WsIP 2 – Novel – The Insect Problem
- Apologies if formatting and spacing seem a little askew, this is due to having cut and posted from original word doc, and not everything transfers quite as it should …
The Insect Problem
“You do know we can never win such a war Commander. They’ve got the numbers. It’s been estimated the insect population, and it’s a conservative one mind, but it’s somewhere in the region of ten quintillions … that’s one followed by nineteen zeros.” Ernest Jones, Chief Director of The Ministry of Food Production was saying. He was aware he had a tendency to take other’s understanding for granted so briefly paused to allow the Commander a moment to take in what he was saying.
John Stoner, the overall Commander for Public Control and Security couldn’t really comprehend such numbers. He wasn’t alone in that; most could grasp the idea of billions, trillions even given their mention in GDP figures for the Privilege Zones, but nineteen zeros was beyond most people, the Commander included. But if such numbers frightened him, he wasn’t showing it. The Director continued from where he left off …
“Even if every man, woman, and child on the planet went around killing insects by the million, the sheer weight ratio of insects to humans is estimated at 300 lbs for every human being on the planet. Have you any idea how many you’d have to kill as an individual to equal that?” The director asked as if to drive home his point.
“But we have other means of killing them.”Stoner replied, “I mean, we have biological agents that should be able to kill billions, even trillions at a time, surely?” As a former military man, he was loathed to be told he was facing ‘a war he couldn’t win.’
“Kill billions, even trillions?” The Director repeated. “No matter how many we killed, it would never be enough. All we’d do is make more room for the next generation. And unlike the decades that separate human generations, in the case of most insects, the generations are mostly measured in weeks or days.”
Stoner might not have understood or indeed believed all of what the Director was saying, but he picked up on the fear and desperation in his voice.
“So what then, we just give up? Is that what you’re saying?” Stoner asked.
“No of course not. What I’m saying is we have to look for a different solution. This isn’t an enemy you can just nuke out of existence.” Jones said with a touch of sarcasm, adding, “and even if we could fight them, to what end?”
“To survive, that’s what end!” Stoner growled, obviously annoyed with what he considered to be a defeatist attitude.
“But that’s the point, we wouldn’t survive. Without the insects, the food chain of the entire planet collapses, or at least for the surface dwellers. On the other hand, Man could completely disappear tomorrow and not a single other life-form would be adversely affected. In fact, their survival prospects would no doubt improve considerably. Face it, it’s their world, always has been and always will be even long after we’ve gone.” Jones explained.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Stoner reluctantly agreed. “You paint a grim picture though.”
Little Peter Mills was all of six years old, and not nearly as afraid of monsters as he used to be. He was a big boy now, and while he still enjoyed the magical imagination of a child, he was starting to feel more grown up every day. But that wasn’t to say he didn’t welcome the reassurance of having his mum tuck him up in bed, safe and sound, telling him not to let the bed bugs bite. So why were they biting?
At first, it was a just a slight irritation that had Peter tossing and turning in his bed. To anyone looking in, they would have probably just put it down to restless fidgeting or having a bad dream. But the irritation was getting worse; not enough to actually wake him, not yet, but the pinprick like sensations over most of his body was turning his bad dream into a nightmare.
The little lad was thrashing about now, so badly that the tucked in ends of the bed covers had come loose and been thrown to the floor. For a brief moment, the irritation stopped, only for it to return with a vengeance as his entire body become immersed in it. It was no longer just the increasingly painful nipping away at his skin, every inch of his body now felt like it was on fire. Until then he had been shielded from the worst of the pain by the anaesthetizing effect of still being in a half sleep-like state, but the continuous assault on his nerve endings was too much.
Peter’s mind exploded into consciousness. The almost instantaneous awareness of the pain he was in sent his body into spasms. He tried to scream but no sound escaped his throat and nor would his body respond to the instinctive urge to move away from whatever it was attacking him. Something in the bites must have paralysed his muscles. He had to lie there, unable to fight the pain while thousands of tiny insect mandibles tore away at his flesh, boring under his toe and fingernails, crawling inside his ears and mouth, eating away from the insides, and lastly the eyes.
It was a small mercy that the same mind that amplified his pain with its awakening was now shutting down, separating what little was left of the boy’s sanity from the reality of what was happening.
The following morning, his mother screamed at the sight of her little boy, his skin covered in vicious swollen red blotches from the thousands of tiny bites…
“I don’t understand,” she was sobbing over and over. “I thought we’d be safe here in one of the population concentrates, away from the country and open ground. Is nowhere safe now?” She asked again and again.
