Dan Larson heard the tiny shout as the rolled up Car and Driver Magazine he was wielding slammed down and squashed the fly that had landed on his night table. His body filled with a cold, creepy chill. The word sounded so distinct, so clear. It was as if someone had been standing behind him.
He jerked is head around to survey his bedroom. He was alone.
Slowly, Dan lifted the magazine to reveal what was underneath. His jaw slid open with disbelief. His eyes widened. Around the squashed body were small pieces of metal, a miniature spring, and what looked like little rivets and screws.
Tiny feet scuttled across his arm. He bolted upright and reflexively slapped the magazine against his flesh with a painful smack, missing.
The word popped into his ears again, loud and distinct. He sat stunned. A grasshopper the size of his thumb stood on his pillow. But this was no ordinary grasshopper. Dan leaned down for a closer look. The grasshopper’s legs weren’t legs at all, but a series of tiny pistons and mechanical joints. Its belly was a smooth piece of metal and its antennae were two tiny wires.
“What have you done?” the grasshopper scolded, in a firm, female voice.
Dan jerked back, shocked at the grasshopper’s speaking.
“We must win this war!” the grasshopper continued. “If you destroy us our chances of victory will be slim!”
“You’re…” Dan’s voice caught. His heart hammered in his chest. “You’re a machine!”
“A defender,” the grasshopper corrected. The stare of the grasshopper’s multi-faceted, unblinking eyes greatly unnerved Dan. “Your home is ground zero for a Cyderion infestation. Come outside. We have much to accomplish and we haven’t much time.”
Dan shook his head. “This can’t be happening. You… you can’t be real?”
The grasshopper jumped onto the windowsill. “There is no time to convince you of the extreme danger to your world.” It opened a small slit in the screen, and wiggled through. “In one hour your backyard will be the staging ground for a major assault. If we fail to prevent the Cyderion from placing a homing beacon they will come by the billions. Your way of life will be forever altered.”
The grasshopper jumped into the night.
In a state of disbelief and with indecision buffeting his head, Dan sat for a few moments thinking if what had just occurred had really occurred.It was late, past midnight, and he was tired. Perhaps, he’d just had a waking dream?
He turned his head and looked at the squashed mechanical fly on the night table and realized with horror that this was no dream. Trembling with apprehension, he slid from the mattress, stepped to his closet, and dressed in t-shirt and jeans.
He opened his bedroom door and tiptoed down the hallway. He wasn’t trying to sneak out he just didn’t want to wake up his mom. Ever since his dad had died from pancreatic cancer, his mom had to work two waitress jobs to pay the bills and she usually came home from work exhausted. Tonight was no exception.
Dan descended the stairs, crept through the living room, and then carefully unlocked and slipped out the back door.
Evening air held a humid, watery quality. The full moon glowed as if ignited from within. It was quiet, eerily quiet. Ghostly radiance filtered through saplings sprawled along the edge of the forest. Strange, featureless shapes unraveled into trees and shrubs as Dan’s sight adjusted to the opaque light. He looked to the sky. Sequins of stars glittered faintly above the afterglow of the distant town.
The grasshopper landed on his shoulder. Dan jumped and nearly swatted it, but refrained. His nerves electrified.
“Regiments of Cyderion are heading in this direction,” the grasshopper said. “I will direct you to the Defender lair where we will formulate a battle plan based on your knowledge of these surroundings.”
“You want me to go where?” Dan questioned.
“Into the forest. I will direct you to the Defender lair.”
Dan stood stiffly. His mind craved answers before he went tramping off through the woods in the middle of the night.
“What are Cyderion?” he asked.
“Cyderion are slaves of the Dirus that serve as the Dirus military. It is imperative that we exterminate them before they establish a fortified bunker and send out a homing beacon. Your knowledge of these surroundings is crucial to the success of our counter-assault.”
Dan glanced up at his mom’s bedroom window. Concern flooded him.
“What if I don’t want to help?” he questioned.
“Defenders will do our best to stop the infestation.”
