherever here is. But I didn’t even walk through the door, did I?” He wasn’t sure any more; he wasn’t sure of anything any more.
Perhaps due to shock, he hadn’t taken a breath in almost 30 seconds, and yet, his lungs weren’t screaming for air. It was more like a gentle reminder, “You know, you really ought to breathe once in a while.” Eric took a deep breath in through his nose, and the overwhelming stench almost made him gag. He opened his mouth and forced the air back out, rejecting it from his lungs.
After another 30 seconds, he breathed again, slow and shallow. The air was thick with the smell of … he almost recognized it. Some smells change with concentration, like the odor of skunk, which is easily recognizable from a distance, but resembles a toxic chemical at close range, like something from World War I. Eric tried to dial it down in his mind. “If it were not so strong, it would be … it would be … my vacuum cleaner! There’s a certain smell, an unpleasant smell, that fills the room when I’m vacuuming, dirt and dust and dog hair and organic flotsam. It goes away in a few minutes, but this, it’s like I’m living inside my vacuum cleaner bag.” The image almost made him vomit. He steadied himself and took slow shallow breaths through his mouth until he could tolerate the smell.
The incongruity persisted, the unfamiliar forest with its noxious odor, and the movie that droned on in his ears. Finally he looked up, and the horror of his situation descended upon him like a bird of prey. He saw the back of the dark green couch, where he sat just a few minutes ago, and above that, Jason’s light blonde hair, slightly unkempt, as it fell about the base of his neck. Eric sat precisely where he stood a moment ago, when he was heading out the door, but he was now the size of an ant – and the surrounding forest was Jason’s beige carpeting, which, based on the smell, hadn’t been vacuumed in several days. It was impossible, it was a nightmare.
His only hope was to get Jason’s attention. He stood up and took a deep breath, choking down the smell, then projected his voice with all the power his lungs could muster, toward the back of Jason’s head. “I’m here! Behind you, behind the couch, in the carpeting. I am as small as an insect. I can’t explain it! Jason, turn around damn it! I need your help.”
To his consternation, Eric couldn’t even hear his own voice. Instead, his larynx produced short high squeaks at the top of human hearing, and some of the vowels were ultrasonic. His vocal chords were microscopic, incapable of producing vibrations below four kilohertz, in the range of human speech. Choir was many years ago, but he considered himself a bass, and now, he sang the lowest note his voice could sustain. The result was a wavering high tone, almost five octaves above middle C. Even if he stood outside Jason’s ear canal, and yelled directly into the auditory opening, speech was impossible. He had to find another way to communicate.
“Why then can I hear the TV?” Eric thought to himself. If there was any way out of this predicament, he would have to bring all his science knowledge to bear. “Hair cells in the inner ear are already microscopic, perhaps they are unchanged, and I can hear as before. After all, crickets hear other crickets chirp, and those sounds are well within the range of human hearing.” He wondered if he was being ridiculous, trying to explain the inexplicable through science. Nothing could explain this; it was impossible, it was a nightmare.
“My cell phone!” Eric squeaked, as he pulled it out of his pocket. “I hope it works at these dimensions. I’ll text him and explain my situation, and after a hundred texts or so, maybe he’ll believe me.” But it didn’t work, it didn’t even turn on. “Perhaps adjacent wires on the chip are so close together that electrons simply tunnel across. Perhaps the entire CPU is one big short circuit.” He slid his cell phone back in his pocket, along with his wallet, car keys, and other useless items.
“One thing’s sure, I’ll never get his attention from behind the couch. I better learn to walk.” Eric stepped gingerly from one fiber to the next, to the next, then lost his footing on the round flexible surface and fell between two fibers, his body lying prostrate on the matting below. Rocks of all sizes were strewn about, some the size of a baseball, and some larger than his torso. “Particles of dirt,” he thought, “tracked in from the outside. At least they are inorganic. I don’t see any insects, and I don’t particularly want to.”
