Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Jane and the Queen

by Rusty Keele



"Dr. Rusch..."

He kept reading the report. There still had not been any sign of the inhabitants of the pods.

"Dr. Rusch?"

Slowly he turned his head away from the paper as he was reading the last few words, and finally pulled his gaze from it as he looked up at her. She was standing in the door frame, a motherly look of concern on her face. "Yes, Sasha?" he finally said.

"There's a new patient you may want to see."

"Oh? Something unusual?"

"A little bit, yeah. A smaller sized female with lots of rage cooped up inside her. The catchers have put her in A3, but she is going crazy trying to get out. I'm worried she may hurt herself."

"Okay, I'll take a look. Thank you Sasha."

She left, and he finished reading the last five pages of the report. Finally he stood up, adjusted his white smock, grabbed a yellow folder and some blank forms and started towards holding cell A3.

As he walked into the holding cell area he discovered a small group gathered around the video surveillance screens. Benny was seated there, with two of the catchers staring over his shoulders. As Dr. Rusch joined the group he noticed they were watching the new female in A3. She was acting even more savagely than most of the new patients. She would scratch at the walls furiously, then run around the cell for several minutes before digging at the floor. When that didn't work she would try to jump up and reach the ceiling, but she was not getting anywhere even close to it. Obviously frustrated, she would pace back and forth howling several times before starting the cycle over again.

"Wow, she does seem more agitated than most of the new recruits," Dr. Rusch commented. The others nodded in agreement without looking at him. After watching the cycle for several minutes, he finally went to the desk and started making a chart for their newest patient. "Do you guys have any identifying information about her?" he called over his shoulder. One of the catchers replied in the negative, indicating that they had picked her up on the outskirts of town, and it appeared she had recently come down out of the mountains. Dr. Rusch nodded and gave her a generic name: "Jane-1753." He handed the paperwork to Benny for processing. Taking one last look at the screen he shook his head, "Welcome to CTL, Jane. Benny, since tonight is the full moon let her spend a day or two in the cell, and when she reverts to human form move her to one of the open rooms. We'll worry about tagging her and getting her information then. Unless you want to go into the holding cell and ask her name tonight?" He gave a wry smile. Benny just shook his head and muttered something about staying clear of A3.

####

"Dad..."

He was engrossed in the newspaper article. After forty days some search teams were being called off.

"Daddy?"

Still holding the paper open he raised his head slightly to look at his two sons. "What is it?" he asked.

"Have you ever seen a queen ant?" asked Tyler.

He thought for a moment, "No, I don't think I have. Why?"

"Me and Ricky are going to try and catch one."

John Rusch looked at his younger son, who was nodding eagerly, then back to Tyler. "Okay, but why do you want to do that?"

"Well, we watched that show on TV about ants, and we thought it would make a great science fair project. But we're not sure how to catch it. Do you know how?"

"I don't. Why don't you try looking online, on Wikipedia or something."

"Okay, thanks dad." They were scurrying off to the computer downstairs when John spoke to them again. They stopped, their faces peering around the corner. "Yeah dad?"

"Be careful please. Wear some gloves... and long sleeved shirts... and just watch out -- ant bites hurt for a long time... I know."

The boys ran down the stairs without saying anything else. John returned to his newspaper article.

The noise in the backyard finally attracted his attention enough to do something about it. As he pushed open the screen door and stepped out onto the back porch, he saw his boys gearing up for battle. Although it was late summer, each of them was wearing two long sleeved shirts, thick jeans, boots, leather work gloves and hats. John chuckled as they looked up at him and smiled. "Going hunting are you?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Ricky, "we're going to capture a queen ant in the woods."

"Yeah dad, we're going to look under rocks and sticks and stuff. We're hoping to see a queen and scoop her up before she can hide or get away. Want to come?"

John looked at the trees and the slow incline toward the mountains, "No thanks, guys, I'll let you handle this one. Oh -- do you have some bug spray?"

