Sunday, April 17, 2011

FICTION: Primeval Instinct by Rod Hamon

          Andrew Whittaker enjoyed his garden on summer evenings while reading in the shade of a tree, yet he hardly noticed the hectic activities of the birdlife around him: pigeons, sparrows, and others—all competing for the worms and insects in his lawn.
But on this day, things were noticeably quieter. Andrew scratched his graying beard and gazed into the branches of a tree.
            That’s odd. Where’ve they gone?
            The next day, still no birds. He called to his wife, “Hey, Sally, come and look at this!”
            A woman with impeccable makeup appeared at the window and was clearly irritated by the interruption.
          “Look,” Andrew said, “The birds! They’ve all gone!”
            Sally frowned, shrugged, and retreated inside.
Andrew gazed at the vacant window, wishing just for once she could show some interest.
          Andrew, a hard-working journalist for a big-city daily newspaper, disliked uncertainty. As a boy, he was always asking questions and seeking answers. He was determined to find an explanation for the absence of the birds and so he phoned Harry, his neighbor and a pigeon enthusiast.
          Andrew had just begun to explain the strange disappearance of the birds when Harry interrupted.
          “Don’t talk to me about birds! I’ve enough trouble with my own.”
          “Why, what’s happened?”
           “Three of my best pigeons got out last night and flew off. I couldn’t understand how until I checked some of the others. They were all restless, shrieking, and squawking enough to wake the dead!”
          Andrew was about to speak when Harry cut in.
          “I discovered that another bird was also just about to escape! He’d pecked a hole in the wall large enough to squeeze his beak through and was trying to lift the outside door latch! How do you explain that? I’ve had pigeons for years but have never seen such ingenuity.”
          Andrew nodded. “It’s as if overnight they’ve gained a new level of intelligence and can maneuver mechanical objects to their advantage. But why’s it happening now and where are they going? ”
          After hanging up, Andrew phoned the newspaper office where he worked.
“Hi, Charlie. Strange things are going on with the birds around here. Have you heard anything?”
          “Seems it’s happening everywhere. Birds have somehow got it into their heads to migrate and are flying off by the thousands.”
          “If that’s the case, I’d better start writing a background feature. Do you have the names of any experts I can contact?”
          Later, as he glanced over the list of names Charlie had given him, Andrew noticed an item on the TV news and turned up the volume. It showed flocks of birds from all over the world and was accompanied by an animated commentary.
“People everywhere are puzzled by the strange behavior of birds of all kinds. Both migratory and non-migratory birds seem, for some reason, compelled to fly away from their home environment. Coastal resorts, fishing villages, and harbors with their squawking seagulls have now taken on a very different appearance. There are also no pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square or ducks in the ponds of New York’s Central Park. As of today, the ornithologists have been unable to explain this bizarre behavior or where the birds are going.”
          Andrew turned to his wife. “Did you hear that, Sally?”
          Engrossed in the delicate task of manicuring her fingernails, she half looked up.
“Something about birds moving away, wasn’t it? Probably just the weather,” she said and then added, “It’s enough to make anyone want to leave.”
          Andrew decided against saying what was on his mind.
          A few moments later, Harry phoned again.
          “You won’t believe this but all of my pigeons are gone now!”
          “But I thought you told me you’d wired the latches?”
          “I did, but the birds still escaped.”
“By pecking larger holes in the walls of their enclosures.”
          After Andrew hung up, he phoned Professor Martin Hilston, a bird expert on his list. The professor, a jovial middle-aged man, lived nearby and was happy to be interviewed.
          The professor shook Andrew’s hand with gusto.
           “Thank you for seeing me at such short notice, Professor.”
           “Please call me Martin,” he replied, adjusting his spectacles.
          Throughout their conversation, the professor paced the floor, waving his arms.
          “When did you first sense that something odd was happening with the birds?” Andrew asked.
          The professor walked across the room, turned round, and returned before answering.
          “The first reports came from zoos where the birds were unusually anxious. Within a few hours, the birds were so distressed that the zookeepers feared they would harm themselves. Many birds escaped, and those that didn’t were reluctantly released. One bird tethered to a perch by an ankle ring, pecked through its own leg to get away.”
          Andrew asked, “And this happened simultaneously around the world?”
          “Within minutes, I was inundated with emails reporting similar accounts.”
          Andrew sat quietly for a moment.
“Any theories?”
          Martin slumped into his chair, and then turned towards Andrew.
“In all my years, I’ve never heard of anything remotely like this.”
           “It’s as if they’ve gained a collective consciousness or maybe….
“Do you have a theory?”
“It’s nothing. Just a crazy idea.”
 “Martin, what normally triggers bird migrations?”
          “Could be lots of things. The change of seasons can limit food supplies. Sometimes changes in temperature set them off, but none of these theories explains what we’re seeing—birds of all species flying off together.”
“I hope it’s not the same instinct that leads pods of whales to beach themselves,” Andrew said.
Martin nodded. “That’s been on my mind, too.” Then lowering his voice, as if disclosing a secret, he said, “Some scientists believe ships’ sonar causes the whales to lose their bearings and stray into shallow waters. Whales of four species stranded themselves on beaches in the Bahamas after a U.S. Navy battle group used mid-frequency sonar. The Navy denied it, but a government investigation concluded that sonar was the cause.”
“That’s interesting,” Andrew replied. “But could….”
“No! No sonar, radar or anything I can think of could cover the earth like this.”
Andrew sat in silence for some time then said, “I read somewhere that a new species of insects has been discovered that seems to have suddenly appeared in relatively large numbers. Do you think this could have any bearing on the disappearance of the birds?
Martin laughed, “Do you realize that up to three hundred new species of insects are discovered every day?”
As they discussed further speculations, it became clear that Martin had no solid ideas, just more questions.
Andrew got up, thanked the professor, and left.