He stood up and walked along the matting, pushing through the fibers like a jungle. A chest-high boulder blocked his path, and as an experiment, he pushed it out of the way. It bumped and rolled on its uneven surface, until the sea of fibers halted its forward motion. “Rock has a density of three, and this particle has four or five times my volume, so probably 15 times my body weight.” He picked it up without much effort, then tossed it away. It traveled in a parabolic arc, then disappeared in the carpeting ahead of him.
“Well, that was easy. But it doesn’t really solve my problem. I can’t push my way through this jungle, nor can I walk across the fallen trees and fall onto the forest floor every five steps. My body is both strong and fragile at the same time. I have to be careful.”
He climbed up onto the fiber in front of him and held his arms out for balance. “If walking is risky, running is certainly more dangerous. That’s too bad, because I have the cardiovascular system of a world class athlete. On a smooth track, I could probably run a marathon or two without any trouble, but not through or across this carpeting.”
After a few more analog calculations, he had a new plan. “I bet I could cover more ground by jumping. Let’s do a practice jump, straight up and straight down.” Yesterday, the highest he could jump was a couple of feet, a third of his height, but today he could jump several times his height, even though the surface was soft and pliable. However, he was back on the ground in a fraction of a second. The force of gravity was the same, but the distance traveled was so small, that the entire maneuver took place before he could react. Without proper bracing, his legs flew out from under him, and he was once again lying on the mat between the fibers, this time on his back.
“Okay, this is going to take some practice.” He got back onto the carpet and jumped up again, this time prepared to land from the moment of launch. He didn’t exactly stick the landing, but he didn’t fall flat on his face either, and he wasn’t going to sprain an ankle or dislocate a hip. “It doesn’t have to be pretty,” he thought, “just jump as high as you can and then land on your butt, as though it was a trampoline.” Soon Eric developed a rhythm: jump, curl up, land, stand up, start again. “Now change the angle. The optimum launch angle for forward motion is 45 degrees.” Soon he was covering ground efficiently, using a form of locomotion that was unlike any other in the Insecta class.
After several jumps, which afforded almost a foot of progress, Eric landed in front of a white hair, as thick as a sailor’s rope, and several meters long in his eyes. “My hair is brown and Jason’s is blonde; this is Cassey’s hair, a dog hair.” He picked it up in the middle with his right hand, and let it drape to the floor on either side. The rope comprised smaller strands weaving in and out, in a pattern far more complex than a simple braid. The composite was flexible and strong, a wonder of nature. Despite his extreme strength, Eric knew he couldn’t tear the hair apart. It would stretch a little, as the protein strands rearranged themselves under strain, but it would not break. He wasn’t even going to try.
Globs of oil clung to the hair along its length, with scattered specks of dirt, most of them embedded in the oil. These brown patches stood out in stark contrast against the white hair. Curious, he placed his left hand on one of the pools of oil, then inspected the residue that clung to his skin. It was dark brown and viscous, and smelled intensely of dog. Not a bad smell really, but quite strong. Unfortunately, there was no means to wash the oil away. He wiped his hand on his pants, and some oil clung to the material, but most remained stubbornly on his skin. “Well, that’s what I get for being curious,” he concluded, as he dropped the hair onto the floor.
There was still the matter of the oil all over his hand, and Eric finally remembered the carpeting at his feet. The fibers were cloth-like and rough at these dimensions, the optimal texture for rubbing oil off of skin, just as a camper might use grass and leaves to clean his hands. He bent down and wiped his hand across the fiber, back and forth several times, until most of the oil was gone. His fingers retained a thin, slippery, invisible coating, which would persist until he could find soap and water, whenever that might be.
Eric started hopping again, covering almost an inch with each jump, though he had no plan, and no destination in mind. “Perhaps the kitchen,” he thought, “at least there’s food and water.” After six more jumps he landed next to two insects, which send him into a panic attack until he realized they were the size of small puppies, and no threat to him. He got down on the floor to get a closer look. They were fighting over a fragment of food that looked like a large saucer. It wasn’t perfectly round of course, but irregularly shaped, with a couple bites taken out of it. One animal was on one side and one on the other, and, belying his puppy analogy, they weren’t fighting over the food at all. In fact, each one seemed completely unaware of the other, they just happen to be snacking on the same repast at the same time.