When they indicated that they didn't have any, John ran back into the house and grabbed the little bottle of bug spray that he took when hiking. He returned and gave it to Tyler, who shoved it into his pocket as he and Ricky filed out of the back yard and into the woods.

####

Several days after first seeing Jane, Dr. Rusch again found himself in the video surveillance room. Although she wasn't as agitated now as she had been that first day, Jane was still uneasy about being in the holding cell. Her constant pacing from one end of the cell to the other varied little.

"Do you think she's a real wolf?" asked Benny.

Dr. Rusch watched Jane for a few moments before answering. "No. Look at her elongated limbs and human-like jaw. Plus her fur isn't as thick as a real wolf's would be. I don't think she is a real one... but she is definitely different than any other werewolf to come through the Center."

"Yeah," agreed Benny, "and she's making it hard for me to concentrate on my Solitaire game!" He glanced at Dr. Rusch and gave a little grin.

The doctor, however, was focusing intently on the video screen and Jane. "She is a determined one. Let's give her some more time."

"Okayey-dokey, you're the boss." said Benny as he started his card game.

John put the blank forms back into Jane's folder, then gathered up the empty blood vials and unopened tongue depressors and unused rubber gloves and put them away also.

Periodically he checked the video screen to see if Jane had altered her pacing behavior, and he always found that she had not. When he had finished cleaning up he watched her for a few more moments. "Benny, how many other wolves are in the holding area?"

"None, doc."

"None?"

"Yeah, sure. You know, it only takes a day or two after the full moon for them to revert to human form, then we move them to more permanent rooms. Why? You got something special planned for Jane?"

Although he had known the time frames, Dr. Rusch had been so focused on Jane that he had been completely unaware that she was the only one left in a holding cell. He glanced at Benny, then back to the screen. "Um, maybe. But let's give her a few more days to calm down and revert to her human form before we try something else. We want her to 'come to us' Benny, and she will -- in her own time."

"Whatever you say, doc."

####

After several fruitless outings searching for a queen ant, the boys had become discouraged. Dr. Rusch stopped by the pet store on his way home from the Center and picked up a couple of ant farms. The thin, plexi-glass tanks gave Tyler and Ricky the motivation they needed to resume their search for an elusive queen. Each afternoon for several days they would don their hunting gear and set off through the back yard. Although they found several ant colonies they weren't skilled enough, or lucky enough, to capture a queen ant. Eventually their desire to keep looking began to drop.

John re-motivated them by helping Tyler do some research on ants for his science project.

"Dad, why are the queens so hard to catch?" asked Tyler after reading several articles.

"Well, think about it. The queen is the most valuable member of the colony, and her workers and soldiers want to keep her safe so the colony will thrive. It is a common thing, something nearly all animals do. Just think of humans -- don't we make special effort to protect the humans we deem most important?"

Tyler thought for a minute. "Yeah, like how the Secret Service protects the President!"

Dr. Rusch smiled in agreement.

"Dad, do you think the aliens do that too?"

"I don't know son." It had been just over a month since the alien pods had landed at various places around the globe. In every case, once the officials (or regular people) arrived they only found empty, non-functioning ships. "Maybe when we find the inhabitants of the pods we'll learn the answer to that question."

"What did that one in Steamboat Springs look like?"

Dr. Rusch remembered the scene vividly. His small team had been searching for a former patient who had slipped back into violent werewolf mode and their search had led them far to the west of Boulder. "It wasn't exactly in Steamboat Springs; that was just the nearest city. Anyway, the alien ship was about the size of a small car, except it didn't have any windows, and it was solid metal. The insides had some sort of controls, but everything was dead -- it was just a piece of junk in the mountains was all."

Tyler looked concerned.

"Don't worry son, I'm sure if the aliens were hostile they would have done something terrible by now. Besides, those pods couldn't have held more than a few aliens anyway, and the last time I checked it would take a whole lot more than that to cause any major trouble." He smiled and took his oldest son in a headlock while knuckle-rubbing his head. "Now, let's see if we can't figure out how to catch a queen ant, eh?"