The next day, the subject came up over dinner. Sally and Andrew were watching the news.
“Andrew, I really can’t see what all this fuss is about. After all they’re only birds.”
“Sally, don’t you realize that without birds we’re looking at an ecological disaster.”
              Delicately placing more food on her fork, she mumbled, “I doubt it. Nature always has a way of compensating for these things. You’re always such a pessimist.”
          “You just don’t get it, do you, Sally?  What we’re seeing here is nature gone wrong, badly wrong. It could create an imbalance of unimaginable proportions.”
          She wrinkled her nose, “There you go being dramatic again.”
          Turning red, Andrew said, “Sally, think for a moment. Have you forgotten the important role birds play in pollinating plants? Without the birds, there could be a mass extinction of plants and this disruption to the food chain could affect all of us.”
          With a knowing smile, she countered, “I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought of the positive side of being without birds, have you?”
          “What positive side, for heaven’s sake?”
          “For a start, they cause a lot of damage. Look at the mess they make on the cars, and I’m sure the worms in the lawn are happier not having to defend themselves from those nasty beaks,” Sally snickered.
She thought for a moment and then asked, “By the way, Andrew, what was in that large box you brought home?” 
“Don’t worry about it, Sal. Hopefully, we won’t need to use it.”
She gazed at him but said nothing.

As the warm days of summer continued, Sally’s predictions about the earthworms and insects proved true. No longer attacked by birds, the worms emerged from the soil in such numbers that it was impossible to walk on the lawn without treading on them.
“Yuk! I hate these disgusting, slimy things,” Sally groaned, staring at the writhing mass making its way slowly across the lawn towards the house.
By the next morning, some worms had slithered under the door. Andrew heard a scream and ran into the entrance hall where he found Sally standing on a chair looking down with disgust at the worms around her.
Flapping her arms like a young bird learning to fly, she cried, “They’re everywhere! I stepped on some of them with my bare feet! It was horrible! You’ve got to do something, Andrew! You know how I hate these nasty things!”
He lifted his wife off the chair and carried her into another room. “Are you okay now, dear?”
“Of course, I’m not okay! I hate those things!”
“Yes, I know, and that’s why I brought a box of insect repellant home. That’ll stop them.”
Dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and acting like a spoiled child, she cried, “All of this is because those stupid birds migrated.” 
After doing his best to calm his wife, he removed the worms and sprayed insecticide around the doors. He also placed snail pellets outside the house.
As he drove to work that day, he thought about what had happened and knew things would never be the same.