He touched the food and found it thick and leathery, like a dried up piece of pizza. He couldn’t break off a piece, that would require a knife, or sharp cutting mandibles, standard equipment for most insects. The residue on his hand smelled of decay, but not the familiar smell of rotten meat, because there was no blood or liquid involved. It was a dry decay, that tickled is gag reflex from far away, like a bell ringing in the distance, but the gag reflex grew stronger when he comprehended the scene in front of him, and he was glad his stomach was empty. The food was a fragment of skin, probably Jason’s skin, or perhaps Cassey’s, and the grazers were dust mites, munching away. They aren’t insects, but arachnids, with eight legs instead of six, as Eric confirmed by counting four legs on each side. The body was surprisingly translucent, almost as clear as a jellyfish. The beige carpeting could be seen through the abdomen, distorted by refraction, along with some of the masticated skin in various stages of digestion. With their small size and clear bodies, he could have landed next to them, or on top of them, before, and simply not noticed. A hundred thousand mites can live in one square yard of carpet under ideal conditions, And Jason kept his house warm, 71 degrees, and shared his living space with a dog, so conditions were practically ideal. “If I look around, I’m sure I’ll see a lot more of these critters,” Eric thought, “but then again, I’d rather not.” He wiped his hand on the carpet again, trying to brush away the combination of dead skin cells and persistent dog oil, then stood up, leaving the mites to their meal, and tried to remember his overall plan, if he even had one.
“Eric, if this is a prank, it isn’t funny any more!” Jason’s voice reverberated throughout the enormous living room. He called Eric’s cell, but it went directly to voice mail, indicating the phone was off or out of charge. In frustration, Jason lowered his footrest, stood up, and walked toward the far side of the house. “Are you in the bathroom? If you’ve been there the whole time, and didn’t say anything, I’m going to be pissed.” Yet he couldn’t imagine someone occupying a bathroom for 20 minutes without making a sound, no water running, no flushes, no fumbling about, nothing. Indeed, Eric was not in the bathroom, or the bedroom, so Jason walked back to the living room, past the couch, and into the kitchen.
Each footfall vibrated the floor like a small temblor. Eric watched as the enormous figure strode into the kitchen, and then back out again. After a short pause, Jason walked to the front door, his foot missing Eric by a matter of inches. He opened the hall closet and reached the obvious conclusion. “Hmm, his jacket is gone, he must be outside. I didn’t hear the front door, that’s all. But it doesn’t take that long to pick up a six-pack of beer. The store is only two blocks away, an easy walk on a cool fall evening.” He turned back toward the living room and addressed the dog. “Cassey, I’m going to find Eric. I just need to make sure he’s all right.”
Recognizing her name, and the tone of his voice, Cassey lifted her head up off of her paws and looked at her master with adoration. Was she going for a walk? Probably not; he didn’t have a leash in his hand. “You be a good girl while I’m gone.” He turned toward the front door, as Cassey put her head back down on the soft doggy bed and sighed.
Eric was all alone in this alien world, though for all practical purposes, he had been alone before. Jason could offer no assistance; hell, Jason almost stepped on him without realizing it. Perhaps he should avoid high-traffic areas in the future. Still, the kitchen seemed like a sensible destination, and Jason would be gone for at least 20 minutes, and Cassey was quiescent, so, straight across the living room and steady as she goes.
After three more jumps Eric landed directly in front of an insect that made his heart race, and this time his panic would not abate. She was as large as a cow, with a black exoskeleton and two simple convex eyes that seemed to stare directly at him. Her body was narrow, relative to its size, well adapted to crawling through fur, or feathers, or, as a happy accident, carpeting. Her mouth was truly menacing, consisting of the usual crushing mandibles, plus a descending siphon ending in a tapering needle. This was a blood sucking insect, a flea, that had ridden in from the back yard on the Cassey Express.
Eric stepped to the side to avoid the fearsome mouth, and to get a better look at the insect. The abdomen was not distended, hence she was hungry, and still in search of blood. Indeed, she waved her antennae about in the air, sniffing the fresh blood that was just a couple millimeters away. “Maybe the needle isn’t sharp at these dimensions,” Eric thought, trying to comfort himself. “Maybe it presents a broad round tip that I could push away with my hand.”
