Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Dr. Wasp and Hornet Holmes

Dr. Wasp and Hornet Holmes were gathering nectar one day when Holmes made a startling observation.

“The Queen has been behaving rather oddly in recent days,” she said.

Dr. Wasp pulled her proboscis from the flower and regarded Holmes with surprise.

“However do you mean?” she said.

“Do you ever feel that not all is as it seems?” Holmes said. “That what we see is illusory, that dark forces move unseen behind the bright façade of the world?”

The sun shone and the flowers were full of nectar and the sky was blue and the air was warm. The nest was spacious and airy. Dr. Wasp felt uneasy and didn’t know why. She said, “What morbid thoughts you have sometimes, Holmes.”

“The workers are more aggressive of late,” Holmes observed. “And tend to congregate around the bell flowers.”

Dr. Wasp considered. “Bell flowers provide our nest with sweet nectar,” she said. “And the workers must defend the nest from predators, hence their aggressive behaviour.”

Holmes said nothing. Perhaps, Dr. Wasp thought, Holmes had felt that she had said all that she needed to. In their time together—ever since they both emerged from their respective eggs—they had faced many mysteries together, but always triumphed. They were both brought up on the ideals of service, loyalty, and courage: to serve the queen, be loyal to her rule, and defend the nest from any and all enemies.

The biggest enemy of the nest, Dr. Wasp was sure, were the giant bipeds who often attempted battle with neighbouring nests. Their weapons of mass destruction were terrifying to behold. One such was a terrible battering ram, wielded in the air to smash and destroy the nests—an action liable to result in a last angry, desperate swarm of crazed wasps, who could inflict wrathful pain on the bipeds. Another, even more horrible, was a sort of insidious gas, which the bipeds used to poison and kill the nests of the wasps. Such monsters as those bipeds roamed the earth with increasing frequency these days.

But other enemies abounded all the same. Who could forget the day when Dr. Wasp and Hornet Holmes, alone, fought the manxome Toad? A horrid, green monster with bulging eyes and a whip-like tongue, the monster nearly swallowed Dr. Wasp, and only Holmes’ last-second intervention saved the day. With deadly sting they won the day! Together they had fought many foes. From the air came the hordes of monstrous sparrows, the wrens and the warblers and the common nighthawks. Below lay the lizards and centipedes and the ravenous mice. Robber flies! Beetles! Moths! The wasp was surrounded by enemies on all sides.

It was good and proper, Dr. Wasp reflected, that the workers were vigilant and on the alert. She couldn’t make out what had gotten into Holmes!

They gathered heavenly nectar and with daylight fading returned to the nest. The smell of paper pulp filled the air. The hush of an ordered nest, the mewling of the newborn babes hatching from their eggs—males and females now, for spring had ended and it was summer, glorious summer.

“I remain troubled,” Holmes said, “by this mystery of the queen’s behaviour and the wasps around the bell flowers.”

Dr. Wasp looked at her old friend with worry. The nest was so familiar, so as it should be, that Holmes’ dark forebodings seemed inconceivable to her.

“You persist in believing there is wrong here?” Dr. Wasp said.

Unexpectedly, Holmes moved her mandibles in a wasp’s smile. “I do not believe,” she said, rather sternly. “I deduct.”

“And what have you deducted?” Dr. Wasp said.

“Oh, Dr. Wasp!” Holmes said. “I have given you all the information that you need. I shall go now to seek empirical evidence, for without it, a theory must remain unproven. When you next see me, If I seem different . . .”

“Yes, Holmes?”

“It is no matter,” Holmes said. “I will still be me. Remember that.”

Holmes and Dr. Wasp were of the first group of females born after the loyal workers, back when the nest still had many of its original founders. Only one could be queen, of course. But the others laid eggs, built walls and nooks and crannies, helped raise the infants to productive adulthood. In time, Dr. Wasp knew, she and Holmes too would leave the nest for good. They would find a male—small, glorious things, as stupid as they were adorable, for their lives were so short and so pretty—and mate. Then they, too, would found a nest, somewhere nearby, and lay their eggs, and watch their children grow.