When Andrew returned that night, he found Sally watching the news. Without looking up, she said, “its happening everywhere, Andrew. These insects are taking over. What’re we going to do?”
For a while, he stood watching then turned the TV off. Not knowing what to say, he put his arm around his wife.
Sally looked up at her husband, tears filling her eyes. “In some parts of the world, houses are being taken over by snakes, scorpions, and spiders. They’re consuming vegetation like locusts and even eating each other. It’s awful. Those poor people.”
As Andrew sat by his wife, he was hit by a wave of nostalgia and breathed a deep sigh. “Ironic, isn’t it?  I used to sit out there in the garden reading while the birds were peacefully going about their lives and I just ignored them. I just took it for granted they’d always be there.” He paused and added, “I read somewhere there are fifty birds to every human on the planet. What I’d give to see just one bird right now.”
Sally nodded.

That night, Andrew and Sally visited the professor. The professor welcomed them warmly, but he had lost much of his zeal. He, too, was having problems.
“Things are looking bad,” he lamented, wringing his hands and gazing anxiously out the window.
“Thanks for seeing us, Martin,” Andrew said, pretending not to notice the large cockroach scurrying across the floor. Sally jumped up from her seat as the creature disappeared under a door.
Andrew asked, “Has anyone found where the birds have gone?”
The professor adjusted his glasses nervously. “Yes. Apparently they’ve congregated in three main groups: one lot in the sub-Saharan region, another in a remote area of Brazil, and another in Borneo.”
Andrew nodded. “All low-populated areas. It looks like the bird population is getting as far away as it can from people doesn’t it?”
“But why?” Sally asked, scanning the floor for cockroaches.
          “Wish we knew,” Martin replied.
Another large cockroach appeared and Martin grabbed a can of pesticide from his desk and sprayed it. Quite unperturbed, the cockroach continued on its way.
“I think it’s time we left,” Sally whispered.
Martin said, “Sorry, about the cockroaches. Nothing seems to stop them.” He paused. “Of course, you realize it’ll get worse now that the birds have gone.”
Sally shuddered and grabbed her husband’s arm. “We must be going now,” she whispered.
“Are there any theories yet to explain what triggered this exodus?” Andrew asked.
Martin shook his head.
Sally tugged at her husband’s arm forcefully.

They drove home in silence, with Andrew deep in thought and Sally thinking about cockroaches.
“What do you make of this, Andy?” she whispered as they reached their street.
 “Not sure, wish I did. Something must have caused the birds to move away. I keep asking, why?”
“Any ideas?”
 “I have a wild theory…but it’s just too crazy.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Not now, Sal. Let’s see how things develop.”

For a nearly a week, Andrew’s attempts to keep the worms and insects from entering his house were successful. The ants and cockroaches were also deterred for a while but, in time, they became immune to the pesticide and something stronger was required.
“Look,” Sally cried, gazing out the window. “The Morgans are moving.”
“Not surprised,” Andrew replied, getting up to join his wife at the window. “Their house and garden were badly infested.”
The phone rang—Harry.
“Thought I’d call to see if you were still there. Nearly everyone in my street has left except me.”
“Where are they going?” Andrew asked.
“Into the city. The authorities have created a no-man’s land by using barricades and flame throwers to keep the insects out.”
Andrew pulled a face. “I’m not keen on being herded into the city. We’ll try and stick it out here for a few more days at least.”
“Well, don’t wait too long.”
Andrew phoned the professor. “How are things, Martin?”
“Okay, except for these damn cockroaches. They’re worse than ever. Found a couple of them in my bed this morning.”
“Bad, isn’t it?  I suppose you’ve heard that many families are taking refuge in the city.”
          “So I’ve heard, but while I’ve got life in my body I’m not going to let these disgusting creatures drive me out of my home.” He sprayed another cockroach and then added, “Who’d have thought we would have come to this? There’s got to be some way to get these critters under control.”

Things got worse and despite Andrew’s efforts to keep them out, the insects continued to increase, and knowing his wife’s loathing of the creatures, he was constantly watchful for the particularly nasty ones. Sally became pale and withdrawn, her eyes bloodshot from being constantly on alert.
Two days later, Andrew phoned Martin. There was no reply.
“I’m going round to see if he’s okay,” Andrew told Sally.
“Don’t be too long, will you? I hate being left alone.”

