Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Radiation Hotel

When Insects Conquered the World, Almost

by Timothy Potter


Chapter 1

The Loss of a Loved One

"Okay. You think roaches are dirty, disgusting creatures, but what you don't know is that we feel the same way about humans. You create piles and piles of garbage; you drop pieces of food everywhere, and, worst of all, you kill everything you see. No bug, animal or plant is safe around you. But what you don't think about is that without us, you would be up to your armpits in trash. We eat the food you drop in your house, and we consume the stuff you throw away. I could go on for hours, but that's not why you came, is it? You want to hear my story," the roach leaned forward in his chair, "You want to hear how close you came to being wiped out by bugs."

He was seated center stage in a large theater. His image was being projected onto a large screen so the whole audience could see him. He didn't look like a roach, at least not the way we usually see them. As humans, when we see a roach, we don't see individuals; we see a pest. They all, at first glance, look basically the same, except for variations in color and size. But if we would take the time to look closer, we would see that they are different indeed. This one had hair long in the back and spiked on top like the rock bands from the 1980s. He had tattoos on his forearms, and he was dressed to kill in blue jeans (with a hole in one knee), a black vest with no shirt, and a pair of black biker boots.

He leaned back in his chair and started again, "My name is Justice, Justice Cover. You may think that's a stupid name, but, again, you only see things from your perspective. You think it's AMAZING when one of you has a litter of more than three or four, but each time one of us has kids, we have thirty to forty. We can do this up to ten times... Let's see you come up with 400 'traditional' names." As he said the word "traditional," he held up his fingers to imitate quote marks. "Each time she had kids, my mother would start at the first letter of the alphabet and assign one name to each letter of the alphabet. When she finished with 'z' she started over. My egg pod was number ten for my mom, and she was running out of names. When she got back to 'a' she was out of names. She got a dictionary, opened it up, and pointed to a word. That's how the last ten of us got our names. My name starts with 'J;' that means I was number 36 -- the last egg to hatch. I was the baby of all of my mother's kids; I was special to her.

"We lived on a small farm just outside of Jackson, Tennessee. NO, we did not live in the house with the farmer. In spite of what you may think, there are over 4,000 species of roaches, but only about 20 thrive in homes. We can survive without you. Anyway, we would still be there if only..." His voice dropped off as he said the word only, and he lowered his head as if he was trying to choke back his emotions. After his pause, he regained his composure and this is the tale he told.

At the edge of the woods, there was an old rotting stump. This stump was the home of Bob and Sally Cover. The whole house was frantic with activity as they were all packing suitcases. Their oldest daughter, Darlene, had moved to Memphis and was expecting her first egg pouch to hatch any day. The Cover family was going to Memphis to see the grandchildren.

"Honey, have you seen my blue shirt?"

"It's hanging in the laundry room."

Bob goes to the laundry room and returns with the blue shirt. Sally has finished her packing and has gone to the kitchen to pack some snacks for the trip.

"Mom, what about my socks?"

"Look in your second drawer, Justice."

"Mom, can I take my guitar?"

"No, Justice, you won't have time to play it. We'll all be busy with the children."

"But, Mom, it is Memphis. Maybe I'll find some friends and we can start a band."

"Maybe next time, Justice."

Justice knew from the tone of his mother's voice that he had better drop the issue. "Yes, Ma'am," he said reluctantly.

And so the packing frenzy continued until everyone had finally finished. Question after question was thrown at Sally, and she answered them all without missing a beat. When she had finished preparing the snacks, she went to the living room and sat next to her suit case. Bob walked in and looked at her. "Usually," he said, "you are the last one ready to leave."

"That's because usually we aren't going to see my new grandkids. Besides, why should I be in a hurry to go to the big town of Houston, MS? There's nothing to do there that we can't do here."

"There's nothing wrong with Houston. Besides, you're forgetting my cousin, Stu, lives there."

"Unfortunately, I've tried to forget him, but it doesn't work. He keeps coming back -- just like a bad penny."

"What's wrong with Stu?"

"I have grandkids to see," she interrupted. "If you don't hurry, we'll miss the bus."

"Justice," Bob yelled over his shoulder, "you had better come on; your mom's ready to be a grandmother, and she's getting cranky in her old age. Ow!"

"Next time, make sure you are out of reach before you say something like that."

Every Thursday the farmer would go to town to pick up supplies. The Cover family climbed up the tires and found their way to a hole in the fender. Once they made it to town, they dropped to the ground and hurried to the cover of some nearby bushes. There they waited for the bus. (Most of this story takes place in the shadows. Humans don't tolerate roaches to run free.)

They hadn't been there long when a stranger walked up wearing a fancy suit. As is the custom in the South, Bob greeted the stranger. The stranger didn't answer him. Bob, assuming that the stranger was just shy, commented that it sure was a pretty day -- nice and warm. The stranger turned to Bob and stated, "I have neither the time nor the patience to waste on country bumpkins!"

Bob, undaunted, replied, "I can't speak for your patience, but if you're waiting for the bus, you've got just as much time as we have. Don't see no harm in making the best of it by conversin'."

"Bob, maybe he really doesn't want to talk. He doesn't look like he's from around her."

"Yes, Bob," the stranger said, "listen to her."

"Y'all don't pay him no attention," spoke a female voice from behind them. "He ain't from here, and he doesn't know that we really do talk to strangers 'round here. He's never witnessed true Southern Hospitality first hand."

Justice turned to see a beautiful lady roach, about his age, dressed in a blue maternity dress. (Roaches carry their egg pod at the end of their tail; so, their maternity dresses look like the train of one of our wedding dresses. When the egg pod drops, the train of the dress removes to form a carrying pouch for the eggs.) She continued, "He's just worried that my egg pod will drop and his children will be born here. He only likes city folk." She walked over and kissed the stranger on the cheek.

"Then how did you two..." Sally stopped her question at this point because she realized how it sounded.

In as sweet a Southern Drawl as Justice had ever heard, the lady asked, "How did we meet? Is that what you wanted know?"

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean anything," Sally replied.

"No, it doesn't bother me; I know we don't seem to match. I was in Memphis a while back, and my cousin introduced us. He thought my accent and my country way of speaking were a refreshing change. We got eloped shortly after that. This is his first visit to my hometown to meet my family, and, well, you know how brothers are."

"I don't think they need to hear our life history, Susan," the stranger interrupted.

"It's time, Charlie," the lady roach said in a soft voice.

"What do you mean, 'It's time'?"

"The egg pod, it's dropping off!"

"Well...Hold on to it! Don't let it drop HERE!"

"You can't stop nature, Charlie."

"You men get away from here; I'll tend to her," Sally ordered.

Justice and the others retreated to the other side of the bush until they were summoned back. They returned to find Susan holding the egg pod in the carrying pouch.

"It won't be long now, and we'll have a whole house full of nymphs," said Susan.

"We need to hurry up and get back to Memphis," Charlie said in a gruff, "I will not have my children exposed to these country bump..." He stopped in mid-sentence, stiffened his back and fell over. When he fell, Justice could see what had happened; Charlie had been stung by a wasp. The jet black wasp looked like he was wearing a fur coat. He stood over Charlie with his black eyes that looked like giant goggles, his long grasshopper-like legs, and his skinny oval abdomen waving behind him like one of those flags kids used to put on their bicycles. He almost looked comical, but looks can be deceiving. He was an Ensign Wasp, and Justice knew the wasp wanted eggs.

"Give me the eggs," the wasp said in a deep raspy voice. A second wasp stepped out from behind the bush and said, "Yeah, give him the eggs or you'll all end up like that one." He pointed to Charlie. The voice of the second wasp was higher pitched, more like one of the cronies in the old gangster movies. The lady held the egg sack closer with all four arms and shook her head in fearful defiance.

Before Justice realized what he had done, he grabbed a twig that had fallen to the ground and smashed the head of the first wasp. The wasp was clearly fatally wounded. The wasp fell to the ground wriggling with its stinger going in and out.

Bob cried, "Look out for the stinger, Justice!"

But Justice was nowhere near the fallen wasp; he was already racing toward the second wasp. The second wasp, startled by what happened, fled on foot at first as Justice followed. When the wasp remembered he could fly, he took off screaming, "I'll be back! And I won't be alone, either!"

Susan gently laid the egg pod down and went to her husband. As she leaned over him crying, he whispered something unintelligible to her, and he passed away. She looked up at Justice and said, "That was the bravest thing I have ever seen."

Sally put her arms around Susan and said, "I'm sorry for your loss, but we've got to get out of here. Just then, the bus rounded the corner and stopped not far from the bush. "Bob, you and Justice get Charlie." She turned to Susan and softly said, "Come on, let's go." They boarded the bus and waited for it to leave.

As they waited, they heard the voices of the wasps who had returned to avenge their friend. "See, there he is just like I told you. Look at his head, just like I told you."

"Spread out! Find them!" they heard one of them say. This voice was deeper than the other one, and it carried the sound of authority. "They will pay for what they did to my brother."

Fortunately, the bus started moving just as the wasps were scattering. The Cover family and their new friend were on their way to Memphis.

Susan walked over to Justice and said, "Thank you for saving my babies." She kissed him gently on the cheek. Justice tried to hide the fact he was blushing; he had never been kissed before, not even on the cheek. "The last thing my Charlie said was for me to tell you thank you." She sat down across the aisle from Mr. and Mrs. Cover and said, "You have raised a fine young man; you ought to be real proud of him."

Mrs. Cover smiled at Justice and replied, "Thank you. We are very proud of him."

For a while, the ride was mostly silent. No one knew what to say. The joy of the expected grandchildren was dampened by the events of the day. Seeing the young mother-to-be and knowing that she would be raising the children alone was enough to bring each of them to tears.

Finally, Sally broke the silence, "What will you do now? Will you go back to your family?"

"No, ma'am. Out of respect for Charlie, I feel I need to at least try to raise the children in the city."

Sally walked over, sat down by Susan and patted her hand. "If it means anything to you, I'm proud of you for trying."

"Oh, it does. Thank you very much." Susan paused a moment as her eyes filled with tears. "But you need to know the truth," she continued, "I'm not brave at all. The truth is that I don't have any other choice. I want you to know the whole story. Charlie was excited to meet my family, but we had no idea my family would react the way they did. Because we eloped, my parents thought we HAD to get married, and that made my whole family hate Charlie." She paused, took a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped the tears from her eyes. "But what they thought wasn't true. Charlie and I weren't intimate until our wedding night, but my family refused to believe us. They accused Charlie of leading me astray and taking advantage of me. They told Charlie to go back to Memphis and never come back. My brothers drove the point home by roughing Charlie up a bit. They told me that if I went with him I couldn't come back. I'm not brave. I just don't have any other choice."

At this point, she couldn't contain her tears any longer. She burst into tears and buried her face in her hands. Sally hugged Susan close and held her while she cried. Susan laid her head in Sally's lap and sobbed, "We were so in love. I knew I couldn't let Charlie go without me." She sat up quickly as though she suddenly remembered something important. She turned to Sally and began to plead with her, "You must forgive Charlie. Please. He wasn't the rude person you met; he was really kind and gentle. My family wounded him deeply when they rejected him like they did. I don't want you to think ill of him. He really wasn't like that."

Sally took the handkerchief from Susan and began to gently wipe the tears from Susan's face. "We forgive him," she said, "Don't give it another thought." She eased Susan's head back into her lap and began, in true motherly fashion, to gently caress Susan's face. Susan sobbed for a few minutes and then drifted off to sleep.

Susan woke as they pulled into Memphis. She sat up, looked at Sally and said, "I'm so sorry to have been such a burden to you."

"It was no burden. Thank you for allowing me to comfort you. Now there's something you need to know. This is our first trip to Memphis; we've never been in a big city. I've been a nervous wreck for almost a week. Comforting you comforted me. I thought that if you could go through all of this in one day, surely I can face Memphis." She patted Susan on the hand and said, "I am so sorry for your loss. I believe in you and in your strength. I know you'll make it. But if you ever need anything, here is our address and phone number. You call me. You promise?"

"Yes, I promise." She paused for a moment and looked at Sally with admiration. "No wonder your son is so special; you were his mother."

They smiled, exchanged hugs and comforted each other for the rest of the trip. It was almost like they were long lost friends who had years of stories to tell each other.

The bus pulled into the terminal, and they all climbed off. Susan's cousin had come to meet her at the terminal and was waiting under the vending machines. Susan ran to her, hugged her and started crying again as she told her cousin about Charlie.

Justice and Bob found a small bag, put Charlie in it and removed him from the bus. They flagged down a policeman, told him what happened and introduced him to Susan who confirmed their story. The policeman called the coroner and walked back to the vending machine where Bob, Justice and Susan were standing with Susan's family.

"Where are you staying while you're in town?" he asked.

"Our daughter, Darlene, lives at the hotel next to the terminal," Bob said. "We'll be staying with her."

"Oh, you're Darlene's family."

"Yes, sir," Bob answered.

"I'm Jack Turpin. Her husband, Frank, is my best friend."

"It's nice to meet you." Bob and Justice both reached to shake hands with Officer Turpin.

Officer Turpin continued, "I heard you were coming to town, but I thought it wasn't until tomorrow."

"Sally just couldn't wait to see those grandkids," Bob replied, "Eh, Sally?" He looked around and didn't see her. "Sally," he called a little louder.