“And if you fail?”
“Then all the creatures of Earth will serve the Dirus for eternity.”
The lawn behind Dan’s house sloped gently passed saplings and undergrowth to a woodland of mature oaks and willows. An old deer trail cut through the thick, swampy undergrowth but it was too dense to follow, so Dan made his own, crunching over sticks and fallen branches, and plowing through high grasses. The ground softened. Marsh water soaked through his sneakers and dampened his socks.
But he trekked on under the guidance of the grasshopper.
He pushed away a thicket of cattails, trudged over exposed tree roots, and interrupted a drifting patch of low-lying fog. Vegetation thinned and then gradually fell away to an open area surrounding a large pond.
Dan stepped to the water’s edge. A light breeze scalloped the surface causing moonlight to laser-beam in chaotic, silver blinks. The grasshopper leapt from his shoulder to the ground and pulled aside a pile of leaves revealing a small, quarter-size hole in the mud. Dan knelt to get a closer look. A thin circle of metal lined the opening, securing it. He peered deeper. Faint light glowed from the depths of a long, downward sloping tunnel.
“This is where we monitor Cyderion movement,” the grasshopper said, and then jumped beside a log half submerged in a ditch of sludgy muck. “You will find what you need to enter the Defender lair underneath this camouflage.”
“Enter that hole?” Dan questioned. “That’s impossible!”
“Look underneath the log.”
Dan reached down and lifted the wood, which was not wood at all, but a lightweight, plastic-like material. A swarm of yellow jacket bees torpedoed from underneath. Dan scuttled back and nearly tripped over his own feet. The buzzing cloud whisked around him in a tornado of activity and then flew single file into the Defender lair.
“Bees guard the Angelian Teafly honey,” the grasshopper said. “We wouldn’t want a passing squirrel or a raccoon getting a hold of it.”
Dan looked down at the indentation left by the wood. Yellow honeycomb lined a metal, reinforced burrow.
“Eat some,” the grasshopper said. “It is your key to understanding.”
“I’ll pass,” Dan declined.
“You must!” the grasshopper insisted.
“What does it do?”
“It will allow you to gain access to the Defender lair.”
Dan hesitated. “Is it safe?”
“Of course… when used properly.”
Dan reached down and pulled off a grape-size chunk.
“A little more,” the grasshopper said. “Angelian Teafly honey in its natural form is not nearly as potent as the concentrates.”
Dan broke off another grape-size piece and held the sticky substance between his fingers. He sniffed. The honey smelled like old gym socks that had marinated in lime juice.
“That should be sufficient,” the grasshopper said. “Consume it all at once.”
Dan gathered his wits and put the whole glob into his mouth. The honey had an organic, earthy flavor, like chewing on a mushroom. He separated the wax to the side of his cheek and swallowed the liquid; then spit the leftover wax to the ground.
His limbs tingled. All of a sudden his stomach felt like he was riding a curvy roller coaster. His muscles clenched. His vision swam with dizziness.
“What’s happening to me?”
With a decelerated rush, trees grew to the height of skyscrapers. The wood-like stump enlarged to the size of a school bus. Pebbles transformed into huge boulders. The small pond became an immense ocean. The grasshopper turned as large as a horse.
Dan stood slack-jawed, his thoughts snapping. The wad of wax that he’d spit was as big as a car. He padded his chest, his thighs, and his face.
“What have you done?” His voice came out high and panicky.
“Angelian Teafly honey causes the vast spaces between atomic molecules in your cells to compress,” the grasshopper replied. “You are the same except for your volume. The honey also possesses extraordinary healing properties.”
Overcome with surprise and astonishment, Dan nearly freaked out and took off running.
“Will I get large again?” he asked.
“Of course,” the grasshopper replied. “The effect only lasts a brief time when taken in the natural form.”
Dan glanced at his reflection on the water’s surface. His hair was still short and black, his chest and shoulders still thin and lanky; but the pimple that had been beside his nose for the past week had totally disappeared.
