Bug City
Part II

"She was a redhead with a body that made me want to
drop one wing and run in circles."

I walked around the suburbs of Kansas City all night. Depopulation was proceeding. I saw the open evidence.

Long ago, before the Bugs came into my life, I watched a nature video about the giant South American Tarantula. A big venomous snake came sliding into her hole. She stung it to death and digested it, except for the skin, which she pushed outside--a clean little package of scales.

I saw a lot of that: dead human skins lying around, little pink packages on the lawns of some homes. Then there were large-scale operations, like the bar and the motel, and the big hole in the ground near the stockyards. I was glad I had a needle gun. I almost used it several times. Most of the Bugs were female, and they lured humans with the offer of reproduction. So they went about, methodically consuming us.

Then there were the other things they were doing, like creating the Zone, changing the fabric of our reality, altering our history. Which was worse, because we didn't know how they were doing that.

But in the end, it didn't matter: they were here, trying to create a world where insects had overcome vertebrates--a Bug world.

Maybe they went around the universe doing this, to system after system. Maybe we were the first vertebrates they had tried to exterminate. That didn't matter either. As the Old Man said, "It's them or us, son. Only one race will survive."

The streetlights were shrouded in cobwebs Big black-and-gold garden spiders were hanging up there. Whole blocks of houses were dark, and I was afraid to go into the alleys. I thought of how peaceful these neighborhoods had been in my childhood. Then I thought of how dangerous the Bugs had made sexual reproduction to humans, and I wanted to destroy them.

This was our planet, not theirs.

But it was getting very strange, and would not be ours much longer unless I did something.

I slept in the car, and woke with a dim memory of weather during the night: dry rain and soundless flashes of heat lightning.

The Old Man had asked me to stop and see my mother. The house looked like it had back in 1949. The boundaries were blurring here. There was no television, and she sat in the front room rocker, listening to the old cabinet model radio.

I swallowed in a certain way, activating the transmitter in my mastoid so the Old Man could hear everything we said.

"I will never forgive him," she told me.

"Why not?"

"Your father does not love me."

"He has very important matters on his mind."

"No doubt he thinks so."

I tried to convince her, but her mind had been made up years ago.

Later, she took a nap. and the daytime moons came up. The house was very dry and cold, but then so was most of Kansas City. Mother was still human, but for how long?

I looked around the house. The old radio fascinated me, sitting in the corner of the front room like a wooden skyscraper. When I was a child, it had gotten programs from all over the world. I turned the knob, saw the old tubes glow, smelled hot speaker silk. Someone in South America was talking urgently into a microphone.

I thought I heard the hetrodyning signal of the Bugs talking, somewhere out beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

"Get away from that radio,' my mother said. I turned, saw her standing right behind me..

When I got back to the car, I reported to the Old Man.

"The Bugs have almost completely infested the Zone," I told him.

"No time for that now," he said.

"What's going on?"

"Eh? New developments, son. They'll explain at the lab."

They stopped me up at the exit tollgate.

"What's the trouble?" I asked the cop.

"License check," he said. "Leave your car here and go into the building for an examination."

I went into the cinderblock building, and was directed to an empty room with a table and two chairs.

After a while, a detective came in. He had the gray, cropped hair of a contractor, and the pencil he gave me looked like a carpenter's pencil--the lead was too thick and it had that strange, flattened shape.

I tried to talk to him about the weather, but he only coughed and told me to answer the questions he read from a mimeographed sheet.

"Answer true or false. You can write and speak at the same time, but you cannot speak one thing and write another. But you can think one thing and speak another."

"What's the question?"

"What is the common denominator?"

I could not even push the pencil, it was so heavy.

"You can look and think at the same time. You can look at one thing and think of another, you can think of one thing and speak of another. But can you feel one thing and think of another?"

I put the pencil down.

"Alcohol is another sex. What are its primary characteristics? Its secondary?"

"Why are you asking me this?" I said.

He stared out the window at something I could not see. "We just wanted to see if you know anything about these things," he said absently.

He yawned slowly, and I could see the black bristles of his beard: they looked like inches on a ruler. There was a seam in the middle of his red lips. It dented the tip of his nose and began again above his brows. He caught me looking at him and turned toward me with a friendly smile, as if we had both been thinking the same thing. He licked his Draw-Me lips.

I shot him in the head.

It exploded like the rubber bag it was and droplets splattered on my face. I held my breath. Someone was knocking on the door.

There were cardboard boxes against one wall. I thouight I heard them clicking and opened a lid. Egg cells. I set fire to the curtains, hoping the room would burn, and went out the other door. The knocking continued as I left.