In all of the commotion, no one had realized that Sally had wandered off in search of the way to the hotel. They looked up as she entered the terminal office. Officer Turpin exclaimed, "Stay here!" He ran toward the office.

Sally rounded the corner into the office and went behind a row of filing cabinets. As she came out the other side, she noticed a small box marked "Roach Motel." She mumbled under her breath, "It's a lot smaller than Darlene described it. I don't see how it will ever hold all of those children."

Officer Turpin came out from behind the filing cabinets just in time to see her disappear into the box. He ran to the edge of the box and called to her, "Mrs. Cover, are you in there?"

"Yes, I'm here, but I seem to be stuck on something. First my feet stuck, then I fell, and now I can't move at all. And for some reason, I'm getting really sleepy all...of...the...sudden..."

As her last words dropped and got more and more faint, Officer Turpin knew all too well why she was sleepy. The poison in the trap had done its work; Sally was gone. Officer Turpin dropped to his knees. "I'm too late! I can't believe it; I let my best friend's mother-in-law die her first day here."

He walked back to the vending machine with his head bowed. When he got there, he took off his hat and said, "I'm sorry. I was too late."

"Too late?" Justice cried, "What do you mean 'too late'?"

"Mr. Cover, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your wife went into a Roach Motel."

As he said the words "Roach Motel," Susan gasped in horror.

"What's wrong? We're staying at a motel near the terminal."

"This isn't an actual motel; it's a trap. As you get closer to it, you can't resist going into it. Once a roach enters, they don't leave."

"What are you saying?" Bob's antennas rolled back over his head and a look of horror overcame him as he realized the implication of Officer Turpin's statement.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Cover. She's gone."

"No, you're wrong!" cried Justice. "There must be some mistake."

Officer Turpin turned toward Justice, "I only wish there was."

Justice and Bob stared at each other in dismay, and Susan came and hugged them both. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I don't know what to say. She was such a special woman. She made the world a better place."

Officer Turpin escorted Bob and Justice to Darlene's house and told Darlene what had happened. They all had a good cry together and sat staring at each other for hours. No one even felt like eating that evening. One by one, they all drifted off to sleep.

The next day, Officer Turpin came to the door. He removed his hat and said, "I just wanted to let you know that the medical examiner confirmed your story about Charlie." He paused for a moment and lowered his head. He raised his head and continued, "I also figured that nobody over here felt much like cooking; so, I did it for you." He had brought breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, toast. They all sat down to breakfast, and Officer Turpin, who was great at conversation, managed to distract them from their grief for a while.

Just as he was about to leave, they heard a strange sound from the nursery. They all looked at each other and cried in unison, "The Eggs!" They ran to the nursery and watched the eggs as they began to hatch. Darlene was organized, just like most first-time mothers. She had pre-planned enough boy and girls names, and she had written their names on little bracelets to help her keep straight which one was which. The first three were boys, and she took the first three bracelets and put them on their little arms. When the fourth egg hatched, it was a girl. Darlene reached for the first girl bracelet and said, "I named you after your grandmother. She was a very special woman. Your name is Sally."

The next few days were very hectic with bottles and diapers. Frank was practically useless, as most men are when they first become dads. Bob was an old pro, and Justice had helped his mother babysit for the neighbors; so, they were troopers. Bob buried his feelings about losing Sally; he knew Darlene needed his help, at least for a while.

After about a week, Bob came to Darlene and told her he needed to go see Stu. Stu and Bob were cousins and were very close friends. If anyone could help console Bob, it was Stu. The next day, Bob caught the bus to Houston, Mississippi, but Justice decided to stay and help Darlene for another week or two.

For Justice, the next week was a blur of diapers, bottles and baths. One day, Justice was feeding two children at once while Darlene had three of them in the bath, and, of course, the phone rang.

"Justice," Darlene called from the bathroom, "Can you get that for me? I can't leave the room while they are in the tub."

"Sure, Sis." He held one bottle with his chin to free up a hand to answer the phone. "Hello...Yes, this is Justice Cover...Look, if this is some kind of a joke..." Justice sank into the chair by the phone. "Oh, I see...Thank you for letting me know."

He went to the nursery and placed the babies in their cribs. He went to the bathroom and stood there staring at Darlene. She stood up and walked to him and asked, "What's wrong?"

Justice threw his arms around Darlene and began to say through his tears, "He's gone."

"Who's gone? What are you talking about?"

"That was Stu's sister on the phone. You know, Stu lived in a stump like ours." Darlene nodded, and Justice continued, "Some human saw where they were living and sprayed poison into their door. It filled the whole house. They're gone -- the whole family."

"And Dad?" Darlene asked fearfully.

"He was in the house with them. He's gone, too!" Justice began to pace back and forth and wave his arms as he talked. "I HATE humans! Thanks to them, I've lost both of my parents in about 2 weeks...Something has to be done."

"Now don't go talkin' crazy, Justice. You know there's nothing we can do. They are too big and too smart for us. We're just lucky they haven't killed all of us. There's nothing we can do. I'm just as upset as you are, they were my parents, too. But there's no sense talkin' foolishness."

"Oh, I must be crazy because I'm sick of these predators killing us while we just sit here and take it! They are ALL cruel and heartless. THEY are the ones who deserve to die, not us. And I'm crazy. Well, this lunatic is escaping...I'm outta here!"

He turned stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

Chapter 2

An Idea is Hatched

Justice had left the house in such a fit, he had forgotten where he was; he walked right out onto the sidewalk -- in broad daylight. The next thing he knew, he was running for his life as a little boy stomped along behind him trying to stomp him. Justice zigged and zagged dodging the boy's attempts. Finally, he made it to the alley where he saw a door. He darted into the door, closed it behind him, and stood staring at the door.

When he finally turned to look at the room, he realized he was in a small bar and grill, and everyone was staring at him. Finally, the bartender spoke, "So, I see you've met Billy."

"Billy?" Justice queried.

"Yeah, Billy...the hot dog vendor's son. The vendor can't leave his station to chase us away; so, his son has started coming to do his dirty work for him. He just started chasing us last week, and already that kid has stepped on three of my best customers. I sure wish there was a way to stop them before they put me out of business."

Justice's face lit up, "That's what I've been trying to tell my sister. In the last two weeks, they have killed both of my parents. I told her it's time that we did something. These humans have to be stopped. It's time to take action. If we work together, we can find a way to be rid of these giant pests."

"Look, kid," the bartender interrupted, "how much have you had to drink before you came here?"

"None," Justice replied with a puzzled expression, "Why do you ask?"

"I don't mean no disrespect, but anyone who talks like that is either drunk or crazy, and I wanted to know whether to call a cab or a padded wagon."

"I am not drunk, and I am not crazy. I'm just tired of our kind always being victims." Justice walked over to the bar and looked at the menu posted on the wall. "Let me have a hot dog morsel, a fry and some flat root beer."

The bartender took his order and handed it through a window to the cook while Justice took a seat at the bar in front of the television. After finishing his snack and watching the news for a while, Justice decides to go back to his sister and apologize for his outburst.

As Justice pays for his meal, he notices a poster on the bulletin board behind the register. "Wanted: guitar player for new Rock Band. Apply in person at Joe's Bar."

Justice asks the bartender, "Hey, where's Joe's Bar?"

"What, my drinks ain't good enough for you?"

"No, I mean, yes, but it's not drinks I want. I was reading the poster behind you. I want to try out for the band."

"I'm just bustin' your chops, kid. My brother owns Joe's Bar. It's just two doors down. Just be sure to watch out for that Billy brat as you leave. I can't afford to keep losing customers."

Justice smiled and started for the door. He could hardly contain his excitement. He wanted to be in a band; maybe this would be his big break. As he got to the door, the bartender called out, "Watch for Billy."

Justice nodded and opened the door slowly. He could see Billy standing over by the edge of the alley looking the other way. Justice leaned out until he could see Joe's Bar. He looked back at Billy; the coast was clear. Justice darted for Joe's Bar as fast as he could run.

As he entered the bar, he mustered all of his courage and walked toward the bar where the bartender was sitting with some waitresses. The bartender called out, "We're not open for customers yet."

Justice replied, "I'm not here as a customer. I'm here to try out for the band."

The bartender burst into laughter. "You?" he asked. "This is a ROCK band; you don't look like rock band material."

"Maybe you shouldn't judge people by how they look," Justice scolded.

The bartender stood up suddenly and asked, "Where do you get off telling me how to run my business?"

All of the stress of the last two weeks had caught up with Justice, and he was not about to be bullied or mocked. He started toward the bartender and said, "When you're about to turn away the best guitar player in Memphis." Justice pounded his hand on the table next to him and demanded, "Give me a guitar, and I'll prove it."

Suddenly, he heard a big deep voice with an Australian accent come from the corner. "You want me to throw 'im out, Joe?" As the figure spoke, Justice saw the biggest roach he had ever seen emerge from the shadows. This giant seemed at least three times as big as Justice.

"No, Auggie. I can handle him. Besides, the kid's got spunk. Let's let him play. If he's not as good as he says, then you can throw him out. At least then, we'll have a good laugh before he goes. Go tell Sammie to round up the boys. I want them to hear this guy who claims to be the best in Memphis."

The giant disappeared into the back of the bar and returned shortly with the most beautiful lady roach Justice had ever seen. As she walked in the door, time almost seemed to stand still as she raised her hand and pushed her hair from her face. She was wearing blue jeans with holes in the knees, a crop top t-shirt and tennis shoes. He was so mesmerized by her that he didn't even notice the two roaches who walked in behind her.

"Hey, Kid," Joe called, "Are you going to play or not?"

Justice, still looking at her, replied, "Yeah, sure, where's the guitar."

"On stage, genius, where did you think it would be? The men's room?"

Justice walked to the stage and picked up the guitar. He started to play a blues rift.

"Auggie, throw him out. I knew he couldn't play rock."

"I haven't started playing yet, I'm just getting a feel for the guitar," Justice said. "Check this out." Then Justice began to play the most amazing lead guitar they had ever heard. Every note was perfect. He rocked the house, and when he finished. He put the guitar back on its stand and walked over to the bartender.

"Look, Mr. Joe, I know that after the way I talked to you earlier, I don't have a chance at this job." He bowed his head and added, "I've had a rough couple of weeks, and I guess I...well, thanks for letting me play." He turned to Auggie and said, "You don't need to throw me out; I'm leaving on my own, okay?"

"You ain't going nowhere, kid," Joe ordered.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you gotta learn the songs you're playing tonight." Joe walked over to Justice, shook his hand and said, "You've got the job. But you've got to start now."

"Thank you. Thank you. Wait, I've got to go tell my sister where I am. I've been gone a long time. We've lost both parents in the last two weeks, and I don't' want her to wonder what happened to me."

"Who's your sister? I'll send word to her for you."

"Darlene Lee. She lives around the corner..."

"I know Darlene," the Joe interrupted. "She and her husband are good customers on karaoke night. She has a great voice." He turned to one of the waitresses. "Call Darlene Lee and tell her that her brother is with me." He turned back to Justice. "So, what's your name, Kid?"

"Justice Cover," he answered.

"That will never do. We've got to find you a better name." He turned to the lady roach with the long brown hair and asked, "What do you think, Sammie?"

She walked over to Justice and stared at him for a minute. "He needs something unique, something powerful. Something that says, 'I am master of what I do.' Joe, remember the story of that ancient king who was supposed to be wise...what was his name?"

"Solomon? Yeah, that's it. It fits. We'll call him 'Solomon' on stage and 'Sol' for short. That sounds like a good name for a guitar player. Now, take him back stage and see if you can get him dressed for the part."

She took him back stage and stared at him again. "Here's what we need to do," she said as she grabbed a pair of scissors. She walked over to him, knelt down and made a small cut in his jeans right at his knee. She put her fingers through the cut and pulled, creating a hole. She stepped back and looked. "Yes, that will do nicely. We'll leave the tennis shoes. Let's see about the top half of you." She put her index finger over her lip as she thought.

"I guess that t-shirt will have to do for now, but we have got to do something with your hair." She began running her fingers through his hair as she talked to him. "It's too short to do much with it."

Justice was practically in a state of shock as he stood there at her mercy. Not only was he in a band, but he now had the full attention of this vision of beauty. He was not used to this kind of female attention. She could have plucked him bald one hair at a time, and he would have just stood there in the same daze.

She finally decided to just spike it for now and tie a bandanna around his forehead. "That will have to do for now," she said. "You'll have to let it grow out before we can really get you looking like a rocker. We're through here. Let's go practice."

She led him by the hand back to the stage where the other to roaches Justice had ignored before were waiting. As they walked onto the stage, the other two roaches stood up and walked over to Justice and Sammie.

"This is Chu Gar Ming, our drummer. We call him Chu. He's from China."

Chu was smaller than Justice, and he was wearing a yellow shen-i (a traditional Chinese garment with a tunic and trousers sewn together to make one piece). Chu bowed in traditional oriental fashion. Justice, not sure of exactly what to do, bowed and extended his hand for a handshake at the same time. Chu, aware of the differences in customs, extended his hand as well.

As Sammie led him away from Chu, she whispered in his ear, "He's the reason the lights on the stage are so bright. For some reason, he seems drawn to light. Most of the time, he shows more self control than anyone I know. Going toward the light is his only weakness. Sometimes, it's almost like he's hypnotized by the light. It's the strangest thing I've ever seen. But Joe says that certain families of Chinese roaches are drawn to the light by nature."