They went back to their research.

####

The following week Dr. Rusch made time in his busy schedule to visit the holding area. This time, in addition to bringing all the usual forms and vials, he also brought a tranquilizer gun and a heavy dose of sedative.

As he entered the surveillance area, he noticed Benny wasn't there -- hopefully he was prepping for Jane's shot. Dr. Rusch watched the video feed of Jane -- she was still pacing in her holding cell like she always did. He set the items on the table, and began loading the tranquilizer dart into the rifle.

A short buzzer sounded, and the door to the holding cells opened into the surveillance room. Benny came in, and just like Dr. Rusch he was also decked out in full protective gear. "Oh, hi, Dr. Rusch. Are you ready for the fun?"

"Has there been any change in her behavior?"

"Nope. She still paces around all day. I'll be glad when this is over, she is really creeping me out -- just now, when I was getting things ready outside of her cell, she kept staring at me. Oh I've been stared at by werewolves before -- it's all part of the job, right -- but this was different. I felt like she was "cooking" me with her eyes or something -- very disturbing."

Dr. Rusch gave a short chuckle, then held up the rifle to inspect it. "Okay, everything is ready -- let's do this."

He and Benny buzzed the door open and entered the holding cell area. Jane continued pacing around her cell, and whenever she was facing the two of them her gaze seemed to literally make them sweat. As Dr. Rusch made his way next to Jane's cell, she quit pacing and backed into the far corner of the cell, her head was low and her ears and hair were pricked up -- she was not very happy about what was happening. Dr. Rusch cocked the gun, and put the barrel through the reinforced chain link wall. He took careful aim and shot Jane in her left hind quarters.

There was a high pitched scream that caused both men to immediately cover their ears with their hands. The tranquilizer gun banged to the floor. The pain was excruciating, almost like having a police car there in the room with them. After about thirty seconds the sound stopped and they watched as Jane tried in vain to get the dart out of her rump. The men pulled down their protective helmets in anticipation of entering the cell, but after a few minutes Jane gave up trying to get the dart out, and began to stare at them instead.

"Doc, why isn't she down yet? Did you give her enough juice?"

"Oh yeah -- she should be sound asleep by now... I'm not sure what's wrong."

Suddenly Jane leaped at the chain link wall, causing the men to step back for fear that she might actually break through. Dr. Rusch was feeling very hot, a bit surprised and more than a little fearful. "Benny, let's step out for a few minutes."

In the surveillance room, Benny removed his helmet and also mentioned feeling hot. They both watched the monitor, amazed by the fact that Jane continued to thrash about -- attacking the walls and digging at the floor of her cell.

Dr. Rusch's reverie about why Jane wasn't reacting to the tranquilizer was interrupted by Benny. "Doc, look at the temperature in there," he was pointing to the monitor. Dr. Rusch was not too surprised to find that the temperature of the holding cell had risen a full ten degrees.

"What's going on Doc?"

"I'm not sure Benny, but I'm starting to think that Jane may not be a werewolf after all."

"Well, you said she wasn't a real wolf -- so what is she then?"

"I don't know yet, but we're gonna find out."

Jane had temporarily stopped her fit of rage and was making the high pitched siren scream again. Even out in the surveillance room the sound was terrible. Dr. Rusch once again gathered the blank forms and empty vials and returned to his office.

####

After making the obligatory small talk, he was ready to ask for the favor. "Suzanne, I am wondering if you would be willing to help me out with another patient?"

She eyed him warily for a moment, "Okay. What do you have planned?"

"There is a female in a holding cell that won't revert to human form. I'm thinking that maybe if she gets some company it will help to relax her, and maybe then she will revert. You've helped other patients before, and I think you could go a lot of good with this one. What'd ya say? You up to it?"

She thought for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, that doesn't sound too bad. When do you want to do it?"