“How come my clothes shrank?” he asked, as he touched where the blemish had been and looked around at the massive world.
“Chemicals in the honey interact with cells where it causes a physical reaction. Shed skin cells are intertwined in the fabric. Compression is then passed from those shed cells into those that construct the fabric.”
A quick swirl in the water caught Dan’s attention. Bubbles the size of automobiles popped on the surface. Liquid churned. Two refrigerator-sized, amber eyes rose slowly from the depths and then in a quick explosion of liquid a bullfrog the dimensions of a house burst from the pond and landed on the shoreline with a mighty thud.
Fright tore through Dan. He attempted to run but his feet had got sucked into the muck and he fell backward. The bullfrog shifted and focused on him.
The grasshopper flicked its wings repeatedly, drawing the bullfrog’s attention. The bullfrog shuffled its legs and repositioned. Its tongue slingshot out, snagged the grasshopper, and yanked the mechanical insect into its massive mouth. The grasshopper’s tiny metal leg stuck out the side like an after-dinner toothpick.
The bullfrog shifted and focused back on Dan, who nearly screamed out with terror.
The bullfrog leapt, not at him, but straight up into the air. Blood spilled from its mouth along with the fully intact grasshopper. The bullfrog landed, bounded around the shoreline in thunderous, spastic circles, and then dove into the pond leaving a red swath in its wake.
Dan scrambled to his feet.
“Make me large!” he shouted. “Make me large right now!”
“You were never in any danger,” the grasshopper responded.
“Never in danger!” Dan inhaled shuddery breaths. “That thing could have swallowed me whole!”
“I was prepared for the encounter,” the grasshopper replied. “I felt vibrations of the creature’s presence as you approached the water.”
“Then why didn’t you warn me?”
“It was not necessary. It posed no danger.”
Dan crossed his arms. “I don’t like this! I don’t like this one bit! When can I go home?”
“As soon as we discover where the Cyderion are swarming for the attack and you can tell us what the surrounding terrain is like.”
An ant the size of a station wagon emerged from towering stalks of grass, its legs powered by pistons and pumps. Dan hustled to the grasshopper’s side for safety.
“Do not be afraid,” the ant said, and snapped mandibles made of slender, silver blades. “I will protect you until you reach the Defender lair, were it is safe from patrolling Cyderion.”
Dan and the grasshopper set off at a brisk pace while the ant flanked the path ahead of them. They reached the opening to the Defender lair, which was now a wide cavern. Dozens of mechanical ants stood guard close to the water and grass line. Their armored heads and open mandibles looked menacing.
Dan stepped inside with the grasshopper and descended down a series of shallow steps into the depths. Incandescent glowworms clinging to the walls illuminated the tunnel with an eerie, milky-white glow. Basketball-size drops of water dribbled from different spots on the ceiling. The odor of fresh mud filled the air.
They reached a huge area as large as a football stadium. Worms the size of trains slithered along the dirt and chewed tunnels into the walls. High above, plant roots hung from the roof in a mass of brown tangles. Lightning bugs weaved through the network of vines. Their bright pulses caused flickering shadows to dance on the walls. Beetles, centipedes, and spiders of various types and sizes scurried about in these shadows.
“Some of those insects are alive,” Dan observed.
A horsefly as large as a horse buzzed his head.
“They are all part of the Defender network,” the grasshopper replied. “Without the constant vigil of native insects your planet would be at great risk from rogue alien attacks. The universe is teeming with life and not all is friendly and welcomed.”
Ground trembled. Beetles scurried into the maze of tunnels along with the ants and other bugs. A praying mantis head the size of a refrigerator burst from the tunnel’s side. Using its monstrous front grasping legs, the mantis pulled the rest of its enormous mechanical body through the dirt. A worm quickly slithered behind it and repaired the damage to the wall.
The mantis’s long, wiry antennae flicked lightly over Dan’s arms and shoulders. Dan stood stiff.
“Relax,” the mantis said. “You have nothing to fear from us.”