After knocking on Martin’s door a few times. Andrew walked around the house peering through windows, but he couldn’t see anything.
Probably decided to leave.
Andrew had difficulty opening a side gate covered in cobwebs.  When he did open it, hundreds of cockroaches scurried from the hinges.
Glad I didn’t bring Sally with me.
He made his way to the French doors at the back of the house, but dense spider webs covered the windows. They had cocooned and taken over the rear of the house.
Using a tree branch, Andrew removed the webs and peered in, but could see little so he cleared more away.
What in the devil is that? Andrew thought, trying to make sense of the large black form lying on the floor. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and for a brief moment, Andrew saw what it was, his neck muscles tightened in revulsion. He looked around for a way to break in, and then grabbed a rock and smashed a window.
Once inside, the grim reality became clear: Martin’s body was covered in a seething mass of brown cockroaches.
Andrew covered his mouth and turned away.
          Damn repulsive creatures. What a way to die. Not content to consume all forms of vegetation, they’re now attacking us.
          As he looked down, he noticed a few cockroaches gathering around his feet. Others were leaving Martin’s body and coming his way. Andrew jumped back and threw a glass vase from a nearby table. Get away from me, you disgusting parasites!
For a few seconds, they paused, then regrouped and continued to advance in his direction driven by their insatiable taste for human flesh.
He turned and ran into the garden. The worm-covered path was slippery and he slipped sideways and fell. He knew from the sharp pain in his ankle that he was in trouble—the cockroaches were on him by the hundreds. Half running, half limping to his car, while fighting the cockroaches swarming over him, he unlocked the car door only to fumble and drop his keys. He got in, slammed the door, and breathed deeply in pain.
Damn it! Now what?
Andrew checked that the windows were all up, and then searched in the glove box for his spare key.
Finding the key, he drove home, unable to erase the image of Martin’s body and feeling overwhelmed with guilt that he had not done more.

“I’m glad to see you,” Sally murmured, “Was Martin there?”
“No, he’s gone.”
 “Have you hurt yourself?”
“Nothing serious,” he said rubbing his ankle.

In his office and aware of the danger, Andrew wrote a front-page story titled, “Professor’s Body Eaten by Cockroaches.” In the article, he emphasized the importance of strict pest control, especially for the elderly, children, and those confined by illness. He encouraged readers to use pyrethrum spray, a non-toxic and naturally occurring insecticide. The article received worldwide attention in the media under the general heading of “International Expert on Birds Killed by Roaches.”
To keep this story from Sally, he made sure she had no access to newspapers for a few days. Their TV “broke down” mysteriously.

Over the next few days, Andrew’s use of copious quantities of insect repellant seemed successful. He sealed every entry point: doors, windows, and vents. Sally, relieved by what her husband had done, began doing household again.
Sally stood at the kitchen sink humming quietly. She heard a noise.
“Is that you, Andy?’
She heard a scratching sound again.
“Andy, what are you doing out there?”
No reply.
She stopped and trembled.
At first, she saw nothing, heard the sound again, and then in a corner saw the hideous creature. She tried to scream.
She could see Andrew in his workshop through the window at the far end of the kitchen.
          The shiny black centipede, almost 30 centimeters long, moved towards her, its fangs quivering. Sally’s piercing scream failed to attract Andrew’s attention.
Mesmerized by the centipede, Sally stepped back, tripped, and fell. Now she was terrifyingly close to the creature. She struggled to her feet, knocking over a kitchen stool.
          In his workshop, Andrew glanced casually at the kitchen. When he saw his wife’s horrified expression, he rushed towards her.
“What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
 “Over there!  It’s horrible!”
“Yes, I see it!”
Grabbing a large wrought-iron fry pan, he struck the creature repeatedly.
Sally turned away and, clinging to her husband, sobbed, “It was so…horrible….”
Then she said, with a look he’d not seen in years and in a soft voice he’d not heard for a very long time, “Thank you, Andy.”
 “Try not to think about it, darling. It’s all over. It’s dead now.”
“But how did it get in? I thought you’d sealed all the doors and windows.”
“Must have missed something.”
“But its eyes; they were….”
“You’re just upset, Sally. I know it’s difficult, but try to put it out of your mind. Come and lie down for a while.”
Her sobbing gradually ceased and soon she fell asleep.

