Susan pulled the mosquito shield onto her forehead to get a better look into the cave, but they were on her in seconds. She thrust it back down and spit the insects from her lips.
Back in the tent, she fired a lantern and unearthed Dr. Novello’s notebook. On the cover were her trademark maxims and aphorisms, scrawled there as she worked to save the world from malarial collapse.
Oremos para que la Tierra perdone.
Pray for the Earth to forgive.
Aprende la humildad o pereces.
Learn humility or perish.
Susan had no quarrel with the sentiments, unvarnished though they were. If she had, she wouldn’t be crawling through caves in search of microscopic glowworms hypothesized to possess humankind’s last hope.
The Herald Moth was a Russian nesting doll of parasitology. Its gut served as an incubator for roundworms called nematodes, that, in turn, carried a rare strain of bioluminescent bacteria known to be toxic to certain insects. The question was whether or not it would work on the new breed of mosquitos that swarmed the globe. Doctor Valeria Novello had come to the cave seeking the answer, but had likely perished inside.
Susan flipped through the pages for her mentor’s observations on the moth’s life cycle. Near the end of its dormant period, the worms would erupt from their hosts and drift through the cave in a poisonous bloom. The notes, thankfully, were meticulous. The current dormancy had two more months. It was safe to enter.
Susan stripped to her shorts and undershirt, bathed herself in repellant, and donned her bulky mosquito suit. She turned to the first blank page and scribbled a note:
5/12/26: Went in. -Dr. Susan Boyd
A gibbous moon bounced light through the cave’s moist interior, allowing her to see for the first thirty yards. Night vision optics led the way further in as artificial light could interrupt the dormancy cycle. She marked her progress on the walls in chalk X’s. Dr. Novello’s own signposts were absent.
At a narrow tunnel she knelt to look inside. Novello lay face down mere feet from the opening. Susan crawled in and grasped the fabric at her mentor’s shoulders. The body moved easily, its flesh having become food for the cave.
With the remains clear of the passage, she took to all-fours and started through, staying low to avoid the miniature stalactites that hung from above like rotting teeth. Farther in, the tunnel narrowed. She tried to squeeze through but caught a snag. A machine gun pop of threads, and the suit was buzzing.
She launched clear, completing the gash down her spine. Mosquitos settled upon the skin of her shoulders and the tunnel echoed her screams as a thousand needles found home. Delirious, she collided with a knuckle of rock and the optics sputtered to black.
The tunnel emptied into a chamber, and she rolled across the sand like a person on fire. The ground swept some of the insects clear and she tore away the suit to release the rest. Blind, her skin crawled in anticipation of another wave, but none came.
She gathered herself, shuffled to a wall, and probed the rock. Its contours conjured visions. Faces and ghosts. Her father and sister, two nephews—even Dr. Novello, who had made Susan promise not to follow on what was surely a suicide mission. The memory brought a smile—the promise had been a charade for both of them. Susan was always going to follow if Novello failed—and Novello knew it.
Her thumb happened on a dozing moth. From a pocket she produced a scalpel and a sample tube preloaded with enzymes. She felt her way to the centerline of its abdomen and made a small incision. A luminous blob breached and dribbled into the tube. That was it. She wouldn’t know if the bacteria reacted with the enzymes until it was back in the light of the tent. The lid snapped shut and she set her mind on re-finding the tunnel. A touch of lightheadedness came and went.
The rock undulated as it passed beneath her palms, and again the shapes played tricks with her mind. Were they tricks? Something felt different now. The forms—the rocks themselves, she realized, were no longer imagined. A bluish glow kindled, filtering down to grace the walls. She briefly thought she was outdoors, the reflections so much like starlight. Her gaze tracked skyward.
The stars were falling.
She splashed through a shallow pool in the center of the floor, her limbs growing weak and clumsy. Short of the tunnel, she collapsed in an anesthetic haze. The dormancy period had ended and the bloom was upon her. How could this be? Novello’s notes had suggested that it was safe to enter.
It was snowing in the cave now, tiny flakes of sapphire, and her skin sparkled in the dust of a billion worms that held no malice but gave their poison nonetheless. They lit the cave like dawn, drawing shadows down the walls. In the new light, a patch of mottled chalk emerged.
Nosotros éramos el azote.
Bacteria pulsed within nematode bellies, forming bright constellations across the cavern’s dome. Susan sipped air into her ever-constricting lungs and forced the enzyme tube toward the light. A bittersweet smile. The experiment had worked. They had the answer.
Her head lolled to the side, sending tears to the loam and her eyes to the chalk, the words scrawled there an unrepentant confession of the last human betrayal.
We were the scourge.
Chris’ short fiction has appeared in “Ghost Parachute”, “The Ginger Collect Magazine”, “Fiction on the Web”, and “Tales to Terrify”, with forthcoming work in “Trembling With Fear”. He also draws album covers for tiny metal bands. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and daughter. Plays himself on twitter @chrisjpanatier