He tried to remember all the documentaries he had seen on insects. “No – insects are forever stinging, siphoning, injecting, and otherwise piercing one another, often through an exoskeleton, so I’m sure that needle is sharp, even at these dimensions, sharp enough to penetrate my abdomen all the way to the aorta. I would barely have time to scream.” His heart continued to pound in his chest as optimism yielded to reality. “I could easily outrun her, but she has caught my scent, and would track me down and eventually catch me, like the tortoise and the hare. I could jump away, but trying to outjump a flea is like going one-on-one with Michael Jordan. Perhaps, with my super strength, I could slam my fist through the side of her abdomen.” The flea turned toward him, antennae waving, as Eric stepped away, trying to stay on her left flank and away from the deadly mouth. He was more agile, and that bought him time as he continued to search for a winning strategy. “Dogs have been scratching fleas with their nails for a million years, and as a result, the flea has developed one of the thickest exoskeletons in the insect world. I would be slamming my hand into a brick wall, and with my super strength, something would break, but it wouldn’t be the flea’s highly evolved armor, it would be every bone in my hand and wrist. And kicking it would break every bone in my foot. I have to be careful; one mistake in this unfamiliar body could inflict a catastrophic injury.”
The flea continued to turn, and Eric was afraid he might trip, as he had done many times before, and before he could regain his footing, that formidable needle would pierce his chest and siphon blood directly out of his heart. He had to think fast, because the flea, with its six legs, was not going to trip. He could not do this dance forever. “I could literally throw the flea up and away, the way I tossed that bolder earlier. I’m certainly strong enough, but I don’t want to get between those legs to leverage my arms beneath her body, and besides, she has strange fur-grabbing hooks along her thorax and I might get caught. Can she turn her head and pierce me from the side? I’d rather not find out. I better use my feet.”
Eric darted up to the flea just behind the back legs, braced his left foot against the carpeting, put his right foot against the center of the flea’s abdomen, and pushed, like a pneumatic piston. The flea toppled onto her side, but would not roll over on her back, due to the tall narrow shape of her abdomen. Eric stepped away from the thrashing legs and smiled with satisfaction, but this was not the first time in the past ten million years that a flea had fallen on its side, and her neural network included a pre-programmed solution. Her right legs gripped the fibers of the carpeting and contracted, pulling her body to an upright position. Her left legs touch the floor, and that triggered her right legs to slide out from under her body and into position. Six legs pressed upward in a simultaneous motion, and she was back on her feet in less than 30 seconds.
“Damn, that bought me some time, but it’s not a solution. I can kick her over again and run away, and hope she doesn’t track me, but it’s never a good idea to leave an enemy behind. I could probably rip off her antennae, and gouge out her eyes, and she couldn’t smell me or see me, but I dare not get that close to her mouth.” The flea waved her antennae and moved her head from side to side, as though she were starting her blood-sucking routine over again. She had no memory of the events of the previous five minutes, but she smelled blood, and that activated her tracking routine. She was a maze of hardwired subroutines, each one initiated by certain external stimuli.
The flea turned, and Eric danced away as he formulated a new plan. “The legs of any insect are relatively fragile, and she can’t follow me, or even jump, without her legs.” He circled in from behind, grabbed the left leg, and pulled it away from her thorax. The flea pulled her leg back in response, but it was a simple reflex, without conscious understanding. She didn’t even turn her head toward the disturbance. Eric pulled the leg out again, grabbed it with both hands, and tried to execute a sudden snap. Pain shot up his right arm, as the flexor muscles threatened to break his ulna and radius. He dropped the leg and cursed. “Damn! That leg is as thick as my wrist, and stronger than a tree limb of the same size. I have to be careful with this new body; one mistake can be fatal. Slow and steady, that’s the way. Just as I did with my foot.” Eric took the back lower leg once again, pulled it out from under the flea, grasped it with both hands, and bent it, very slowly. Soon there was a satisfying crack as the interior chitin failed under strain. He continued to bend the leg until the break was 60 degrees and the limb was unsound. He didn’t have to tear the leg off, and he probably wasn’t strong enough to do that anyways. A strange dark liquid oozed from the break and spilled onto his right hand. He could smell the aldehydes, a sick sweet musty odor, like the bugs that he kept for too long in a jar when he was a young boy.