When he returned to the kitchen to clean up, the dead centipede was gone.
What the hell? Where is it? It was definitely dead.
He searched every corner of the kitchen and all of the adjoining rooms.
He crept into the bedroom where Sally lay asleep and looked under the bed and elsewhere. Nothing.
He sat on the bed softly. Other than the gentle sound of his wife’s rhythmic breathing, all was quiet.
Damn it! Nothing’s making sense. It defies logic. What am I missing?
Andrew’s thoughts were interrupted by the faint sound of scratching. He looked up sharply.
There it was again. He glanced around. The sound seemed to be coming from the window. Perhaps just a tree branch scraping the glass.
Sally sat up abruptly her eyes staring, “Is everything all right, Andy?”
 “Of course, dear.”
“I thought I heard something.”
“Just a tree twig against the window, that’s all.”
She gazed up at her husband and with a look of despair said, “Andy, you realize I can’t stay here anymore. I just couldn’t go through this again.”
 “I understand how you feel, Sally. But it’s probably safer here than anywhere else.”
 “But I’d die if I ever saw one of those again.”

That night, they packed their car and left early the next morning. As they drove into the city, they could see the black tendrils of smoke rising into the air and smell the burning embers. Cars jammed the roads, all heading in the same direction, all seeking refuge. They finally reached the outskirts.
          An area had been cleared around the periphery and on top of makeshift barricades; men stood holding guns and flame-throwers.
They stopped at the only entry gate. Andrew leaned out of his window. “Looks like some sort of argument going on up there.”
The shouting in the three cars ahead of them grew louder.
Andrew heard someone say, “But you’ve got to let us in! We’ve nowhere else to go!”
The guard shouted back, “We can’t allow anyone else in. Our food will last a few months at most. You’ll have to find somewhere else.”
“We’ve already been to three other cities!”
“You can’t come in here, so move on!”
“But we’ve got small children!”
Sally grabbed her husband’s arm. “Looks like serious trouble, let’s get out of here.”
As they drove off a shot rang out followed by a woman’s scream.

That evening, Andrew and Sally sat huddled together on the couch in the safety of their home.
“What are we going to do now?” Sally asked.
 “Right from the start, a crazy idea has been buzzing round and round in my head.”  All along I’ve been asking myself: Did the insects multiply because of the absence of the birds or did the birds leave to allow the insects to multiply?”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
 “About that centipede ….”
 “I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want to upset you but when I went back to the kitchen to remove it, it was gone.”
“Are you telling me it’s still here?” she cried panic in her eyes.
“Sally, you saw it. It was dead and dismembered.”
“So what’s your explanation?”
 “Maybe we just imagined we saw it.”
“That’s ridiculous! Of course, I didn’t imagine it!”
“But I sealed every door, window, ventilator, and any place where insects could get in and it worked. Hardly any insects came in after that, and those that did were very small. So how do you explain that a much larger creature got in?”
“I’ve no idea. What’s your explanation?”
“Well, what did we do as a result of seeing it?”
“We decided to leave the house, of course.”
“Exactly! The insects could no longer get in, so we were driven out.”
“That’s crazy! You make it sound like this whole thing’s part of some malicious master plan.”
“Maybe it is.”
 “You love drama, don’t you, Andrew? No wonder you’re such a good journalist.”
Andrew got up and walked across to the window then turned to his wife.
“Sally, you can’t dispute the fact that we are under attack by insects. I know the absence of the birds is a factor, but it doesn’t explain the aggression.”
Andrew sat down and held his wife’s hand.
“I’ve been searching for a reason for all of this and I’ve come up with a few things.” He got up, took a folder from a desk drawer, and sat down again “You remember that it was the first week of July when the birds left.”
Sally nodded.
“And just a month before that, the Perseids meteor shower made front-page news worldwide.”
“I remember, but I still don’t understand.”
“I’ll show you,” he said, turning the pages of his folder and pointed to a newspaper cutting.
 “You probably didn’t see this article. It wasn’t headline news, but I think it explains a few things.”
After reading the article carefully, she said, “So you think this discovery of a new insect species a few weeks later is somehow connected with the meteor shower?”
“Yes, I think it’s possible.”
“But how?”
“As the earth orbits the sun, it often encounters rock particles that sometimes come to Earth as meteor showers. These rocks can be as small as grains of sand or over a kilometer wide. They’re usually the remnants of comets, but they occasionally come from extraterrestrial planets that have wandered into our solar system and been captured by the Sun’s gravitation. I’m guessing that some of the meteors from the Perseids shower came from a planet that originated beyond our solar system. I think it possible that traces of living organisms may have been embedded in these rocks and trapped there for millions of years.”
“You mean insects?”
“I’m not suggesting that these rocks contained actual insects in a state of hibernation. They certainly couldn’t survive thousands or millions of years in sub-zero temperatures. No, it’s more likely that they are the remnants of the insects in the form of strands of DNA. As you know, the DNA of mammoths has survived for millennia.”
“Interesting theory.”
 “Well, it’s the best I can come up with right now.”
“So you think the insects now control their predators?”
“Something like that.”
“So you’re saying the insects drove the birds away.”
“That’s right. Many of our birds, animals, and insects act as a group, with a sort of shared consciousness. For example, flocks of birds fly in formation and simultaneously change direction. Schools of fish, herds of animals, and ants do the same. I believe this new alien species of insects influences the instinctive behaviors of birds and other insects. They possess an instinct for survival that greatly surpasses that of other species, an instinct that influences their enemies to migrate elsewhere and starve.”
She frowned. “They certainly got the birds out of the way!”
 “These alien insects also influenced other insects by increasing their instinct for aggression and in turn forcing the human race into a retreat and a fight for survival.”
What do these alien insects look like?”
“They’re only about the size of an ant but look like centipedes.”
“So, this is some kind of alien invasion?”
“No, just an extraterrestrial life form that has been inadvertently transported into an unfamiliar environment and now using its defense mechanisms to survive.”
“Getting rid of its predators?”
“That’s what it looks like.”