She finished just in time to introduce him to the bass player, "This is Jimmy, our bass player."

Jimmy and Justice shook hands and exchanged "Nice to meet ya."

Jimmy was tall and slender and was wearing orange bell-bottom pants, and orange unbuttoned shirt, and had his hair in an afro.

"Looks like Sammie did your hair, too," Jimmy said as he pointed to his afro and Justice's hair at the same time.

"Yeah," Justice responded, "how did you guess?"

"Hey, you both look cool, thanks to me. Anyway, guys, this is Solomon. We'll call him 'Sol' for short. Now let's start practicing. We only have about two hours before we'll have an audience." She turned to Sol and asked, "Do you sing, or do you just play?"

"Well, I can sing a little," Sol replied sheepishly.

"Come stand here in front of this microphone. We'll let you try during practice; if it sounds okay, we'll keep the microphone. If it doesn't sound okay, we'll take it before we perform tonight."

They spent the next hour practicing. Sol knew most of the songs and sang along when he could.

When they were finished, Sammie walked over to him and said, "Well, I guess you can keep the microphone for a little while longer. You're not half bad. With a little bit of experience, you might make a real rock and roller." She turned to Jimmy and Chu and said, "Okay, guys, lets head back to the break area and relax until show time."

Sol spent the next few hours in a daze of exhilaration. In an instant, he had gone from staggering in depression to realizing his dream. Performing for an audience was even better than he had imagined. And then there was Sammie. As far as he was concerned, she was a goddess. He hung on her every word and was fascinated by her every movement. He lost all track of time, and before he knew it, a month had passed.

He had gotten a place of his own not far from the bar. His hair had grown long in the back and was spiked on top. His voice was stronger and he had even written a song for the band to sing. It was about his mother, her trip to Memphis and her death in a Roach Motel. He hoped it would be a warning to anyone who wasn't familiar with Roach Motels and the danger they posed to roaches. One of the last phrases in the song referred to the fact that they might check out, but they would never leave. (Years later he heard a human group sing a song with the same tune and referring to Hotel California. He tried to sue them for stealing his song, but humans and roaches weren't exactly on speaking terms back then, and two of his lawyers got killed trying to serve papers to the human rock band. After that, he couldn't find a lawyer willing to take the case.)

One night, Joe met them backstage after their performance. "Guys, and Sammie, I have good news."

"You're giving us a raise?"

"Very funny, Jimmy. But, actually, you're kind of right."

They all looked at each other as if they weren't sure they had just heard what he said.

Joe continued, "A record producer was in the audience tonight. I didn't tell you she was coming, because I didn't want you to be too nervous. Anyway, she loved your music. We're going tomorrow to sign contracts for you to cut an album and maybe even start a tour."

"Joe, you know better than to joke with us like this," Sammie said as she pushed him.

"OW! Don't abuse your manager," Joe cried. "And I am NOT kidding." He put one of his right hands over his heart and raised his left hands in the air. "If I am kidding, may Billy step on my sister's boyfriend."

"This is some bull, man," Jimmy interjected. "Everyone knows Billy DID step on your sister's boyfriend last week."

"I meant my other sister," Joe explained. "I AM serious. Be here at noon tomorrow; she's bringing contracts. Oh, and you need to have a name for your band by noon tomorrow."

The band all looked at each other and exclaimed with one voice, "By NOON!"

Sammie took charge, as usual, "Okay, everyone go home and come up with a band name. Be here at 11:00 sharp, and we'll compare names. We'll vote on it, and the majority rules. Agreed?"

"Agreed," the others replied.

Sol could hardly sleep; he kept tossing and turning. Finally, he got up and went to watch television to see if it would help him relax enough to go to sleep. After surfing the channels for a while, he stopped on Roach News Network to see if anything interesting had happened. One of the headlines at the bottom of the screen caught his attention, and he sat straight up.

"Human scientists study effects of radiation on roaches..."

"I've got to see this story," he said to himself.

He didn't have to wait long before the news anchor started the story. "Human scientists have been experimenting with radiation and its effects on roaches. It's been a long standing practice of humans to capture other species and use them for experimentation."

"Yeah, they're cruel like that," Sol commented to the television.

The story continued, "Yesterday, these human scientists announced findings that roaches are not affected by radiation levels that would be toxic to humans. So, our fears of fallout from their nuclear bombs are totally unfounded. We would live even after they have demolished each other. So, my fellow roaches, live in fear no more. We are not in danger from radiation."

Sol turned off the television, stood up and started pacing back and forth in front of the couch. His mind was racing. This was it, a way to rid themselves of the human problem. If they could find a way to make the humans launch their nuclear bombs, all of the humans would be destroyed and the roaches would survive.

But how could they get the humans to launch the bombs. It seemed that the humans were great at destroying everything but themselves. He decided it was best to think about it. He went back to bed to just lie there and think. "There has to be some other way to create nuclear fallout. Hey, that's not a bad name for the band. Nuclear Fallout...I like it."

His mind switched back to the bombs and how to create the fallout. As he entered deeper and deeper into thought, he finally drifted off to sleep.

He began to dream of his home in the stump, and then his dreams switched to his parents, and finally to the nuclear bombs. He dreamed he was on top of a tall building watching the bombs explode in the distance. "Boom, boom, boom," they went. The booming continued, "boom, boom, boom, boom..." Finally he woke with a jump, and the booming was still going.

"SOL!!! Are you in there?"

It was Sammie at his door. He flew out of bed.

"Coming," he called. "I'll be right there."

He slid into his jeans, catching his foot in the knee hole and making it slightly bigger than normal.

"Boom, boom, boom, boom..."

"I'm coming."

He ran to the door and opened it. He barely got the door open when Sammie came bursting through it.

"You're late," she scolded as she was digging in opened the bag she was carrying. "Here, put this on over your tee..."

She stopped in mid-sentence because as she turned to look at him and realized he was not wearing a tee shirt.

"Oh, my," she said as she looked at his broad, bare chest.

Sol looked down and realized that he had forgotten to put on a shirt. He covered his chest with his arms. "Oops! I'm sorry. I...uh..."

For the first time since he had met her, she seemed at a loss for words. She stared at his chest for a moment. "I...Uh...don't...wow." She regained some of her composure and continued, "Why have you been hiding a chest like that? Put this on without a shirt, and let's see how it looks."

She handed him a black leather vest, and he put it on.

"I think that looks great, except for the shoes. What else do you have, besides tennis shoes?"

"I've got some black boots one of my sisters gave me last year."

"Get them, and let's see how it looks."

Sol went to his bedroom and came back wearing a pair of black biker boots.

Sammie had gained her full composure by now. "That's perfect," she said calmly. "I think he said this record producer was a woman; if that's right, you just became our ace-in-the-hole for negotiations."

"I feel," he paused for a moment, "exposed."

She encouraged, "Trust me. This is a good look for you. Now, we've got to go. We've only got a few minutes to discuss a name for the band."

They arrived at the bar where Jimmy and Chu were waiting.

"Nice of you to join us," Jimmy quipped.

"We'll kill him later," Sammie retorted, "but now, we've got to discuss a name. I thought about it all night, and I have a few suggestions: Deep Blue, The Bugs, Exodus or The Guess What. How about you, Chu?"

"I like Elvis," Chu said as he broke into his own rendition of Hound Dog -- complete with the Elvis dance moves.

"Chu, that's already taken," Sammie laughed. "Jimmy, what did you come up with?"

"Sorry, Sammie, I've got nothing."

"That's okay; this ain't easy. How about you, Sol?"

"Well, I only have one suggestion, but it's not as good as yours."

"Let us decide that. Come on, spit it out," Sammie instructed.

"Okay...my suggestion is 'Nuclear Fallout.'"

Sammie tilted her head to one side and put her index finger to her lips like she always did when she was in deep thought. "I like it," she said. "What do you think, Jimmy?"

"I think it's cool, man."

"Chu, what do you think?" She turned to see Chu still lost in his impression of Elvis. She called a little louder, "Chu!" He still didn't answer. She put two of her fingers to her lips and whistled.

At this point, Chu threw one arm into the air, "Thank ya. Thank ya. Thank ya very much."

They all three screamed, "CHU!"

He jumped as they startled him back to reality, and he replied, "What? You don't have to scream; I'm right here."

"Now you are," Sammie retorted, "It looks like light isn't the only thing that mesmerizes you."

"I LOVE Elvis. He's the KING, baby!" He stuck a classic Elvis pose.

"Well, if you are finished, we need your opinion on the name for -"

"I think 'Nuclear Fallout' is a good name," Chu interrupted.

Fire came into Sammie's eyes. "You HEARD us, and you still didn't answer us."

"Even when I am drawn to the light, I am still aware of my surroundings. Once something important is started, it needs to be finished. Elvis is important, and it would have been disrespectful of me to not finish the song."

Their conversation was cut short as the door opened. Joe walked in with the record producer. She was much smaller than Joe. She was dressed in a short, tie-dyed dress with a matching scarf around her head. The scarf was big and was tied on the side; the ends of it hung down past her shoulder. As they got closer, the band could see that she was actually a cricket. (Crickets are the most musically inclined of the bugs, and they tend to run most of the music industry.)

She had an entourage of smaller crickets following her around. They did everything for her: carry her brief case, pull out her chair, get her coffee, etc. They waited on her hand and foot.

One of her entourage pulled a chair to the table where the band was seated, and two of the others opened the brief case and began to shuffle through papers. Yet another one grabbed a notepad and pencil and started writing everything everyone said.

"My name is none of your business, but you can call me JJ. I usually make the artists come to my office," she began, "but I don't usually associate with roaches. That's one reason we're meeting during the day. All of my associates are out at night. I want to get your record published before anyone knows you are roaches. Let the music sell itself, and then we can show who you are. In keeping with this, you will do your recording during the day. I have a secret entrance to my studio; use it. My assistants will give you directions."

Sammie couldn't believe what she was hearing. They were being mistreated because they were roaches. Sammie stood up and demanded, "Why would we agree to this? It's demeaning."

"You'll do it for the sake of the music," JJ said smugly. "We both know that your music will be a hit, and you'll be rich beyond your wildest dreams. You have a goal, and I am your way to get there. You'll do it my way because I am the only producer who will even consider letting roaches use my studio. The end result is that we both get what we want -- a huge music sensation. Oh, and by the way, what are your names, and what is the name of your band?"

Sammie sat down in the shock of what she had heard, and the rest of the band was speechless. Never had Sammie allowed anyone to speak to her like JJ just had. Now, this strong woman sat slumped in a chair; she was broken. She knew that JJ was right. They would be the first roaches to be allowed to make an album. They had no choice but to play along for now.

Joe stepped up to table and introduced the band. "This is Jimmy, the bass player, Chu Gar Ming, the drummer, Solomon, the guitarist and you've already met Sammie, our lead vocalist. The band is called..." He looked at the band members and motioned for them to speak up.

Sol spoke up, "Our band is called 'Nuclear Fallout.'"

"I like it," JJ said. "We'll keep the band name." She pointed to Jimmy and Sol and continued, "You two can keep your names; I like them." She started pointing to Chu and Sammie. "You two will have to change."

Chu stood up in defiance. "Ming is my family name, and I will not change it. It is a matter of honor," he said defiantly.

"Actually, my little friend," she condescended, "I'm only shortening your name. We will call you Ming." She turned to Sammie. "As for you," she ordered, "your name will be changed to Sheba. Solomon and Sheba...that's a good match."

Sammie stood up and smiled, "That's a good idea. Guys, from now on, call me 'Sheba'." None of the band could believe their ears. Sammie had never responded like this. With all of the commotion, no one had been paying attention to "Sheba." During the conversation between Chu and JJ, Sheba had put her index finger to her lips. She had an idea.

Sheba was the first one to sign the contract while the other band members watched with puzzled faces. They finished signing the contracts and scheduled recording dates. When JJ and her entourage left, the band crowded around Sheba.

Sheba wasn't angry like they expected. In fact, she was sitting in a chair with her feet propped on the table and was humming. It wasn't necessarily a happy type of hum; it was more like the kind of hum that comes from being pleased with one's self -- the kind of self-satisfaction that comes after winning a hard-fought game.

Joe was the first one to ask, "Okay, what gives?"

"What do you mean? Can't a girl be happy with signing a record deal?"

"Yes, but we all know that you don't allow anyone to talk to you like she did and get away with it. You would only be acting like this if you had thought of a way to get back at her for how she acted."

Sheba rolled her eyes, "Okay, Joe. If you MUST know, I'll tell you. She had a very good point when she said that no other labels will sign roaches."

Joe still wasn't satisfied. "So...That still doesn't explain why you acted like you did."

Sheba took her feet off the table and sat up in her chair with excitement. "Don't you get it? This contract said that our first three albums will be with them. After that, we will be able to renegotiate our contract. When the contract expires, we can sign with another label."

"But no other label will take us," Jimmy interrupted. "Did you forget that already?"

"I'm going to make my OWN label with the money I make from the first three albums. I will not judge insects by what kind of insect they are, but by their ability. Crickets aren't the only ones who can sing."

Joe and the band members all voiced their support of her idea. They decided to set aside money for the new label before anyone else got their share of the money. The label would be a group effort, and they all would play a part in it.

