The Singular Habits of Wasps
Written by Geoffrey A. Landis - Narrated by Simon Vance
Listening to his narrative I had completely forgotten the events of the previous night, the slain streetwalkers, and my suspicion of Holmes.
"At this point," Holmes continued, "I knew that I needed to consult an expert. Mr. Wells, of whom I spoke earlier, was that expert, and I could not have asked for a better source. We discussed the possibility of life on other worlds. Mr. Wells offered the opinion that, since there are millions upon millions of suns very much like our own Sun in the sky, that certainly there must be other intelligences, and other civilisations, some of which must be as far beyond ours as our English civilisation is beyond that of the African savage."
"Then you take this strange aeroship to be a vehicle from another world?" I asked. While I had heard such ideas discussed in popular lectures on astronomy, I had, heretofore, always dismissed these as purest fancy.
"A provisional hypothesis, to be confirmed or forgotten as further data became available. I went on to ask Mr. Wells whether such citizens of other worlds might be human in shape and thought. At this suggestion he was most frankly contemptuous. Such beings would have no more reason to be shaped in our form, he said, than we in that of an octopus or an ant. Likewise they might take no more notice of our civilisation and our morality than we take of the endeavors and ethics of an ant hill.
"This I had already surmised. I turned the talk to biology, and without tipping my hand, managed to steer the conversation to the unusual life-cycles of other species. One in particular he mentioned struck my attention, the life-cycle of the ichneumon, or solitary wasp."
"Really, Holmes. Wasps? I do believe that you are toying with me."
"I wish that I were, my dear doctor. Pray listen; all of this is germane to the subject at hand. The ichneumon wasp has a rather gruesome life-cycle. When the female wasp is ready to lay eggs, it finds and stings a cicada, often one much larger than itself, and then deposits its egg inside the body of the paralyzed but still living insect. This insect then serves as sustenance for the hatching larva, which forms its home within the living insect, having the instinct to avoid eating the essential organs until the very last, when it is ready to exit into the world to lay eggs of its own.
"This was enough for me to frame my provisional hypothesis. I believed that some strange being from the aeroship had not merely met the fatally injured man, but crawled inside his body and taken control of his gross physical function.
"I was struck by one fact. Of all the people that this . . . alien . . . might have met, it was a dying man who he—it—actually chose. Clearly, then, the . . . thing . . . believed itself unable to subdue an uninjured person."
"I must confess, Holmes, if I were asked to prove your sanity, this story would hardly bolster your case."
"Ah, Watson, always the practical man. Permit me." He got out of the leather chair, crossed the room to where he had put down the leather satchel, and laid it on the table in front of me.
I sat paralyzed. "I dare not, Holmes."
"Your courage has never failed you before, my friend."
With a shudder I touched the satchel, and then, steeling myself, opened it. Inside was some object covered in streaks of gore. I didn't want to look, but knew that I must.
The two eggs inside were of a translucent purplish white, large as a moderate-sized mango, and slick with a film of blood. Within each one a monstrous coiled shape could be discerned. No Earthly animal ever laid such an egg, of this I was sure. More horrible than the eggs was the other thing. I shuddered and looked away. It was something like a giant prawn, and something like some jungle millipede, with dozens of long barbed feelers and multiply-jointed appendages bristling with hooks and spines. Its head, or what passed for a head, had been nearly severed with a knife, and the wound exuded a transparent fluid rather like whale-oil, with a sharp and unpleasant odor similar to kerosene. Instead of a mouth, it had a sucking orifice rimmed with myriad tiny hooked teeth.
"This is what I removed from her body," Holmes said.
I looked up at him. "My God," I whispered. "And she was not dead?"
"You asked that question before. It is a question of definitions, Watson. All that was left alive in her body was the thing that you see. By removing it, did I kill her?"
I shuddered again, and slammed the satchel shut with my eyes averted. "No." I stood for a moment, trying to regain my composure. "But why Whitechapel?"
"What you saw was a juvenile," said Holmes. "The adult would be much larger. I would not know if it is intelligent, or what we call intelligent, but it is at least very clever. Why Whitechapel? Think, Watson. It had eggs and juveniles it must deposit into a living body. But how is it to approach a complete stranger, embrace him—or her—closely enough to? Ah, you see the picture. It was the perfect place for the thing, Watson; the only place where it could do what it needed.
"I studied the East End in minute detail, tracing the path of the mysterious stranger. Again and again I was too late, sometimes only by minutes. I removed the juveniles from the corpses out of necessity. I say corpses, Watson, for although they still walked upright they were already dead. Had I not killed them, they would have gone to cover until they were mature. I could find the one, I knew, only by concentrating on the one trail. Even then it would be a near thing. Two of them, and I were lost."