He tried to push the scent from his mind as he backed away, waiting to see what the flea would do. With no sensation of pain, she didn’t seem to notice the assault on her body. Indeed, Eric remembered a science documentary showing a caterpillar munching contentedly on a leaf while a swarm of parasites devoured its body from the inside out. It grazed without a care in the world, until it died. Insects have a few pre-programmed responses to dangers that they often encounter in the wild, but they don’t have a complex nervous system that reacts to any form of somatic damage, the way a higher animal responds to pain. Still, the back leg was useless, and she had a walking program that would compensate for that. The remaining two legs moved back to support the center of mass, and with three working legs on the other side, she could still walk.
“One more time,” thought Eric, as he grabbed the middle leg. Another loud snap, and the flea fell on its left side, unable to walk or even stand. She wasn’t dead, but she was no longer a threat, so Eric jumped away and sat down on the carpeting, waiting for his panic to subside.
After several minutes he started out again; the kitchen was clearly in sight. Finally he landed with a thud on the white tile floor. The noxious smell was gone, and without the jungle of fibers, nothing could sneak up on him. He thought of a song from The Who, “I can see for miles and miles.” Eric didn’t have to hop over fallen trees any more, he could lope along with almost no effort. He had to avoid particles of dirt, which were just the right size to turn an ankle, and jump over the occasional dog hair, but with those caveats, his locomotion was easy and metabolically efficient. He ran over to the baseboard, far from the danger of Jason’s feet, and sat down to rest. For the first time in almost an hour he felt safe, with his back to the wall and his eyes scanning the vast kitchen floor in front of him. “Just rest,” he thought. “Just rest and figure out what to do next.”
After a few minutes he realized he wasn’t breathing. In fact he hardly had to breathe at all, maybe once a minute if that. The same thing happened at the start of this adventure, but he had been so busy since then that he forgot about it. “It’s the square cube law again,” he reasoned. “My skin can absorb most of the oxygen I need while in a resting state, while expelling carbon dioxide, all through the simple and effortless process of diffusion. No human has ever experienced this before.” He felt for his pulse, and counted two or three seconds between beats. “It’s easy to keep oxygen and nutrients circulating in my miniature body. As I recall, an insect’s heart beats 20 times per minute, just as mine is doing now.”
This was all fun and games, until another horror descended upon him. He was cold, almost hypothermic. The air was 71 degrees, and yet he was cold. He hadn’t noticed this effect before, because he was active, running and jumping and fighting for his life, but he couldn’t exercise 24 hours a day. The air pulled heat away according to his surface area, and he could only generate heat by volume. There was simply no way to keep up. He looked down at his arms. “Thank God for my jacket, it provides an extra layer and keeps my arms warm, but it’s only a light windbreaker. I really need a winter coat, or at least a hat. I lose most of my heat through my head, I’ll have to fashion a hat out of something. A scrap of paper, a large piece of dead skin, whatever I can find. Insects don’t have to maintain body temperature, but I do. I’ll bet the only mammal that can survive these microscopic conditions is a polar bear. For now, I better keep walking, running, or jumping.”
The movie droned on from the other room, but there was something else, a new sound, a familiar sound. What was it? “The furnace!” he blurted out in his unnaturally high squeaky voice. The vent was just three feet down the wall, under the kitchen table. Eric stood up, shaking from the cold, and ran to the vent. The warm chinook knocked him down and blew him several inches along the floor, but he didn’t mind. He laid on his back with his limbs outstretched, letting the air wash over him, the way you might leave a cold swimming pool and jump into a hot tub.
Now he could relax, but this wasn’t a long-term solution. The furnace would turn off, and then what? He had to construct some kind of coat and hat, or find a sleeping bag of sorts to crawl into, or he wouldn’t survive the night. He was not “overengineered” for this situation, as he had bragged earlier, not at all.