When I got back to my car, the cop said, "Report to City Hall." Rubber showed through his lips where the pollen had worn off.

I told him I would, pulled onto the freeway, and pressed the button under the steering wheel that would change the license number. Then I injected a grain of Motor into my arm and drove on, my gun on the seat beside me. Night fell. Insects hit the windshield. The road was full of little hoppers that jumped out of the way just before I hit them. Fortunately it was a Section vehicle and drove itself. I closed my eyes, and woke before daybreak to find myself crossing eastern Ohio and out of the Zone.

I entered headquarters through a door in Grand Central. The medics gave me a quick scan at the lab; then I got a lecture from an operator who was also a physicist.

She was a redhead with a body that made me want to drop one wing and run in circles.

"Basically, it's over," she told me. The Bugs have won."

"Can we talk about it over dinner tonight?"

"Listen carefully," she said. "The Bugs have irrevocably altered our history. They've shunted us off onto another timeline."

"I could cook us a nice juicy steak."

"The lady asked you to listen up, son," the Old Man said, giving me that Punch-and-Judy grin that made my stomach turn.

"We can travel in time," she said.

"How can we do that?"

"You would't understand it, son," the Old Man said. "The only thing you need to know is that we're sending you back to stop them. You'll carry a small neutron bomb, which you will use to destroy them."

I brushed a tear out of the corner of my eye. "Then we'll have won."

"The world will have won," the Old Man said. "Unfortunately, it won't do us any good."

"Our studies show that altering the past doesn't alter the future," the redhead said. "In your world, the Bugs will have been defeated. This world will go on as before."

I thought of the whole world and everyone I loved rolling off into space-time like a gutterball, to be completely consumed by the Bugs. Then I put my head in my hands and cried like a baby.

"One more thing before you go," the readhead said to me as they prepped me for transition. "Vertebrates have an evolutionary characteristic Bugs do not."

"What's that?"

"They have a second body, manufactured in the process of dreaming, which sometimes goes from one vertebrate to another at the moment of death."

"So that's how it works?" I said. "Religion? God? The whole shooting match?"

"We have never found an evidence for the existence of god," the Old Man said. "This is a vertebrate survival thing. The point is, the Bugs don't have it. Maybe that's why they don't like us."

The redhead stuck a thermometer in my mouth. I spit it out.

"But where am I going? Or when am I going?"

"Eh? I already told you: Back to the point in time and space where they entered our universe."

"Which is?"

"Kansas City in 1944, the year before you were born."

My mouth dropped open.

"I've got to go back to Kansas City again?"

"It's a very important place for them," the Old Man said. "At one time we thought they were drawn to us by our first radio and television broadcasts."

"That's what I always figured."

"Now we know they were attracted by certain fantasies generated by inhabitants of Kansas City in the early years of the last century--Frank R. Baum, author of the Oz books, a science-fiction writer called Robert Heinlein, and the cartoons of Walt Disney."

The Bugs were drawn to us by children's books? It was too terrible to believe. I looked into the green eyes of the redhead, thinking I would never get to do the human thing with her--impregnate and reproduce.

"We could have had a great time together," I told her.

"I know," she said. "But it's time for you to go."

"How am I going to get there?"

"First of all, bud," she said. "We've got to make you very, very cold."

That's what they did to me. It was no fun.

Temporal displacement was all based on particle theory, and first they had to lower your molecular temperature to absolute zero, where time ran both ways. All I remember is a dreadful cold and a sensation of sliding at the speed of light over frictionless black ice.

I woke in an alley in Kansas City, and the first thing I noticed was the singing of birds. In my world, the Bugs had exterminated all birds. I stood up, walked to the mouth of the alley.

The sunlight was brighter, the trees greener. The past was better! For years, the Bugs had been subtly altering our reality, draining the life out of it. I hadn't realized until this moment how much we had lost.

Across the street was the Joy Theatre. I was standing only five blocks from my home. The marquee said: Now Playing - Randolph Scott in Gung Ho -- Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

I bought the Star at a newstand. The date was August 3d, 1943, and according to the headline, the Marines were mopping up the Japs on Guadalcanal.

We had done it! They had sent me back to the year before I was born!. When I looked at my gas detector, it registered negative. The Bugs weren't here--yet.

Now we had a chance, at least. If I did my job.

I knew I had to be careful not to interact with anyone in my past. To do so might create a time paradox, an alteration of the future that would destroy everything.

But this was such a clean, beautiful world. I figured as long as I did not meet myself, there could be no chance of a paradox--and I would not be born for another year.

I decided to walk by my house.

To Be Continued.