The black shiny centipede drew closer.
Andrew tried to draw back, but couldn’t. His head was locked in position. He tried to defend his face with his hands was unable to move them.
The creature was now so close; its penetrating eyes bore into his with its fangs looming closer.
Andrew tried to scream but his throat was dry. When the fangs finally touched his face, Andrew awoke with a start, his body bathed in sweat.
As he sat up in bed, Sally began to toss and turn and then thrashed about wildly. She opened her eyes and screamed. He knew she was having the same nightmare.
“Get away from me! Get away!”
Andrew jumped out of bed.
“Sally it’s me, Andrew! It’s okay. It’s just a dream.”
Gasping for breath, she whispered, “But it was real…so horrible. I’ve never ever had a dream like that.”
“Yes, I know, Sally. I had the same dream just moments ago. Looks like they’re trying every way possible to get rid of us.”
“Is that what it was? They’re going to win, aren’t they, Andy? They’re going to kill all of us.”
Andrew kissed his wife gently on the forehead. “Not if I can help it,” he whispered, but he was concerned that Sally would be unable to take much more.

Sally spent most of the next day sitting in an armchair. She called out to her husband, “I thought I heard something in the kitchen.”
He found the large centipede but instead of attacking it with the frying pan, he poked it violently with the handle of a broom. The insect disappeared, as if it had never existed.
 Andrew smiled. “That’s proof at last that my theory was right!”
 “Did you find it?”
 “If there was anything, it’s gone now.”

A week went by without incidents. Working from home via the Internet, Andrew wrote his newspaper articles but instead of publishing weekly, he wrote daily to cope with the flood of responses. In the most recent issue, he explained his theories and warned people not to be deceived by visions of large insects, particularly centipedes.
Many people followed his suggestions about using pyrethrum insecticide and were reporting success even as supplies of the product were running out.