The mantis turned its attention to a line of mechanical ants marching from an adjoining tunnel.
“Report,” the mantis said.
“Cyderion were spotted in this area,” one of the ants replied. “We are sending a patrol to investigate.”
A sharp jolt fizzled through Dan’s muscles.
“Ow!” he chirped.
And then another jolt. And another. He tensed with pain.
“What’s happening to me?”
“The Angelian Teafly honey is wearing off,” the mantis said. “We must leave at once!”
The mantis scurried from the room and up through the tunnel. Dan ran to keep pace, but slowed as his legs went wobbly. The mantis scooped him up like a captured fly and raced past the imbedded glowworms toward the exit.
Dan’s head and legs grew and scraped the muddy sides. It was an incredibly weird sensation feeling his joints swell inside his skin, his bones lengthen. He jammed. Dirt filled his ears and nostrils. Everything went black and suffocating, and then his head burst through the soil and his body exploded from the ground.
Thousands of tiny mechanical ants swarmed over him like a moving carpet and for a moment he was frightened. But the ants just cleaned the dirt off his chest and legs and started repair on the damage to the Defender lair.
Dan slowly got to his feet. A faint tar-like smell drifted with the air. The mantis, now the size of a clothespin, wiggled through the collapsed earth.
“Your sudden and unanticipated enlargement caused a disruption in the sensor sweep of the magnetic field over this area,” the mantis said. “Cyderion may pick this up. We must be extra vigilant.”
The mantis handed him a square of plastic wrap. “It is too dangerous for you here. Take some Angelian Teafly honey and go back to your home. We will come for you when we are ready for your assistance.”
Dan took the plastic wrap and stepped to the artificial log. He turned it over. Yellow jacket bees flew up in a protective cloud, but allowed him to reach down and pick up a golf ball-size piece. He packaged and dropped it into his front pocket.
“Head in that direction!” the mantis stated, and pointed into the forest. “The route is safer. Go now! Go quickly! Before they target you!”
Dan took off through the woods striding in great leaps, fuel by a weird, unknown fear. Sharp grasses scraped his legs and sliced tiny cuts, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get home.
The way back seemed quicker and before he realized, he broke from the forest and was heading up the lawn. Golden dawn-light expanding over the world caused morning dewdrops to sparkle. Birds warbled from tree tops.
Careful not to wake his mom, he crept into the house and tiptoed up the steps to his bedroom. He closed the door and flicked on the light. 6:05 a.m. beamed from the alarm clock beside his bed.
A moth bumped the window and then bumped it again. A light breeze infused with the scent of tar drifted through the screen. Faint sound, like tiny claws scratching on wood caught his attention. His eyes followed the sound to a stain on the wall where the siding had leaked. He noticed a tiny hole. Specks of sawdust formed a thin trail leading in his direction.
He looked to the foot of the bed and felt his face go white with fear. Standing on his sheet was a creature about the size of a quarter, with a long, dinosaur tail, leathery wings, and a fearsome jaw crammed with rows of bristling teeth. The creature looked like a miniature dragon from a child’s fairytale.
The creature’s eyes glowed red. Thin red laser beams shot from them into Dan’s left arm. Pain blasted up his nerves and exploded into his chest. He jeered back, rolled off the mattress, and stumbled toward the door, feeling as if his legs were filling with liquid lead.
Another miniature dragon-like creature flew up with bat-like wings from underneath the bed. Its eyes glowed red. Beams shot from this creature’s eyes and hit Dan’s left cheek. It felt like a bomb went off inside his skull. Pain flared along his muscles and paralyzed his face. He couldn’t focus his eyes. He couldn’t shout for help. He could barely breathe.
He reached out for the doorknob and felt his body fall, his chest slam against the floor, his chin bounce. The dragon-like creature flew to Dan’s nose and pushed a tiny needle into the tip.
Dan’s vision tunneled. Claws poked and scratched at his skin. He heard a strange voice that hissed words he did not understand.
Consciousness blinked away.