The next few months were a blur for the entire band. They spent their days in the studio and most of their nights performing. The album was almost ready for release. The art department had developed an abstract cover that wouldn't have a picture of the band. This was all part of the deception JJ had planned to hide the fact that the band was actually comprised of roaches.

They spent a lot of time talking about which song would be their strongest song and would be released as their first single. They finally decided that they would lead with the song that Sol had written about the Roach Motel. Sol's song went all the way to number one and stayed there for several weeks.

Almost every single they released from the album made it to the top 10. The record was a huge success. It went platinum. This was the first time this record label had a platinum album. The fans were demanding a follow-up album.

The band had been so busy recording and performing that they hadn't written any new songs. The label was pressuring them for new songs -- quickly. With all of the pressure, no one could even think of writing a new song. Great songs are written in a moment of inspiration. It's not an 'on-demand' service. The deadline for the new songs was only a few days away when Sol walked into practice carrying an old notebook. When he first started singing with the group, before all of the recording, Sol had written several songs and wrote them in this notebook.

Sol's notebook was the band's salvation. They took the songs, made a few changes and took them to the record company. They were pleased with the songs, but they felt that they needed a strong single.

Again, it was Sol who stepped up to the plate. One night after their performance, Joe met the band backstage and told them his brother had been killed by Billy, the hot dog vendor's son. Sol was angry at the injustice. He stormed out the door and went home.

He flung himself sideways across his bed and stewed until he went to sleep. He was startled out of his sleep by a loud boom. (A car had backfired outside his apartment. To a roach, this was much louder than it would have been for a human.) Sol thought there had been an explosion of some kind and ran to his window to look. He saw a car pulling away leaving a cloud of exhaust behind.

"Blasted humans," he mumbled to himself. "I wish there was a way...Wait a minute; there IS a way. We need to set off their bombs. I had forgotten about that. They need nuclear fallout with smoke drifting across their oceans and lakes and fire from the sky. Wait a minute. That's a good idea for a song. I could spread my idea through my music."

With that he sat down and wrote the following lyrics:

We clean up after humans
Eating stuff they throw down
And in return they hate us
They don't even want us around
First they killed my mother
She died in a Roach Motel
Two weeks later in Houston
Their poison got my daddy as well
Nuclear Fallout, fire from the sky

It's Time we turned the Tables
Here is the way I've found.
They keep their nuclear missiles
Buried deep in the ground
If we were to launch them
We could start a war
With all that radiation
Man would be no more
Nuclear Fallout, fire from the sky

Nuclear explosions
with fire in the air
And smoking clouds of radiation
bring fallout everywhere
Radiation Hotel
Is the name of our plan
Just like they have killed us roaches
We will now kill man
Nuclear Fallout, fire from the sky

(He heard this tune again later when some humans recorded a song about Smoke on the Water. He didn't think about suing anyone, because at the time he believed that the humans would all soon be dead.)

He took his song back to the band, and they loved it. The hard-sell was going to be JJ. The song refers too much to roaches. But when they presented it to her, she thought they could pull it off. She loved the tune, and she believed her audience would think it was a ballad song about roaches, not by roaches. They decided to record it and release it as their first single.

The single went to number one and stayed there two months. The album went to double-platinum. The band was a major success, and fans wanted live concerts, and the band wanted to perform. With the release of the second album, JJ had insisted that the band stop performing at the bar. This became a major point of contention between Sheba and JJ. They would argue for a while, and JJ would end the argument by saying, "I have the contract, and I am in charge. I know what's best."

When JJ would make that statement, Sheba would turn and leave. Mumbling to herself that she couldn't wait until the contract was completed. The band had been saving money, and they would definitely have enough to start their own label by the end of the third record. Sheba was sneaky and manipulative, but she would discover that she had met her match with JJ.

Chapter 3

The Movement Starts

Several months had passed since the second album had reached double platinum. The band was concerned that JJ had not mentioned a third album. They agreed to give it one more week, and then talk to JJ about it. Two nights later, they were in for the shock of their lives.

JJ called a meeting at her office. She told the band to bring their performing outfits. She was going to allow them to perform at the bar one last time, but first, she wanted them to take a few days and relax at her penthouse. This was totally uncharacteristic of JJ, and it made everyone uneasy.

JJ's entourage led the band to the basement of the building where they found her penthouse. The band was anxious at first, but eventually settled in and enjoyed the amenities. It was really dark, just the way roaches like it. There was food of all types -- everything from pastries to wood pulp. There were mud baths and massages. Almost anything they could think to ask for was at their fingertips. There were video games and even musical instruments.

One night Sol couldn't sleep and went to the music room to play the guitar. (The house was so large, that he could play guitar without disturbing the others.) While he was playing, he started thinking about the stairway they had descended on their way to the penthouse. He wrote another song. This time it was about a stairway to a wonderful place. (Yes, the humans stole this one, too. They made it about someone climbing a stairway to a place called Heaven.) This song would later be the most famous song the band would ever have.

When Sol finished writing, he decided to watch the news for a while. He went to the game room and turned on the television. He only saw static. He switched to every possible channel, and still only static. The next day, he mentioned this to the staff, and they replied that this was where JJ came to get away from the world; it had no outside influences: no television, no radio and no newspaper.

The band members had been so busy enjoying themselves, that they hadn't noticed the lack of access to the outside world. They decided that it was just another eccentric part of JJ's personality. Sheba started mumbling to herself again that she would be glad when the contract was over.

With all of the distractions, the band had not even noticed that they had been at the penthouse for over a week. One morning they all came to breakfast and found a note from JJ on the table.

"Tonight is the night of your concert. You will each find in your closet a new outfit for you to wear. Rest your voices and be ready to leave at seven o'clock tonight."

They went to their rooms, and each one discovered an updated version of their outfit. Each outfit looked basically the same as the old one with one exception: they all had the band's name on the label. They were puzzled, but they complied with her instructions.

When the time came they were ushered to the door where a small, remote-controlled limousine was waiting to take them to the bar. As they pulled up to the door of the bar, they saw hundreds of screaming crickets lined up outside. There was a red carpet and very heavy security (Auggie was wearing a guard's uniform and was apparently in charge of all the security guards.)

As they exited the limo, they heard the crickets scream, "There they are!" The noise was almost deafening. Auggie escorted them from the limo to the door and led them backstage where JJ was waiting.

JJ stood up and greeted the band, "Well...what do you think?"

"What's going on?" Sheba inquired.

"Didn't you wonder why I sent you to a place with no outside influences?"

"We thought you were just weird," Jimmy replied.

"That's an issue for another time," JJ retorted. "Tonight, we are here to let the world finally meet the band."

"What?" Sol asked in shock.

"When I sent you to my penthouse, I held a press conference and announced to the world that their favorite songs were being performed by roaches. I had video-taped some of our recording sessions, and I used those tapes to prove to the world that crickets aren't the only ones who can sing. It was a week of pure bedlam. I finally announced the concert I had planned for tonight, and I invited the crickets to come and hear you for themselves. This concert, by the way, is just the first stop on your cross-country tour. Further, there is a press conference tomorrow where I will let them meet you and ask any questions they want about the band and your music, after we have shown them proof, I intend to announce that I will open my record label to insects of all kinds."

Sheba was so shocked she sat down on the floor and put her head between her knees. It was Solomon who first had the nerve to speak.

"I don't know what to say," he started. He looked around at the rest of the band, motioned toward the band and continued, "We don't know what to say. You were so hard on us that we thought you hated us because we were roaches."

"That wasn't it at all," JJ replied. "I had a plan, but it had to be followed exactly or it would have failed. I wanted to prove to the world that we shouldn't judge each other by what's on the outside, but what's on the inside. I first had to win them over with your music, and then I would reveal to them how wrong they had been by judging like they had. I couldn't risk anyone finding out before it was time. Now, you will get whatever recording time you want...you are my stars who have paved the way for a whole new generation of music. OH, before I forget, I started a line of clothing with your name as the label. This falls under 'Merchandising' on your contract, which means that the band receives 75% of the profit. My company will take the other 25% and use it to help finance the new, non-cricket, performers who will be signing with us later this week."

Sheba jumped up from the floor and hugged JJ. "I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm sorry I have been so mean to you. I thought you were just like the rest of them. I misjudged you because you are a cricket. I'm no better than the others who hate us for being roaches."

JJ hugged her back and softly replied, "You're forgiven. But it's not entirely your fault. I wanted you to think that. If you had suspected otherwise, then I was not being successful in my charade. All of our disagreements only proved to me I was being effective. I'm sorry I had to put you through that."

"Well, anytime you two are through being acting like girls," Joe interrupted, "we have a show to do."

The band played that night with all their heart. It was their best performance ever. The audience loved them, and the audience included insects of all kinds -- but especially crickets who had to see for themselves that the band was truly comprised of roaches.

The next day they all met at JJ's office for the press conference. JJ made her announcement and allowed the press to ask questions of the band. The press wanted to know everything. How long had the band been together? Were Solomon and Sheba dating? (This one made both of them blush as they answered, "No.") Then the reporters started asking questions about the music and how they got their inspiration. They went song by song asking questions. That's when it happened; they asked about the story behind "Fire from the Sky."

Solomon spoke up, "I lost my mother and my father about two weeks apart because of humans. I was watching the news, and I heard a story about humans being vulnerable to radiation. I thought, 'If only we had a way to expose them to it.' But then I came to my senses and realized it was a crazy idea. Finally, another friend of mine was killed by a young human, and in my anger, I wrote this song. I only wish it was more than a song. I wish there was a way to stop the humans from killing us."

The story made headlines in every major newspaper in the insect world: The Ant Daily, The Cricket Chronicle, The House Fly Herald, The Insect Times, and even the flea newspaper, The Jumping Journal. The insect world had mixed feelings about the idea; it was very controversial. It became a huge debate. The intellects of the insect world began to hold debates. As a rule, the Honey Bees seemed to be against the idea, and the Fruit Flies seemed to be for it. The Ants were mostly divided: some species were all for the idea, while others were totally against it.

As the band started their tour, it seemed that the controversy only managed to increase the band's popularity. The band became frequent guests on talk shows. It was during one of these talk shows that Solomon was recognized by the Ensign Wasp who had fled from him at the bus stop.

The wasps were at their hideout. The boss was playing pool with some friends while some of the others sat at the bar watching television. The band was being interviewed on "The Early Show." The wasp who had fled from Solomon that day was talking to a friend at the bar. He cracked a joke, laughed slightly and took a big drink as he glanced at the television. He suddenly jerked his glass away and sprayed out his drink in shock.

"It's him!" he screamed as he pointed to the television. "It's HIM!"

"Hey," the bartender said, "you better settle down and quit making such a mess or the boss will have your head."

The excited wasp began jumping, pointing at the screen and waving to his boss. "Boss! Boss! Come 'ere! It's Him!"

Boss put down his cue and walked over to the bar. "What are you babbling about, Zack? I was just about to win the game for my lady friend, Beebee." (All wasps have names that began with b or z. With such a limited number of names available beginning with those letters, they often quit using regular names and start making up weird ones.)

"That's the guy," Zack said as he pointed to the television.

"That's what guy?" Boss replied.

Zack took a deep breath and said, "That's they guy who killed your brother Barry."

Boss shoved Zack aside and looked at the television. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. They're calling him by a different name, but I know that's him. I'll never forget that face as long as I live."

"Where is he? Where is this interview?"

"I heard him say he would be in Birmingham next week," the bartender interjected.

"Birmingham!" Boss exclaimed. "Why couldn't it have been Memphis or Nashville? We can't go to Birmingham because of the treaty we made with the Hornets. That's their turf."

"That's right, Boss," Zack said, "but maybe they'll do the hit for us."

"That'll never work," Boss answered. "They'll expect something in return. They'll probably want to renegotiate the borders. I don't want to start a turf war over this guy. I want him dead without shedding any more Ensign blood."

"Boss," the bartender interrupted, "may I make a suggestion?"

Boss turned in anger to the bartender and then paused to control himself. "Sure, Zippy, I'll listen to your imbecilic suggestion. After all, he was your brother, too. You, older brother, have just as much right to be rejected as the rest of the gang." The boss paused for a moment and then continued, "Come on, let's hear it."

The bartender stepped around the bar and walked over to Boss and spoke in almost a whisper. "I heard that the Hornets are already in a turf war with an oriental gang that's landed in Mobile. They are called the Mantises. The really are praying mantises."

"How does that help us?"

"The Hornets won't want two turf wars at once. We could go to Birmingham, take care of business and leave."

"That's a stupid idea!" Boss shouted as he reached for a glass and threw it at the bartender.

The bartender ducked down as the glass smashed into the wall beside him, and then he scampered behind the bar to hide.

"Although," Boss said thoughtfully, "you weren't as totally useless as I thought."

The bartender peeked over the bar.

"No," Boss continued, "you may have actually helped us for once."

The bartender stood up, tilted his head to one side and looked inquisitively at Boss. "What do you mean?" he reluctantly inquired.

"There is an old proverb," Boss replied. "This proverb states that 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' We have been back and forth between war and peace with the Hornets for as long as I can remember. I've actually been aware of the Mantises for quite some time. I didn't know they were expanding into Hornet territory. The Hornets have territory in every southern state."