"How about this afternoon? We can put you in the cell next to her, and hopefully after a night of your calming influence she will revert by morning."

She looked at her watch and nodded again. "Alright, I have a couple more of the newer patients to meet with, then I'll meet you down there in an hour."

"Excellent. And Suzanne -- thank you, really." He stood and smiled as she left his office, if anyone could help Jane it would be his star pupil.

####

In the surveillance room the three of them watched Jane on the video monitor. She was back to pacing and digging at the floor. The other active monitor was looking in on the cell next to Jane's -- the one Suzanne would occupy for the night. Dr. Rusch was giving her a brief history of Jane's stay at the Center, and when he was finished she looked slightly worried.

"Are you sure this will work?" she asked.

"Well, no, quite frankly. It's just a theory, but I'm really hoping it does the trick. Are you still okay with it?"

"Yeah, but I'm not planning on doing much. I'll just go into my cell, pace around for a while, maybe lie down a bit, then revert to human form after a few hours. Perhaps if she sees me do it then it will make her want to do it too. How does that sound -- calming enough for you?"

"That would be perfect.okayay then, is there anything else you need? Remember, Benny will be out here monitoring everything, so if you need anything just signal the camera."

She shook her head. "No, I'm fine for now, let's go. Benny, will you kill the lights in there while I revert? That way she won't see me enter the cage in human form. I'll let you know when I'm ready."

He shut off the lights, and then buzzed her through the door. After a couple of minutes they heard a classic werewolf howl coming from one of the cells.

"That must be our cue," said Benny. He flipped the lights back on. The monitor with Jane showed that her behavior hadn't changed, but now they could see Suzanne, in her wolf form, mimicking Jane's actions. She was also pacing around her cell, and making a believable effort at trying to escape -- or at least test the cell's limits. When Jane noticed her she stopped, looked her over for a few minutes, then continued pacing.

Dr. Rusch kept a close eye on the situation for the next half hour. Suzanne slowed her pacing gradually, until she was barely sauntering around inside her cell. Every once in a while she would stop next to the chain link wall between her and Jane's cell and try to initiate some sort of contact with Jane, but it never worked.

Finally he was satisfied that things were going well. He gathered his folders and prepared to leave. "You'll be sure to call me if anything out of the ordinary happens right?"

"You got it, Doc. See you tomorrow."

He looked once more at the monitors. Suzanne had finally giving up pacing, and was lying in one corner of her cell watching Jane. Jane, however, was still pacing frantically.

####

After dinner with his family, Dr. Rusch had been drawn into the newspaper by an article about the current theory of the pods' inhabitants. It seemed that now the authorities believed the aliens may have the ability to blend in with animal life on Earth. They were calling for anyone with knowledge of strange wildlife to report it immediately.

He stopped reading, and let his gaze fix thoughtfully on the far wall. Perhaps there was more to Jane that he could possibly imagine.

His thoughts were interrupted by loud yelling in the back yard.

"Dad? Dad! Come look at what we found!" It was Tyler's voice, and he sounded excited.

He set the newspaper on the couch and hurried out the back door. Tyler and Ricky were next to the picnic table, peering intently at the mason jar on top of it. Tyler turned to his father, "Dad! Check this out! We finally caught one!"

Dr. Rusch bent over and peered into the glass jar. "What in the world is that?" he asked.

"Dad... it's a queen ant. You know, the thing we've spent that last few weeks looking for? Kinda strange huh? It doesn't really look anything like the pictures we've seen, does it?"

Dr. Rusch looked back at the thing in the jar. It reminded him of those big, ugly tomato worms that he would sometimes find in his garden -- except this wasn't as long. It was probably only an inch or two in length, and it had a huge head that made up two-thirds of its total mass. It was green, and had a fat, juicy body. The head was the most disturbing though, with its two small horns, big round eyes, and mouth full of fangs. The thing actually looked at him and opened its mouth in some sort of warning. He noticed the dead ant carcasses in the jar, and looked back at his boys.