Maybe, one day, one of them would be queen.

She had sunk so deep into her reverie that she did not notice Holmes long gone, nor the passing of the shadows. It was late now. The moon shone outside.

An honour guard of workers went past her, down the corridor.

“Hello, Mary!” Dr. Wasp called. The commander of the guards turned.

“Dr. Wasp,” she said.

“How goes it, Mary?” Dr. Wasp said pleasantly.

“Matters progress,” Mary said crisply.

“How so?” Dr. Wasp said, in some confusion.

“The nest is protected and prosperous,” Mary said. “The eggs are maintained. Nectar flows. All is well. All save the Queen!”

“All save the Queen,” Dr. Wasp repeated automatically. The workers all exclaimed the same. Dr. Wasp regarded Mary uneasily. Could Holmes have been right? Mary’s manner did seem somewhat . . . abrupt, she thought. But then, Mary was a worker, and though they knew each other of old, nevertheless Mary was in position of authority now.

Perhaps it was nothing.

“I saw your associate, Holmes, just now,” Mary said unexpectedly. “She was poking around in the egg cones and around the larvae nurseries. It is inappropriate.”

“Holmes?” Dr. Wasp said in surprise. Her companion had never before expressed much interest in neither eggs nor larvae. It was most peculiar, Dr. Wasp thought.

“She has been removed,” Mary said. “I trust you should put a word to her, Dr. Wasp? One should not . . . poke.”

“But I . . . of course,” Dr. Wasp said.

“Then farewell,” Mary said. And she led her worker guards down the corridor and around the corner to the next.

Dr. Wasp wandered the nest deep in thought. What had gotten into Holmes! She had been acting ever so peculiar recently.

Dr. Wasp came into the Queen’s room. The Queen sat on her paper throne, her workers at her feet. She regaled them with a story of the founding of the nest. Her voice was throaty and her wings as beautiful as rainbows. Her sting was a weapon of such magnitude that many enemies would run (or fly, or slither) rather than face it.

Dr. Wasp stopped in her tracks and regarded the Queen with love and admiration. The founder of the nest. The mother of all.

The Queen had just finished the punch line to a joke Dr. Wasp didn’t quite catch. All present laughed, and Dr. Wasp joined them dutifully.

The Queen shifted on her paper throne. She looked suddenly uncomfortable.

Her body convulsed. The Queen shook and Dr. Wasp, alarmed, ran to her side.

“Step . . . away!” the Queen croaked. Her voice was raspy, strange.

“My Queen!” Dr. Wasp said in alarm.

“It is only . . . a tremor,” the Queen said. She righted herself on the throne. “Ah. I am much better now. Thank you—” she regarded Dr. Wasp with a bemused expression.

“Dr. Wasp,” Dr. Wasp said.

“Of course,” the Queen said. “I thank you for your service.”

“All save the Queen!” Mary said.

“All save the Queen!” everyone said in unison. Dr. Wasp withdrew, feeling uneasy. The Queen cleared her throat.

“A wasp, a bee, and a fly walk into a flower . . .” she began.

Everyone laughed respectfully.

Dr. Wasp found solace in her study. Walls of paper and a quietude. Here she could think. Could Holmes be right? The Queen was not herself. What ailed her?

“Ah, Dr. Wasp,” a voice said. Dr. Wasp was startled. Holmes stood in the entrance, her wings shimmering in the low light.

“Holmes!” Dr. Wasp said. “I am relieved to see you again. Are you feeling well?”

“I am here,” Holmes said. “All is well. Why, do I seem strange to you?”

“Strange?” Dr. Wasp said. “Perhaps, yes. You have not seemed yourself recently.”

“I am very well, I assure you,” Holmes said. Dr. Wasp thought of their earlier conversation. Perhaps it was nothing, then, after all, she thought.

But now it was Dr. Wasp who felt uneasy. Perhaps she, too, was not quite herself. Something was wrong, but was it the world that was wrong, or was it herself?