Boss paused here and sat down at one of the tables. Everyone knew that when he sat down to talk to them, he was going to talk himself through the situation. This meant they were going to have to listen to a long speech as he voiced his thought process.

They were right; the Boss began his long speech. "All we need to do is decide if we want to side with the Hornets or the Mantises. The Mantises are a very powerful organization. They all know a form of Kung Fu known as the Northern Praying Mantis style. It's very deadly. If we befriend them now, we will probably regret it later. The Hornets are too proud and think their organization is too big to get help from us. Either way, we will have to face the Mantises eventually, because they are way too powerful for the Hornets to hope to overcome. It would probably be a good thing to cooperate with them. If we maintain a good relationship with them, they may actually let us keep our territory. Who knows, we may even be able to expand our territory in the process. Zack, come here, I've got a mission for you. This will be your chance to make up for getting Barry killed."

Zack walked over to Boss and stood with his head down. He was afraid to look Boss in the eye.

Boss began his instructions. "I still don't understand how Barry died and you came back without a scratch. I would have killed you when right then and there, but I owed your father a favor. My debt to your father is now paid; so, don't fail me again. I'm sending my Sergeant as envoy to the Mantises. We will negotiate a treaty with them. In exchange for territory, we will offer them assistance against the Hornets. As a gift of good will, I am sending you as a gift to their leader. You will serve in his army until the turf war with the Hornets is over. Understand that if you fail him, you will die. He will bite off your head and consume you alive. I know you will fail him, because you are a coward, but your death will be your own fault, and I will have kept my word to your father by not killing you. I have given you a chance at life and a chance to redeem yourself. If you return and the Mantises have not released you from service, I will deliver you to them personally."

Boss turned to one of his bodyguards and said, "Get him out of my sight, and keep him from running away until my Sergeant is ready to leave." Boss turned to another bodyguard and demanded, "You! Go get my Sergeant!"

The Sergeant returned and came to attention.

"Buzz," Boss said, "you have served me well. I am sending you on one last mission before you let your brother take your place..."

Boss explained the terms of the treaty he wanted to negotiate with the Mantises. He also gave instructions as to Zack's fate. Boss also asked Buzz to take two of their best soldiers on the trip to Mantis territory. If the Mantises agreed to the terms of the treaty, the three of them were to join the Mantis army as well, because Boss didn't want the Mantises to get the impression that all of their soldiers were weak like Zack. Even if the Mantises didn't agree to the terms, Zack was to stay with their army. Zack's weakness might make the Mantis army underestimate the Enigmas. Boss further instructed that on the way to Mobile, the wasps were to capture several insects to offer as payment for the hit on Solomon.

The four wasps hopped a bus and left on their mission. They arrived in Mobile late the next day. They hadn't gone far from the bus station when they found themselves surrounded by members of the Mantises.

These were local praying mantises who had been recruited by the Chinese Mantis Organization.

"Look what we have here, boys," said the largest one said, "miniature, deformed Hornets wearing fur coats."

The other mantises laughed and complimented the joke, as "yes-men" often do.

Zack became very nervous and began to fidget. Buzz, true to form, stepped forward and said, "We are not Hornets. We come from Jackson, TN; we are members of the Enigma gang, and we come with a gift for your leader."

"Oh, you have a gift for our leader. Yeah, we're going to just walk you right into our headquarters and let you see our leader. What makes you think we would be that stupid?"

This wasn't the first time Buzz had been in a difficult situation, and he handled the situation like an expert.

"We mean no insult of any kind. We only have admiration and respect for the Mantises. We know you are in a turf war with the Hornets, and that means we have a mutual enemy. We know you do not need our help, but we are here to ask permission to join with you in the battle against the Hornets. If you don't count our prisoners, there are only four of us here. We know we are at your mercy. You hold the power of life and death in your hands. My boss ordered me to talk to your leader. I must speak to your leader or die trying."

The large mantis interrupted, "I think I like option number two. I think I'll kill you and snack on your prisoners."

"Those prisoners were sent as a gift to your leader, a present offered in peace. You could kill us and take the gift for yourself, but I'm sure your leader will find out you took his gift for yourself. How do you think he will react?"

One of the yes-men spoke up, "He's right; if Shu finds out we took something from him, we'll all die."

The other yes-men joined in agreeing with the first one. The largest mantis stepped forward and shook his fist at the first yes-man.

"You keep quiet. I don't want your opinion. If you need an opinion, I'll give you one."

The yes-man slumped down in submission, and the largest mantis regained his composure.

"I guess I could just kill you and take the gift to Shu myself."

Buzz, again showing his experience, softly added, "Yes, you could do that, but gifts are very important in the Chinese culture. Suppose he wants to know where the gift came from. Someone is bound to talk. Take us to him as prisoners. Maybe he will let you keep the gift for bringing us as prisoners. Bind us and blindfold us. That way we will not see where your headquarters is located, and you know we will be no threat to your leader."

The mantis turned his head to one side as he looked at Buzz.

"You make a good point, wasp," the mantis said.

The mantis instructed his yes-men to bind and blindfold the wasps. They took the prisoners and the gift to their headquarters, and they arranged a meeting with Shu, the leader of the Mantises.

"Release them and remove their blindfolds," ordered Shu.

They were untied, and their blindfolds were removed. Buzz could see they were in a great hall. It was set up like a throne room. There were great columns in pairs that created a walkway down the center of the room. Buzz and the others were standing at the bottom of a set of stairs that covered the width of the room. At the top of the stairs was the throne, and Shu was standing in front of the throne. Shu was a Chinese Praying Mantis about six inches tall; he had a long, grey mustache and beard and long, grey hair pulled back into a ponytail.

When Buzz realized he was standing in front of Shu, he bowed and motioned for the others to do the same. Buzz waited; he knew he needed to remain silent until Shu had spoken first.

"So, Buzz," Shu said as he started down the stairs, "I am honored that you would come to my city. You should have sent word, and I could have prepared a reception."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Buzz said in shock, "I was unaware that you knew my name. I meant no insult or disrespect by coming unannounced."

"Everyone knows about you, Buzz," Shu said as he extended his hand for a handshake. "You are the Sergeant of the Enigmas. Your exploits and strategies against the Hornets in the Wasp Wars are legendary, surpassed only by the one you call Boss. The Hornets were greater in stature and in numbers, but you forced them to a treaty that left all of your territory intact."

Buzz again bowed to Shu and said, "You honor me, Master Shu, but it was a stalemate, not a victory."

"Their original attack plan," Shu corrected, "was to totally destroy your gang and absorb your territory and its resources. They knew we were coming, and they wanted to be prepared. You fought so hard, they had no choice but to negotiate peace with you. It was not a stalemate, my friend." Shu leaned over and said in a loud, clear voice, "It was a DECISIVE VICTORY!"

Shu stood back up as Buzz, in shock, tried to absorb what Shu had just told him.

"One more thing, Buzz," Shu continued, "you called me Master Shu, not Mister Shu. Why is that?"

Buzz looked up at Master Shu and replied, "Your reputation precedes you, Master Shu. You are the Master of Northern Praying Mantis style of Kung Fu. Its style is a closely guarded secret. Only recently has this style been taught outside of China. We are honored that you would come to our country."

"It seems you are as gifted as the rumors have stated," Master Shu stated, "There are those in my own organization who do not possess such knowledge of my position. Tell me, why have you come to Mobile?"

"Master Shu," Buzz explained, "my visit has several purposes. First, I am to offer this gift to you. I have captured several insects for your dining pleasure. This I offer to you in appreciation of the hospitality you have shown in granting us an audience.

"Secondly, I am to extend the hand of friendship to you and your honorable organization. We have a common enemy, the Hornets. Your organization is superior and will surely overcome the Hornets without any assistance from us. But we have great respect for you and for your organization, and we want to unite with you against our common enemy. If you will unite with us, I and two of the wasps with me will join your army and help coordinate attacks with our own army.

"If you accept our friendship, Boss asked me to deliver this last wasp to you as your slave. This wasp, Zack, managed to return unscathed while his partner was killed by a roach. He would have been executed, but Boss owed a debt of honor to Zack's father. He promised not to execute Zack. Instead, Boss sends this coward to you. You may use him as you see fit or have him as a snack; the choice is yours. His life no longer belongs to him, but to you, Master Shu.

"Finally, if you will grant me indulgence, we have come to call upon your wisdom for a situation we are facing."

Master Shu walked to his throne, leaving Buzz at the bottom of the stairs, and sat down facing him. "You may continue."

Buzz bowed again and continued, "Thank you, Master Shu. The partner of this coward was none other than Barry, Boss's youngest brother. This coward allowed the roach to escape after killing Barry. We have reliable information that this roach will be in Birmingham next week. We know that you and the Hornets are currently in a turf war. While we have no fear of entering Hornet territory, we do not want to offend you. If we enter Hornet territory while you are at war with them, it would seem as though we are interfering with your battle.

"This roach must pay for the death of Boss's brother, but we are at a loss as to how to accomplish this honorably. Your wisdom is known throughout the world, and we are sure that you can help us arrive at an honorable solution."

Master Shu stroked his beard for a moment, and then he spoke, "First, I accept your gift of insects. You are an honorable man, and it is indeed a gift of honor. Concerning the alliance, I have stated before that your army is an army of honor, and I will gladly make a treaty with you against the Hornets. With our combined strength, we will crush the Hornets much sooner and prevent much bloodshed among my people. I will meet with Boss in two weeks, and we will work out the details.

"As to this coward, why should I wash your dirty laundry? Nevertheless, I have a dangerous area in need of a scout. He will either succeed in his mission, or he will die.

"Finally, your roach will die in Birmingham. I will send a hit squad after him as a gesture of good will to our new alliance."

Buzz bowed again, "Thank you, Master Shu. I look forward to fighting for you in battle."

The next week, the band arrived in Birmingham early one afternoon. While they were unloading the bus, they had no idea they were being watched by three of the Mantises. Zack had been ordered to follow as observer to confirm the kill. Suddenly, Chu set his drum down and began to slowly walk toward Auggie.

"Auggie," Chu called. As he got closer to Auggie, Chu whispered, "We are being stalked."

"Whaddya mean, Mate? Who's stalking us?"

"Keep your voice down; get the bodyguards around the band; do it quickly."

Auggie called out, "Alright, everyone over 'ere for a minute. We've got to practice our security drills."

They all came over to Auggie, and he continued his instructions, "Okay, band in the middle, guards on the outside." They had six Australian Roaches as bodyguards now.

The band reluctantly complied; they knew Auggie meant well. Just as the guards closed the circle around the band, the three Mantises launched their attack. Three of the bodyguards were down in an instant; they didn't even see the attack coming. Before the other bodyguards could even react, Chu launched into one of the Mantises with lightning speed. He hit his opponent five times -- including a fatal blow, before the Mantis could even react. As Chu was turning to face a second Mantis, he heard a loud roar and saw yellow and black blurs strike the other two Mantises, and he watched the Mantises fall.

When everyone had come to their senses, they realized that Hornets had intervened and killed the remaining Mantises. About ten Hornets landed nearby. The Hornets were black and yellow bulks of muscle. They were almost as tall as Auggie, but they were sleeker and faster.

One of them spoke to the band, "Looks like one of you has made some powerful enemies."

The band members were shocked to hear a female voice.

"You're female?" Jimmy asked.

"All of our patrols are female. Males only leave the nest in the fall when it's time to start new nests."

The squad leader continued, "This was a hit squad from the infamous Mantis gang. We monitor the bus stops, and we saw them arrive yesterday. We wanted to see who they were after before we acted. Funny thing though, there was a wasp with them yesterday, but he disappeared this morning, and we haven't seen him since. Oh, before I forget to ask, which one of you killed the first Mantis?"

"It was Chu," Sheba said. She turned to Chu and asked, "Where did you learn to move like that?"

"Family training since I was a child," Chu replied, "fighting style only taught to my family. It is called Southern Praying Mantis."

Zack, true to his cowardly nature, gasped when he heard this. Everyone looked up to see where the noise came from, and Solomon's heart sank. Zack, realizing he had been spotted, took off trying to escape.

"That's the wasp from the bus station; after him!" cried one of the Hornets.

Two of the Hornets took off after Zack. He led them on a merry chase; they were much faster than he was, but he was used to running away, and he was very good at it. Zack saw the bus for Mobile leaving the station and caught it just as it pulled out. The wind almost forced him off the exterior of the bus, but he managed to climb into the area where bugs travel and took a seat. The Hornets saw Zack as he boarded the bus, but couldn't get to the bus before it reached the interstate. Zack had made his getaway.

While they were gone, Solomon explained to the group that this attack was his fault. He told them about his encounter with the wasps at the bus stop. Solomon recognized the wasp as the one who had threatened him.

"It's me they're after. I need to leave before anyone else gets hurt."

The band members all told Solomon that they were in this together.

The Hornet squad leader said to Solomon, "There are two things you need to know. First, the Charlie and Susan you assisted were actually working for us as spies. We had heard rumors that the Enigmas were going to break the treaty we made with them. Hidden in the lining of that dress she was wearing were pictures of secret documents from the Enigma gang. They were planning an invasion. When you killed the brother of their leader, their invasion plans were put on hold. That gave us time to forge a treaty with the Yellow Jackets. Not long after that is when we were attacked by the Mantises. If we had been attacked simultaneously by the Enigmas and the Mantises, it would have been tragic. In essence, we owe you a debt of gratitude. We had no idea that you were the same roach that intervened. Our operative gave us a different name. Thank you; we are forever in your debt.