The front door opened and Jason stepped into the entryway. Cassey ran over to greet him with her tail wagging, as if she hadn’t seen him in days. She tried to jump up on him, but he gently pushed her down. “No jumping. I’ve told you that before. Yes, I’m back, and you’re a good girl.” He patted her head, and hung up his jacket, noting that Eric’s was still missing. “No, I couldn’t find him, and nobody has seen him. He wasn’t at the party store; the clerk would remember. I really don’t know, but I’ll say it again; if this is a prank, it isn’t funny.”
Cassey walked around the living room, not sure what her master would do next. Jason wasn’t sure himself. “I could get in the car and drive around, but I can’t, because Eric’s car is behind me. I can’t make a police report, he’s barely been gone an hour. He doesn’t live with anyone, who would I call? I don’t know what to do.” He walked around the couch and sat on the leftmost seat, and patted the middle cushion, inviting Cassey to come up. He needed some company now, someone to pet, someone to lower his blood pressure while he collected his thoughts.
Cassey hopped up on the couch, happy to lie next to her master. Jason let the movie play on while he thought out loud. “His cell phone is out of charge, but he has a land line. If he went home, somehow, by taxi or Uber or a friend or I don’t know how, then I could call him.” He picked up his phone and called Eric’s house, but there was no answer, so he put it back down, raised his footrest, and leaned back, as if to say, “I give up. I have no idea what happened to you, I suppose I’ll find out eventually.”
Although Eric was temporarily warm, another serious problem crept into his body, like a thief in the night. He was thirsty, terribly thirsty, as though he had been crossing the desert for a week. Jason had no humidifier, and the dry furnace air exacerbated the situation. His mouth was parched, with lips as dry as his windbreaker. For the second time in ten minutes he cursed the square cube law. “Water loss is just as serious as heat loss. Insects have an exoskeleton to keep all that water inside them, with holes just large enough to breathe, while my skin continually loses water vapor to the surrounding air. I probably have to drink a substantial quantity of water every hour just to stay alive.”
Eric looked around the kitchen for a convenient water source and found one, Cassey’s water bowl. Like most dogs, she splashed all over the floor when she drank, and she must have done so recently, because he could see the puddles and drops from here. He stood up and left the sanctuary of the warm vent to cross the desert and find an oasis. A particularly large drop, about the size of his torso, caught his eye, and he was once again pleased as he lifted it without effort. The bottom was flat when it rested on the floor, but became round when the drop was in his arms, forming a nearly perfect sphere.
Eric placed his mouth against the surface, but his lips merely pushed the liquid inward, like pressing on a water balloon. He pulled his lips back and scraped some water off the surface with his teeth. The substance transformed into a thick liquid in his mouth, surprisingly viscous, like a milk shake. He swallowed carefully, and felt a little better, but this wasn’t very efficient. He placed the drop on the floor and found a smaller one, the size of a grapefruit. It nestled comfortably in his hand, and he could bite it easily, like an apple. However, once the water conformed to the shape of his mouth, small creatures were crawling on his tongue. He couldn’t figure out how to spit them out without losing most of the water, so he simply swallowed them all, and tried to repress the urge to throw up. Upon closer inspection, the drop was teeming with tiny brown and black spots that moved under their own power. Some were green, suggesting a chlorophyll base, and one was unusually large, as big as a shrimp. It swam around using legs that undulated in the water. “Are these things entrained in the water I drink every day?”
He looked for a section of the sphere that didn’t have a lot of animals in it, took another bite, and swallowed. The drop healed itself after every bite, returning to a perfect sphere, albeit smaller, according to the water that remained. Eric ate / drank more than half of it, carefully avoiding the shrimp-like creature that seemed to stare back at him with two white eyes. It sported two large pincers that would surely snip his tongue if given half a chance. He placed the drop on the floor and inspected seven more, until he found one that was almost pure. He ate / drank this one in its entirety, as the watery sphere shrank from a grapefruit, to an orange, to an apple, to a lemon, and finally to a golf ball, which he popped into his mouth. His thirst was slaked, for now.