Another week passed since the nightmare incident and Sally’s mental state had improved. Andrew was in his workshop and his wife in the kitchen preparing dinner. She was slicing vegetables when Andrew entered.
“You surprised me,” she cried, “I didn’t hear you come in. What’ve you got there?”
“I thought you might be interested in looking at this insect.”
In the bottom of the jar was a small creature no more than five millimeters long.
“Let me guess. It’s one of the alien varieties,” she said.
“Doesn’t look like much does it?” he replied.
Andrew tipped the jar so that the insect fell onto the table. Sally stared down at it, and then picked it up.
 “But it’s so small and looks so harmless. How could this little thing create such devastation?”
 “Don’t forget there are millions of these little critters.”
While still holding the insect in the palm of her hand she turned her attention to the saucepan of boiling water. As she reached over to move it from the hotplate, she froze.
“Andy, I can’t move! What’s happening to me?”
 “Come away from the stove!” he shouted. “You’ll get burnt!”
“I can’t move!”
He grasped hold of her and tried to pull her away but couldn’t. Instead, Sally’s hand that held the insect began moving towards him while her other hand moved away and closer to the boiling water.
“Sally! For heaven’s sake, you’ll get burnt!”
Andrew knew that he had to remove the insect from her hand, but each time he tried, a powerful force blocked him.
Sally’s other hand was just now centimeters from the boiling water.
She screamed, “Help me! Andrew, for heaven’s sake, help me!”
Realizing he was failing, Andrew tried another tactic. Instead of focusing on the task, he deliberately tried to relax and clear his mind: think of something else. He thought about the happy days gone by when he was a child playing ball with his father. What great days those had been. Almost immediately, a feeling of calm took over, and he felt relaxed, no longer compelled by the force from the insect.
 Rapidly he swept the insect from Sally’s palm. Instantly, she relaxed and removed her hand from the burning steam.
 “I don’t understand! I just couldn’t move!”
Andrew comforted his wife with a hug. “It’s incredible that just one of those small insects can exert such an influence.”
“But why?” she asked.
“I believe that the insect sensed danger when you moved towards the boiling saucepan, so its survival mechanism kicked in.”
“So it tried to scald me instead?”
Andrew nodded then looked around for the insect. “Where’d it go?” After a few moments searching, he found it in the bottom of a stainless steel mixing bowl.
 “Looks like the horrible thing’s trying to get out.”
 “What was in that bowl?”
“Just diluted balsamic vinegar. I used it with some of the vegetables.”
Andrew picked up the bowl and examined the insect closely. He then moved his finger closer to it then poked it gently.
“What are you doing? You know how dangerous it is!”
Ignoring his wife’s warning, he placed the insect in the palm of his hand.
“See how it’s moving slower now?” He moved his hand carefully toward the hot stove but felt nothing.
“For some reason, this little critter seems to have lost its ability to affect me. Whatever instinctive power it had seems to have gone. Maybe it’s the vinegar.”
After a few experiments using vinegar (acetic acid), it became clear to Andrew that it was effective in preventing the insects’ power from influencing others.
The next morning, his newspaper article announcing his discovery and shared worldwide.

While mankind struggled to free itself from the insects using massive aerial spraying of weak vinegar, a change was also taking place among the birds.
“Look, Sally! I’ve just received an email from a colleague in North Africa saying that they’ve seen birds for the first time in months.”
Sally smiled.
“It seems that with so many birds confined in small areas, they’re running out of food and are looking elsewhere.”
“But that means they must be going against the control exerted by the alien insects.”
 “That’s right! It seems that the aerial spraying of vinegar is doing its job in reducing the alien insects influence doesn’t it?”

Andrew peered through his window at the garden bench where, just three months earlier, he had sat each day enjoying his life while being oblivious to the birdlife around him. It all seemed such a long time ago now. So much had changed.
He gazed at Sally and smiled. At least something good has come of all this.
He turned to look out the window again. “Beautiful sunset, Sally.”
She looked up, a warm smile radiating from her face.
Yes, she has changed.
The glow of the setting sun tinged the edges of the wispy clouds with gold in contrast to the outline of the trees.
Andrew stared. He craned his head forward not sure what he was seeing—odd shapes appearing over the horizon just beyond the trees.
“Sally! Quick! Look!”
“What is it?”
“The birds! They’re back. Look, hundreds of them!”
Sally rushed to the window and then they ran into the garden. Moments later, the birds were circled round and round them, squawking loudly as if to say, “We’re back!”
Andrew and Sally hugged each other with tears streaming down their faces as they gazed around them at the birds - all sizes and colors, their squawks deafening.
“I never noticed how beautiful they were before!” She shouted, as a bird landed on her shoulder, a small black centipede in its beak.

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