"Secondly, you have confirmed what we suspected when we saw them together yesterday. The wasp was a member of the Enigma gang, but they don't always honor territorial lines, and we find strays in our territory on a regular basis. Since this one came with a Mantis hit squad, it can only mean that the Enigmas have forged a treaty with the Mantises. Mantis hit squads are not for hire; they only attack on official business of their organization. If they sent a squad to kill you, then they have done so as a favor to their new allies."

When the two Hornets returned to the group, they informed them that they had lost the wasp and that the wasp had caught a bus toward Mobile.

"Mobile!" exclaimed the squad leader. "That further confirms our information about an alliance." She pointed to one of the Hornets and ordered, "You, go inform Queen Zarla of the death squad and of the alliance. We will finish up here and continue the patrol."

The Hornet snapped to attention, replied, "Yes, ma'am" and took off.

The squad leader turned back to the band and continued her conversation, "With the Yellow Jackets entering the war, we will be free to face the Mantis army. The Mantis army is famous for its ability to move and attack at night; so, we have also allied with the Bats. If they do any night flying, our Bat friends will be ready for them. In the meantime, I will order three of my soldiers to replace your fallen bodyguards. They will guard you with their lives for the remainder of the tour."

Joe stepped forward and said, "Thank you, but that's not necessary. You've done plenty already by saving us from the death squad."

The squad leader replied, "I insist. Further, we will keep the soldiers on our payroll. You take the salary the fallen bodyguards would have earned and send it to their families. You lost three bodyguards while on our turf. It's the least we can do. Besides, Queen Zarla is a huge fan of the band. You have no idea how much upset she would be if something happened to you, especially now that we know you are the one who saved us from almost certain destruction."

The squad leader picked three Hornets to remain with the band and gave flight instructions to the others. They took off with a loud roar. She turned to Solomon and said in a whisper, "Your idea is gaining momentum in the insect world. After the concert tonight, you will be approached by a small fly with big red eyes. Take time to listen to what he has to say. You won't regret it."

With that she turned and roared off to catch up with her squad.

The band performed before thousands of screaming fans. Chu was especially pleased with the changes they had made to the light show. It was bigger and better than ever. After the concert, the band was relaxing in their dressing room when they heard a knock at the door. It was one of the Hornet bodyguards followed by a short, dumpy fly with big red eyes that looked like a pair of goggles. (It was a fruit fly.)

"Mr. Solomon," Hornet said in its high-pitched voice that still caught the band off guard, "this is the gentleman that you were expecting this evening."

Solomon, still puzzled as to the purpose of the visit but willing to accommodate, replied, "Sure, bring him in."

The little fly stepped out from behind the Hornet and said in a raspy voice, "Hello, Mr. Solomon. Thank you for seeing me."

The little fly looked at the band members and the bodyguards and asked, "Is there somewhere we can talk alone?"

The Hornet rattled her wings and replied in a harsh voice, "This is fine right here. I cannot permit you to remove Mr. Solomon from these premises."

Solomon added, "You can speak freely here. What's on your mind?"

The little fly hesitated for a moment and fidgeted with a little case he was carrying. His appearance was so comical that no one had noticed the case until he had started playing with it. Then he started his presentation.

"It's about your song Fire from the Sky. You see, whether or not you intended the song to be taken seriously is a subject that is often debated in the media. My organization is not concerned with the song's intent, but we are concerned with its message. We like the idea of launching the nuclear missiles all around the world and eliminating mankind. We have a plan in place, and, if you are serious about your idea, we would like you to help implement the plan."

Chapter 4

Captured!

Solomon and the band listened to the presentation in astonishment. Apparently, the band was more well- known than they had even dared to hope. Their tour would be expanded to include stops all around the world. The fruit flies would pay the additional expense of the tour in exchange for the band providing the cover for the operation. As they toured, the little fly would travel with the band and would be delivering packages of instructions to operatives throughout the world. They would only need to trigger two missiles, since humans were sure to finish the job for them. The plan had to be kept a secret, because there were some insects who depended on humans and other mammals for survival. (The Mosquitoes were violently opposed to the idea.) The plan was called Operation Radiation Hotel in honor of the song Solomon had written. The planned day of detonation would be called R-day (short for Radiation Day).

When he finished his presentation, the fly stood there waiting for an answer while the band sat with their jaws practically on the floor in shock. It was Joe who first gained his composure and asked for some time to think about it. The fly agreed to give them one day and said he would return the next evening for an answer.

The band discussed the idea at length well into the morning. Finally, they agreed to endorse the plan presented by the fly. After all, it was Solomon's idea in the first place. After the show the next evening, the little fly returned for his answer.

Solomon was the spokesperson this time, "We want to accept your offer..."

"Good. Good," the fly, obviously elated with the answer, interrupted, "I'll get started..."

"Wait!" Solomon interjected, "There is one problem."

The little fly looked up at Solomon with a puzzled expression and asked, "What's the problem."

Solomon replied, "We have a contract, and this world-wide tour must be approved by JJ, our producer."

The little fly laughed. (It seemed more like a snicker than a laugh because of his raspy voice.) "You have underestimated us," he said. "We have already approached her about sponsoring the world tour. She's waiting to hear a final answer from us on the terms. We made her think we are waiting to hear from our backers before we agreed to finance the tour, when in fact we were simply waiting to hear your answer. I will call her when I get back to my hotel. She will call you in the morning to announce the tour. Act surprised. In the meantime, I have things to do. I'll be in touch with you before you leave town tomorrow."

With that the little fly turned and zipped out of the room.

The next morning, JJ called, as the fly had predicted. She informed the band of the world tour. The band played their part well.

Meanwhile, Zack made it back to Mobile early the next morning and went to Mantis headquarters.

"Once again," Master Shu said, "you have returned, and those who traveled with you have not."

Zack, trembling, answered him with a soft, quivering voice, "Master Shu, you sent me as observer. I didn't think you wanted me to be involved in the fight."

"It seems 'Observer' is all you are fit to do," Master Shu retorted. "Tell me what happened to my squad."

"Hornets, sir," Zack replied. "A squadron of Hornets arrived just as your squad began its attack."

"My best hit squad was ambushed by Hornets?! How did the Hornets know we were there?" Master Shu demanded. "Did someone warn them? Did you set a trap for them in exchange for your miserable life?"

"No, Master Shu," Zack said as he fell to his knees, "I am your loyal servant. I heard the Hornets say they were monitoring the bus stations and saw your squad arrive. I would never betray you. If I was foolish enough to betray you, coming back would be even more foolish."

"Foolish indeed!" Master Shu barked. "I ought to kill you myself on suspicion alone."

"Wait, Master Shu," Zack begged, "I have other information you need to know. This information may prove my usefulness to you."

"What is this so-called important information?"

Zack, still quivering, answered, "There was a Chinese cockroach traveling with the band. After your squad's initial attack killed three of the bodyguards surrounding the band, they had a clear path to the target. That is, until this Chinese cockroach unleashed an attack of extreme speed and ferocity. I heard him later describe it to his friends as Southern Praying Mantis style..."

Master Shu's interest was piqued. "Are you sure you heard him correctly?" he asked Zack.

"Yes, Master Shu, I am certain." Zack replied.

Master Shu's expression suddenly changed; he seemed more worried than angry. He looked at Zack and said, "You have saved your miserable skin for now. Leave me!"

Zack left Master Shu as fast as his wings would carry him. He was full of frustration. He knew he had failed when Barry died, but who expected a roach to fight back. This time he had followed orders, and they still accused him of being a coward. He flew to the top of the headquarters to sulk.

Buzz came and knelt before Master Shu . "Forgive me Master Shu, but I don't understand. How is this information important?"

Master Shu walked to his throne and sat down. Buzz followed Master Shu and stood on the steps in front of the throne.

"It's time you knew the whole story, Buzz. Boss and I have been in contact since before I left China. He wanted Hornet territory, but he knew he could not conquer it alone. I was looking to expand my organization when I was contacted by Boss. Boss didn't trust any of the local gangs, and he wanted me to bring my army here. He had gone to great lengths to plan our arrival.

"According to his plan, he knew he could defend his territory with few losses. He provoked the Hornets into attacking your turf. He made them mad enough that they wanted to totally obliterate you. When they attacked, they pulled resources from the Mobile area, just as Boss predicted they would. That left this area vulnerable. We were able to infiltrate and then invade this territory. Once we were established, we recruited the local Mantis population and trained them for war.

"The Wasp Wars still continued. Boss was more successful than he had planned at aggravating the Hornets. As the war raged, we grew in strength. We began to launch hit squads into Hornet territory. It was only then that the Hornets realized they were too invested in attacking you. Boss's plan succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Until that roach interfered by killing Barry.

"Barry was the envoy to the Red Wasps over in Arkansas. If he had lived one more day, he would have been able to convince them to sign a treaty and help attack the Hornets. His death caused the Red Wasps to withdraw from negotiations. Boss had to find other resources for battle.

"On our end, we had been escalating skirmishes with the Hornets according to the plan. It was too late to deescalate when we received word of Barry's death and the delay. We were already going to war. We stopped provoking and moved to a defensive posture until Boss was ready to join us. We now have the resources to launch a full attack. Together, we will crush the Hornets.

"Boss didn't tell you this because he and I took an oath that neither would reveal our plan until after we had made the treaty public. No one could know. Now the Hornets are aware of the treaty, and you can be told of the plan. You know how Boss thinks, and having you here will give us the ability to coordinate even more effectively. We will launch our attack in a few days.

"Unfortunately, your roach will have eluded us before then, and we will not be able to follow him to make another attempt. For if this Zack is correct in his report, there is a member of the royal family traveling with the roach. The Southern Praying Mantis style is taught only to Royals. The Chinese cockroach may believe the attack was meant for him. In that case, there will very soon be an army of protection following this group in the shadows. No one will know they are there unless they reveal themselves in protecting this member of the royal family.

"We are strong, but we cannot face the Hornets AND the army of the royal family, at least not now. We will wait until a more opportune time. Now, come with me; we have preparations to make."

Meanwhile, Zack, after sitting and sulking all day, had reached the conclusion that there was only one way to clear his name. He had to go find Solomon and assassinate him. Zack flew to the bus station and started for a bus when he remembered that the Hornets were watching the bus station. He flew to the train station and caught a train to Birmingham. This way he could arrive undetected.

It was early next morning when he arrived in Birmingham. He left the train station and headed for the stadium hall in hopes of finding the band there. Not far from the stadium, Zack saw a crowd of insects in the alley behind one of the hotels. He landed on the wall above the crowd and listened. They were fans waiting in hopes of seeing the band. He looked around and was pretty sure no one had seen him. He flew up to the eaves and hid in the shadows.

When the band finished their conversation with JJ, it was time to leave for Atlanta. They were to play in Atlanta that night, and they wanted to get an early start. Zack saw the security guards struggling with the crowd and realized this would be his only chance. He could strike while the guards were occupied. First, he saw Chu, then Jimmy, then Sheba and Solomon. He had practiced stealth attacks as part of his training with Buzz. It was one of their most effective attacks in the Wasp Wars.

Wasps would climb up to a high place and wait for an opportunity to drop onto their target without using their wings; this eliminated the noise of the wings. They would wait until almost to their target, and then they would flap their wings full throttle to help them have control enough to pull up after striking their target.

Zack waited for his chance. Chu was on the bus, and all of the bodyguards were occupied with the crowd. Suddenly, Zack made his release. He was a long way up. He gained speed, faster, faster, faster. It was like a scene out of one of those old war movies with the dive bombers attacking ships at sea. Solomon was in his sights. This was going to be a perfect attack.

Zack started flapping his wings full throttle. He was almost there. He was in full concentration: baring his stinger, adjusting for the wind, and preparing to pull up after the attack. Solomon heard the roar of Zack's wings, but it was too late to react.

Auggie had turned in time to see Zack and had jumped into Zack's path to protect Solomon. Zack didn't have time to react. His stinger went deep into Auggie, and the angle of flight ripped Zack's stinger from his abdomen. Zack tumbled to the ground. The Hornets, realizing Zack's stinger had broken and that he was now harmless, grabbed him and took him prisoner. Two of them held Zack while the third one bit off his wings to prevent escape.

Auggie had saved Solomon's life, but it was at the expense of his own. He fell at Solomon's feet and tumbled down the steps. Solomon and Sheba both ran to Auggie and kneeled beside him.

"Looks like my tour is over, mate," Auggie said as he struggled to catch his breath. "At least you're all still safe."

With that, Auggie drew his last breath and was gone. The remaining bodyguards rushed Solomon and Sheba onto the bus. One of the Hornets came onto the bus with the band and informed them that the other two Hornets would be taking Zack back to their headquarters and would return shortly.

The two Hornets bound and blindfolded Zack and took turns carrying him to headquarters. They landed, told the guards what had happened and left for the bus. By now, Zack was getting weak. He was led to the throne room of the Queen. His bonds were removed, and he was forced to kneel in front of the throne.

When Queen Zarla entered the throne room, Zack spoke through his pain, "You'll get nothing from me. I know I'm dying; my wounds are fatal. You can't threaten me with anything else."

"Silence, worm!" shouted one of the guards as he struck Zack.