After filling his stomach with room-temperature water, he was cold again, and the furnace was off, so he wasn’t sure what to do next. It seemed impossible to win this game. He raced back toward the carpet jungle, looking for anything that would serve as a blanket, or at least a hat. “A discarded insect skeleton is probably my best bet. I could crawl inside, and the shell would retain my heat, and perhaps some of my water. I’ll have to crawl along the matting between the fibers to find something I can use.”
The overwhelming odor of dust and mold and plastic returned, and he had to take a few shallow breaths through his mouth to adjust. He walked around for several minutes, pushing fibers to the side, but so far he didn’t find anything that would serve. This was a dangerous game; another flea could appear out of no where, or perhaps an ant, which was more intelligent and more agile. He had to find something soon, but so far there was nothing but dirt, and fragments of dead skin, and dust mites enjoying the manna from heaven.
Fifteen minutes passed, and Eric was exhausted and cold, and thirst was creeping back in. The furnace was off, so he really had no where to go. Thus far, he had experienced moments of adaptive panic and terror, driving an adrenaline rush, but now he was facing unremitting fear, the fear of an inevitable death. Survival under these conditions was impossible. He would die of hypothermia, or thirst, or insect predation, and nobody would know what became of him.
The movie ended.
Eric snapped back to his full height, standing in the living room between the kitchen and the couch.
Jason saw him appear out of the corner of his eye. He was pretty sure Eric didn’t exit through the front door 94 minutes ago, but he knew damn well Eric didn’t enter through the front door now. He simply appeared out of thin air. “Where the hell were you?” Jason asked, with a mix of anger and confusion.
Eric stood in stunned silence, his arms and legs shaking.
“Eric?” Jason could see that his friend was in trouble, and he rose to offer assistance.
Eric snapped out of his state of shock, and ran to the rightmost seat on the couch, where he sat just before the movie began. “Quick, bring me a blanket, or a quilt if you have one.” His voice was hoarse from his earlier exertions.
“What happened to you?” Jason asked again.
“Just bring it, a heavy winter quilt if you have one.”
Jason went into his bedroom and found a quilt in the linen closet. He tossed it to Eric, who wrapped up in it like a cocoon.
Neither spoke for ten minutes. They sat on the couch, with Cassey in the middle. Cassey sniffed Eric up and down, trying to identify the strange smells that leaked out from beneath the quilt. She too wondered where he had been, in her own canine way.
After Eric stopped shivering, he turned toward Jason and made another request. “Can you bring me some water? Not ice water, warm water, like a hot bath.”
“Sure,” replied Jason as he got up from the couch. He brought Eric a glass of hot water and then sat back down. The silence was overwhelming, so he stepped through several menus on the screen and settled for a Big Bang Theory rerun. This is a show that they both enjoyed, and he thought it would put them in a better frame of mind. Eric drank his water as the episode played, and he even smiled at some of the jokes.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Jason asked, as gently as he could.
“Not right now,” said Eric in a quiet voice. “It will take me a long time to understand it, and recover from it, if that’s possible. I might tell you tomorrow at lunch, or next week, or maybe never.”
“Uh, okay,” said Jason, unsure of the correct response. “I’m here for you, you know that.”
“I know. I should be going now. I need a shower, and then bed. I might not come to work tomorrow.”
“Do you need to see a doctor?”
“Oh, no! I’ll be put in a psych ward for sure.”
“Do you need something to eat? We haven’t eaten anything and it’s 8:30.”
Eric thought of the dust mites eating dead skin, and the blood sucking flea, and the little creatures in the water, some of them in his stomach, and he felt sick inside. “No – I better not eat anything for a while. I’ll be all right.”
“Okay. Maybe you can come over next week for dinner and a movie, and we can talk then.”
“Sure,” agreed Eric, “but not that movie. Any other movie is fine, but keep that one in its case from now on. You must never play it again!”
Jason looked confused, but didn’t ask any more questions. He hugged his friend and led him to the front door. “Text me when you get home, so I know you’re all right.”
“Will do,” said Eric as he left the house. He walked to his car and opened the driver side door, then turned back to Jason. “Next time we’re watching Mary Poppins. No sci-fi, no horror, Mary Poppins.”
“Mary Poppins it is,” said Jason as he watched his friend drive away.