"Why didn't you go to the police?"
"And tell them what? To start a man-hunt for a thing they can only find by ripping open bodies?"
"But the letters? The ones from 'Jack the Ripper'—did you write these?"
Holmes laughed. "Why should I need to?" he said. "Fakes, forgeries, and cranks, every one. Even I am continuously amazed at how many odd people there are in London. I daresay they came from newspapers hungry to manufacture news, or from pranksters eager at a chance to make fools of Scotland Yard."
"But, what do we do?"
"We, Watson?" Holmes raised an eyebrow.
"Surely you wouldn't think that, now that I know the danger, I would let you continue alone."
"Ah, my good Watson, I would be lost without you. Well, I am hot on its trail. It cannot elude me much longer. We must find it and kill it, Watson. Before it kills again."
By the next morning the whole episode seemed a nightmare, too fantastical to credit. I wondered how I could have believed it. And yet, I had seen it—or had I? Could I have deluded myself into seeing what Holmes had wanted me to see?
No. It was real. I could not afford to doubt my own sanity, and hence I must believe in Holmes'.
In the next few days Holmes went back to his daytime reconnaissance of the East End, mapping the way buildings abutted and how doorways aligned with alleys, like a general planning his campaign, stopping for conversation with workmen and constables alike.
On the third day, my business in town kept me late into the evening. At the end of it, it was almost certain that I had purchased a practice, and at a price which I could afford, but the sealing of the deal required an obligatory toast, and then there were more papers to be inspected and signed, so that all in all, it was well past ten in the evening when I returned to Baker Street.
Of Holmes there was only a note: "I have gone to see the matter to its conclusion. It is better that you are out of it, and I shall think no less of you if you stay. But if you must follow, then look for me near the blind court at Thrawl Street." I read it and swore. He seemed determined to leave me out of this adventure, no matter how dangerous it was for him alone. I snatched my greatcoat and hat from the hall stand, fetched my revolver out from the drawer where it resided, and went out into the night.
It was the night of the great carboniferous fog. The gas-lights were pale yellow glimmers that barely pierced the roiling brown stink. The cab I hailed almost ran me down before seeing me in the street in front of him.
The fog in Whitechapel was even thicker and yellower than that of Baker Street. The cab left me off in front of the Queen's Head pub, the cabbie warning me of the danger of the neighborhood. The blind court was one which was being resurfaced by the MacAdam method, in which the street was covered with liquid tar, and a layer of gravel rolled into the tar surface. The process results in a surface which is even and far easier to repair than cobblestone. I can see the day when all of London will have such smooth, quiet streets.
Earlier Holmes had talked with some of the workmen as they rolled the gravel. Now they were long gone. The half-full cauldron of tar was still at the corner of the alley. Although the oil-pot which heated it to boiling had been removed, the cooling drum of tar still gave out quite a bit of heat.
Three unfortunate women had lit a small fire out of wood-scraps and huddled between the warm cauldron and their fire, with their hands toward the tiny fire and their backs against the cauldron for warmth. The glow of the fire gave a luminous orange cast to the surrounding fog. A tiny pile of additional wood scraps stood waiting to keep the fire going for the rest of the night.
Holmes was nowhere in sight.
The women spotted me looking at them, and whispered amongst themselves. One came up to me and attempted a smile. "Care to spend some money and buy a poor unfortunate a drink, dearie?" She tossed her head toward the end of the street where the pub was invisible in the fog, and at the same time flicked her skirt in such a way as to allow me a clear view of her bare ankle.
I averted my eyes. "I'm looking for a friend."
"I could be a friend, if you wanted me to."
"No. I don't need . . . that sort of comfort."
"Oh, sure you do, dearie." She giggled. "All men do. 'Sides, I h'aint even got money for me doss. Surely a fine gent like yourself has a shilling to spend on a poor lady down on 'er luck, hasn't he? Sure 'e does."
I looked at her more closely, and she preened for my inspection. She might have been a rather pretty woman, striking if not actually beautiful, if she had been given the chance. Instead I saw the lines on her face, the threadbare bonnet she wore, and the unmistakable signs of the early stages of consumption. Such a woman should be resting in bed, not out standing in the chill of a night such as this. I was about to speak to her, to invite her into the public house for the drink she requested, for no other reason than to get her out of the chill and away, perhaps, from the monster that stalked the fog-shrouded night. I could wait for Holmes as well in the pub as in the street.
As I was about to speak, I heard a man approach from the blind end of the court, although I had seen no one there previously. I started to call out, thinking it must be Holmes, but then saw that, while the man was quite as tall as Holmes, he was much bulkier, with a considerable paunch and ill-fitting clothes. As he passed, another of the women smiled at him and called a greeting. He nodded at her. As she put out her arm for him to take, he dropped his hand to the buttons of his trousers. I looked away in disgust, and as I did so the woman who had spoken to me slipped her arm around mine.