"Cool! Ain't it dad?" beamed Ricky.

"Where did you guys find this?"

"It was in the woods back there -- about half way up the mountain side." said Tyler. "We rolled aside an old rotting tree, and there was a swarm of ants. Most of them were running around like crazy, taking the eggs away and stuff, and right in the middle of all of them was this queen! When it saw us it went crazy -- it started attacking the regular ants. It was biting several of them -- killing them with some sort of acid I think -- and then it justed looked at several more until they started to burn up. It was crazy dad! Finally Ricky slapped the jar over the top of it, and it actually screamed! Did you know they could do that dad? It was loud too, like a police siren or something, kinda scary."

Dr. Rusch was staring at his sons. He then looked back and forth between the thing in the jar and them several times. Finally, he spoke. "Boys, I don't know what that thing is... but it definitely is NOT a queen ant." They started to protest, but he cut them short. "No -- it's not an ant of any species -- trust me. Did you say it burned up the other ants... and screamed at you?"

"Yeah, watch this." Ricky opened another jar which was full of the regular worker ants. He put the end of a stick in and let a few of them crawl on it, then pulled it out. He opened the jar with the green worm thing in it and shook the ants off into it. All three of the ants immediately attacked the green thing. The thing sunk its teeth into the first one, and some sort of thick venomous fluid dripped from its teeth, causing the ant to freeze its motion, then start to disintegrate as the acid interacted with its body. It did the same thing to the second ant, and then the third ant began to run around in circles. The green thing fixed its gaze on the final ant, and within a few seconds it began to smolder and smoke, finally bursting into flame as its carcass burned up.

Dr. Rusch watched in horror as the whole scene took place. When it was over, he spoke to the boys without taking his eyes off the thing in the jar. "Can you make it scream?"

"I don't know," said Tyler. He tapped the jar a few times, but nothing happened. The green thing only eyed him angrily. Finally he pulled the can of insect repellent out of his jacket pocket. "Maybe this will work." He removed the lid and sprayed some of it into the jar. The green thing had been looking up at Tyler, and the repellent hit it right in the eyes. It immediately squeezed its eyes shut and began to scream. It was a high pitched scream that sounded vaguely like a police siren -- just like the boys had said, and just like Jane had screamed. Tyler slammed the lid back on the jar, but it didn't completely stop the terrible sound. Dr. Rusch grabbed Ricky's jacket from the table and tossed it over the jar, hoping that the darkness would coax the thing into stopping its terrible scream. It worked, and eventually a blessed silence settled over them. He took the insect spray from Tyler and looked over its ingredients, then placed it in his own pocket. Dr. Rusch looked at his two kids, "Well boys, you found something -- not a queen ant, but something even more rare, I think. C'mon -- we've got a phone call to make."

The three of them hurried into the house.

####

"Dr. Rusch?"

He was lost in the reverie of his thoughts. Jane had to be one of them too -- like the queen ant had been.

"Dr. Rusch?"

He finally looked at the agent standing in front of him. "Yes?"

"We are pretty much done here, you are free to go and join your family at the hotel if you like."

They had all been temporarily moved while the authorities tried to determine where the green thing had come from, and if there were any others around. He thought briefly about telling them about Jane, but decided against it. He was too worn out from the day's excitement, and besides -- he wanted to observe her a little bit more before they moved in and took over the investigation -- which was sure to happen given their reaction to the ant.

"Thank you. I think I will turn in now, it has been a long evening."

"Have a good night. We'll be in contact with you in the morning. Oh, and if you see any more strange wildlife please give us a call immediately."

He nodded wearily, then turned and walked around the house, which was being cordoned off with temporary fencing and huge sheets of plastic, to his car. He started it up and headed straight for the Center.