Her wings shuddered. “It is night, I suppose,” Dr. Wasp said, more to herself than to Holmes. “And night is often a time of strange musings. Do you remember the night of the fire, Holmes?”

“The fire?” Holmes said.

“You do not remember? When the biped creatures came to burn our nest. Do you not remember how bravely we fought, sting against inferno, until the creatures fled from our wrath? It was a night of blood and poison and flame, a glorious battle.”

Holmes frowned. “I do not,” she said.

“Then something is indeed wrong!” Dr. Wasp said. She looked at her old friend in fear. “What ails you? What ails our world?”

“I do not wish to remain in the nest,” Holmes said. “I wish to . . .” She hesitated. “To fly. The bell flowers, they call to me. They call . . .” She fell silent.

“What ails the Queen?” Dr. Wasp said. “What ails you, old friend?”

“Nothing,” Holmes said, suddenly cheered. “All is well. All save the Queen!”

“All save the Queen,” Dr. Wasp said. She looked at her friend, but Holmes now seemed much the same as ever.

“Why were you in the egg cones and the larvae nurseries earlier?” Dr. Wasp asked.

“Was I?” Holmes said, surprised.

“Mary said so. She said she warned you off.”

“Then that is for the best,” Holmes said with the same good cheer. “For I have no business there. Would you like to fly with me, Dr. Wasp? The smell of the bell flowers calls to me, and a longing fills me as I do not quite understand.” Holmes frowned. “A longing such as for a mate . . .” she said.

“It is not yet time for mating,” Dr. Wasp said, alarmed. “It is the height of summer. What male holds this sway on you?”

“No male that I could name,” Holmes said. “It is odd. I desire . . .” She fell silent. Something moved. Dr. Wasp was sure of it. A convulsion so minute that one could be forgiven for missing it. She watched Holmes closely, but the odd movement did not return.

“Some other kind of male,” Holmes said.

Dr. Wasp passed the night in agitation. She paced the halls. The nest felt darker, closer. The familiar paper walls tasted strange. Everywhere she passed she saw the workers watch her. New guards, blank faces. Where was the camaraderie, the easy knowing of each other? The nest felt alien.

What had changed in Holmes? She knew her friend. When she had spoken to her earlier, Holmes even said she had already figured out the mystery. This was Holmes’ way. All the clues were there, if only she, Dr. Wasp, could understand them!

Holmes had gone to seek empirical evidence, so she’d said. But evidence of what? She made her way to the nurseries. It was quiet there. Dr. Wasp watched the eggs, laid there by the queen and the other founders. She saw nothing suspicious. Could the wrongness be inside the eggs themselves? It made no sense.

She went to watch the larvae. So adorable, they were! The tiny wasps. But as she watched them did they, too, change before her eyes? Did something move inside their tiny bodies, did—

For a moment a solution materialised in her mind. But it was so terrible that she shied from it in horror.

“What are you doing here, Dr. Wasp?” a voice said.

Dr. Wasp jumped. Her sting stuck out automatically, her wings raised for battle.

But it was only Mary. Mary, and some guards.

“I was looking at the children,” Dr. Wasp said.

“You did not listen to me,” Mary said.

The guards advanced on Dr. Wasp. There was something strange behind Mary’s eyes.

“Stay back!” Dr. Wasp said in alarm. Her sting flashed. “Stay back!”

“Come with us,” the guards said in unison.

“Come where!”

“Stop it, Dr. Wasp,” Mary said. “You are acting illogically. There is nothing to fear. All can be explained.”

“Then explain!” Dr. Wasp said.

“Come with us,” the guards said in unison. Dr. Wasp felt fear.

“What have you done?” She whispered. “The Queen—”

“All save the Queen!” the guards chorused.

“All save the Queen,” Dr. Wasp said.

“We will take you to her,” Mary said. Something of her former gentleness returned. “There is nothing to fear. Come, Dr. Wasp.”

“What of Holmes?” Dr. Wasp said.