I had lost track of the third woman, and was as surprised as the others when her voice rang out from behind. "Stop, fiend!"
The voice was calm and authoritative. I looked up. The woman was holding a revolver—Holmes' hair-trigger revolver—in an unwavering grip aimed at the man's head. I looked closely at her face and saw, beneath the makeup, the thin, hawk-like nose and the unmistakable intense gaze of Sherlock Holmes.
The other man swiveled with surprising speed and sprang at Holmes. I pulled my hand loose from my lady companion and in an instant snatched my revolver free of my pocket and fired. Our two shots rang out at almost the same instant, and the man staggered and fell back. The two bullets had both hit above the left eye, and taken away the left half of the cranium.
The women screamed.
The man, with half his head missing, reached out a hand and pulled himself to his feet. He came at Holmes again.
I fired. This time my bullet removed what was left of his head. His jutting windpipe sucked at the air with a low sputtering hiss, and in the gaping neck I thought I saw purplish-white tendrils feeling about. The shot slowed him down for no more than an instant.
Holmes' shot took him in the middle of the chest. I saw the crimson spot appear and saw him rock from the impact, but it seemed to have no other effect.
We both fired together, this time lower, aiming for the horror hidden somewhere within the body. The two shots spun the headless thing around. He careened against the cauldron of tar, slipped, and fell down, knocking the cauldron over.
In an instant Holmes was upon him.
For a moment Holmes had the advantage. He pushed the monster forward, into the spreading pool of tar, struggling for a hold. Then the monster rose, dripping tar, and threw Holmes off his back with no more concern than a horse tossing a wayward circus monkey. The monster turned for him.
Holmes reached behind him and grabbed a brand out of the fire. As the monster grabbed him he thrust it forward, into the thing's chest.
The tar ignited with an awful whoosh. The thing clawed at its chest with both hands. Holmes grabbed the cauldron, and with one mighty heave poured the remainder of the tar onto the gaping wound where its head had once been.
Holmes drew back as the flames licked skyward. The thing reeled and staggered in a horrible parody of drunkenness. As the clothes burned away, we could see that where a man's generative organs would have been was a pulsing, wickedly barbed ovipositor with a knife-sharp end writhing blindly in the flames. As we watched it bulged and contracted, and an egg, slick and purple, oozed forth.
The monster tottered, fell over on its back, and then, slowly, the abdomen split open.
"Quickly, Watson! Here!"
Holmes shoved one of the pieces of firewood into my hands, and took another himself. We stationed ourselves at either side of the body.
The horrors which emerged were somewhat like enormous lobsters, or some vermin even more loathsome and articulated. We bludgeoned them as they emerged from the burning body, trying as we could to avoid the oily slime of them from splattering onto our clothes, trying to avoid breathing the awful stench that arose from the smoking carcass. They were tenacious in the extreme, and I think that only the disorientation of the fire and the suddenness of our attack saved our lives. In the end six of the monstrosities crawled out of the body, and six of the monstrosities we killed.
There was nothing remotely human left in the empty shell that had once been a man. Holmes pulled away his skirts and petticoat to feed the fire. The greasy blood of the monstrosities burned with a clear, hot flame, until all that remained were smoldering rags with a few pieces of unidentifiable meat and charred scraps of bone.
It seemed impossible that our shots and the sounds of our struggle had not brought a hundred citizens with constables out to see what had happened, but the narrow streets so distorted the sounds that it was impossible to tell where they had originated, and the thick blanket of fog muffled everything as well as hiding us from curious eyes.
Holmes and I left the two daughters of joy with what money we had, save for the price of a ride back to Baker Street. This we did, not with an eye toward their silence, as we knew that they would never go to the police with their story, but in the hopes—perhaps foolish—that they might have a respite from their hard trade and a warm roof over their heads during the damp and chill months of winter.
It has been two months now, and the Whitechapel killings have not resumed. Holmes is, as always, calm and unflappable, but I find myself unable to look at a wasp now without having a feeling of horror steal across me.
There are as many questions unanswered as answered. Holmes has offered the opinion that the landing was unintentional, a result of some unimaginable accident in the depths of space, and not the vanguard of some impending colonization. He bases this conclusion on the fact of the ill-preparedness and hasty improvisation of the being, relying on luck and circumstance rather than planning.
I think that the answers to most of our questions will never be known, but I believe that we have succeeded in stopping the horrors, this time. I can only hope that this was an isolated ship, blown off-course and stranded far from the expected shores in some unexpected tempest of infinite space. I look at the stars now, and shudder. What else might be out there, waiting for us?
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