“He’s been a tremendous help to me in my studies. Has access to computer simulation equipment I can’t get here on Try Again.” Desma leaned down to gaze affectionately at the tiny-waisted insects in the cage. “Handsome as any renegade too. Met him a few months ago. Pity. All those dark good looks wasted on a Harmonic. Ah, well, I’m a married woman.” She grinned at her houseguest. “Ready for the rest of the tour?”
With eager curiosity Cidra followed Desma Kady down the long aisles, gazing with fascination at each new horror. Some of the creatures were half familiar to her from her academic work, but most were strange and marvelous. Some crawled on legless bellies, others floated in the air, waiting endlessly for prey. A few hopped around on fragile legs that could be re-grown in the event one was lost. Cold, gleaming eyes of every shape and hue looked out at Cidra, assessing her status as potential food. It was an unnerving experience to be gazed upon with so much malicious intent.
Desma and her husband had combined their fields of expertise, doing a great deal of crossover work and sharing the same lab facilities. They worked for an aggressive research firm that funded the studies in exchange for full rights to anything marketable they produced.
“Our latest success was an interesting new pesticide. It’s being tested right now on Lovelady. Doesn’t seem to alter the environment or the agricultural product in any way but has an uncanny effect against glitterbugs.”
“I read a lot about them in the First Family novels and memoirs. They were a real scourge in the early days. Destroyed countless plantings. They’ve been just barely under control for years, haven’t they? They keep mutating, so don’t new pesticides have to be found on a regular basis?”
Desma smiled at Cidra’s familiarity with the subject. “With any luck our company will be producing the newest counter-assault. Should make a tidy bundle for all of us.” Desma moved on. “Over here I’ve got my current pride and joy. These two beauties were the basis for that monograph I wrote on bioluminescence.”
Cidra studied the two creatures behind the tempered diazite. They were a pale, washed-out shade of green, unusually unassuming compared with their more colorful neighbors. Huge, faceted eyes followed her avidly as she moved around in front of the cage. The wings were folded over its elongated body. The back two tiers of legs were clearly designed for long, ground-covering leaps.
“They’re smaller than I would have expected,” Cidra said. “Considering the damage they’re capable of doing.” The insectoid creatures were about half a meter in height. “But they’re not glowing! In your monograph you said they glowed all over, bodies as well as wings.”
“The luminescent effect is selective. They can activate it at will, and they only do so when they’ve located prey. And they only hunt in the dark. They use the glow to momentarily paralyze the victim.”
“That’s right,” Cidra said, recalling the rest of the monograph. “I remember now about them hunting at night. The eyes are heat-sensing as well as motion-sensing?”
“Definitely. Watch, I’ll give you a free show.” Desma walked across the room and touched several pads on a wall panel. The light faded, and the windows were sealed with automatic shutters. There was a general rise in the chittering, chattering, clacking sounds from the inhabitants of the cages as sudden darkness descended.
Cidra waited for her eyes to adjust to the lack of light. “They’re still not glowing.”
“Take a step closer to the cage and act like prey.” With a laugh Cidra stepped closer.
“How do I do that?”
“Just breathe. You’ll have to get fairly close because the diazite interferes with their normal ability to sense heat. If you touch the cage wall, you’ll really get a reaction.”
Cidra waited, breathing deeply. Blindly she put a finger on the diazite cage. And quite suddenly she had her answer. The two Rigor Mortis Mantises lit up with harsh intensity, their bodies glowing with a blue-white light that was startling and terrifying. Brilliant eyes locked with hers for an instant, projecting such an inhuman hunger that Cidra’s stomach turned to ice. She saw the glowing liquid venom drip from hard mandibles. She had time enough to see the segmented, upraised front limbs poised to seize her throat, and then the mantises leapt. The terror of the moment froze her to the spot. Every nerve in her body was shouting for her to run but she couldn’t move. Her mouth was open but no scream emerged. Cidra knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that she was about to become food.
There was a small clicking noise as the mantises struck the tempered diazite, but it took several seconds for Cidra to register the fact that there was a barrier between herself and death. Slowly she tried to regain her self-control, a part of her brain all too well aware that she would have been mantis food by now if there had been no diazite. She shuddered with a sense of genuine horror. The lights came on at once. The mantises went back to being an unassuming shade of pale green. It seemed to Cidra, however, that they looked irritated at having been denied their prey.
“Sorry about that,” Desma said, hurrying forward. “Everything okay? It does make for a fairly graphic display, doesn’t it?”
“I knew what to expect, but I was still quite stunned when they switched on that glow. I’ve never seen anything like it, Desma. It’s terrifying.” With a great effort of will Cidra forced herself to calm down. The adrenaline was still hurtling through her system. “They sensed my body heat through the diazite?”
“They are exquisitely sensitive to heat. But they rely on the prey’s movements, as well, to map out the general location of the victim. Altogether a highly sophisticated sensory system, which they need, naturally, because they only attack in the dark.”
“My husband has found that their venom is capable of producing a temporary paralysis in a creature as big as a man. The mantis attacks, administers the venom, and then backs off to wait until the victim has been immobilized. Then the mantis sits down to a leisurely dinner. The paralysis looks a lot like rigor mortis and takes an hour or so to wear off. By then there’s usually not much left of the victim.”
“I can imagine,” Cidra said, trying to sound appropriately academic about the whole thing. Unfortunately she could imagine the scene all too well.
Desma cast her a keen glance. “Field research tends to be a bit raw compared to the work done in Clementia’s nice clean labs.”