####

As he pulled into the Center's parking lot he noticed several of the attendants bursting from the doors, followed by puffs of thick gray smoke. He jumped out of his car and ran for the door. One of them tried to warn him, telling him that there was a fire inside, but he ignored her and pulled open the door to rush inside anyway. There was a lot of smoke, but most of it was high and near the ceiling. He pulled a lab coat from a nearby rack and held it over his face, hoping for some protection from the smoke. He hurriedly made his way to the holding area.

As he pulled the door open and rushed into the holding area, he noticed it was hotter and smokier in here, perhaps the fire had started here. The room was in shambles with the tables and chairs tipped on their sides and folders, paper and electronic equipment strewn everywhere. Dr. Rusch looked around frantically for Benny, but couldn't see him. He tried to open the door into the cell area, but realized, to his frustration, that he had forgotten to buzz himself in. He sprinted back to the buzzer, whacked it hard, and ran like mad to the door. He barely made it before the buzzing sound went off, but just managed to pull the door open before it locked.

It was almost too late before he realized his mistake. Jane was just beyond the door, out of her cell, and when he opened it she lunged for him in a desperate attempt to escape the burning room. Somehow, miraculously, he managed to backpedal enough to close the door before she plowed into it.

The adrenaline was coursing through him now. He shakily stood and took a cautious gaze through the small door window. Jane wasn't by the door, but he could see her farther in, and it looked like she was attacking something. He looked more carefully and as she thrashed her head around he noticed that she was attacking Benny!

Dr. Rusch made a furious effort to see if he was still alive. It looked like he was making some effort to protect himself -- mostly his face and throat -- from Jane, but wasn't greatly succeeding.

That was it -- he could take no more. In an instant he made the decision to try to go back in again and save Benny.

He rushed back to the buzzer and whacked it again, then sprinted once more for the door to the holding cell area. This time he was prepared for Jane -- or so he thought. As he pulled the door open he kept himself behind it. Sure enough Jane came bounding through. Once she was in he rushed around the door and entered the holding cell area, and then made his way directly to Benny.

Benny was gurgling blood and gasping for air. John knelt beside him and lifted his head in his hands. Benny looked at John with a weak gaze, and then suddenly focused on something behind him. Dr. Rusch felt sick as he realized that he hadn't made sure the door was shut behind him. He turned around to see Jane, her head low and eyes fixed on him -- as if hunting.

Immediately John bolted to the left, trying to make it to one of the overturned tables. In his rush he slipped on some papers and fell against the table just as Jane lunged for him. As she flew over him and scrambled to turn around he picked up the closest thing to a weapon he could find: a metal folding chair. As she came back around for a second try Dr. Rusch stood and swung the chair as hard as he could.

Maybe in that place where Jane comes from, where ever that is, they don't know about metal and flesh. But here in Dr. Rusch's world, she got a brutal lesson as the edge of the chair connected with her cheekbone -- shattering it and several of her teeth. She fell to the ground dazed, only to receive several more brutal blows from the adrenaline laced doctor.

When he was finished he slunk to the ground by Benny's side. His pant legs were smoldering where Jane had bitten them, as if burned by acid, but at least he was alive even if he was unconscious. Before pulling Benny out of the room Dr. Rusch looked around for Suzanne, but all he could see was a burning, charred mass inside the cell that she had been occupying. Shocked and saddened he dragged Benny out of the smoke and heat.

####

As he sat on the edge of the fire truck breathing oxygen, Dr. John Rusch couldn't help but wonder what tomorrow's papers would say about the clinic, Jane and even the queen ant. He didn't really care, because it was what they were about to find out that really scared him.

He looked up at the two officers waiting patiently for him. "Okay, I'm ready to go," he said, "and I think I have some very bad news about those pods we found -- very bad news indeed."

THE END


© 2011 Rusty Keele

Bio: Rusty lives in northern Utah where he earned a BA in computer science and currently works as a web developer. In addition to his occasional writing, he has a web site where he regularly reviews science fiction short stories -- BestScienceFictionStories.com. His story “Baley” was published in the July-August 2007 issue of the online horror magazine Fear Knocks.

E-mail: Rusty Keele

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