"Enough!" ordered the Queen.

The Guard snapped to attention and replied, "Yes, my Queen."

Queen Zelda looked at Zack and said, "There is someone here you need to meet." She paused and called over her shoulder, "Step out where he can see you, my dear."

A robed figure stepped from behind the throne and approached Zack.

"Remove your hood, and let him see your face," the Queen instructed.

The figure removed the hood, and Zack almost fainted. He wasn't sure if it was from his wounds or from the shock of who it was. It was Susan, the expectant mother from the bus stop.

"You? I know you. What are you doing here?" Zack asked in amazement.

"When you saw me at the bus stop, I had been at your headquarters. I knew you were planning an attack on the Hornets, and I had copies of your attack plans. While I was at your headquarters, I learned something interesting: your father lives east of Jackson in a town called Lawrenceburg."

The Queen interrupted, "I have spies throughout your territory, and I know your father intervened on your behalf when you ran from a roach -- a rather cowardly thing for a wasp to do, I should add. Now, it's your turn to intervene for his life. Tell me what I want to know, and I'll let him live. Your gang will be obliterated, but we must leave some of your kind alive, balance of nature and all that stuff. Your father can be one of those who live, or he can die. It's all up to you."

"What...do...you...want?" Zack asked. It seemed he was struggling with every word now.

"I need to know two things: when the Mantis army plans to attack and the location of their headquarters. Tell me the truth, and your father will live when we come to Lawrenceburg. Lie to me, and I will destroy your entire family."

Zack told her they were attacking soon, possibly within three days, and he told her the exact location of their headquarters. Then he collapsed and quietly passed away.

The Queen began barking orders to her guards.

"Put the entire army on full alert. Notify the Bats to start patrols tonight. Notify the Yellow Jackets it's time to attack. Send the location of the Mantis headquarters to the Velvet Ants. We're going to war."

The Mantis army attacked the next night. The Bats were ready for them. Many of the Mantises have a hollow place in their abdomen that allows them to sense the sounds emitted by Bats. When a Mantis detected a Bat's signal, the Mantis would simply spiral to the ground, making it hard for the Bat to catch it. But even with this defense mechanism, the Mantis army suffered heavy losses to the Bats.

The Mantis army was scattered and in disarray. When morning came, the Velvet Ants finished the Mantises on the ground, and the Hornets picked off those who tried to fly.

Up near Memphis, the Yellow Jackets caught the Enigmas totally by surprise. Boss barely escaped with his life. Meanwhile, in Mobile, Master Shu and Buzz left for China.

It was a solid victory for the Hornets and their allies. Queen Zarla kept her promise concerning Zack's father, making sure he knew he was only spared because Zack had provided information.

Solomon and the rest of the band went on to Atlanta where the little fruit fly, Kiwi, joined the tour. (The assassination attempt by Zack had prevented them from meeting as planned in Birmingham.) They finished the U.S. tour without incident. Kiwi met his contacts at each stop along the way and slipped them the information and plans for Operation Radiation Hotel.

The band received warm welcomes all over Europe, and they grew closer to each other as well. It was like working with family. There were very few disagreements -- even though they were exhausted from all of the touring. (It may look glamorous, but touring is hard work. Late nights, long afternoons, sound checks, equipment checks, vocal strains, fans sneaking trying to sneak and meet the band -- all of these things take their toll.)

In spite of all of the wear and tear, Solomon and Sheba were the only two who really argued. Their arguments were always over something small like the order of the songs or changes to the light show. The biggest argument came in Stockholm, Sweden. Solomon wanted to add rockets to Fire From the Sky, but Sheba was totally against it. It was a silly argument, but they were each furious with the other one about it. Sheba finally got mad enough that she stormed off to her dressing room and slammed the door.

Jimmy looked at Chu, and Chu nodded, mouthed, "Talk to him," and pointed at Solomon.

Jimmy walked over to Solomon and said, "I think the rockets would be cool, man."

"Would you please tell HER that?" Solomon replied as he buried his head in his hands.

"I really think she liked the idea," Jimmy encouraged.

"She sure has a funny way of showing it," Solomon retorted.

"Sol, her problem isn't with the rockets. It's you."

Solomon looked up at Jimmy and asked, "What do you mean? You think she doesn't like me?"

"No, man," Jimmy explained, "I think she DOES like you. That's the problem."

"You're talking in circles, Jimmy. You're starting to sound like Chu."

"Man, when I say she likes you, I mean she LIKES you. She has feelings for you, but she doesn't want to admit it."

"You're crazy, Jimmy. She fights me every step of the way. Every time I try anything she's against it."

"She's used to being in control, right?"

"You're right about that; she's always in control."

"That's why she's so mad at you."

"Jimmy, now, you've REALLY lost me. Even Chu makes more sense than this."

"She can't control how she feels about you, Sol; so, she fights you every step of the way. She's trying to find something she can control."

Solomon just stared at Jimmy in silence.

Jimmy continued, "You're just as bad, man. You have feelings for her, but you're too busy thinking she's out of your league. You're famous. You can go out with any girl you choose, but you still don't fell good enough for any of them. That's why you keep wanting to change the light show. You're hoping to impress Sheba. It's time you both quit running from the obvious and told each other how you really feel."

Solomon lowered his head and stared at the floor for a moment. Then he suddenly stood up, looked at Jimmy and walked off toward the dressing rooms.

Chu, who had been silent all this time, stood up from the drums and remarked to Jimmy, "He has now been given the truth. We shall see how he handles it."

Solomon walked to Sheba's dressing room door and knocked.

"GO AWAY!!!" she screamed.

Solomon opened the door and walked into her room. She stood up and walked toward him.

"I SAID 'GO AWAY.'"

Solomon walked over to her and looked into her eyes. He softly said, "We need to talk."

He reached out slowly to take her hand. She jerked it away. "Don't touch me," she said, but not very convincingly.

He pushed her hair from her face, still looking into her eyes. "There's something I need to tell you."

Her voice trembled as she stuttered, "W...what?"

He still had his hand on her cheek as he slowly leaned forward and kissed her. She closed her eyes and kissed him back with all of her heart.

They both realized that day that they were madly in love with each other, and they announced their engagement that night at the concert. They were married a few weeks later at their concert stop in Paris.

The world tour took them on through Africa and Australia. Asia was to be their last continent. They were waiting to see if they could perform in China, since that was Chu's home. They finally got permission, and they started their tour of Asia. Their performance in China would be the last stop before returning to the U.S.

They made their stops in South Korea, Malaysia, India, Japan, Russia, and finally went to China.

They privately met members of Chu's family and learned that since the incident in Birmingham, they had been protected by a secret ninja squad. They also learned that Master Shu and Buzz had returned to China and had started a turf war with the local Hornets. The band needed to be on full alert, because the concert was to be deep in Northern Praying Mantis territory, and death squads were everywhere. Even with the ninjas following them, their safety could not be guaranteed.

When the concert was over, the band was walking to their hotel when multiple death squads attacked. This time, it was more than the ninjas could handle alone. The bodyguards managed to stop several of the others, and Chu stopped most of the rest, but one mantis managed to get through all of the defenses and was heading for Sheba when Solomon grabbed a stick and struck it down.

"Look, Mommy," a voice boomed overhead. "That roach just killed that mantis."

Solomon looked up just in time to see a jar coming down around him. He ran from side to side trying to find a way out, but there was none. He had been captured by a human child.

"SOL!!!" screamed Sheba.

Chu and Jimmy grabbed Sheba and pulled her away, kicking, screaming and reaching for Solomon.

"We can't help him," Chu said, "He wouldn't want you to get captured as well. You must come with us."

The little girl slid a lid under the jar, and Solomon instinctively ran up the side of the glass to get away from the lid. The child then turned the jar right-side up and screwed the top on. It had air holes in it, since the child kept this jar for collecting insects.

"I've never seen a roach that could kill a praying mantis," the little girl said. "I would like to study it." The little girl held up the jar. "I think it will be a nice addition to my collection."

The little girl stood back up and started walking with her mother.

Through the bottom of the jar, Solomon could see Sheba struggling with Chu and Jimmy and screaming for him. She finally pulled free from them and took two steps forward just as the little girl started walking away with Solomon. Sheba fell to her knees and cried, reaching up toward Solomon. Solomon put his hand to the side of the jar, slid down the side and cried as he saw her disappearing from sight.

Chapter 5

A Change of Heart

Chu led Sheba and the others to a secret rendezvous with his family. They went to the headquarters of the Chu Gar Ming clan. The clan held council inside while Jimmy and Sheba sat outside. It wouldn't have made much difference if they had been right in the middle, since the whole council was in Chinese.

Finally, the voices fell silent and Chu came to the door and summoned Sheba and Jimmy. They entered the great hall. There were guards lining the walls. At the end of the hall, the elders, all with long grey hair and beards, sat in a circle. It was intimidating to say the least. When they reached the elders, it seemed natural to kneel; so, both Sheba and Jimmy dropped to one knee.

"My child," one of the elders said softly. "It has been decided. You will be safer at home where the hit squads do not travel so freely. My ninjas will escort you and your companion back to America."

Sheba began to shake her head as if she was going to disagree with the council.

"My child," the elder chided, "I understand your desire to search for your husband, but, all of this has been discussed. Perhaps you misunderstood when I told you a decision has been reached."

Sheba sank back down and stopped shaking her head.

"Chu will stay here and try to locate and free your friend," the elder continued. "But none of you will truly be safe until we eliminate Shu and his army. For you, the risk here in China is too great."

A tear ran down Sheba's cheek as she silently nodded in submission to the decision of the council.

Chu walked over and knelt beside Sheba and whispered, "I will not rest until I have freed your husband."

Sheba looked at Chu. He was still wearing his traditional clothes, but he seemed, somehow, different. Sheba couldn't decide if it was the setting or maybe the serious look on Chu's face, but he seemed like a warrior. She whispered, "Thank you, Chu."

After the council finished giving them instructions, Sheba and Jimmy were escorted from the hall. Once they were outside the council chambers again, Sheba looked at Jimmy and said, "Sol's right you know. Sol survived three assassination attempts, killed an Enigma wasp and a Northern Praying Mantis from a death squad. What finally happens to him? He's captured by humans. He's warned us, all of us, about humans. He's right. Humans are our worst enemy."

"Chu will find him," Jimmy encouraged. "I just know Sol will be coming back to us."

The next morning, Sheba and Jimmy boarded the plane with the remainder of their bodyguards. (The ninjas were there, too, but they were in disguise.) Once they were back in the states, they were met at the airport by a Hornet escort. They were taken to Queen Zarla's headquarters and kept in hiding.

Back in China, Solomon had been captured by the daughter of an Entomologist (one who studies bugs). The little girl had several small aquariums in her room. Each aquarium contained only one kind of bug and was designed to provide as much of the natural habitat for its bug as possible. Her room looked like a zoo of insects.

The girl carefully arranged another aquarium for Solomon, opened the lid to the jar and shook him into his new home. She knelt down beside the aquarium with a magnifying glass.

"Now," she said, "let's see what makes you different from other roaches."

Solomon scampered into the shadows underneath a board in the corner.

"Interesting," the girl said, "you AREN'T like other roaches around here. You don't like light." She reached over the aquarium and turned off the light. "There, is that better for you?"

Solomon was deathly afraid. Here he was face-to-face with his mortal enemy, a human. She was speaking Chinese, and he had no idea what she was saying. That made him even more frightened.

"What's she going to do with me?" he thought. "Why hasn't she killed me already? She's probably going to torture me first. That's how humans are."

At supper, the girl told her father about Solomon. Her father was not convinced that the roach was different, but not wanting to discourage his daughter, he suggested that it might be an American roach, but that they had better keep it a secret.

The little girl went back to her room and talked to Solomon in English.

"I know you aren't from around here. Father says you might be an American roach."

Solomon understood her. He peered out from his hiding place to make sure it was the same little girl.

She saw him move when she spoke English, and this gave her enough encouragement to continue to speak in English. She talked to him as though she expected an answer from him. It was like she really believed he could understand everything she said.

She told him her name was Shuben Ling and that Shuben was her family name, but that they said it first. The name Shuben meant book in English. (She thought that was rather amusing.) Her given name was Ling, and that's what he should call her.

She talked for what seemed like forever. Finally, she turned off the light and went to sleep. Solomon spent the whole night trying to find a way out of the aquarium, but was unsuccessful.

Each day for the next week, Ling sat at Solomon's aquarium and talked to him in English. She told him that her father studied insects and that she probably would too when she grew up. She told Solomon how people saw insects as pests because they spread germs and diseases. She explained that people kill bugs to protect themselves, but her father had taught her that all insects serve a purpose.

Solomon thought she would never stop talking. He was forced to listen to her talk every day, but every night, he would try to find a way out of the aquarium. After about a week, his aquarium needed to be cleaned. He had left droppings all over the place, as roaches tend to do.

Ling's mother came to help Ling clean the aquarium. (Ling wasn't old enough to do it by herself yet.) Ling transferred Solomon to a small container and prepared to clean his home, but when she opened the lid, she began to struggle breathing. Ling gasped for a minute or so and then collapsed. Ling's mother picked her up and rushed her to the hospital.