The police officers exchanged worried glances with the security detail attached to them while the white-coated medical staff took samples, sealing them in small vials, and the bedding in toxic bio-hazard bags.
This wasn’t the first or to be the last such incident …
Life really wasn’t too bad these days. Well, at least not for the half of the world’s ten billion population lucky enough to be living in the Privilege Zones.
With worldwide food production having increased by near on four hundred per cent since the beginning of the millennium, and the loss of crops to disease and weather now negligible, the famine riots of the late 2020’s that had wrought death chaos across continents were little more than a distant memory.
A combination of potent insecticides, genetically modified foods, and the introduction of GM insects into the ecosphere had eliminated most of the destructive damage to farmers’ fields by insect predators and pests, allowing food production to flourish, and in doing so brought an end to the numerous local wars over resources.
While genetically modified plants and insects had played their part in bringing nature to heel, the HN742 insecticide and its variants was probably the single most potent and effective weapon man had ever unleashed against the tiniest of his foes. In a few short years, barely a crop or plant on the planet was at risk from the many diseases that had been the scourge of farmers for centuries. It had truly made the earth a garden of bounty.
The world had been bold in its response to the global crisis, throwing aside caution or thought to the possible consequences of tampering with nature. Out of sheer desperation, the bio-genetic sciences had forged ahead, unhindered by previous generations’ adherence to scientific and medical protocol, ethics, or morality. Opposition to the measures had easily been silenced with footage of the starving millions, not just those of the dust bowls of Africa, so beloved of the old overseas charities but to which most wealthy westerners had become desensitised to, but also of the increasingly empty supermarket shelves of London, Paris, and New York. And to reinforce the need for drastic measures, there was always the threat of a third world war as nations fought over ever diminishing resources, cue images of mushroom clouds and ruined cities. Whether or not it would have come to that no one could be sure, but it had certainly been a very real possibility…
But a collapsed society, even one devastated by nuclear war, might one day have been resurrected …
“There’s been another incident, the third this week alone,” Laura Valentine was telling her boss. “This time a six-year-old boy in one of the Urban Population Concentrates,” she added.
“I know.” Doctor Jack Meakins answered. “It came through on my private net-sphere link.”
Although Laura had her own access to the net-sphere, it was nowhere near the level available to her boss. The internet as it was formally known was no longer anything like the free and unregulated limitless source of information of its heyday. The near breakdown of society had crippled much of the infrastructure that had made the internet possible, and when recovery and resources allowed, the authorities had decreed that the worst excesses of the internet should never be repeated. What emerged was layer upon layer of bio-encrypted information channels, available on a strictly need to know or afford basis.
Oh sure there was still the general officially sanctioned encyclopaedia of information available but long gone was the pornography, conspiracy theories, and generally useless glut of information. Only a select few of either very rich or very powerful people had a carte-blanche level of access. There were, of course, the deeper levels of access that was the world of the illegal hackers. This was the realm of what persisted as the Dark Web. Most were vaguely aware of its existence but like so much of the present time, what was suspected was never officially acknowledged. Much the same could be said of the ever-increasing insect problem presently being discussed by Laura and her boss.
“It’s something we’ve never seen before Laura, not just the aggressiveness but the fundamental changes going on right across every species of insects. And it’s spreading beyond them too?” Jack was telling her.
“Beyond? Higher up the food chain, animals you mean?” Laura asked.
“No, not animals, not yet or as far we know, but several species of arachnid, and other closely related groups.”
“I didn’t know that,” Laura said, this time a little shakily.
“No, well you wouldn’t. Reports of abnormal activity among those are still only on the restricted channels and few in number. So far they seem to be limited to the more remote areas outside the Privilege Zones so it’s impossible to know for sure the true extent of the problem.”
Laura Valentine’s first month of working with the doctor had been a frightening revelation. Her expertise in the field of entomology could have gotten her a job in any one of the major teaching universities or agricultural corporations, but like so many of the younger researchers who had achieved success in their fields relatively early in their careers, she was still an idealist. She fulfilled all the stereotypes; she wanted to help people, to make a difference, and to make the world a better place. What she hadn’t anticipated was that making the world a better place would have to wait – saving it, if it could be saved that was, was going to be their first priority.
Her first couple of weeks had been spent analysing dead and live insect samples, many of which although not unknown to her, were odd in the subtle differences to what she would usually expect to find: the saliva was more toxic, bigger mandibles, increased size, and most disturbingly, signs of resistance to the HX742 insecticide, long thought to be fatal to all insects depending on the variant used.