“Holmes understands,” Mary said. And Dr. Wasp saw her old friend appear beside Mary.

“Come, Dr. Wasp,” Holmes said with good cheer. “Let us go meet the Queen.”

Dr. Wasp felt defeated. She let them lead her away from the larvae. Down the corridors, along paper walls, until they arrived at last in the familiar throne room.

The Queen sat on her paper throne. Her body convulsed. The guards spread out.

“All save the Queen!” they cried.

“All save the Queen . . .” Dr. Wasp said.

The Queen turned her head and saw Dr. Wasp.

“My . . . loyal daughter,” the Queen said.

“Our daughter . . .” the Queen said, from deep within.

Dr. Wasp watched in horror as the Queen convulsed again. Something shook her from the inside. Her eyes went blank. Her abdomen protruded. And something pushed from the inside, and something widened, until a head poked out of the Queen’s abdomen and looked on Dr. Wasp.

Dr. Wasp screamed. It was an anguished cry, and it echoed alone in that hall, in the nest. Dr. Wasp watched as the guards, and Mary, and even Holmes knelt down.

“All save the Queen,” they cried.

“All save the Queen,” the creature inside the Queen said. She looked on Dr. Wasp.

“Join us,” she said.

“Join us,” the wasps echoed. Dr. Wasp watched as their bodies, too, convulsed. As their abdomens, too, split open. She watched the tiny insects within.

“No,” she whispered, horrified. “No.”

“Do you ever feel that not all is as it seems?” Holmes had said. “That what we see is illusory, that dark forces move unseen behind the bright façade of the world?”

“We will not harm you,” the Queen-within-the-Queen said. “We need you. We love you.”

“We need you,” the things-within-the-wasps said. “We love you!”

“We make you better,” the Queen said. “We make you stronger. Has nectar production not increased? Have the patrols not been more aggressive of late, protecting the nest, protecting the Queen?”

“All save the Queen!” the wasps and the insects within both said in unison.

“All save the . . .” Dr. Wasp began, then faltered.

“We are with you,” Holmes said. Dr. Wasp wept. “When the nest ends, you and I shall fly away just as we have said we would. We will found a new nest. We will mate with a male. We will make offspring.”

Dr. Wasp saw now the insect inside Holmes’ abdomen. She saw male wasps come into the room. Male parasites peeked from their insides. She saw Holmes turn, greedily, the insect inside her scenting a male.

So this is what Holmes had meant, Dr. Wasp realised with horror.

Her body shook. A tiny tremor.

“Oh, no,” Dr. Wasp said.

“Join us!” the Queen said.

“Join us,” Mary said.

Holmes smiled kindly. She extended her wings.

Dr. Wasp felt a tremor pass through her again, stronger this time. A voice whispered inside her.

She felt calm. She understood.

Her abdomen protruded. She watched as it split and a small head poked out. Now they were two, and they were one, and they were together.

She/they spread her/their wings. She/they followed the others into the night air, where other groups of wasps already congregated by the bell flowers. The flowers smelled so intoxicating, so fresh. The world felt made anew.

It was better this way, thought the thing-within.

It was better this way, Dr. Wasp thought.

Dr. Wasp spread her/their wings, and she/they flew beside Holmes; under moonlight and trees, and all that long summer.

Author’s Note:

The remarkable paper wasp (Polistes dominula) builds paper-mulch nests, defends its territory from predators, collects nectar and looks after its young. Nests are founded in spring and, by summer’s end, the new-born females mate and depart to start new nests.

The no less remarkable Xenos vesparum are a group of tiny insects who parasitize the paper wasp. Research shows that the parasites act in such a way as to enhance wasp aggressiveness against predators and increase nectar collection. Their attraction to the bell flower, which contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, possibly helps improve the wasps’ own immune system—regardless of what the wasps themselves might think on the subject.

Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is author of OsamaThe Violent CenturyA Man Lies DreamingCentral StationUnholy Land, and By Force Alone. His latest novels are The Hood and The Escapement. His awards include the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Neukom Prize and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.