Solomon actually found himself worried for the little girl. At the time, her talks had seemed tiresome, but now that she was gone, Solomon missed her company. Suddenly, Solomon realized that Ling was different than any other human he had met. She didn't want to kill him. In fact, she had provided him with good food and a nice place (for a prison). Ling had talked to him as though she expected him to understand everything she said. Ling had treated him with respect (except for that whole prisoner on display in an aquarium thing). He paced back and forth in the small container as he waited to see what had happened to Ling.

At the hospital, the doctor explained that Ling had suffered from a severe asthma attack, and asked what Ling was doing when she collapsed. Ling's mother explained about the aquarium. The doctor told Ling's mother that roach droppings were a very strong allergen and can trigger attacks extremely quickly.

When they got home, Ling's mother explained to Ling that Solomon was the cause of her health problems and that he had to go. Ling's mother wanted to poison all of Ling's insect collection and dispose of the aquariums, but Ling's father convinced her to let him release the insects back into the wild.

Ling explained to Solomon (in English) that he had to leave because his droppings were making her very sick. Ling then said a tearful goodbye to Solomon, and Ling's father took all of the insects and released them in a nearby field.

Solomon was excited about being released, but he was distressed to know that he had inadvertently made Ling sick. He didn't know that roaches had that effect on humans. He had learned a lot from that little girl, and it had changed his entire outlook on humans.

As he was released from the container, Solomon darted for the shadows. AT LAST, he was free. He was so excited to be free, that he didn't stop to think about the fact he was lost in a foreign land with no idea where he was or how to get home. He saw a wall nearby and began to crawl along in the shadow beside the wall. When he reached the end of the wall, there was a bush next to a road. He darted for the bush and decided to wait there until dark when he could travel more safely.

As he waited, he noticed movement overhead. He couldn't tell what it was at first, but then he gasped in horror. There on the branch above him was a Spider. Spiders don't make alliances or even negotiate treaties. They are predators, plain and simple. All Spiders are at a permanent war with everyone -- they even kill and eat each other.

Solomon froze, unsure of whether or not he had been seen by the Spider. He glanced around, trying to see if there was some kind of a web. Was this a web building Spider? Was it a jumping Spider? Solomon wasn't sure; he didn't know that much about them. He slowly stepped away from the branch, being extra careful to watch for webs -- just in case.

"Well, well, well," a mysterious voice said from behind Solomon. "Look who we have here."

Solomon turned and saw an Enigma wasp and a Chinese Praying Mantis walking up behind him. It was Buzz and Shu, but Solomon had never met either of them, and had no idea who they were.

"Who are you?" Solomon asked.

"You don't know me, but I know you," Buzz said. "I know all about you. You're from Jackson, Tennessee, and you like to use sticks as weapons."

Solomon's heart jumped into his throat as he realized this wasp was from the same Enigma gang as the one he had killed. He glanced around to look for a stick he could use, but he didn't see one.

"What's wrong, hero? No sticks? Well, I guess that means this time, you're dead."

Just then the Spider jumped at Buzz, but Shu caught the Spider in the air and killed it.

"No lucky breaks this time," Buzz said as he began walking toward Solomon.

Solomon turned to run, but he found himself facing three more Mantises.

"Nowhere to go, either," Buzz laughed as he bared his stinger.

Shu looked up from consuming the spider and laughed an evil laugh. As he drew his breath for a second laugh, his eyes widened. His expression was one of total shock. As he turned his head to the side, it fell to the ground. As his body collapsed to the ground, Chu threw a stick to Solomon, jumped over Shu's body and took his fighting stance.

When Shu stopped laughing suddenly, Buzz turned to see what had happened. Before Buzz could even react, Solomon had caught the stick and was ready for battle. When the other Mantises saw their leader dead, they ran as fast as they could.

"Looks like it's you and me," Solomon said.

Buzz, realizing that Chu was behind him said, "I've decided to let you live this time."

"Let's finish this! Here and now!" Solomon screamed.

"Just you and me?" Buzz asked.

"Just you and me," Solomon answered.

Buzz flapped his wings and began to fly around Solomon. Buzz kept diving at Solomon with his stinger, and Buzz used his legs to kick the stick from Solomon's hand. Solomon darted from side to side, dodging the stinger, and finally managed to get his stick again. On Buzz's next attack, Solomon threw the stick into Buzz's wings. His idea worked, because Buzz fell to the ground with a thud. Solomon ran for his stick before Buzz could recover from the fall. As Buzz stood and tried to fly again, he realized that one of his wings was broken.

"No matter," Buzz said, "I'll still defeat you."

Buzz lunged at Solomon. Solomon again managed to dodge the stinger, but this time, he could reach Buzz's head. Solomon took full advantage of the opportunity and struck Buzz to the ground.

Solomon stood over Buzz and raised his stick. He paused for a moment, lowered the stick and said, "There's been enough killing. Your friend made a widow of a sweet young lady and was trying to take her eggs as well. I just reacted. I couldn't help myself. It just happened. The next thing I knew, your friend was dead. But I couldn't just stand there and do nothing. I'm letting you live, because I have a choice."

He stepped away from Buzz and dropped his stick. He left Buzz laying under the bush and left with Chu.

As they walked, Solomon asked Chu, "How did you find me?"

"Since I was a child, I have heard stories of a human who captured insects and kept them in a type of prison. I kept asking until I found someone who knew where this human lived. When I arrived this morning, I saw Shu and his friends, and I decided to follow them in case they had already found you. It appears I made the right decision. Now, come, we are deep in enemy territory. It won't take long for them to appoint a new leader and start looking for us."

Chu led Solomon back to the chambers where Sheba and Jimmy had met with the council. Solomon felt the same urge to kneel and fell to one knee.

One of the elders spoke to Solomon, "My son, you have the heart of a warrior. Defeating Northern Praying Mantis is no small feat, especially for one such as yourself with no formal training."

"Thank you, Master," Solomon said as he bowed his head to the elder. "You honor me with your words."

"We would like to extend to you an even greater honor. We fight using a style known as Southern Praying Mantis. Until now, it has only been taught to members of the royal family. We have chosen you to be the first one outside of the royal family to learn this style. Will you accept this honor?"

"Yes, Master, I am honored that you would consider passing this knowledge to me."

"Good. It is settled. Master Sang is moving to the United States. You will learn from him. He will contact you when he arrives. You have already earned the right to wear the mark of the warrior. The iron pot has two red dragons. They are red because they are hot. If you pick up this iron pot with your forearms, your arms will be branded with the mark of the warrior. As you demonstrate mastery of subsequent levels, you will also earn the right to bear those marks as well. Now, rise and lift the iron pot."

Solomon stood and walked over to the iron pot. He placed his forearms against the pot and lifted it. As he touched the pot, the dragons burned their image into is forearms. He was in terrible pain, but he knew he was being honored by being allowed to wear the images. He held the pot until the elder instructed him to lower it.

As he lowered the pot, one of the elders rubbed a mixture on each burn mark. The mixture was a combination of ink and salve. The elder then wrapped the burns in cloth and bowed to Solomon. Solomon bowed in return and was dismissed from the council chambers.

The next morning, Solomon and Chu caught a plane to the U.S. When they landed in Birmingham, they were escorted to the Hornet headquarters where they were reunited with Sheba and Jimmy. Sheba ran to Solomon and jumped into his arms, kissing him and crying with joy.

The band returned to Memphis. It was good to be home. As they sat in their living room, Solomon told Sheba of Ling and how she was affected by roaches. Solomon had finally let go of his bitterness toward humans. He had felt compassion for that little girl in her suffering.

"I was wrong in wanting to destroy all humans. They are only trying to protect themselves from us. We don't need to destroy them; we need to avoid them."

"I'm so glad to see you free from your hatred, Sol," Sheba said lovingly. "But it's too late, now. The flies have delivered all of their packages. The wheels are in motion, and they can't be stopped."

Solomon jumped to his feet and exclaimed, "But we have to try!"

Sheba scooted to the edge of her seat and said, "Okay. But how? Where do we start?"

"We start with that little fly, Kiwi."

"It's probably best if you don't tell him what you're thinking. Let's see what he will tell us first."

Solomon leaned over and kissed Sheba on the forehead. "You are so smart," he said.

They called Kiwi and asked for a meeting. Kiwi gladly agreed.

"Okay, now that we have all this planned, when's 'R-Day'? What's happening? What can we expect?"

"Wow," Kiwi replied in his raspy voice. "You guys are full of questions. Well, 'R-Day' is set for two days from now." He pulled out a map and pointed to New Mexico. "We'll be launching a missile from here aimed at the U.S.S.R., and we're launching a missile from here." He pointed to a site in the U.S.S.R. "This missile will be aimed at the U.S. It's just a matter of time before their allies join in the fun, and then they will all be wiped out. It's a perfect plan."

"Are there fail-safes in case something goes wrong and we need to stop it?" Solomon asked.

"Why would we need to stop it?" Kiwi asked.

"Perhaps both missiles won't launch or something goes wrong," Solomon explained.

"You really are worried about this, aren't you?" Kiwi asked. "I assure you, nothing will go wrong. It's fool proof. Besides, even one missile launched will be enough to start the humans launching the rest."

"Can I have the exact locations of the missiles? I'm writing a book about all of this, and I would like to make sure I have the locations right."

"Sure, I'll mark them on the map for you."

Solomon and Sheba left the meeting and called Jimmy and Chu for a meeting. They explained everything to Jimmy and Chu and asked their help in stopping the plan. They both agreed, and Chu suggested that they ask his family for help. It would be easier for them to get to the site in the U.S.S.R. to prevent the launch.

Chu's family agreed to help and immediately left for the U.S.S.R.

Solomon called Queen Zarla, explained why he had his change of heart and asked for her help in stopping the launch. She agreed and organized a squadron of Hornets to travel with Solomon. She also called her allies, the Bats, and arranged for transportation from the airport to the launch site.

They all hopped a plane the next morning and were on their way to New Mexico. When the plane landed, they all darted for a crack in the wall. They hid there until it was dark and the bats came to carry them to the launch site.

It was strange riding on the back of a bat in the night air, but they all made it safely to their destination. The bats landed, and the passengers all disembarked. Solomon and the others offered their gratitude to the bats, and the bats wished them good luck.

They were just inside the site when they heard a voice calling down to them.

"Your journey ends here, roach. My name is Boss, and you killed my brother."

They looked up as two squadrons of Enigma wasps swarmed down at them. The Hornets flew into action, and it was utter chaos. Wings were roaring, and stingers were flashing. In the end, the Hornets were just too badly outnumbered. They managed to kill all but Boss and two more of the Enigmas.

Boss began inching toward Solomon and the rest of the band. Suddenly, they heard the roar of wings from overhead as a wasp sliced through both of the Enigmas behind Boss. It was the same attack that Zack had attempted, but this one was perfectly executed.

The mystery wasp came to rest between Boss and Solomon. It was Buzz.

"It's over, Boss," Buzz said.

"You traitor!" Boss screamed at Buzz. "You will die first, and then I will kill this roach that killed my brother."

"You can try," Buzz retorted.

With this Boss lunged at Buzz. They slashed and stabbed at each other with their stingers until finally they managed to sting each other. As they both fell to the ground, Buzz looked at Solomon and said, "I knew it wouldn't be over until he was dead. Now you can truly be free." Then Buzz collapsed.

Sheba said, "Sol, I hate to interrupt your reunion, but we have a missile to stop."

They ran to the control room where the launch was to take place and found the operatives who were trying to launch the missile. The operatives surrendered and were bound.

"Ha," one of the operatives said. "You're too late! We've started the launch sequence, and we've severed the wire to the abort button. The humans are already trying to abort the launch, but they can't."

Chu and Solomon ran into the back of the console and saw where the wire had been severed. Chu ran to the break in the wire and looked back at Solomon.

"Study hard. Learn my family's Kung Fu in my honor."

Chu grabbed the severed ends and held them together as the human pushed the abort button again. Chu was electrocuted as he used his body to complete the circuit. They had stopped the countdown, and the launch had been prevented.

"Obviously, Chu's family was successful at stopping their launch as well. Queen Zarla went public with the whole ordeal the next day, and exposed the fruit flies plot. Of course, she omitted any part the Hornets had played in furthering the plan, but history is written by the victor.

"So, now you know how close you came to having roaches rule the world. That's our story, except for a few loose ends.

"Your technicians found Chu's body later that day, and that's where you get your term of having a 'bug' in your computer. We respected Chu too much to try to replace him as our drummer. We stopped performing. We took the extra money we had set aside for our own record company and gave it to an orphanage in honor of Chu. Since I wasn't performing anymore, I went back to my real name, Justice Cover."

He stood up from his little chair on the stage.

"Sammie, I mean Sheba, and I are still madly in love. Jimmy started playing guitar instead of bass and went solo. I don't know whatever became of little Ling. It's sad to think how close I came to destroying someone that special. I felt that it was okay for me to be judge, jury and executioner."

Justice turned to walk from the stage, but stopped at the edge and said, "I still laugh when I think about how she laughed when she explained that her name meant 'book' in English. We should be careful how we judge others, just like it wasn't my place to judge her. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Books shouldn't be judged by Covers."

THE END


© 2008 Timothy Potter

Bio: Mr. Potter is 43 years old, and has been been married for 18 years. He and Mrs. P. have two children (ages 14 and 17). He currently work in the Special Services department of the Lowndes County School District. He is also a Youth Director at Beersheba Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

E-mail: Timothy Potter

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.