What she had discovered was that most of the changes she was seeing were occurring in those that had been genetically modified to neutralise their harmful effects on crops or enhance their ability to prey on harmful predators. Albeit her investigations were at a very early stage, but the emerging picture was not good. Her forthcoming report was not going to be what anyone wanted to hear.
It had started with the bees, man’s most loyal and helpful allies among the insect world. For the first time in a decade, there had been a noticeable drop in food production. For all the scientific interventions to enhance food production, without nature’s help mankind would quickly starve, and though the problem wasn’t nearly as acute as during the famine riots, it was a concern nonetheless. It wasn’t a case of an inexplicable decline in the bee population as had been seen at the beginning of the millennium, their numbers were thriving. The problem was more fundamental – they’d simply stopped pollinating crops and plants.
Pollination was, of course, one of the most important contributions of insects to human society, and bees were at the very heart of that, fertilising fruits, beans and many other staple crops, in addition to producing honey. Without their efforts, countless plant species were now failing to reproduce. The other worrying change in their behaviour was aggression. Bees were attacking people without warning or provocation, both in swarms and individually.
For most people, a bee sting was an uncomfortable annoyance but by some unknown means, bees were being selective in their victims: children, the elderly, and those most likely to have a dangerously adverse reaction. Fatalities were becoming the norm in such cases. Likewise with other various insect species. Mosquito bites for example, though not initially as painful as a bee sting, were becoming much more of a hazard. Whereas such bites usually only resulted in an irritating and unpleasant looking red blotchy inflammation of the skin at the point of contact, were now causing rashes and blotches over much larger areas, leaving victims drained of energy, feverish, and again in the case of children and the elderly, severely ill.
People were becoming afraid to venture outside the urban population concentrates, and those who lived on the outskirts of them were starting to wear face masks and carry lethal insect repellents. Children were being kept indoors both at home and in the schools until a solution could be found. But a world population of ten billion could hardly endure such a siege like way of living for long.
Just as she suspected, Laura’s report hadn’t gone down well at the Global Solutions committee conference, tasked with identifying the cause and effects and coming up with a strategy to deal with what had informally been coined the Insect Problem. Laura’s was but one of many such reports outlining the problems they were facing, and she but one of the many scientists tasked with providing answers. Opinions differed as to what was happening, and the extent of the problem, but there were also key areas of agreement: various species of insects, most notably the bees, were not following their normal patterns of behaviour and genetic programming. Outside the Privilege Zones their numbers were increasing exponentially, and even within them in and in the rural countryside, numbers were increasing at alarming rate. The most obvious and alarming changes in behaviour though were the frequency of attacks on humans – swarms of bees, mosquitos, and even regular house flies, were attacking without warning, leaving their young and elderly victims either dead or traumatised. In the present highly automated society only the most skilled and talented were considered necessary or desirable so this wasn’t considered the most immediate problem. Unofficially any widespread loss of life actually fitted in quite well with regional policies of population reduction. Rumours abounded on the Dark Web that the authorities were actually working on ways to utilise the current problems to streamline the population to more manageable numbers.
The military outpost was hidden away in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, part of the Privilege Zone that encompassed what used to be the United Kingdom, one of the old Sovereign States. It housed several divisions of armoured troops along with an impressive array of heavy artillery and armoured assault vehicles. Unfortunately, if they did but know it, it also sat right in the heart of enemy territory as the military would call it.
Some miles away, several regiments had just finished their joint field and live firing exercises alongside several companies of infantry. The C.O. of 39 UDA, or rather Colonel James Conrad Whittaker, the Commanding Officer of Three Nine Urban Defence Artillery Regiment to be precise, had been pleased with their performance, having watched with some glee the destruction of several hundred acres of unspoilt woodland.
The Colonel was not a soldier’s ‘soldier’ as it were, owing his rank more to family money and connections rather than any real talent for soldiering or leadership. He hadn’t been considered bright or sharp enough to enter one of the many family businesses or any sort of academia so in the age-old tradition of such disappointing offspring, the family were faced with the choice of palming him off to either the army or the church. Given that the only sizeable western religion to have survived and grown since the troubles of the early and mid-twenty-first century was Judaism in the West, and Buddhism and Hinduism in the East, that pretty much just left the army to make what they could of the Colonel’s limited abilities.
“Good job men,” the C.O. declared, peering through his field binoculars to get a more detailed view of the blazing woodland. It was just too bad he was blind to the real detail of what he was looking at. All he was focussed on were the flames and billowing smoke of the area he had ordered to be bombarded with artillery fire. What he wasn’t paying attention to were the advancing streaks of subtly darkening colour of the grassy landscape amid the boulders and shrubbery between the target area and their position.